Monte Vista After Action Report

Sandhill Cranes during the Spring migration in Monte Vista, Colorado.

I’ve returned from Monte Vista, CO where I photographed the Sandhill Crane migration with my friend Jim.

I’ll call it a successful photography trip this year, after two straight years of frustrating results. We got four sessions and a bit of exploring in on this trip.

There was a decent bird count, but the cranes were not showing up in their normal locations. Reason unknown. But, with a little perseverance and effort, we managed to get a good handle on what they were doing and the end result for me was a whopping 7,000 or so images. I don’t recall ever taking that many photos on a bird trip before, but then again I didn’t have a camera that shot at 10 frames per second. The D500 did a pretty good job and I’ve been slowly weeding down the photos and making selections of the best efforts.

Despite the constant news of the pandemic, there were a good number of photographers and birders in the area this year. It was nice to get out and away from the television and not having to hear about the constant news.

As for the birds, my primary mission this year was to get “birds in flight” shots, however, there were opportunities to get behavioral photos at close range, so I’m sure I’ll have quite a few images to select from as I move through the editing process.

For now, I’ll be secluded in the office for a few days going over the results and adding to the stock photography portfolio.

It’s good to be home.

Feathers Friday

Great Blue Heron in Flight
(Nikon D7200-Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR @500mm, f/7.1, 1/2500 sec, ISO 640)

It’s Feathers Friday and as good a day as any to talk about bird photography.

I’ll admit, I’m not a “birder” by definition. Oh, I have thousands of bird photos, most of which are junk but I keep plugging at it. I think good bird photographs are one of the more difficult objectives in photography. At least if one wants to become effective and efficient in generating the kind of images that sell. Most of my best selling bird photos are birds in flight.

It has only been in the last few years, since I switched to Nikon, that I’ve improved my results to any meaningful degree. There are a number of reasons for stumbling on the subject, most of them being my techniques and perseverance to pursuing the subject, but camera equipment does play in to the equation and in no small way.

For starters, birds are seldom where you want them to be. They are generally skittish creatures and can’t be approached. They are also small subjects, which makes getting close all the more important.

Skies and environment matter a lot too. Cloudy days with boring grey sky are not the best time to get good birds in flight photos. The bright back light kills the foreground detail of the birds feathers, generally resulting in silhouette photos that are of little interest. It’s those white, puffy cloud days that I like best.

Sometimes, I use a tripod with a gimble head, particularly effective with nesting birds, flying to and from the nest. The trick is to anticipate what they will be doing and get the shot when it does. That’s a waiting game. It’s hard to keep ones attention focused though. When working around other photographers, we, as a group tend to get a little bit chatty and often times are flapping our lips when we should be hitting the shutter button. Reaction time is critical. That extra second or two it takes you to move from a conversation to finding, tracking and then capturing the bird doing something can be make or break in most situations.

To me though, my best bird in flight shots come when I’m hand-holding my camera. Shooting hand-held, it’s easier to get an out of focus image, so one must learn the best way to hold the camera and how to pre-focus the lens and how to accurately track a flying bird. It takes lots of practice.

Canada Goose In Flight With Reflection

My biggest mistake as a beginner was to zoom the lens all the way out to get a full frame of the bird. What I discovered is that’s a terrible way to do it. I came to the realization that by zooming all the way out, I was far more likely to chop off part of a bird’s body in the frame or completely lose track of the animal before I could establish a good tracking solution. These days, I try to keep the lens set at about 1/2 of it’s focal length. I normally use the 200-500mm zoom lens, so that means I have to pay attention and keep the lens set for about 275mm – 350mm when I’m sitting idle and then work the zoom to get the bird filling more of the frame as I track it with the camera. The first instinct is to start shooting as soon as you lift the camera, but getting the bird in the frame and in focus is far more important. I figure it’s better to have a smaller subject in the frame and work my way in than it is to have the top of the birds flapping wings cut off in the frame, thus wasting the image.

