The Photo Adventure Nomad
I’m not a true nomad. I don’t cross deserts with a camel herd, and I don’t live off the land. I live in a normal house in a normal city, and I drive a normal car doing normal city things. However, I love photography, and I have traveled large distances to practice
outdoor photography, so in that respect, I am a photo nomad with an adventurous
Starting when I was little kid, I had a simple Kodak camera like a Brownie Holiday Flash. Somewhere around the house, we even had one of the antique Kodak Brownie box cameras from circa 1900. As a teenager, I moved up to an old hand-me-down 35mm rangefinder film camera (Argus C3), and I graduated to a 35mm SLR film camera (Konica Autoreflex-T) as a young man in the military. I crossed over to a Canon EOS Rebel G 35mm SLR film camera in 1997, which lined me up for a series of Canon EOS digital SLR
cameras starting in 2002. I’m afraid that I made my early stab trying to shoot everything without photographic training. Little by little, bits of photography skill seeped into my brain by osmosis. An old photographer once told me the secret to good photography: “f8, 1/125th, and be there.” [f8 is a lens aperture roughly in the middle of its range, shutter speed 1/125th of a second is quick, and the photographer has to be in the right place at the right time to get the shot]
I’ve tried my hand at wedding photography, product photography, wildflower photography, scenic photography, and people photography, but what I really love most is wildlife photography. Originally, as a kid, I tried to capture Rocky Mountain chipmunks on film. Later, I tried other animals, but never with any great success. Most of this lack of early success was due to two reasons, namely, lack of patience and lack of proper wildlife
camera equipment, and those reasons are inter-related. If the focal length of the lens is too short, then you aren’t going to be able to sit back at a long distance to get a decent wildlife shot. I’m not patient enough to simply let the wildlife wander close to me, and that seldom works predictably anyway. With a long enough focal length lens on my camera, I can sit back outside the “spook range” of the wildlife and still snap the shot without disturbing the animal. Thirty years ago, my longest telephoto lens was 135mm in
focal length. By ten years ago, it was 200mm. By six years ago, it was 500mm. In the last three years, it has grown to an incredible 800mm (technically, it is the Sigma 300-800mm zoom lens known informally as the Sigmonster). As my camera lenses have gotten longer and better, I’ve been enabled toward wildlife photography. Basically, I can get the long shot framed correctly that the ordinary photographer simply can’t get with the ordinary camera and lens.
The problem with the 800mm lens is that it is not highly portable. It requires a sturdy tripod with a sturdy gimbal head, so 25-30 pounds of this gear will be hanging over my shoulder as I hike along the trail, and I’m not going to do very much of that for very many
miles unless there is some super wildlife target at the end of the trail. More easily, I can sling my lighter 400mm zoom lens over my shoulder, bring along a lightweight tripod, and cover a lot more trail miles in one day. If I don’t expect wildlife photography opportunities at all while hiking, I am still likely to have a camera with a 200mm zoom lens riding on my hip. My camera equipment varies dramatically from day to day and from hour to hour, just depending on what targets are around me. This article is full of anecdotes that may be helpful to the reader.
Since I’ve had some good camera or another for a few decades, and since I had learned my exposure basics early, I’ve had lots of good practice. Too many photographers are now equipped with fully automatic cameras that are so intelligent that the user doesn’t have to
do anything except push the button. Well, maybe a green indicator lights up to tell the user that it is OK to shoot. Too many camera users let the camera intelligence run rampant, and they don’t seem to learn how or when to manually override the camera. The human brain can utilize a piece of camera technology as a tool for some fine art, but the operator has to know how to do a few things manually. Don’t get me wrong. Modern cameras have some very fine features, but cameras don’t know what they are actually aimed at or what the intention of the photographer is. The camera’s electric eye (automatic exposure meter) knows the difference between white and gray and black, but which tone is the primary subject? The primary subject doesn’t have to be centered in the
frame. In fact, the Rule of Thirds suggests that it not be centered at all.
Some photographers have a dominant right brain, and some have a dominant left brain. Right brain individuals are the artists, and they tend to be intuitively good with visual perception and photo composition. Left brain individuals are the technical thinkers, and they tend to be good with reasoning the perfect camera settings, controlling the technology, and angles of the sun. To be a successful photographer, you have to have some elements of both brain sides working.
Wildlife photography can be extremely fast-moving, so the photographer doesn’t necessarily have the time to set up each and every shot with manual shutter or manual aperture. It is great that the modern camera can make most of the exposure settings automatically, and modern autofocus lenses can keep up with the action of a moving target. Still, the wildlife photographer can “think ahead” on things that the camera can’t do. If the photographer suspects that the animal is hidden behind the rock, a second’s worth of thought will decide which direction to head to get the more suitable background for when the animal is flushed out.
Frankly, I don’t care what brand of camera equipment you purchase. That is your decision and your money. I know what kind I own, and I know how much it cost me. I know which items were bad investments for me. I know what “optical junk” is in a lens, and how quickly I tire from its compromises. I know which pieces fell apart due to my own rough handling, how much it costs to have decent equipment repaired, and how depressing it can be when a broken camera turns out to be unrepairable. Brands, models, and lens systems . . . I’ve been through it all. They say that we learn by our mistakes. Well, that means that I’ve learned a lot. Almost everybody has abandoned film within the last few years.
If you purchase a “point and shoot” compact camera, and if that allows you to get all of the shots that you want, then that must have been a good choice. Each time I’ve had a new camera, I’ve run up against the limitations of the camera, especially when it comes to long-range animal targets. My own personal tastes keep taking me into the better lenses and digital cameras with more megapixels in the sensor, and I am able to get better wildlife photo results, so this is not a complete waste of time and money for me. Personally, I think that a digital camera with an interchangeable lens system is essential, but that is just my opinion. I would guess that no more than 1% of all serious wildlife photographers use a compact camera except as a backup, and I think that there are too many diffraction effects in a small lens system like that. If photo print size is irrelevant to you, then just about any digital sensor’s megapixel count is fine. As you try to produce
8×10-inch and larger, you will want to have at least 8 or 10 megapixels. As print sizes get larger yet, say 16×20 inches, something like 15 megapixels will pay off. There are some professional camera bodies with more than 20 megapixels, but now we are talking about real money. It is possible to produce large prints with small sensors, but the prints tend to be imperfect.
