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A photographic journey of discovery.
Last year a dear friend of mine returned from his first trip to Costa Rica raving about the beauty of the place and insisting I needed to go take photos. I dismissed it as a pipe dream, but this year he made sure it happened by giving me his Alaska Airlines companion ticket and scheduling an itinerary in which he acted as guide and driver and part-time camera Sherpa. I have just returned from that trip and I have a few things to share with photographers and would-be photographers who are planning a visit.
GEAR UP OR DOWN
First, camera gear. Do your research and carefully assess what you might need to capture the photos you think you are going to get. I did a lot of research before I went. I read a lot of blogs, watched some YouTube videos and even befriended some Costa Rican photographers on Instagram so I could ask advice. In the end, I bought a ThinkTank International travel bag to carry my gear. Here's what I took: two camera bodies, Nikon D500 & D750. Four lenses: Nikkor 200-500mm zoom, Nikkor 24-70 zoom, Nikkor 105mm macro and Nikkor 50mm f/4. I also took a 1.4 extender, which I did not use. I had multiple backup batteries and two battery chargers so I could recharge spent batteries at night. I also took multiple backup memory cards, a Surface Pro laptop and two external hard drives.
Usually when I travel I transfer my files each night to an external hard drive and clean my cards. In this case I ran into a road block. I had purchased a La Cie Rugged 2 TB external hard drive just before I left, but discovered on my first night there that it is not compatible with the Surface Pro. My travel companion works in IT and even he could not get it to work with the Surface Pro, so I changed course and simply watched how full my cards were getting. I didn't download anything till I got home.
Other essentials I took included two water-proof sleeves for the cameras, plenty of lens cleaning cloths, my rocket blower and brush, and a set of tools. I did not take a tripod. I knew we would be hiking through the jungle in the heat and I knew I was going to be suffering as it was. A tripod would have added to my misery and slowed me down. I also chatted with a local photographer who suggested a tripod wouldn't be necessary.
THE MISTAKES I MADE
I think I did a pretty good job of selecting gear. Although the 200-500mm lens is heavier than my 80-400, I survived. It enabled me to get better pics of the monkeys we saw, and some of the birds, than a shorter lens would. I took this lens virtually everywhere with me. Mounted on the D500, which is a DX format, it gave me good reach for almost all birds and critters and in some instances was too much.
I did not need the 1.4 extender. I only used the macro lens a couple of times, but since we went in the dry season not much was blooming. If I had gotten to see the poison dart frogs I might have used it more. I used the 50mm the first night we were there for some 'street' photography. I wish I had done that more. I was usually so dialed in to trying to capture good bird images that I let that slide. I love the 50mm and it's a great walking around lens. If you have one, I recommend you take it and use it.
I have an 80-400mm lens and that would have worked great for most photos, but if I added the 1.4 extender for more length it would have put me at a maximum of f/8, which is way too slow and dark for the harsh light and shadows of the jungle.
Some of the information I read highly recommended purchasing a Better Beamer light diffuser for flash. It seems a lot of bird photographers use this. I looked into it, but in the end decided against it. I don't normally use flash, so I would have had to purchase a flash as well as the Better Beamer and then practice with it. Instead I took a headlamp and flashlights. When we did night tours the guides had strong enough flashlights that it was relatively easy to take photos anyway. I would skip the extra gear in this case, unless it's something you're accustomed to using.
I also took a small day backpack. Each day I would decide what I needed and only took that gear.
We traveled by boat to Sirena Station in Corcavado National Park. I had planned carefully for protecting my gear from rain, but failed to consider the potential damage of salt water spray! Although I took a large garbage bag with me, I forgot to take it on the open boat. I sat in the middle and kept my gear in a backpack, but was definitely worried when the water sprayed over the bow numerous times. Next time I will take some sort of water-proof backpack or remember that garbage bag!
After we returned from that trip I wiped down all my gear with a damp cloth and let it stay in the air conditioning for a while to dry out. It seems no worse for the wear.
THE BEST ADVICE I FOUND
I watched so many documentaries and videos about Costa Rica, trying to imagine what the conditions would be like and how I would have to adapt. In the end the very best advice I gleaned was a single, casual tip. Many posts suggested investing in silicone bags to keep gear dry. The tip that made the most sense to me was this: if you're staying in an air conditioned place, keep your camera gear in the bathroom. Why? The bathrooms usually aren't air conditioned, so your gear won't be exposed to dramatic temperature fluctuations. When you take it out in the morning, it won't fog up in the heat and humidity. It works. My companion didn't do this and it took a good 15 minutes for his camera to adjust on the first day. I would have missed shots if I had been waiting for my gear to acclimate!
We decided on February because it is the middle of the dry season. It's easier to get around during dry season, plus it's easier to see animals and birds because the foliage isn't as dense. Also, traveling to the remote Osa Penninsula is particularly challenging during wet season. I used a OneNote notebook to track our itinerary and keep detailed photography notes, but we used TripIt to keep us organized.
Our route was determined by my traveling companion's prior experience and the location of some friends I have who moved to Costa Rica a decade ago. I had never gotten to visit them, so we planned time to visit their remote location. It happens to be on the Osa Penninsula, near Corcavado National Park, so we knew it was a place we wanted to visit anyway.
I knew I wanted to see hummingbirds, the resplendent quetzel, and macaws. Everything beyond that would be a bonus.
We planned our route based on things we wanted to see and do, and allowing for travel time and "course corrections." We really didn't know what the roads would be like, so we built in a little extra time to change course if we needed to and we used Booking.com to reserve rooms that could be canceled without forfeiting a deposit. Some of our plans worked out, some didn't.
I won't go through an exhaustive day-by-day description here, but I will highlight some things to think about if you're planning your first trip to Costa Rica.