Double-crested Cormorant

Another thing I try to avoid is jumping on photos of birds that land in nearby trees. I’ve had limited success doing this, as once again, the first instinct is to get photos. The problem is, there are very few good bird photos with a bird sitting on a tree branch with a bright background a lot of tree branches in the scene and the bird just sitting there looking around. Maybe, if one is exceptionally close and can really get in on the detail of the bird, those images are worth the effort. Most of the time, they are not.

No, it’s the bird in flight shots I like to go after more than anything.

I’ve found that my best bird in flight photos are shots I’ve taken from at or above the same height as the bird is flying. There’s better light and less foreground shadow when you are looking directly at or down on a flying bird.

How does one get above a flying bird? Well, that’s a question you should be asking yourself when you are trying to situate yourself to get birds in flight shots. Look for raised platforms to shoot from, or hills to shoot from, or from the top of buildings. What ever it takes. Find a vantage point that may result in a level or downward looking perspective. Keep the sun lit side of the bird facing the camera and avoid those environmental distractions.

Today’s photo was taken from a raised viewing platform and the heron was flying by me with good light on his face and back. I wouldn’t have seen this type of shot if I were looking up into the sky. You won’t either.

In photography, subject lighting is the make or break issue almost all the time. One must learn to understand where the light will be and how to make use of it. Anything else is just a snapshot.

Wildlife Wednesday

Photograph of a Bison - Image Colorado
American Bison In Snow Covered Prairie Grass in Colorado

Bison are an interesting subject. Are they wild animals or are they livestock?

There are a lot of bison herds around the country and none of them are truly wild, though they do have very large areas to roam freely. Most of the bison in the US are treated as livestock though. I consider the genetically pure herds to qualify as wildlife, as they aren’t used for commercial food processing. Still, some of those herds are managed the same way livestock is managed.

I remember many years ago living near Chicago, there was a place called Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory, west of Chicago. I drove by it every day to/from work. They had a few bison running around on the grounds there and I recall taking the kids over to look at them through the fence. Don’t know if that’s still the case though.

Subject Matter

Stunt Plane Performing at an Airshow in Cheyenne, Wyoming

I’m cruising through December as though it were a calm bay at sunset. Euphemisms for life and living and loving. Trudy has been cleared by her surgeon and is officially recovered so we can resume our regularly scheduled programming.

What would be my regularly scheduled program right now anyway?

Most years, this is the season for heading over to Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR for deer and bison photographs, perhaps a landscape image or two. A coyote or hawk thrown in for good measure. Or, I might be in the mountains photographing bighorn sheep, but lets face it. I have 10,000 photos of all that, so my enthusiasm to rack up more of the same has waned to some degree. The fact is, I haven’t picked up a camera for serious photography since the first week of October. All in all, I’m enjoying the photography down time.

Not that I’m bored with photography, I’m just bored with the same old subjects and I need to find a new groove. Part of that new groove is going to involve shooting more video, and I’ve been writing somewhat about that in my recent blog posts.

But video of what? That’s the question I’m still contemplating.

I’d like to start selling video as stock, but I have a little more learning and understanding to do. I don’t want to just throw noodles at the wall and hope they stick. Winter is the time to learn it and I’m getting a fairly good grip on what type of equipment I’ll be needing. For the most part, I already have the gear. Just need to break on through the holidays and find the open water of the new year. No rush, no sense of urgency, just a sense that I’m tired of repetitive photographic pursuits.

Looking over my stock photo sales from 2019, I’ve had a good year. About equal to 2018, but there is the rub. I don’t want to stay equal, I want to sell more stock and what was hot last year isn’t hot this year.

I guess a good starting point would be to analyze the current sales and see what photos are selling better, so that’s what I’ll spend a few weeks doing. Going over the sales, taking stock of the stock so to speak. I already have a few clues, as certain photographs seem to be generating more interest than others, and they aren’t the same shots as this time last year. What’s hot this year won’t be hot next year.

I can’t afford to stay complacent with my subject matter.