Along the same vein, if you are intending to make your first investment into a high quality camera for outdoor photography, there are many decisions. As I stated before, I don’t care what brand you buy. Actually, when it comes do SLR-type equipment, you might not
want to concentrate on the SLR camera body first. Instead, you want to think about the lens system that goes in front of it. In other words, put your money into the lenses, and then the camera body decision will follow along easily after that. Within that realm of lenses and SLR bodies, you will come back to the brand name discussion. Probably the two brand names that will smack you in the face every time you turn around are Nikon and Canon. We could talk about other high-end camera brands, but within the normal range of normal cameras that normal people purchase, you hear Nikon and Canon, then Canon and Nikon. If we go back in time to maybe ten years ago, Nikon stuck out slightly as the choice of true professional photographers, and Canon was generally the second
choice. I think over these last ten years, that has shifted around somewhat. Canon put
its money into higher performance in the digital sensors (low noise CMOS
semiconductor technology), and Nikon stayed longer with CCD sensors (traditional charge coupled device technology). Rather than to read my opinions on this, I recommend that you read technical comparisons of the two and then compare the results, side-by-side, in photo results. There is a third brand that you may hear mentioned, and that is Sigma. As it turns out, the Sigma brand is very highly respected within Japan, its home country, but it is not marketed quite so successfully here in the United States.
So far, we’ve discussed buying Nikon lenses for a Nikon body, or maybe Canon lenses for a Canon body. Among my friends, I know of nobody who owns a Sigma body. However, I admit to owning a couple of Sigma lenses with the so-called Canon EOS mount. In other words, a Sigma lens that attaches to a Canon body.
I have friends who shoot Olympus, Pentax, and a few other brands like Sony, Fuji, Minolta, Leica, Hasselblad, and Panasonic. However, if you take a step back and look at the entire competitive marketplace, you will see in an instant that Canon and Nikon are the two market leaders. I will go out on a limb and say that if you are seriously looking to
make your first major camera purchase, it’s less risky to buy one of the big names. Thirty years ago, I would have said something different, because I was a Konica shooter then. However, Konica has mostly left the playing field, so all of my Konica equipment now collects dust. If you want to buy a camera system to last you for just a year or two, you can buy just about anything. However, due to the amount of money involved, most of us are seeking equipment to be supported at least for the next 10-20 years, and only the major manufacturers are going to be there that long.
Let’s see. Canon had been manufacturing cameras and lenses for decades, leading up to and including the old FD lens family in 1971. Then in 1987, Canon introduced the first EF
autofocus lens, and Canon has been with this for over twenty years already. Following that basic EF lens, Canon made the “little brother” lens, called EF-S. This type of lens is slightly smaller and less expensive than EF. However, it will not physically attach to a full-frame 35mm film camera or full-frame digital SLR. It only mounts on a digital SLR body that has a smaller-than-full digital sensor. This is the so-called APS-C sensor that is
found on a significant portion of all current Canon EOS digital cameras.
How does this SLR autofocus stuff work? In general, there is light entering the lens and bouncing off the reflex mirror to be viewed through the optical viewfinder. At the same time, a special feature of the mirror allows some light to bounce down into the floor of the
camera where some special autofocus sensors reside. By comparing the contrast of adjacent spots of the image, they can tell if the image is blurry (out of focus) or crisp and clear. If it is blurry, it enables the “autofocus drive” signal. Then, as you half-press the shutter button, that autofocus drive signal powers the motor inside the lens to make it move one optical element one way and then the other until it hits the perfect spot. Then it
stops. There is a tiny switch on the side of most autofocus lenses that is marked “AF” and “MF.” That stands for autofocus and manual focus. There are a few unusual situations when you really need to focus manually and not let the autofocus system work. An example of this would be when you are shooting through the bars of an animal cage at the zoo. The autofocus might try to focus on the bars, and not on the animal. Most D-SLR cameras now go one step beyond contrast detection for autofocus, and they use a method called phase detection. It is faster and more accurate.
Review: Canon EF lenses will fit onto almost any Canon EOS camera body. Canon EF-S lenses will fit onto Canon EOS camera bodies that have the APS-C sensor. You probably do not want to use the EF-S lens in a standard full-frame Canon EOS body. Nikon and Sigma are similar.
Nikon has lens offerings that parallel Canon. The general autofocus lens for any Nikon is the D-type. If you have the Nikon body with smaller sensor, then you can use the DX-type. It’s similar with Sigma. The general lens is Sigma DG and the lens for smaller sensors is Sigma DC.
Question: Why would you care if your camera has a full-size sensor versus the reduced-size APS-C sensor? Let’s look at it from the standpoint of the lens. The general type lens will fit on full-frame bodies and reduced-size sensor bodies, so that is an advantage. The
general type lens is more expensive, and it is larger and heavier, so those are disadvantages. Here is the important consideration. A camera body with the reduced-size sensor interacts with its lens system to produce the so-called “crop factor.”
Let me take a stab at the explanation. If you put a 100mm lens on the front of a full-frame camera body and snap the photo, you get a predictable view of a long range target. Now, if
you put the same 100mm lens on the front of your APS-C sensor camera body and snap the same target, the resulting photo will appear as though you used a 160mm lens. In other words, the body appears to produce a X1.6 multiplication factor onto the lens focal length. This gives the long-range telephoto shooter an advantage, because his lenses will seem to have X1.6 more “reach” toward the distant target. You don’t get something for nothing, however. This X1.6 crop factor will get in your way when you are shooting wide-angle landscapes.