LIBERIA & PLAYAS DEL COCO
What worked: We flew into Liberia, rather than San Jose, because it's a smaller airport and we thought it would be easy to get to the coast for an overnight before starting our journey to Monteverde. If you're planning to go to the Osa Penninsula first, San Jose is a better choice. Our decision to rent a car and drive directly to the coast for our first night worked out well for us. We stayed at Hotel M&M Beach House in Playas Del Coco. Inexpensive, clean, private, guarded parking - it was all we needed. We arrived in time to get a light dinner, a good night's rest, and wake up early enough to enjoy the beach before hitting the road for a long drive to Monteverde. Beacause we had scheduled plenty of time, we actually booked a boat tour in the Paolo Verde park for our first day. Although we had booked a 10 a.m. tour, we arrived early and Palo Verde Boat Tours accommodated us - we got out on the water around 9:00 a.m. After a wonderful, personalized tour (the only other visitors were a biologist who spoke excellent English and served as an unexpectedly great guide, and his family), we had a fabulous lunch. Highly recommend this tour company if you're in the area. We saw at least 17 different birds, plus bats, crocodiles and iguanas. And when the boat driver saw my long lens, he urged me to sit in the bow of the boat - which proved perfect for photos.
What didn't work: We arrived on a Saturday afternoon. Apparently this is a really popular arrival time and we were stuck in the customs line for over an hour. Pick another day to fly in and you might not have to wait as long. Beach walkThe beach board walk in Costas. CostasColorful small shops at the beach. Reduce, reuse, recycleCosta Ricans are becoming more and more environmentally savvy - as expressed by this sign at the beach. Day 1View of the beach on our first day in Costa Rica. First nightIt was nice to walk in the tropical temperatures when we went out for dinner on our first night. Soda TeresiaCosta Rica is dotted with these small shops called "Sodas," where you can get a bite to eat and something to drink. Street vendorsWe saw plenty of street vendors throughout our trip, but never stopped at one. Local sceneKids played at the beachside skateboard park well after dark. Hotel M & MThis is Hotel M & M, where we stayed our first night. It faces the beach and was a nice place to just hang out and get our bearings.
MONTEVERDE CLOUD FOREST
What worked: Wow. The roads in Costa Rica are REALLY BAD. I have never seen such bad roads. Still, since we rented a four-wheel drive SUV, we were able to drive all the way to Monteverde, albeit s l o w l y in some cases. We picked a hotel "Tobi's Place", closest to the Cloud Forest. Having the car was a good idea, as although people suggested we could walk to the entrance of the Cloud Forest Reserve, we would have been exhausted before we even got there if we had walked carrying our gear! We got up early, drove up and parked just outside the entrance. Although we hadn't hired a guide beforehand, there were plenty of guides available for hire when we purchased our entry tickets.
I can't emphasize this enough: HIRE A GUIDE! You will miss all sorts of things if you don't hire a guide the first time you walk through the Cloud Forest. We took the tour with a guide, then took a break at the nearby hummingbird garden, then went back and walked on our own. The guide will give you history and help you see things you would no doubt miss if you were just wandering through on your own.
We picked up a local hitchhiker on our way down from the Cloud Forest. He turned out to be not only a certified guide, but also a bird nerd and bird photographer. He also knew a lot about amphibians and reptiles. We ended up hiring him for a private night tour. I'm not sure I would have picked up a hitchhiker if I had been on my own, but I was sure glad to make this connection! We had a blast with Jean and now we're 'virtual' friends on Facebook and Instagram. If I ever get to return, I will hire him as a bird guide.
What didn't work: I really wanted a great photo of the resplendent quetzel. Although I saw it in the Cloud Forest, I learned later that they are actually more visible in one of the local private reserves. Do a little research if there's something special you want to photograph and give yourself the best chance to capture that image.
I also wanted great hummingbird pictures. As it turned out, the best place to see the hummingbirds was at the hummingbird garden right next to the park entrance. They have tons of feeders and the hummingbird action is phenomenal. Although I got a few photos, I didn't allow enough time to get what I wanted. I could spend a whole day there watching and shooting pictures. Personally, I would allow more time for that if I went back. I also would consider taking a shorter lens. My 200-500mm was too long for this location. My macro wasn't quite right. I think my 80-400 would have worked better.
What worked: We had no idea if we could actually drive to Drake Bay. Fortunately, the rental car company suggested we use the WAZE app. This worked beautifully everywhere we were. We also opted for the personal Wi-Fi hotspot when we rented the car. This portable Wi-Fi helped us out more than once during the trip. You can drive to Sierpe and take a boat to Drake Bay. We both decided that next time we would either do that or fly to Drake Bay. Although the drive was exciting (we had to drive through SIX rivers to get there!), it took more time than we would have liked due to the condition of the roads.
When our first hotel turned out to be undoable, we got on Wi-Fi and searched for another. We found a cheap, clean, convenient place called Casa Toucan. It had parking next to the room (perfect if you have lots of photo gear, as I did), air conditioning (an unexpected bonus) and a small refrigerator in the room. Plus, after a little negotiation for four nights, it was only $50 a night. Would I stay there again? Probably not. The shower barely worked. The family that lived there was really noisy at night when we wanted to sleep. There was no breakfast or even coffee. There was no view. BUT, all that said, the family was very nice. We didn't spend that much time in our room, and because we were budget traveling, it worked for us.
When our scheduled tour to Corcavado National Park fell through we scrambled to reschedule. We found a friend in Eric at Pacheco Tours who put up with our bugging him almost hourly and scheduled us for a tour. We would probably stay at their cottages next time, as they were reasonably priced and had an ocean view.
One of the tours my friends had insisted I book in advance was The Night Bug Tour with Tracie the Bug Lady. Oh boy was it worth it! Smart, funny, informed - Tracie and her partner Gian do a fantastic job of showing you the jungle you don't know is there. Highly recommend! Five stars!
And here's something that surprised me - although we were well prepared to fend off mosquitoes, there were none! That's right. NO MOSQUITOES. I asked my friend who lives there about this and she told me there are a few during rainy season, but generally, it's not bad. Whip Tailed ScorpionTracie, of the The Night Tour, gives an entertaining, educational and hands-on tour of all the things in the jungle you don't see at first glance. In this picture she's holding a whip-tailed scorpion for all the tour attendees to see up close. Drake BayBeautiful Drake Bay was lush and green.
