Top nature shooters share their tricks of the trade.
Birds of the Air
Oliver Klink, a wildlife photographer, workshop leader, and author from Los Gatos, CA, captured this horned puffin in Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park. “My first task is to look for birds that repeatedly traverse the same flight patterns. I learn the pattern, then find a background along the path that, even without a subject in flight, will make an exciting picture,” he says. “This horned puffin was very predictably circling its burrow, where chicks waited to be fed. I set up my camera, framed Mount Redoubt in the background, and just waited for the picture to happen.”
Metering birds in flight is tough. As you follow them across the sky, the background can change from dark to light to middle gray—and your exposures range from dark to light and back again. “I use a light meter to take an incident reading in the prevailing light, and then set that in the manual-exposure mode,” says Glatzer. “I then finesse exposure depending on the primary tones in my subject, giving slightly less exposure to darker subjects, and more to lighter. My exposures may be slightly over or under, but they’re consistent.”
Every avian family comes with its own set of tips for better pictures. With wading and shore birds, for example, Glatzer approaches from the water. “Shore birds are accustomed to threats coming from the land, not the water,” he explains. “If you put on a pair of waders and walk out into a bay to approach them, you will get within a few yards before they take flight.”
Bird specialist Jim Gilbert of Bernardsville, NJ, lays prone, on his stomach, for shorebirds. “They’re almost completely unconcerned about a photographer laying flat on the ground. It not only gets you close, but will also help blur distractions in the fore- and background of your photo if you shoot at wider apertures.”
For songbirds, Gilbert waits until spring to photograph males as they define and defend their territories. “Males in spring wear their fl nest mating plumage and have a series of favorite singing perches around their territories,” he says. “I find the perch with the best lighting and background, and sit there and wait for the male to return, usually putting early-morning light at my back.”
For birds of prey, many pros use their cars as blinds. “National wildlife refuges usually have tour roads,” says Gilbert. “If I see an osprey or eagle perched near the road, I slowly pull up to within shooting distance, and if my subject flies off, it gives me time to set up. It will often return.”
Like many pros who specialize in birds of prey, Scott Linstead of Maple Grove, Quebec, attracts owls and hawks with live mice, often sold in pet stores as food for snakes. Tossing them towards the birds works especially well on fields of snow, where predators are quick to spy their dark prey against the pure white backdrops.
“I track the incoming birds as they swoop toward the mice, fl ring bursts at 8 frames per second, usually coming away with a couple of sharp frames,” he says.
When metering a soaring bird, you’re often shooting its shaded side, so add slightly to the metered exposure—start with 1/2 stop of exposure compensation.
It also helps to have the right equipment. Especially for long lenses, gimbal-style tripod heads such as the Wimberley II offer much more freedom of movement when following soaring birds than other types of heads.
In the Not-So-Wild
Purists eschew game farms, but these offer a safe way to work with large predators such as mountain lions, bears, and tigers under controlled conditions, before you attempt them in the wild.
Paul Burwell, an Edmonton, Alberta, photographer, writer, and workshop leader, captured the snow leopard at the Triple D Game Farm in Kalispell, MT. “Game farm trainers have taught me a lot,” he says. “They can tell you so much about individual species, their behaviors, and how best to photograph them.”
Because most captive animals learn to expect treats from trainers, these handlers can also provide a point of focus for the wildlife, erasing a bored or lifeless expression by simply reaching into their pockets. Trainers were helpful in producing this snow leopard’s intensely alert expression, for example, by capitalizing on the cat’s instinctive attraction to quick movement, which helps them locate and catch prey in the wild. To coax the impressive over-the shoulder glance, two Triple D handlers tossed a snowball back and forth, successfully drawing and holding the leopard’s attention while Burwell fired away.