To explain it further, let’s use the example of a 20mm wide angle lens. If you put it onto the front of a full-frame camera body and snap the photo, you get a predictable view of a wide target. Now, if you put that 20mm lens onto your APS-C body and snap the shot, the result will appear as though you used a 32mm lens. That is not so wide-angle, and it might be disappointing and confining for a really wide shot like a river valley at sunset. My point is this. The APS-C camera body seems to help the telephoto shooter, and it seems to hurt the wide shooter. So, you want to give some thought to this before you jump into those purchasing waters with your pocketbook wide open. Although I am normally a telephoto shooter (going after distant wildlife and such) and I get good use out of my X1.6 crop factor camera body, I need to take the occasional wide shot. Previously, I was having a difficult time getting my 18mm lens to go wide enough (18mm times 1.6 is
about 29mm, which is marginally wide), so I purchased a 10mm lens (10mm times 1.6 is 16mm, and that is fairly wide by anybody’s measure). If I wanted to go crazy-wide, I would get a so-called fisheye lens, typically with a focal length of about 8mm. However, I don’t think that it produces any image that I call “normal” and I sure can’t use it for wildlife unless I am going after an African elephant at arm’s length.
The standard solution for a professional photographer is this. The pro will want to have one primary camera and also a backup camera wherever the assignment calls. Use one full-frame camera and one APS-C (crop factor) camera of the same brand. The pro can use the full-frame camera for the wide shots and the X1.6 camera for long shots. Within limits, the lenses can be swapped between the two camera bodies. The general type lens can swap back and forth, but not the EF-S or DX or DC lens on the full-frame camera.
The standard advice to a beginner is that if you are shooting handheld (without a tripod), you strive to never let the shutter speed go slower than the reciprocal of the lens focal length. This means that if your lens is 100mm, you never let the shutter go slower than
1/100th of a second. Right away, you see that longer and longer lenses require faster and faster shutter speeds for a given amount of light. The debate comes up when we discuss cameras with a crop factor such as X1.6. Remember how we said that a 100mm lens will seem to operate like a 160mm lens? Does this mean that the shutter speed slow limit for a 100mm lens on a X1.6 body is 1/160th of a second, or is it still 1/100th of a second? Rather than entering that debate, I will shoot with 1/200th of a second or faster to stay on the safe side for either case. Of course, shooting with a tripod allows you to go as slow as you need, even a minute long (in darkness). Wind can rock your tripod and cause blur, so I recommend having a cloth bag along to hang from a hook on the tripod’s center column. Place ballast into it (extra lenses, rocks, or anything heavy) to prevent the tripod from rocking much or tipping over (which could be catastrophic). [Been there. Done that.]
Now, if tripods are too cumbersome, and if handheld shooting is necessary . . . and if slow shutter speeds are a problem (due to the lens length), there is another possibility. Canon calls this IS (Image Stabilization), Nikon calls this VR (Vibration Reduction), and Sigma calls it OS (Optical Stabilization). They build this feature into some lenses, and the intention is to allow the photographer to shoot up to two stops slower in shutter and still have an acceptably unblurred photo. Remember what I wrote about the reciprocal of the focal length? How does IS work? There are some tiny gyroscopes inside the lens barrel, and when you press the shutter button halfway, they spin up like a toy top. If there is
vibration of the camera lens (so-called “camera shake”), the gyro action will sense that as either horizontal or vertical vibration, and it will “budge” one of the optical glass elements inside “the other way” to offset the vibration. In other words, it attempts to cancel out the vibration. Instead of being forced to shoot at 1/100th or faster, the shutter could be slowed down to 1/25th and the IS feature will keep the shot decently stable and unblurred to the same degree as if it was 1/100th of a second on an ordinary lens without the stabilization feature. It is not foolproof, but it works.
I will pause for a moment and state that some compact cameras have IS built into the camera body instead of into the lens. If it is a sealed compact digital camera and the lens is not removable, the camera may have the IS function built right around the digital sensor. That makes sense on a compact camera that has no interchangeable lenses. However, for interchangeable lens SLR cameras, it makes much more sense to build IS into the lens, because different lens focal lengths are sensitive to vibration to different degrees.
If the lens does not have this IS function, a tripod will work, or else a proper bracing stance may support the camera almost as good as a tripod. If it is a very long telephoto lens and a tripod, then there could be a certain amount of vibration showing up as blur in
the photo. This comes from so-called “mirror slap” in the SLR mechanism. When the button is pushed, the mirror flies up to the top of the camera and hits once, causing a small amount of vibration through the whole camera, and that can show up as blur on the image when the shutter opens and closes. A fraction of a second later, the mirror flies back down and hits again, causing another small amount of vibration. This is not a blurring problem at very fast shutter speeds, and it is not a blurring problem at very
slow shutter speeds. However, there is a limited range of shutter speeds around 1/8th of a second where mirror slap can be noticeable. The exact range varies from one camera to another. How do you stop it? Set the mirror lockup function active. This means that the button is pushed once, the mirror flies up and stays locked there, and the vibration stops. Then the button is pushed for the second time, the shutter opens and closes (the photo is taken), and then the mirror flies down. The net result is that no mirror slap vibration can happen while the actual exposure is taken. All decent SLR cameras have that special mirror lockup function available, although the menu system must be navigated enough to be able to find mirror lockup. It takes a little practice to get used to pushing the button twice to get one photo. Finally, remember to put it back to normal mirror action after the shooting is over.
By the way, there are ways to identify the source of blur in images. If everything in the captured frame is blurred, then that is probably from camera shake, perhaps the way the finger was jerked on the button, or perhaps from a slow shutter speed. Instead, if the
background is crisp, but the subject is blurred, then that means that the camera was still, but the subject was moving too fast for the shutter speed. If the subject is crisp and the background is blurred, that means that the camera was panning side to side when it was snapped.
One difference between most compact point-and-shoot digital cameras versus digital SLR cameras is that the compact has very little shot buffering, and most digital SLR cameras have plenty. Let me explain. The compact will shoot, process the digital image file, write it to the memory card, and then it is ready for shot number two. It has to completely finish one before it allows the button push for two. The bigger cameras can shoot some number of shots and hold them in a temporary buffer memory until it can catch up and write them all safely to the memory card, and they will always give priority to the taking of another shot, even if the buffer is anywhere less than full. On a camera that I owned six years ago, that number was six shots. I could shoot six before I would have to pause and let it catch up. On my current camera, that number is now fifteen, all shot with maximum resolution in RAW format. In the real world, some fast-moving animals will not pose for your camera, so it is sometimes necessary to shoot a continuous burst of three, five, ten, or fifteen shots over the time span of two seconds, and we hope that the animal will be looking the right way in one of them to be a keeper. This is not the sort of feature that you must have, but it surely does get handy from time to time.