What didn't work: Ah, so many things went wrong in Drake Bay. We had booked a hotel (Lookout Drake Bay) through Booking.com. The room we booked looked lovely and had ceiling fans, which we thought would be good enough. When we arrived, the driveway to the hotel was nearly impossible to use. We barely made it up with our four-wheel drive! Then, there was a very long, steep walk up the hill. When the proprietor showed us the room it was nothing like the room we had viewed and booked on Booking.com. Instead, it was a small, fan-less room with a bunk bed. We said no thank you and went down to the town to get on Wi-Fi and find a new place. We were very worried (at least I was - my travel companion is pretty calm through things like this), that everything would be booked. (See the resolution above in "What Worked).
I had also made a point of booking our tours for Drake Bay based on recommendations from my friends who live there. They highly recommended I book the guide Roy through Drake Divers to go to Sirena Station in Corcavado National Park. I did that in September. Everything was confirmed. When I sent an email the day before our arrival to reconfirm I received a casual response telling me Roy wasn't available due to family illness. They said they would book another tour for me if I wanted. Of course I said yes, then got no response. Frankly, they dropped the ball.
We spent our first day in Drake Bay walking from tour company to tour company trying to book a tour to Sirena Station because the National Park only allows a handful of people into the park every day. When we went to Drake Divers we were received with indifference. I showed the emails and the woman working there kind of shrugged her shoulders and said Roy lived in San Jose and they couldn't reach him. It was at this point I really lost it. This was on Wednesday and we had scheduled our trip for Friday, but told them we were flexible enough to go the next day. I even texted my friend who lives there, who called and talked to them. Long story short, long after we had found and booked another tour, they sent an email saying we could go with Roy the next day. It was after six in the evening and we were headed to a night tour. Needless to say, I would never try to book a tour with these people again. They get great reviews on Trip Advisor, but they dropped the ball for us.
Gear: If I were planning for the night bug tour, I wouldn't take my camera. I would take my phone only. I had hoped to see poison dart frogs, but they're actually in Sierpe, not Osa (see note above about doing your research!). I had hoped to get some good pics with my macro lens, but it turned out to be too difficult to get close enough and Tracie and Gian are very conscious of not casting light on the creatures they show you for too long. A phone with a decent camera is plenty good enough for the night tour.
For the trip to Sirena Station I took my Nikon D500 and 200-500mm lens. It was a good combo for most things I shot, but was admittedly a heavy load for me to carry in the heat. If I had a nice slush fund, I would probably have gotten the Nikkor 300mm f/4 and used my 1.4 extender. This would have given me the same distance with less weight, although less flexibility than the zoom.
THE LAST NIGHT
We decided the drive from Drake Bay back to Liberia was likely to be one we didn't want to do in one day, so we scheduled our last night to stay at Cerro Lodge in Tarcoles. Imagine my delight when I saw that they have bird feeders that attract scarlet macaws as well as dozens of other colorful birds! My only regret was that we didn't spend at least two nights here. If you want a lazy-man's way to see gorgeous birds (even a ferruginous pygmy owl!), this is a great location off the beaten path. The rooms are nice, the food is great, there is a pool, and the bird watching is top notch.
WHAT I WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY
I felt pretty good about my planning. Although I didn't use the D750 and my wider lenses as often as I would have liked, I was happy to have gotten some decent photos for my first trip out. Now that I have an idea what to expect, I would spend a little more time in Monteverde and visit a couple of the nearby nature Reserves in addition to the Park.
I would consider getting a little lens for my iPhone and use it for some more 'touristy' casual photos.
Clothes wise I did great. In fact, my clothes bag was much smaller than my camera bag. I took one pair of Keens and one pair of Teva sandals. I wore the Keens the entire time, except for the trip to Sirena station. For that I wore the Tevas simply to get in and out of the boat (which is a beach landing). Otherwise it was all tee shirts and shorts. For travel from the cold Pacific Northwest I wore a Nuu-Muu dress which I was able to layer with tights over shorts (I took off the tights when we landed), and a long-sleeved overshirt (which I removed upon landing). I also took and wore a fantastic lightweight vest by ScotteVest.
This being my first trip to Costa Rica, I naturally had visions of getting photos of every single thing - from monkeys to birds to poison dart frogs. I also knew that probably wouldn't happen. Next time I would schedule time to visit Sierpe Frogs and get photos of the famous and beautiful poisonous amphibians.
SOME PICS - HOVER TO READ CAPTIONS
Turkey vultureCosta Rica has many varieties of vultures, and we saw plenty of them. This turkey vulture was checking us out on our first day. Long nosed batsI shot these photos from the boat during our tour in Palo Verde. I could not see what I was shooting, but the guide kept pointing and telling me there were bats. I did not see them until later, when I looked at my photos and was able to zoom in. Masters of disguise! Blue-capped night heronWe saw lots of herons. It was really difficult to get full pictures as they often turned away or backed into shadow when the boat approached. Boat-billed heronThis boat-billed heron was eyeing me carefully. It took a number of tries before I got a picture of him without much foliage in front of him. Dry seaonI was smitten with the color palate of Costa Rica on our first day. The pale green of sugar cane against the blue skies was just the thing I needed after a long, dark winter in the Pacific Northwest.
Hummingbird at feederOf course it's much easier to see the many varieties of hummingbirds up close at the nearby hummingbird garden. It's just outside the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve entrance and has feeders that attract dozens of hummers. Hummingbird with blue throatThere are a seemingly endless variety of hummers in Costa Rica. CoatimundiWildlife is one of the great attractions for Costa Rica. We saw our first coatamundi at the Cloud Forest Reserve. Although he was happily looking for handouts, visitors were really conscious of not feeding him. They are in the raccoon family and cause many of the same issues raccoons do in the US - like getting into the garbage.
Purple hummingbirdThis purple chested hummingbird terrorized all the other hummers at the feeders. Purple hummingbird in flightI think the white tail of this hummingbird served as a huge warning to others, as they all scattered (except that little honeycreeper on the feeder) when it came in to feed. Anteater in treeI have to say, my favorite critter encounter was completely unplanned. This adorable anteater crossed the road in front of our car as we were leaving Monteverde Cloud Forest. We pulled over and I ran to take pics. It ambled up a tree, turned and posed for me, climbed back down and ambled off. Adorable! ScorpionThis is a bad photo of a really cool critter. On our first night tour we were shown this scorpion that illuminates under blue light. I had no tripod, so this was the best I could do hand-held. Two-toed slothNo trip to Costa Rica is complete without a view of a sloth, even if a brief one. This two-toed sloth was high in a tree and moving ever-so-slowly the night we took our first night jungle tour. Again, no tripod meant fuzzy pics.
