The Dance

Sandhill Crane photography by Gary Gray
Dancing Sandhill Cranes

From a technical standpoint, Sandhill Cranes do not pose a significant challenge.

You’ll have three major considerations for insuring the optimal quality of your photographs.

  1. Light
  2. Location
  3. Optics

Regarding the light, it is no different from any other subject matter lighting. You’ll want the sun in behind you for most shots, giving you direct sunlight on the animals. For Monte Vista, there are a number of standard shooting locations that are optimal at different times of the day as the sun moves across the horizon.

When I’m reviewing and selecting locations, I always take the sun location in consideration and I look for birds with the type of light I want to see. Even on cloudy days. Don’t pick available birds over properly lit birds. Poorly lit subjects are a waste of time. There is also no substitute for proximity. Well lit, close birds are what you are after.

Another consideration is your background.  Monte Vista is fairly simple. The Sangre De Cristo Mountains are going to be a primary backdrop. What you want is the fewest distractions and most appealing background. Let the birds appear in your preselected setting. Take your time and set your possible shots up in advance.

I would concern yourself more with your choice of lenses than your choice of camera body. To achieve the best results, I recommend you have lenses with focal lengths between 400-600mm.  Zooms or primes, it doesn’t matter. I prefer zooms as they are more versatile and generally lighter than the big primes lenses. If you are using a crop sensor body such as a Nikon D500 or Canon 7DII, that extra reach may be of benefit.  I’d keep a wider angle lens handy too, as those landscape and blastoff shots can sure look sweet with mountain backdrops.

Of course, not everyone will have a second camera body with them, but if you do have a second body, that’s where you use the wider angle lens and remember to keep it handy. Blastoffs occur without warning. If you have to look for a camera to photograph it, you’ve missed it.

My kit is a 200-500mm zoom on a Nikon D810 and a 70-200mm zoom on a Nikon D750. The D750 hangs around my neck or is within arms reach at all times. The 200-500mm is typically mounted on a gimble head to a tripod.

I keep a spare battery in my pocket close to my body so it will stay warm and ready to swap.

As for camera settings, I normally use manual aperture and shutter speeds with Auto-ISO. On the longer lens, I normally keep the shutter speed between 1/1600th  – 1/2000th a second. This freezes motion fairly well and helps to keep those birds tack sharp.

For aperture, I normally set for f/7.1 which gives me adequate depth of field for one or two birds close to one another. For group shots, you’ll want to stop down to f/9 or f/11 to keep those birds sharp. For single birds, you can go as low as you like but remember, it’s about getting the eyes sharp. Keep those eyes sharp.

If I’m using the long lens on a tripod, I turn off the vibration reduction. Sometimes the VR will actually make things worse.  I almost always use the VR when hand holding shots of the cranes.

The goal, well lit, close, sharp images.

In future posts I’ll explain the types of shots you’ll be looking for and the techniques I use to get them.