If you want to do wildlife photography, you have to go where those species live. I suppose a beginner can be content with pointing the camera lens out the bedroom window to capture yard birds at the feeder and the cute squirrel, but many photographers would be bored pretty quickly by that. My fascination of the bird feeder action lasted for three months and then stopped. It is better to go where the interesting animals are in nature. Since I am a human, I have a natural affinity toward other mammal species. Birds can be very challenging due to their speed and smaller average size. Insects, fish, amphibians, and reptiles have never done too much for me. However, my heart is warmed by scenes of a mammal parent with its offspring. In order to look for animals in their own habitat, you have to be enough of a student of animals to know where to look. You have to look in the
rivers to find a river otter, and you have to look high in the mountains to find a mountain goat. So, the first step for the student is to study various animal species to learn their habitat. Decades ago, we would have had to sequester ourselves to the public library for this study. Come to think of it, that is exactly what I did as a child, up until age 15 or so.
The public library has largely been replaced by the World Wide Web. Enter in a few search words, and any of us can turn up the facts on just about any animal species we want. Keep in mind that the “Web” has no fact-checkers and no editorial staff, so there is a lot of misinformation scattered through the facts. Still, it is a quick place to start the study, especially when it comes to a topic like the names of particular animals and where they are found. When we surf the Web and view photos of various animals, we shouldn’t look just at the animals, themselves. Look also at the background to see the animal habitat. Is it mountain or valley? Is it forest or beach? Is it prairie or swamp?
Taxonomy is the science of classification. At the top of this diagram, we see the most general divisions, and at the bottom, we see the most specific divisions. I am not suggesting that we must get graduate degrees in taxonomy. I do suggest that we glance at the basics and know roughly where our wildlife targets fit into the broad scheme of things. My apologies, but I jump back and forth from scientific Latin to English where it is convenient to me.
Phylum (Chordata — Vertebrates)
Species (Homo sapiens) < You are here (modern human)
There are a few more minor divisions amongst what is listed here. As an example, there are Superfamilies, Families, and Subfamilies. Also, there are Tribes, Genera, and Subgenera.
All mammals are of the vertebrate class Mammalia. There are at least twenty orders of Mammalia, but my photo favorites are the carnivores (Carnivora), rodents (Rodentia), and even-toed hoofed mammals (Artiodactyla). Marginally, I might go after rabbits
(Lagomorpha) or marine mammals (Cetacea). I have no joy in chasing after bats
(Chiroptera) or opossums (Didelphimorphia). On the odd occasions when I venture away from mammals, I have photographed a few birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians, and insects. It is not absolutely necessary to be able to identify the animal in your photo, but it sure does help if you ever show the photo to anybody, and especially if you ever want to sell the photo print to anybody. The same thing applies to wildflowers.
Before we travel to do our wildlife photography, we have to do our homework. Browsing around in Google Earth will turn up leads. Where are other photographers getting their shots of bears or wolves? Google – Images will show photographs, but it will not normally identify the location. It can be especially challenging to find good photos of nocturnal animals.
I don’t recommend being a typical tourist taking snapshots. The typical snapshooter drives up to a national park’s visitor center and shoots photos of the tourists, themselves, standing there in the center of the frame. That snapshot may be fine for the family photo
album, but we have to move well beyond that. Each national park has a photo/multimedia section at its Web site. See what scenic or animal shots there are, and then decide how you are going to get similar works, only maybe better. For one thing, what time of day will be best? There is no sense in showing up at 11 a.m. to get shots of a moose feeding in the river if the moose were visible only from 5 a.m. until 8 a.m., which is very likely. Light is more directional in the early morning or the late afternoon, plus it has a different color temperature as compared to high noon. I’ve shot some good scenery in the hour before sunrise, but dim light may not be the best to use for wildlife unless the camera can be successfully used with a high ISO (light sensitivity) number. Are we going to use a strobe flash to augment the dim light? Few wildlife photographers use strobe flash as the dominant light source except as a last resort. Some kind of natural light makes the animal appear more natural. I admit to using strobe flash for so-called fill light, to fill in the darkest shadows on a sunny day. I also admit to using strobe flash to try to get black bears at night. However, that situation puts heavy challenges on the camera’s
autofocus system, and a black bear’s dark fur seems to soak up every photon of light that you throw its way. Some camera and flash systems have high-speed sync capability, but it becomes most difficult to capture the flashed image of a fast-moving animal like an antelope, partly because so many cameras automatically slow down the shutter speed during flash operation. Slow shutters with fast animals mean blurry edges. Until we get to the advanced stage, maybe we should stick with natural light on the wildlife. Know what the dominant light source is at the subject. Is it bright sun, hazy sun, flash, or the mixture? Fortunately, some of the most modern cameras can handle very high ISO
settings, and this can help out tremendously when the natural light gets iffy.
If we are at the beginner stage, we might want to do some training at a big-city zoo. The captive animals there give us good practice at getting the fur and feather texture just right (hint: try to get the sun at a decent cross-angle to the camera view). The problem is with old-fashioned zoos and cages. The heavy metal bars and screens drive photographers crazy, since it is near impossible to get a clean shot through the bars or protective glass. Or, if we can get the shot, the animal has a background with fake zoo scenery. Some of the modern zoos have been developing their exhibits without the metal bars, and they can mix together several non-predator species in a natural setting like an African Savannah. The predators are separately housed, of course.
Do not feed wildlife. On most public lands, laws prohibit the feeding of wildlife. For another reason, the food that you are tempted to give to wildlife probably isn’t good for them. Many of our human foods are so full of salt and sugar that we would actually be
reducing the life expectancy of the animals that eat it. Feeding them makes them too dependent on food from humans, and that can lead to animal aggression towards humans.