White faced monkeyWe saw lots of monkeys during our entire visit, but the white-faced monkeys are the clever ones. I am sure they annoy the people who live there, as they are always getting into something, but they were fun to watch. Scarlet macawsIf I couldn't get good pics of the Resplendent Quetzel, at least I could get pics of the scarlet macaw. These two were at Cerro Lodge, where we stayed our last night. I got better pictures of them in Drake Bay, but never got the great flying shot that shows their amazing feathers.
Scarlet macawI heard scarlet macaws on the first day in Drake Bay, but they flew by so fast I didn't get a shot. Every morning after that I got up before sunrise and walked to a nearby park overlooking the beach. I sat and waited for my opportunity. Finally, on the last day, six macaws flew to a nearby tree and stayed long enough for me to get some shots. I even got a couple of them in flight.
The Joys and Perils of Bird Photography
As a professional photographer I consider myself a lifelong student of photography. I have worked in portrait studios, as a photo editor, sold my flower and landscape images to large corporate clients and individual collectors. I have had my share of success in my ‘comfort zone’ areas of photography. But I feel there’s always something new to learn, always something new to inspire. For me, that current inspiration is birds.
I live in one of the most abundant areas in the country for winter birding. Not only do we get 50,000+ migrating snow geese, 7,000 trumpeter swans and 3,000 tundra swans, but we also attract a large number of birds of prey – from eagles to American kestrels and pretty much everything in-between. And I’m not talking about a single bird here and there. I’m talking about red tailed hawks on every telephone wire, eagles in every tall tree, and more. Once you start to see them, they truly are everywhere you look. That’s the joy of living here – there are birds in abundance and if you learn to see them, you will be endlessly entertained.
As a photographer, I hadn’t lived here long before I simply had to start shooting pictures of the snow geese. They gather in such huge numbers, the first time you see them take off from a field is unforgettable. Although they are legally hunted, there are plenty of places to watch them that are not hunting grounds. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see people simply pull off the side of the road to watch snow geese for a while. It’s one of the things I love about living here.
But shooting pictures of snow geese can lead down the slippery slope of wanting to know more about birds and thus wanting to shoot pictures of other birds. Birds are not easy. Unlike the plants and landscapes I usually shoot, birds are unpredictable and quick. And often they appear in abundance in low light, or in marshy, wet, cold places. All of these factors can be a hindrance to taking up bird photography.
What do you need for bird photography? Primarily, patience. While birds won’t complain that their portrait makes them look fat, they also won’t hang around and wait for you to get the lighting just right. They are wild creatures and are working hard to survive and reproduce. It’s important to keep this in mind – while you may be wanting to get a great shot of a bird, if you interfere with its hunting to get that picture, you may be jeopardizing its very survival. This is why you need patience.
The best way to get a good photo of a bird is to understand its environment and its behavior. Carefully put yourself into a position to observe and photograph without interfering and you will set yourself up for a successful photo session.
It’s critical to keep in mind that no photo is worth the death of a creature. Some days you will see things you wish you could photograph, but you will be too far away, the light will be too low, the weather won’t cooperate, the background won’t look good. If you’ve got the right mindset, none of this will matter. To be a successful bird photographer is to care about birds.
There are plenty of unethical bird and wildlife photographers – people who disrupt nests, bait, or flush birds that are resting just to get a shot. I personally don’t consider these people photographers – they are trophy hunters no better than those who kill endangered species. The difference is their trophy is a photo, not a carcass, but in the end it has the same impact. Bald Eagle Eagles are abundant around here in winter. They feed on migrating snow geese as well as salmon and there are many great locations to observe and photograph them. This one happened to be in the backyard of a friend of mine. Snow geese in flight at duskI never tire of watching and photographing the snow geese in Skagit Valley. I hear them fly over my house in the mornings and in the evenings and still I make an effort to see them in their huge numbers. These were heading to the roost at sunset on a cold winter evening. Dunlin in flightSnow geese in flight are captivating, but a flock of dunlin in flight is downright mesmerizing. With their dark tops and light bellies, the flock moves in unison and quickly changes back and forth from a dark blur to a light one. Lucky us to get these wonderful shorebirds in our area each winter. Short eared owl listening for preyWhen you understand a bird's behavior, you can situate yourself to capture moments like this. This short eared owl is listening intently for the sound of voles. He hovered near me for a few minutes before he dove and captured his dinner. Barred OwlWhen you have friends who know you're interested in photographing birds, they sometimes call or text you when they see something interesting. I was still in my pjs one morning when I received a text from a neighbor that just said "HUGE OWL!". Needless to say, I was dressed and at their door in less than five minutes.
There are many ways to approach bird photography. Some avid birders have set ups where they can attach a camera to their scopes. Some use point and shoot cameras with digital zooms. These all work fine if that’s what you want to do. As I shoot with a DSLR, I use more traditional equipment – a camera body, a long lens and sometimes a tripod. I find shooting without a tripod is often more efficient in our area because I can move more quickly, but using a tripod will result in more, better, sharper images.
Birds are so accessible around Skagit County that one of the most efficient ways to get good photos is to use one’s car as a blind and have a beanbag handy. I sometimes stay in my car and throw the beanbag over my door to give myself something on which to rest my camera. If I am walking out into a field where I will wait for birds to fly near, I use a technique for holding my long lens steady that involves bracing one elbow against my ribs. I also take a breath and hold it while I shoot. Even as advanced as today’s cameras are, with their autofocus and auto vibration reduction, when you’re shooting with a long lens even the slightest movement is likely to throw off your focus.
