Wildlife Photography, learning to keep your photographic ducks in a row.

Keeping your ducks in a row is an old expression for sure but some expressions remain useful and are timeless. Photographing wildlife is complex and involves a process with many individual steps or “ducks” to keep in sequence if you want to achieve the best outcome. Most people who haven’t tried wildlife photography before think you just walk out the front door, take a photo of an animal, and put it online, perhaps because these days with smartphones that’s exactly how most photographs are taken. Those of us who photograph wildlife regularly for business or pleasure know it’s a bit more complicated than that. To produce your average random wildlife photo you could just depend on getting lucky once in a while but to produce good quality wildlife photos consistently, they have to be preceded by a significant amount of study and preparation, as well as a multistep post-processing routine. Photographing Ducks is fun and is a good way to illustrate the multiple steps that are involved. Lets’ take a look at how I like to keep my ducks in a row while photographing ducks.

Mallard drake taking wing.

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One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi

When I was a kid we used to play touch football in the street. Because there wasn’t an offensive line we had to count ten seconds out loud before we could rush the quarterback. When we counted we would use Mississippis because supposedly it takes one second to say “One Mississippi”. Say it ten times and you could rush the quarterback. I was out recently looking for wildlife to photograph when I a came across a number of beautiful raptors that caused be to harken back to those days. I found myself counting each of the several birds circling overhead in Mississippis as if I was a kid on the football field. One Mississippi Kite, Two Mississippi Kites and so on.

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Photographing Burrowing Owls, getting lost in the eyes of your subject.

I think it was Humphry Bogart who said, “She had the kind of eyes you could get lost in”. I love to photograph owls for a lot of reasons but mostly because of there eyes. They have the kind of eyes you can get lost in. When beginning to photograph wildlife it’s important to understand that an animal’s eyes are the most important part of the composition of a wildlife photo. Because of their large prominent eyes, owls offer a great opportunity to practice this principle. Owls, however, are very reclusive nocturnal creatures for the most part which can make finding them and subsequently photographing them quite difficult. There is one species of owl however that is relatively easy to find and is active during the day. The Burrowing Owl. If you want to practice your wildlife photography and work with a subject that has great eyes, then burrowing owls are just the trick.

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I love my 600mm lens, but how do I get it there? Traveling with a super telephoto lens.

Most wildlife photographers start out using smaller lenses and work their way up to large super telephoto lenses as time goes by. In the beginning, I had a 300mm f4 and like most, lusted after larger lenses but wasn’t sure that wildlife photography was something I would stick with long enough to justify the expense of a larger lens. Once I saved enough and pulled the trigger on a 600mm lens I couldn’t wait to travel and test it out. My first trip with this monster was to Jackson Wyoming and Grand Tetons National Park. I knew it would be the perfect lens for the trip but getting it there on the plane was concerning and would take some thought.

Young Pronghorn Antelope Grand Tetons National Park
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The I-20 Wildlife Preserve

If you have ever been to West Texas then you know there really isn’t much to look at. You can literally drive a hundred miles and not change elevation more than 10 feet. For the most part, it’s dry and arid. The average yearly rainfall is about 14 inches and not a lot can grow in those conditions. Every once in a while though you’re lucky and you find an oasis in the desert.

A Canvasback duck at the preserve
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Yellowstone, a Wildlife Photographer’s pilgrimage. Part 4

If Yellowstone is known for anything, it’s one thing, wolves. My trip to Yellowstone wouldn’t be complete without trying to find and photograph a wolf. These iconic animals represent the west’s wild and untamed past. Hunted to extinction in the lower forty eight states long ago, they were reintroduced into Yellowstone in the early nineties. Since that time the have successfully established themselves in several western states. They are the subject of much controversy. Thousands of visitors a day are drawn to the park with hopes of getting a glimpse of these elusive creatures. In 2016 there were 11 packs with a total of 108 wolves who called Yellowstone home. Although there are over a hundred wolves in the park, as you might imagine finding them can be somewhat difficult and getting a decent photograph of one can be darn near impossible.

Map showing the wolf packs resident to Yellowstone.
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Yellowstone, a Wildlife Photographer’s pilgrimage. Part 3

I don’t know about you but the first night I try to sleep in a new place I never sleep very well. A smaller bed, strange noises, and anticipation of the day ahead led to a restless night. We all know that wildlife is more active early in the morning and at dusk. The plan was to rise early with enough time to get ready and be on the road shortly before sunrise. Times of sunrise and sunset vary by longitude and time of the year. Sunrise and sunset calendars for various locations can be found easily online. In the first week of October sunrise in Yellowstone was around 7:30 each day give or take a few minutes.  We were up at 5:30, coffee in the lobby by 6:15, breakfast to go from the Canyon Eatery, and on the road about 7:30, Scanning the roadsides for wildlife as we drove. This would be the morning routine for the next several days.

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Yellowstone, a Wildlife Photographer’s pilgrimage. Part 2

We arrived early in Bozeman, and by the time we had rented the car and were pulling out of the airport parking lot  it was only 10:30 in the morning.  As part of the plan we stopped at the Walmart in Bozeman and purchased various things we felt we might need for the week, water, snacks, bear spray, etc.  While these things are available in the park at general stores in several locations it was cheaper, and given the time of year we weren’t sure exactly what would be open. We grabbed lunch and were on the highway by 11:30 heading for Yellowstone. It’s a little over an hour’s drive through pretty country along the Yellowstone River from Bozeman to Gardiner at the north entrance to the park. Along the drive we saw several herd of elk with large bulls as well as a Bald Eagle perched in a tree along the river.  In no time at all we were entering the park through the north entrance and the Roosevelt Arch. We quickly paid our entrance fee and headed for Mammoth Hot Springs.

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Yellowstone, a Wildlife Photographer’s pilgrimage.

John Muir once said, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”  For my entire life, my family has had a vacation home in northern New Mexico.  It was there that I developed my love of the great outdoors. I spent many summers there backpacking and fishing and grew to love the mountains. As a result, through the years I have visited a number of National Parks, but from an early age, I’ve had a dream to visit the grandfather of all National Parks, Yellowstone. Having an interest in Wildlife Photography as I do, requires one to make a pilgrimage to certain places in their lifetime and pay homage to these iconic Wildlife Photography locations, of which Yellowstone is the most iconic in the US. Recently I realized my dream. I took a week off, grabbed my wife, loaded up my camera equipment and went to the mountains of Yellowstone to “get their good tidings.”

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Wildlife Photography Technique ; Notice the small things. The rewards are inversely proportional.

I love wildlife photography. Taking photos of birds and mammals with large telephoto lenses is fun and challenging.  As we discussed in a prior blog though, sometimes the animal or bird you have come to photograph just doesn’t cooperate and show up on time to have their picture taken. It’s at these times that we should, ” Notice the small things. The rewards are inversely proportional”.   Macro photography is a favorite pastime of many photographers. The enlargement of small objects to a huge scale allows for the exploration of detail the naked eye usually cannot see.  Even though with wildlife photography you may only have a standard telephoto lens with you, you can still take near macro photos.

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