Trip Plans and Preparations
Let’s take our beginner wildlife photography trips close to home. The city park pond might be a good place to practice on ducks. What should we to do with water reflections? Then move to the county open space preserve or state park until we get deer or coyotes. The Audubon Society owns land held as a wildlife refuge, mostly for birds. Do a weekend camping trip to the nearest national park, and keep our cameras handy all of the time. Some of the larger national parks have free visitor events led by rangers. These might include nature walks where the ranger will interpret the flowers, animals, or geology. Some of the more scenic national parks have a daily photographer’s walk. That will give us a great opportunity to carry our gear and walk the walk. Compare results with the other visitors at the finish. On the other hand, very few such photography walks occur in the hours around sunrise, so we’ll have to get out on our own for that. In the first few hours at a national park, each photographer is allowed to do some “chimping” with a digital camera. That means to shoot, quickly look at the rear display to see what was captured, then shoot again. Learn to use the histogram on a digital camera, because that will give a confirmation that the exposure settings are good. It can be difficult to tell much about the sharpness of the autofocus if it is only the rear display image that is seen, and an optical viewfinder is much better. In post-processing, the larger computer screen will be more helpful on focus precision, and hopefully the screen is optically calibrated (and the rear display on a camera is not calibrated). Practice controlling depth of field to help isolate the subject from the background.
Being a casual student of animals certainly prepares us better for being photographers of animals. We probably won’t spend all day long trying to get a close-in shot of that rusty and dark gray bird if we know that it is an American Robin, one of the most common
species of North American birds.
Personally, I’ve never been good with public transportation. Once, I rode across the country in a Greyhound bus. Unfortunately, if I saw wildlife, I had great doubts that the bus driver was going to stop the bus for me to photograph something. Rail corridors never seem to have much wildlife around anymore, unlike 1870 when the bison herds
surrounded the early trains with millions of animals. Some of the national parks have shuttle buses and trams to haul visitors around, but they seldom seem to be going my way. In my way of thinking, a personal vehicle is about the only practical way for a wildlife photographer to get around over large distances on a photographer’s schedule. As distances shorten, a strong hiker takes to the trails.
During one spring season, I signed up for a photography workshop in Death Valley National Park. I drove there and met the workshop leader, and his vehicle was a four-wheel drive Jeep Wrangler. That vehicle is not secure, and there was no place to store expensive cameras in it. When he left the vehicle parked to go into a building, he had to store his big view camera inside my car trunk. Very impractical! Very quickly I figured out that he had never led a workshop before.
If we are trying to get back into the remote canyons of a national park like that, four-wheel drive vehicles can be handy. On the other hand, that workshop leader was so paranoid about damaging his Jeep on bad roads that we did most of our driving around in my vehicle, an ordinary sedan. I admit that I have gotten to a few of those remote spots and I had wished that I had four-wheel drive. Alas, I had to park the sedan and walk a few extra miles on foot. As they said in the Army, “It’s good training.” Ordinary sedans are often more economical, fuel-wise, than Jeeps. Ordinary sedans have large steel trunks, and that makes for a fairly secure place to store camera gear. A big recreation vehicle (RV) would allow more living comfort, but there is a lot of overhead time and money spent with something as large as that unless you have a whole family of four. A so-called
mini bus or minivan might be a good compromise vehicle, depending on how many people there are in your group that don’t mind camping out. A triple-level Land Rover vehicle is great for open air photography while on safari, but you won’t find many of them outside Africa. There is one national park that shall remain nameless, and it has a road marked “Four Wheel Drive.” I have driven my ordinary sedan there a few times, and each time it was the only non-four wheel drive vehicle on the road.
One photographer friend drives a sport utility vehicle with high ground clearance. That would be an excellent vehicle for roaming back into the remote canyons of Death Valley National Park, but it also has some vulnerability to thievery. Do not leave any expensive
camera equipment visible in your vehicle. There are just too many thieves. That is why you have a nice steel trunk on a normal sedan. For that matter, national park black bears will break into your car if they smell anything or see anything in your car that resembles food. Glass windows will not stop bears, but a steel trunk generally will. One photographer had a theft-proof steel box welded into the back end of his sport utility vehicle to be the camera vault to ward off thieves, and to be the food storage vault to ward off bears.
I’ve had some experience with long, nomadic, solo driving tours for photography. I’ve found that there is a lot to be gained by planning. More about this later.
Some Past Trips
1983 Nepal — I went on my first trek to Mount Everest Base Camp in Nepal following the monsoon season of 1983. This was a trip of a lifetime, and I walked the trails for 25 days. That was a very exotic place, and it was great for mountain scenery, but the wildlife photography opportunities were minimal. Most of the wildlife had already ended up in the cook pot of the villagers, I suspect. A few of the larger mammals managed to pause in front of my film camera, but there aren’t many such critters to run into. A Tibetan yak can be a pretty stubborn subject, and it is sort of a cross between the American Bison and Chairman Mao. I believe for over one week, there were monsoon rains muddying up the trails, and after it dried up a bit, all we saw were blue skies with the occasional flake of snow drifting down. When you get to very high elevations, there is little haze in the sky, so the sky above appears to be very dark indigo as compared to the land, which is typically covered by lots of white snow and ice. So, be prepared for a high-contrast scene that may overwhelm your camera’s ability to expose properly, which will necessitate either careful light metering or else exposure bracketing. You might want to use a circular polarizer, but not twist it to the maximum effect. Split neutral density filters can help hold back the brightness over part of the frame.
1991 Hawaii — I went to the Big Island to photograph the total solar eclipse which was supposed to be visible along the path of totality that extended laterally across the Big Island. For a variety of reasons, I had no vehicle, and it was necessary for me to be out on foot on the Mauna Loa Volcano and to be completely self-sufficient for four days. That required me to carry four gallons of water, four days worth of food, ten pounds of camera gear, plus clothing and shelter, for a total backpack load of 67 pounds. (Kids, this is only for trained professionals!) Within the camera gear, I had a compact 500mm mirror lens with a 3X teleconverter and a tripod. That gave my SLR film camera the necessary 1500mm focal length for the eclipse shots, but it is not the best optical solution, not by any means. Sleeping in lava caves for a couple of nights will make any photographer appreciate a real bed. There were shots of a Hawaiian Nene Goose, a Hawaiian pheasant, and a Hawaiian mongoose. The good news is that I got the eclipse shot. I even got to see the eclipse shadow edge sweeping across the surface of the Pacific Ocean. A high percentage of the other photographers who went there for the eclipse came up empty. Why? Because they didn’t do their homework. They went on commercial “package tours” assuming that the tour leaders knew where to go and what to do to maximize photographic success for the eclipse. NOT! The lazy tour leaders had lodged their clients at comfortable resorts around the coastline of the Big Island, and they expected to shoot the eclipse from the lawn of the resort as they sipped Mai Tais. If the leaders had done their homework, they would have discovered that there was a high percentage chance of clouds around the coastline during that season. You can’t shoot a solar eclipse through clouds. My study had told me to get somewhere well above 6000 feet elevation on the
north side of Mauna Loa in order to get above the clouds, and that is exactly what I did, and I got the shot from 12,000 feet elevation. Three days later, I accidentally met the photo tour members, and they had nothing good to say about the photo tour leaders.
