Photographing the Buffalo

Photograph of a buffalo
Buffalo at RMA National Wildlife Refuge Near Denver

I have a love/hate relationship with RMA National Wildlife Refuge.

I love the wildlife photography available there; however, I hate the fact that it’s a miserable drive to get there for me. Being on the exact opposite side of the Denver-Metro area from my home and considering the best photographic time to be there being sunrise and sunset, that means I have to drive across the congested city during rush hours. Yuck.

Once there, all is well.

The “Arsenal” has quite a bit of good quality wildlife to photograph. Mule deer, white-tail deer, coyote, prairie dogs, foxes, bunny rabbits, white pelicans, ducks, geese, great horned owls, burrowing owls, hawks, eagles, great mountain backdrops, lakes, ponds, woods. Who could ask for more in the way of a one stop nature photography location?

It’s easy to get into a photographic rut at the Arsenal though. A common refrain is “who needs more photos of deer and sticks?”

My approach has morphed over the years. I tend to concentrate on getting good stock photos there, based on what sells well. One of my more popular wildlife subjects on the stock agencies are the buffalo. I still call them buffalo too, because that’s what they were called by the people who were here before us.

Buffalo are not as easy to photograph as you might imagine. Yeah, they are large and often times fairly close to you, but they aren’t the most dynamic animal and their behavior isn’t always that exciting. But, they are an American Icon and like bald eagles, they represent our heritage, so you can bet on a good buffalo shot making a little cash.

The biggest challenge I’ve faced getting good, sharp images of these critters is due to the fact that buffalo fur plays havoc with the camera’s auto-focus system. That thick, wiry, low contrast fuzziness of buffalo fur drives a camera’s auto-focus crazy and my hit rate for critically sharp images of buffalo is measurablly lower than it is for other large ungulates as a result.

Here’s an animal that I can honestly say I do better with using Nikon cameras than I ever did with Canon bodies. Canon’s auto-focus tends to be a little more unreliable in this situation.

When I switched to Nikon from Canon a few years ago, I immediately tried using the same focus techniques on the Nikon bodies that I had used on the Canon bodies. Single or small group spot focusing, focus and recompose. I wasn’t really seeing any improvement at first but then I discovered the 3D tracking mode on the Nikon cameras and it opened up a whole new range of improvement in my results.

I’ve always been aware of 3D tracking, but my experience with it was nil at first, so I shied away from using it thinking it was a gimmick or something. My habits were stuck in Canon mode.

In a nutshell, he’s how it works for me.

Those high precision cross-sensors in the camera are what you want to be using. The 3D tracking on the Nikon bodies allows you to point that high precision point at the part of the animal you want to be critically sharp and it will track that point with good reliability. With wildlife, that would be the eyes of the animal in most cases. Using 3D tracking, I can put that little focus square on the eyes of the buffalo and then follow the critter as it moves using continuous focus mode and simultaneously frame the image for a suitable composition without having to do much more than keep an eye on what that sensor square is doing in the viewfinder. The focus point I set tracks the point on the animal as the composition changes. So long as that point is tracking in the viewfinder, and this is what you have to pay attention to, I have a critically sharp image based on that focus point. That tracking point can wiggle a little, and sometimes it drops off to something else. The trick is to watch for it losing the spot and quickly re-establishing that focus point. If the focus point moves off into the fur, you can bet that there’s a better likelihood of that image not being critically sharp. Canon doesn’t give you this, it’s much more operator intensive. Yeah, the precision is there, but it’s much easier to lose that critical sharpness because Canon bodies don’t track that well in 3 dimensions while the camera and subject are moving.

I’ve been using 3D tracking for almost all the large animals I photograph now and it’s been giving me excellent results.

What I also discovered over the past few years teaching workshops is that most Nikon users aren’t aware of the benefit of 3D tracking. Most I’ve encountered haven’t even tried it, so I try to enlighten them on the functionality and improved results I see from using it. If you’re a wildlife photographer shooting Nikon, I strongly suggest you give 3D tracking a go. It’s not for everything though. It’s not as effective with flying birds and other smaller moving critters, but for deer, elk, bighorn, buffalo and other large moving objects such as automobiles and trains, it will improve your auto-focus hit rate.

And improving your in focus hit rate is improving your profit.