Since I first started shooting snow geese a decade ago I have come to understand that some birds are more difficult than others to follow with your camera. I shoot multiple exposures, 5-10 frames a second, and I pan with the birds, but shooting snow geese like this is a cakewalk compared to trying to follow a hawk on a hunt. This is where understanding the species you are trying to photograph helps. Some birds will return to their perch. Some birds hover while they hunt. If you can learn to anticipate this behavior, you stand a better chance of getting a good picture. I remember very clearly that the first owl I saw was sitting on a street sign on a foggy morning. I actually got a decent photo of it because I had my camera handy and was able to pull off the side of the road. I recommend joining your local Audubon Society if you’re serious about learning more about birds. There are also some great classes offered in the region, such a Bud Anderson’s raptor class (info available at www.falconresearch.org).
If you’re watching a bird on a perch – a wire or a post or a fence – waiting for it to fly, use that time to make sure your settings are right. I find a shutter speed of no less than 1/1600 is needed to stop birds in flight, and for some birds that can go as high as 1/2500. If you’re trying to shoot on an automatic setting, start with the sports setting. Ideally, you should take the time to learn to use your camera’s manual settings so you can control the look of the finished image. Painted buntingWhen you start down the path of bird photography it becomes clear you need to hang out with birders. And when you hang out with birders you start to learn a lot. This Painted Bunting showed up in La Conner at a local feeder. It was way off course for its winter territory of New Mexico. I only found out about it because I am in the local birding community, which gave me the opportunity to shoot a bird I might not otherwise even see.
If a bird takes flight as soon as you raise your lens to shoot a picture, you’re too close. I have watched photographers make this mistake over and over. I have made this mistake! Thinking I’m well out of the bird’s way, I raise my lens only to be skunked when the bird decides I must be a threat.
It’s tempting to want to get just a little bit closer. However, with today’s digital cameras one can crop in very closely on a photo and still have a shot good enough to print. And let’s be realistic – how many people print their photos anymore?
A lot of professional bird photographers have camouflage clothing and even camouflage covers for their lenses. This is a good idea as it is the least disruptive to the birds’ environment. It’s not that they won’t see you – especially hawks – but you will seem less threatening if you blend in better. It’s also a good idea to use your car as a blind, as most birds don’t perceive cars as a threat.
I highly recommend reading the Audubon Guide to Ethical Bird Photography as a primer to understanding the impact of pursuing birds with your camera.
It’s a slippery slope. You get into birding and then you want pictures. And then you want better pictures. . . If you become serious about bird photography, it’s only a matter of time before you will want a long lens – whether it’s a high powered digital zoom or a big traditional lens. I have succumbed to that temptation myself, as I get more and more interested in taking better pictures of birds in flight. However, it doesn’t take a lot of expensive equipment to begin. A good place to practice is capturing birds at the feeder in your yard, if you have one. My first challenging subjects were the hummingbirds who feed in my yard year round.
There are certainly plenty of photography workshops available if you are so inclined. I have done a couple of wildlife photography workshops through The Summit Series of Workshops, which offer excellent access to National Geographic photographers, but I’m a professional photographer and my excuse is I am investing in my skills. Hobbyists may not want to spend the money and time to do a workshop.
What I have learned is that bird photography is exciting and challenging. The more I learn about birds, the more I want to find them and capture their behaviors. Since the bulk of my professional work involves plants and landscapes, which are mostly summer photo opportunities, birds in winter keep me active and thinking about photography in new ways. I am far from a master of bird photography, but I do see incremental improvements each winter and that’s personally very satisfying.
TOP 10 LIST
For those who want bullet points – here’s my list:
1. Lower your expectations – birding photography is difficult. Do not expect to get the perfect shot right out of the gate.
2. Cultivate patience – birds are wild creatures and the best way to capture images of them in their natural environment is to learn their behaviors and wait and watch.
3. Read and absorb ethical bird photography guidelines. It’s just a picture to you, but it may be life and death for a bird.
4. The most important equipment is behind the camera – you. Don’t invest in expensive equipment until you are convinced this is a passion you must pursue.
5. Become a birder. Join birding groups, learn from birders.
6. Hunters are not your enemy. Understand that many birding areas are also hunting grounds – but hunters may have great observations to share with you. They often walk the fields at dawn and dusk and can share what they see if you take the time to engage in a conversation.
7. Start with backyard feeder birds. They will be the most accessible and most accustomed to your presence.
8. Take a class or workshop – on birds, birding, bird photography.
9. Practice, practice, practice. I can shoot a macro image of a flower or a landscape and know I have the image I want in just a few shots. With birds I may only get one or two shots I like out of hundreds – it’s the curse and the beauty of digital. In the old days of film, getting the shot right the first or second time was a real money saver. With digital, it’s a time saver as you won’t have as many photos to go through and throwaway.
10. Remember to appreciate the birds. I love birding photography because it’s a technical and physical challenge, but also because I love watching the birds. Sometimes the light is bad or the background is junky or the birds are too far away for a good shot. When that happens, I usually just stop and watch. Sunrise at the shoreWhen you start photographing birds, they begin to creep into your mindset. I shot this sunrise at La Push's First Beach with just waves at first - and then I saw the crow on the drift wood. How much better this image is with a bird in it!
I had not planned to photograph this year's total eclipse. I have a small spot of damage on one of my eyes that my doctor suggests is from viewing an eclipse when I was younger, and I'm very careful about my vision. So, I kind of dismissed the whole total eclipse thing.
And then I read this article by one of my all-time favorite authors. It gave me pause. Then, I heard this podcast and my curiosity was piqued even more. Finally, one of my brothers called and asked me where I planned to view the eclipse. That was it. I needed to find a place and it was less than two weeks away!
Fortunately for me, I have a very good friend who recently moved to Portland, OR, so when I texted to find out what her plans were for the eclipse she just responded "Come on down! It will be fun!" What I didn't know, but found out before I left, was that we were going to spend the night at a winery owned by friends of hers. As it turns out, St. Josef's Winery is located in Canby, OR, which fell within the path of totality. Lucky me!
My next step was to do some research on photographing the eclipse. I read several articles, but the best advice I got was from some friends who are diehard umbrafiles. This eclipse was to be their 10th solar eclipse. Their advice? "Something always goes wrong with the photography. Don't try to fix it. Just stop and watch the eclipse because you need to enjoy the experience!"