1996 Argentina — A bunch of us headed to Argentina for a mountain climbing expedition during the Austral summer season. We had flown from Miami to Santiago, Chile, and then we had a few hours of layover before a hop across the Andes to Mendoza, Argentina. As we waited in the Santiago airport transient lounge, each of us pulled out some favorite camera for double-checking. One fellow had his big, heavy, full-sized film SLR, and then he also had a tiny, folding film camera. Another fellow asked to see the tiny one, and it was handed over. The second fellow inspected that tiny camera, and then pushed the wrong magic button. Some critical spring launched across the room and could not be found or replaced. That tiny camera was disabled, and the big camera was too
heavy to carry far up the high mountain that we intended to climb. I used my good 35mm SLR film camera up as high as the base camp, and then I carried only a compact 35mm film camera to the summit. In fact, when we got above 22,000 feet elevation, we had so little brain power remaining that it was important to have a very simple camera. The moral of the story is to be very careful who handles your camera gear, especially when there are no camera repair shops around. It also makes a case for having backup camera along.
1997 Nepal — I returned to Mount Everest Base Camp in 1997. In Kathmandu, the so-called Monkey Temple is covered in monkeys, oddly enough. Good luck with that. You can get shots of the sacred cows wandering along on city streets, but there is very little wildlife when you get above 16,000 feet elevation in the Khumbu Region. The yaks looked about the same as on my previous visit. No snow leopards.
2000 East Africa — Supposedly, the trip goal was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest point in Africa. However, the first few days of the trip found us at a nice safari camp in Eastern Kenya. Each morning, we would load up in Land Rovers and cruise around looking for the wild animals. Then after lunch, we would take a long walk through the tall grass and let the wild animals look for us! Great fun. The safari camp manager carried a loaded rifle as he led us along, just in case. The safari camp manager’s wife was back in her bungalow when she looked outside. There was a lioness stalking prey right through the tall grass in the middle of the safari camp. What if I had been walking up the path from my bungalow to the dining building when the lioness came along? At least I had my camera with me. Prior to departure from home, I had purchased a book on African animals. I made color scans of twenty pages of it, with the illustration of the animal along with the descriptive text. Then I carried just those pages to Africa and used them as my “flash cards” of the animals that I was photographing. The other trick was that riding the back of each Land Rover was a Masaai tribesman working as a wildlife spotter. He would sight the wildlife and call out to the driver using their Swahili language. But I had learned some of the animal names in Swahili, so I could grasp the animal name being shouted and swing around and shoot the camera before the driver had told anybody else in English what was going on. Tembo, Simba, Twiga. Often, we had only two seconds to get the first shot off before the animal herd had spooked, so that was a help. African road dust was a terrible problem for all cameras. Some of the charter aircraft have very limited baggage space, so there may or may not be room for a super-telephoto
2001 Kings Canyon National Park — This was to be a short backpack trip around the
Rae Lakes Loop, a distance of 42 miles, and although I was going solo, I didn’t expect it to take over 3-4 days. Early on the second day, I had gone south on the John Muir Trail far enough, so I ducked onto the side trail to the Sixty Lakes Basin. I ambled along uphill, and as I passed a cluster of tall bushes, I heard a heavy “clunk” sound from the other side of the bushes at a distance of maybe fifty feet. So, I quickly pulled my film camera out of its belt pouch and turned it on. As I cleared the bushes, there was a group of desert bighorn sheep, and the sound had been that of one hoof hitting a flat rock. I fired my camera once, and then the sheep turned to run. The second shot was a mass of moving hooves and horns. By the time I got the third shot off, the bighorns were standing high in the rocks, virtually out of range. They stood in such a tight cluster that it was impossible to count the number of animal bodies. I had to count the number of legs and then divide by four to get an estimate. Maybe seven adults, and one young. By the following day, I
passed a park ranger on the trail, and I commented about seeing the bighorn sheep. His attitude was, “Oh, great. Now I have another new animal species in this park to manage!” I emailed a bighorn photo to him for proof.
2002 Death Valley National Park — In August, I drove to a spot outside the park and
spent the night, rising very early to get started on a photo hike across the desert sand dunes. I knew that it would be blazingly hot before noon, so I was on foot with my camera at sunrise. I hiked the dunes, shot up some film at a desert kit fox, and I made it back to my car by 10 a.m. with sweat pouring off my face. With the air conditioning going, I drove off to the next location. Another visitor drove up and stopped at the same place by the sand dunes, told his wife that he would hike the sand dunes and return in an hour, and started at 10 a.m. He did not return in an hour, so at the two-hour mark, his wife called the park rangers with the emergency. The rangers were smart enough to know that it would be nearly impossible to find one hiker out on the sand dunes if they had to operate from the ground, so they put up a small aircraft for the search. The pilot sighted a prostrate hiker very quickly, and grid coordinates were radioed to the rangers on the ground, who promptly drove their four-wheel drive vehicle to the spot, scooped up the hiker, and rushed him out to the park clinic with the lights flashing. The unfortunate hiker died that night at a Las Vegas hospital, and the cause was heat stroke. He had hiked at the same place and on the same day as I had, and he died from it, simply because he showed poor awareness of the situation. Do your desert photo hikes very early in the day,
keep shaded from the sun, and carry twice as much drinking water as you think you’ll need. On a previous similar hiking day in Death Valley, I drank over seven quarts of water. At the next time that you see a photographer in Death Valley with about two gallons of water on his back, don’t laugh. It may be me.