They also shoot Nikon, so they gave me some specific settings for my camera. I had ordered eclipse glasses in time, but I also ordered some mylar solar filter material to make a filter for my camera. Although I wanted to capture the various stages of the eclipse, without a tracking device on my tripod, I knew it would be hard to create a decent composite from those images. I made my filter so that I could easily slip it off the lens at totality because you don't need it during totality and that's what I really wanted to capture, if I were going to get any photos at all.
The day before the eclipse was completely overcast. As a macro flower photographer, I am thrilled with those conditions when I have something to shoot. Fortunately, Canby is the home of Swan Island Dahlia farm. Dahlias are one of my top favorite flowers to photograph! We went to the farm and I spent hours walking around, shooting photos. The conditions were perfect. Overcast skies, no wind. I was in heaven!
Dahlias bloom in AugustOne of the thousands of beautiful dahlias I photographed at Swan Island Dahlias farm in Canby, Oregon. People from all walks of life enjoy dahlias!I was photographing the flowers, when I looked up to see this monk shooting a picture of a friend on his phone.
That night we stayed at the winery and enjoyed a fire out under the stars. The next morning I got up to watch sunrise above the lake, and was thrilled to see there was not a cloud in the sky. The conditions could not have been better. I set up my tripod at a spot I thought would be good for shooting the eclipse, and was conveniently close to my car so I could access my equipment. St. Josef's only sold tickets to about 100 people to watch the eclipse at their location. The tickets included eclipse glasses, mimosas and a pancake breakfast provided by a local food truck. People who chose to view the eclipse here were friendly and relaxed. A handful of other photographers showed up and set up right next to me. I called it "Geek Row" because we were all sharing what info we had and talking about equipment. I was in my happy place! Mimosa in hand, camera set up, waiting. The winery had live music. It could not have been a more blissful morning.
The Night BeforeFriends hanging around the fire at St. Josef's winery in Canby, Oregon the night before the eclipse. The Stars Came OutAs friends enjoyed the fire, I stepped back to view the stars. Morning LightJust before sunrise on August 21, 2017. Geek RowFellow photographers get set up next to me. Pancake LinePeople line up for pancakes before the eclipse. Flying PancakesCheers would rise from the crowd every time the pancake chef flipped a pancake into the air for a hungry patron to catch on their plate. Flying PancakeA patron catching his breakfast mid-air. Crescent Shaped ShadowsWhen the eclipse started, shadows began to take on a crescent shape. The Lights Begin to DimPatrons watch as the sky begins to dim with the eclipse. Ready to ShootMimosa in hand, camera set up, I am ready for the eclipse to begin!
When the eclipse started, I started taking pictures. I got quite a few of the shadow taking bites out of the sun, but they aren't really very interesting compared to the totality. We only had 54 seconds of totality - so I was nervous as it approached. Just before totality I took my filter off my lens, reset my ISO to 800, locked my focus, set bracketing on my shutter and crossed my fingers. I had no idea if I was going to get anything. I shot pictures for about 30 seconds - enough to cover Bailey's Beads, the Diamond Ring and the corona. I couldn't really tell if I even had the sun in the frame of my image, as I had been shooting with my prescription sunglasses on but when totality arrived I couldn't see! That was the one thing that went wrong for me - I left my regular prescription glasses too far away to switch at the moment of totality. Oh well. I fiddled with my camera, shot blindly and then looked up at the sun. Oh my! The corona was shimmering and shining around a big black dot in the sky! It was amazing! The birds were quiet. The animals were quiet - but the human animals were gasping and making sounds of awe and wonder. And then, it was over.
When I flipped through my images afterward I could tell I had gotten the diamond ring - considered the 'holy grail' of eclipse photos. I had no idea I had also captured the corona - with the star Regulus showing! I didn't see those images until late that night when I got home and downloaded what I had shot.
TotalityThose red things are Bailey's Beads. The Diamond RingThe 'holy grail' of eclipse photos - known as the 'diamond ring' when the first sun rays start to appear behind the shadow. The CoronaI didn't even know I had successfully captured the corona till I got home that evening. The small dot in the bottom left is the star Regulus.
Am I glad I went? Abosolutely! Will I try to see another total eclipse? You bet. I completely understand why umbrafiles chase the eclipse around the globe hoping for more. In fact, it looks like the 2024 eclipse in the U.S. has a whopping four minutes of totality along the center of the path. I think I'm going to have to make some plans. . . In the meantime, you can view my favorite photos from this year's eclipse in this gallery.
About 100 years ago, when I was in college for the first time, I somehow came across information about a photography workshop I really, really wanted to do. I was in the south and the workshop was out west, and it cost way more than the money I would earn through my summer job. I fantasized about participating, but put it off because I could not afford it. I was certain I would have another opportunity, but before I knew it the photographer who offered the workshop was gone and I was left with a lifelong regret that I didn't try harder to get into that workshop. The photographer, of course, was Ansel Adams. He was generous with his knowledge and even left his negatives to the University of Arizona for future photographers to use for learning to perfect printing.
In commercial photography there's a more competitive jockeying for position. Photographers often joke that when they hire assistants they are 'training their replacement', which can in fact be true. But in landscape and nature photography there seems to be a generosity of spirit among photographers - at least the ones I've met. (Yes, this is a generalization, but I am only speaking of my own experience.) The Summit Workshops are based on this generosity and passing of the torch, if you will. A remarkable man and photographer, Rich Clarkson, has used his leverage and connections to bring together world class photographers to teach willing students. His generosity begets generosity and the workshops provide incredible access to some of the most revered photographers in the world. But enough about the background - if you are interested in doing one of the workshops, I suggest you investigate their web site.
The Week - Intensity
I admit, I didn't know exactly what I was in for when I initially signed up for the Nature workshop at The Summit. I had attended a Creative Live class with Tom Mangelsen and he mentioned the upcoming workshop in Jackson, Wyoming. The friend who had taken me to the Creative Live class said she planned to go, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to go as well. It's always fun to attend workshops with a friend. As things worked out, though, she had to forego the workshop so I was left on my own.
I love shooting landscapes and plants, and the occasional birds, but I'm just not that great at shooting wildlife. I thought maybe I'd learn a thing or two about how to approach wildlife photography at this workshop. It was very different from what I expected.
The majority of the photographers who teach during the workshop come from a photo journalism background, as does Rich Clarkson, so there was heavy emphasis on getting the shot right in the camera. This is great practice if you've never thought of photography in this way. We started each morning before dawn, had a couple of hours to go out and shoot, then came back to our classroom to download and edit our photos within about an hour or two. We each picked three images for the afternoon critique and the rules were - no editing. You could tweak exposure and color temperature a tiny bit, and you could crop within the same aspect ratio, but severe cropping, Lightroom or Photoshop work were strictly prohibited. You could not remove anything from the photo that was originally in the image.
If you're shooting wildlife, chances are you shoot thousands of images to get one clean, sharp image. I'm accustomed to rapid editing and although finding a good photo to shoot within a short period of time was moderately stressful, it was mostly just exhilarating. Each day we were taught new techniques or given new challenges, and I was more concerned with encompassing new ideas into my workflow (such as playing with color temperature in camera) than with getting sale-worthy shots. I was disappointed not to see the amazing animals others were able to find - moose, fox, bears, etc. I might spot them, but never in a photo-worthy setting. C'est la vie. Wildlife is not predictable.
During our editing process, we were lucky to listen to lectures on a wide variety of subjects, from editing workflow to what equipment you need to really store your photos properly.
Each day, there was a brief lunch break after the morning lecture, then we gathered in the auditorium at The National Wildlife Art Museum, where our classes were held, to sit through a couple of hours of critiques. Photos were anonymous as they appeared on the screen, and remained so unless a teacher had a question for the photographer. You may have seen me mention in the past that I'm not a fan of critiques. Well, I'm not a fan of anonymous critiques by a bunch of other photographers on the internet, but critiques by experienced photographers and photo editors can be invaluable when you are learning.
There were photographers of all abilities in our class and some of the less experienced photographers may have had a harsh awakening as remarks became more pointed by the end of the week. Comments such as "Where is the picture here?" and "If I see another reflection picture I'm going to stab my eye out!" were delivered humorously, but probably cut to the quick for timid souls. But more importantly, comments about gesture, composition, exposure and subject were as valuable as a class in art history - especially for those photographers who had never looked at their images in such a critical way.
It's probably just my age, but I have some pretty strong opinions regarding what I like in my own work. There was one incident in the workshop that reinforced my instinct to trust my gut. Prior to submitting images one day I had shown one of my images to one of the teachers. He disliked it intensely. I actually really liked the image, so I went ahead and submitted it. It evoked the exact opposite reaction from another teacher, who pointed out the exact thing I liked about the image. That one comment reminded me to continue to trust my gut when it comes to my own work. After all, if a critique isn't about technical issues, it's just an opinion.
My favorite part of the workshop was the evening lectures. Each evening we were treated to two, one-hour long presentations. Each instructor gave a talk about their area of expertise and their work. We were treated to great stories, amazing photographs and genuine passion for the medium. Every single lecture was inspiring and educational. I wish I could have recorded them all to watch over and over. The participants who did not attend the evening lectures missed what I think was the meat of the program. It was the only time we got to hear, in depth, what moved these people to become who they are in the world of photography. While getting hands-on instruction from them was nice, this was worth the price of admission. From Jim Richardson's incredible story about food cultivation to Michael Forsberg's passionate study of the great plains, each lecture stood on its own as an event. (In fact, I didn't realize until he began speaking that I had watched a PBS documentary about the work Michael Forsberg is doing. It's just one example of the special contributions each of these people is making with their work. )
If you want to learn more about the amazing people who shared their stories, here are some links:
Beyond the obvious connections with the staff of The Summit, networking with the participants in the workshop was invaluable. I met so many talented and up-and-coming photographers from around the country, and found so much inspiration in their creativity, I felt positively rejuvenated by the end of the workshop. Some are passionate wildlife photographers, while others prefer human subjects. One thing that surprised me was the number of repeat students - those who were attending the workshop for the second or even the third time. I understood by the end of the week why one might return. Friendships are formed and common interests are discussed at length. It's great to find a community of like-minded people from whom one can learn new things. Some have established photo businesses and web sites while others are passionate hobbyists. Below are a few of the folks I connected with.
Dana, who just moved to Toronto.
Colin, whose only wildlife for the week was a local squirrel.
Carolyn, who is beginning her journey as a photojournalist with excellent mentors on her side.
Stephanie, who gets to shoot pics of wild animals every day as the Houston Zoo photographer!
Jennifer, who shoots loving portraits of humans and wildlife.
Jennifer, who has a great start on her journey as a wildlife photographer.
Howard, who towered over us all at 6'7" and with his magnificent bird photography. . .
And so many other wonderful people and talented photographers. There was much passion for photography in the room and many great storytellers and aspiring storytellers. The people I've listed above are actively selling their work, but there were many more who were working for specific causes in their local areas. Yes, I've listed mostly women above, but the class was about half male/half female. The ages ranged from high school to retired. There was a healthy mix of techno-phobes and those embraced the latest technology.
Should you go?
I consider every workshop an investment in my skills as a photographer, and I am satisfied if I learn one new thing from each workshop. This particular workshop may or may not be for everyone. Here are some considerations if you are thinking about signing up:
1. Cost. If you aren't serious about improving your photography, save your money. You will get the most out of the workshop if you participate fully and already have basic command of your camera. There were beginners there, but I think one should save the basics for a different type of workshop.
2. Do you shoot Nikon? The workshop is supported by Nikon Professional Services, who are present and generously lend out gear, from cameras to lenses, for participants to use during the week. People shooting other brands are welcome and can also borrow the Nikon equipment, but you have a real advantage if you shoot Nikon and already know Nikon products. There were many Canon shooters present at my workshop and I did not get the impression they felt discriminated against. By and large, most of the photographers know enough about cameras other than Nikon to help with technical issues.