2004 Springtime Desert Tour — I think I covered about 1500 miles by car as I visited four different desert parks of Southern California. One expensive digital camera bit the dust in a nasty misunderstanding with a rattlesnake. But, that is why I take a backup camera along. That backup camera was a film camera, and I had only a very limited supply of Velvia film with me. The nearest photo shop that sold Velvia was a hundred miles away, but I got by.
2007 Jamaica — I had to go to Jamaica on business, but I took my camera gear along as well. First of all, getting a monster 800mm lens down to Jamaica on an airliner is no easy feat. The bare lens alone is 22 inches long. Put that into a padded container, and you are running into trouble with the airline carry-on dimension limits (typically 22x14x9 inches). Check it as baggage, and you are running the risk of it going missing or broken. Fortunately, this monster lens fits tightly into the largest LowePro backpack, and it barely
squeezes into the carry-on size box. The heavy tripod goes separately into my checked
baggage, because I wasn’t so concerned about theft or damage on it. I ended up with this rig at a bird sanctuary south of Montego Bay and spent time getting great Caribbean bird shots, but this meant hiring a car with driver. Believe me, I had no intention of driving myself on the crazy Jamaican roads. I saw a Jamaican mongoose.
2007 Alaska — For some reason, I had never been to Alaska before, so this was my golden opportunity. What do they have for wildlife in Alaska that I couldn’t see back home? Alaskan brown bears, a.k.a. Grizzlies. There are three spots on the Alaskan Peninsula that are the best for photographing grizzlies. One is in Katmai National Park, and it is called Brooks Falls. One is called the MacNeil River Bear Sanctuary. One is the wilderness camp at Hallo Bay. I elected to go to the camp at Hallo Bay (about 10-15 miles north of where Timothy Treadwell met his unfortunate demise by bear attack). During that July, I flew to Anchorage, rented a car, and drove out along the Kenai Peninsula to
Homer, which is the “jumping off point” and the roads don’t go any further west. From Homer, I flew out across Cook Inlet in a Cessna bush plane. The plane landed nimbly on the sloping sandy beach at the camp, and that is where I intended to say for about four nights. The weather turned marginal, and for a couple of days the bush planes could not fly. I ended up staying an extra day until the weather cleared. It was great fun walking around the woods with my monster lens and camera over one shoulder and looking for the nearest grizzly. I used the massive telephoto range to my advantage. Often, the bear
guides kept us more than 100 yards away from the grizzly, so I was able to get the shot where the others got only tiny dark spots in the center of the camera frame. Watching grizzlies dig for razor clams at close range was great fun, and watching red foxes circling around the grizzlies was fun as well. The weather was rather damp, so it became necessary to protect lenses from rain and condensation. Days later, I photographed moose in the woods, Dall sheep on the cliffs nearer to Anchorage, and then other animals as far north as Denali National Park. I have a shot of a black bear asleep high up in a tree. Great fun, and a great place to go if wildlife photography is your game.
Incidentally, if you are really going to be out walking around and photographing in grizzly territory, you might want to consider some personal protection against bear attack. Otherwise, you might become an unintentional part of the food chain. The first item is a
small bell. This puts out a small amount of sound that announces to the bear that a human is coming. Otherwise, a surprised grizzly might attack out of sheer surprise, especially if it is a sow with cubs. Alternatively, talk to yourself out loud as you walk along a trail. Second, if the grizzly is acting aggressively from more than 30 feet away, you want to have an aerosol can of “bear spray” handy. This is a super-powerful pepper spray intended specifically for bears, and it has a maximum range of 30 feet. You blast a stream of that at the bear’s face, and the bear should be seriously discouraged. Thirdly, if the bear gets way too close, you have a bear flare. This is a marine-type handheld flare that ignites instantly with a pull-ring. It burns for only 60 seconds, but bears do not want to have anything at all to do with such an intense fire being waved in front of them. In some areas like Hallo Bay, they use the bear flare and prohibit the bear spray (due to risks with bush planes). In other places like Yellowstone, they advocate the bear spray and discourage the bear flare (due to risks with forest fires). Personally, I’ll carry everything and take my chances that way. Firearms are not allowed to be discharged in the national parks. Black bears are not normally that dangerous, and they respond to a good punch on the nose. However, if it is 2 a.m. and some large furry critter is trying to destroy my tent with me in it, I am not inclined to interrogate the bear as to its genetic background, black bear or
grizzly bear. Incidentally, you can’t ship either the bear spray or the bear flare by air, and that also means that it can’t be carried on an airliner nor can it be checked in baggage. The good news is that some hardware stores in Alaska stock bear flares, and the general stores in Yellowstone and Glacier stock the bear spray. If you drive to one of these locations, you can transport flares or spray in your car. If you travel to one of these bear havens by air, and if you purchase one of these items while there, you will carry it around
while you walk the trails and look for Ursus. After you are done and you are preparing to fly home, what are you going to do with these special items? The wise thing would be to donate them to the national park rangers or local guides before you leave. They can always get good use out of them.
2008 Montana — I visited a game farm where photographers pay a daily fee and get to photograph captive animals. Some photographers there were shooting reference photos that they would produce their own artful paintings from. We had a grizzly bear, black bear, mountain lion, bobcat, Canadian lynx, wolf, and several other species. The game farm management had some strange ways of doing business, so I doubt that I will ever do business with them again.
Where is the next destination?
My Classic Road Trip
My classic road trip goes together something like this. For a new park destination, I decide where I am going at least three months in advance, and I start doing my homework. I do the general route planning so that I can plan time and auto expenses. I seldom plan any lodging in advance. I’ve found that if I am paying big bucks for nice lodging, then I am inclined to hang around that lodging a lot to soak up the comfort, and this does not get good photographic results when I need to be out shooting at sunrise. However, I am not doing this road trip for comfort. I’m there to shoot photos, maybe as much as 14 hours per day. If I need extra time to recover from a period of bad weather, then I am going to spend an extra day and not be forced into movement to the next lodging. Besides, I might need to be driving for an hour to shoot at the crack of dawn, or else returning at night after a spectacular sunset. To maintain maximum flexibility, I generally camp out where I can, or at least where it is marginally legal. I’ve been known to
drive a few miles outside of a park boundary and sleep for a brief night, then drive back in that same distance to do a sunrise shot. I can pack everything that I need for sleeping and cooking into 10% of the space of the car, so this leaves a lot of room for camera gear. Incidentally, the one super-bulky item that I sometimes take is an articulated aluminum ladder. This will fold down so that it occupies the entire back seat of my car, yet it will extend out to 17 feet. I’ve used this to “shoot over fences” and to get higher into a tree for special wildlife shots. I can cover this with a large sheet of camouflage fabric to build an impromptu blind. If I am heading to a familiar park destination, my planning period may be as quick as three days. More than likely, if I plan it too quickly, I forget something like the camera battery charger or the backup camera. If I am heading to a national park for mountain scenery, perhaps it is one with lots of elevation change (for example, Grand
Teton, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier), I might want to use a computer tool such as Google Earth to study the target park in advance. Not only does Google Earth show the satellite view from space (not in real time), but it can be adjusted for oblique views as well. For a photo hike, this will help keep plans realistic.
Incidentally, if I am going to be covering multiple national parks during one year, the different park entrance fees will add up quickly. I consider the purchase of a National Parks Pass. Then I can come and go as I please and not run up the bill.
I study up on my guidebooks and reference materials before time gets short, so I know where I need to be at each ideal time of day for proper sun angle. For example, at some waterfalls, it is nice to get it with a natural rainbow showing. Rainbows appear at an
angle about 40-42 degrees off the direct sunlight direction. At a minimum, I will have a checklist of early morning locations, another checklist for mid-day locations, and a last checklist of sunset locations. A checklist and a road map are my most valuable tools, sometimes augmented by GPS. The camera gear checklist will show at least two camera bodies and at least four lenses, plus assorted filters, extension tubes, tripods, teleconverters, and a remote cord. I generally have a copy of my camera’s user manual unless I have it memorized. Naturally, I must have a ton of memory cards formatted and ready to go for my cameras. On my Montana trip I carried 50GB of flash memory cards, and I ended up using around 40GB of that. If I am shooting landscapes, any old speed of
memory card will be adequate. However, if I am going after lots of wildlife in continuous sequences, faster speed memory cards might be warranted. I could shoot JPEG images, if I wanted, which will reduce the memory card capacity needed and also increase the maximum number of shots in one burst, but I always shoot RAW images at maximum resolution for the maximum of flexibility toward the final image product. If memory cards cost a zillion dollars, then I could understand everybody’s reluctance to minimize such purchases. However, standard-performance memory cards can be purchased very cheaply. If I got out in the middle of some national park and ran out of memory cards, I will guarantee that new cards will cost a pretty penny, if I can find the right kind at all.
Alternatively, I could have carried a laptop computer to offload the files and to do “on-the-road photo editing.” However, that eats up a lot of time. Some pros like to shoot by daylight, then upload all of the files by night to some secure host. This assumes that there is a fast Internet connection, and that would be a very tall assumption in most of the national parks and wilderness locations where I’ve shot. It’s easier to simply shoot while on the road, and save the computer work until you get home. Once I’ve filled up a memory card and removed it from the camera, the more that I fool with it, the more chance that I will corrupt the card, and that would break my heart.
The compromise solution is to carry a so-called netbook computer. These computers are rather small and lightweight, and their computing horsepower is very modest. The screens are big enough to view images, but probably not big enough to do serious photo editing. However, this platform may be sufficient for making hard disk backups of the
memory cards. Also, it would be useful for email and taking journal notes. The big advantage is their low cost ($250-$400).
If I am purely vehicle-based, then I need to plan for the availability of various forms of electrical power. There are chargers for the camera batteries, chargers for the flash unit batteries, and a charger for the cell phone. I can operate some of these from the vehicle
12-volt battery, or I can run the 12-volt battery into an inverter which produces 115 volts AC, just depending on what I am trying to do. Do not expect to power anything big from 115 volts AC, or else the vehicle battery will go dead, pop fuses, or melt electrical wiring in the process. So, let’s plan out what we are doing. On my trip in East Africa, while staying at the safari camp, I had AC power available from a very large solar array. Unfortunately, it was distributed as 220 volts AC, the African power standard. I had many lithium
primary replacement batteries available, so I kept shooting without any recharging. There are tiny digital multimeters on the market costing as little as $10, and they will help greatly with electrical troubleshooting of cables, fuses, batteries, and chargers.
Fortunately, outdoor photography does not have any dress code, so photographers can be found wearing just about any kind of durable outdoor clothing imaginable. I’ve dressed in down parka layers and rubber boots to shoot during the winter, and I have gone to the
thinnest synthetic clothing for desert sun protection in the summer. Before going to Alaska, I was instructed to wear dark or neutral colors in order to blend into the environment better. In deep snow, I will be wearing high gaiters (leggings) to keep the snow out of my boots. In deep desert sand, I will be wearing short gaiters to keep the sand out. Wherever I am, I always wear a hat and try to have rain gear handy. Commonly, I wear my prescription sunglasses with a neoprene retainer strap. The sunglass lenses are polarized, and commonly there is a polarizing filter on the camera, and you surely do not want to have both at the same time (or else you see some very weird effects). So, once I
have spotted my distant target through sunglasses, I slide them up onto my forehead to apply my naked eye directly to the optical viewfinder, which is already corrected for my vision. With the retainer strap holding the sunglasses snugly, I can quickly pull them back down to my eyes for sighting the next target. If you are going to don rain gear for your body, what are you going to do for your camera? A large transparent plastic bag is the most likely solution.
Driving 800-1000 miles of Interstate Highway in one day is not impossible, so an experienced driver can
cover a lot of the country in a hurry if need be. However, consecutive days of
that would ruin me physically, so I break up the long days with little
half-hour camera hikes at roadside picnic areas, wildlife areas, and scenic
viewpoints. Right next to the road, I won’t find much, but on foot I can get
ten minutes into the woods to find the animals. More Later.