3. Are you ready to have your images publicly critiqued? Some photographers did not submit images. Personally, I wanted to take advantage of every aspect of the workshop and would not have missed the critiques for anything.
4. Do you need to sleep, or eat? Once again, let me emphasize that this is an intense workshop. You can bow out of anything, but since I'm not likely to get another opportunity to do this, I wanted to be present for everything offered. You can sleep later.
5. Do you love wildlife and landscapes? This workshop is best enjoyed if you already love shooting images of wildlife and landscapes. There were several portrait photographers there who loved this workshop for the opportunity it presented for them to shoot something different. You should be prepared to get up before dawn, walk through the woods, and haul your equipment around.
The Photos I Submitted and Behind the Scenes
I already mentioned that I didn't get any iconic wildlife photos. I did the best I could with the time and locations I had. I played by the rules and did not crop or edit the images as they came out of my camera.
Below are the images I submitted for critique all week. The one I was least happy with was the fly fisherman, but we had run out of time to shoot and I really wanted to submit three photos that day. It was also the only image that got lukewarm feedback from the critics. At least I knew it, going in. I made a few errors, embarrassed myself, didn't create a great body of work, but most importantly, I learned a lot. Below are the images I submitted and some background.
On Day 1, I accidentally submitted a moonset image I had exported for posting to Facebook with my copyright on it. It was an embarrassing moment, as they specifically asked us not to put a copyright image on it. D'oh!
The image with the yellow reflections was shot shortly after I had dropped my 24-70mm lens and broken the hood. I couldn't use that perfect landscape lens until I could get it fixed, so I pulled out my trusty 105mm macro lens and when I turned around I saw the reflection. I was stressed and worried about my other lens, but I was transported by the beauty of the place and the contrast of the gnarly trees and the golden reflections. I think it was one of my best images of the week.
The image below that, of the thistle in the moonlight, was inspired by Dave Black's light painting lecture. It was my first attempt at light painting and I really fell in love with the concept.
The image of the backside of the thistle was the one I liked, but one instructor didn't. I set my white balance to 4400 to create cooler, blue light and I used my macro lens. It was freezing cold that morning and there was a strong breeze. I tried some sunrise shots of the Teton mountains, but one of my classmates unwittingly moved into the middle of my photo composition and I could never get his attention to ask him to move out of the way. Time was running out, so I went back to what I know - flowers.
The image of the blurred aspen reflection was created in frustration after a morning of chasing critters and getting no shots. I didn't want to do a straight reflection at this location because everyone does that, so I moved my camera to blur the reflection. I liked the result.
The backlit image of the yellow aspen leaves was taken in my light painting class. The leaves were actually taped to the top of a cowboy boot and I lit them from behind with a small pen light during a long exposure. It was a fun learning experience and I liked the result.
On the final day I was deeply disappointed in what I had to choose from, so I selected these bird images. Unfortunately, I submitted the wrong magpie image - I had a glorious image of it flying upward with wings open. I don't know how I clicked on the wrong version, but that's the kind of thing that happens when you have a limited time to select and submit. The critics didn't like the 'gesture' of the bird - well, of course not! Me either. But we learn from our mistakes and that's what the week was all about for me - learning.
The other day I was looking through some old prints I have and found a photo my father had taken of me when I was a child. The print was fading, so I decided to scan it and try my best to make it visible. I then shared the photo on Facebook as a #TBT (Throw Back Thursday) treat to see how friends would react. Likes were through the roof. Comments ranged from "Rockwellian" to "My mother also made my clothes!". The photo was liked by both those who remembered a similar time in their lives and those who are too young to relate to the image.
Here's the image:
Popcorn on a Sunday nightA photo my father shot of me sometime in my childhood evokes memories for me of everything that is not in the photo.
As I read the commentary and watched the "likes" pile up on Facebook I was struck by what the photo meant to me. I remembered the evening the photo was taken. I can tell by what I am wearing that it was a Sunday night because I am wearing "dress" shoes, and I wore "corrective" shoes the rest of the week. I know that I am watching TV because in my mind's eye I can see the entire room and the other rooms of the house. We always had popcorn and tomato soup on Sunday nights - another clue it was a Sunday night.
I can't look at the photo without seeing my mother at the kitchen table, and my father standing by the glass door looking out at our back yard. I know that the leather couch will develop a tear in it that in the future I will absentmindedly worry into a bigger tear and get into trouble for having done so. I know that the lamp on the table is brass and has a golden lampshade. And I remember quite clearly that I was selecting only the pieces of popcorn with butter on them - which made me violently ill later that evening.
None of that information is captured in the photograph. And yet, for me, all of that information is captured in that photograph. I am absolutely transported to a time and place in my life. I know my mother made the jumper I'm wearing, and I think it was green (my favorite color), but I'm not 100% certain. I guess it wasn't a dress I loved, or I would surely remember what color it was. But more than anything, I can remember the absolute comfort of being the youngest child, home alone with my parents, enjoying my popcorn treat.
What do you see when you look at this photo? Do you see a scene from the late '50s, early '60s? A traditional home? Nice lighting captured by the photographer? I hope that what you see is a story. It doesn't have to be the same story as mine, but if it tells you a story it has succeeded as an image.
To me, that's the magic of photography. It's not just utilitarian. It's not strictly art. It's a way to record a moment in time that will live on - and it will live on as a story as long as people are able to view it. To me, as the subject of the photo, it evokes a vivid memory with all the associations I mentioned above.
PHOTOGRAPHY IS EVERYWHERE
Photography is ubiquitous in today's digitally connected world. Selfies, drones, GoPros, Instagram, Facebook - everywhere you turn there is an opportunity to record a moment and then share it with the world, or a few select friends.
Some people think this obsession with digitally recording every moment kills memories and leaves you with only select bits of what happened. Some people think it is vital to record what you can of your life. Some people think that's narcissistic. What do you think?
THE STORY IS THE THING
If my Dad were alive, I would ask him if he remembered taking this photo. I bet he would. But he might just remember turning around to see his youngest daughter sitting in the light of a lamp that created an image he wanted to remember forever. That would have been his story.
I'm glad he took the picture, and I'm glad I found it.
What do photos mean to you?
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