How to Photograph Sandhill Cranes

There’s still time to get down to the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge to photograph the semi annual migration event! So I wanted to get this blog out to tell my readers how to plan a successful visit to photograph sandhill cranes.

When to Get There

How to photograph sandhill cranes

The best time to photograph the cranes is at sunrise and late afternoon. The birds don’t stay in the refuge all day. Each morning they fly out at sunrise to scatter in the fields to forage for food. In the afternoon they return from the fields to gather near the water in the refuge about 10 miles south of the town of Monte Vista.

The best idea is to get to Monte Vista the day before your photoshoot to camp or stay in a motel. That way you can be out in the refuge at both sunrise and sunset. There is plenty of parking in the pullouts along Highway 15 straight south of town adjacent to the wildlife overlooks. Be prepared with your camera set to capture birds in flight.

I used my Canon R7 with a 100-400mm f/4 – f5.6 Canon lens with a 1.4x teleconverter attached. The 1.4x results in one stop of light less resulting in a max aperture of f/8 for that combination. Knowing that, I set my system to use Shutter Priority (Tv) mode at a 1600th of a second with auto ISO. If I know I’m going to have a a few seconds to shoot the birds on the ground I was free to roll the front dial back to a 1000th of  a second to lower my ISO values.

The background in each scene will dictate how much exposure compensation is required. As the bird flies by, the background will continually change and you will have to make adjustments in real time. Birds against sky will require a +1 or +2 value, while white birds against dark grass might require -1 or -2 values for a proper exposure.

How to Compose a Compelling Picture

How to photograph sandhill cranes

To get the most artistic images, watch for patterns in the sky as the birds fly in and out. I like to try to capture a few birds at a time close together, yet nicely separated in the frame. The Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains to the east and west make for very nice backdrops so don’t be afraid to zoom out and capture them in the image along with the birds.

While the birds are on the ground, try to get close and capture detail. The birds are quite colorful when viewed up close to make sure to capture that in the best light possible!

Don’t Forget to Look Around

Great Horned Owl

Sandhill cranes aren’t the only wildlife in the area. There are plenty of northern harriers hunting in the grass, great horned owls, deer and pronghorn and tons of other small wildlife! During the daytime when the cranes have scattered, take time to look for these other critters!

This great horned owl appears to be sitting on eggs for the spring breeding season. We waited around without success for quite a while for papa to show up but were only able to get this nest shot.

Other Activities

Creede Colorado

Another goal for this trip was a visit to the historic mountain town of Creede. The old gold mining town is only a few miles to the west and north and is filled with quaint restaurants and shops to while away a few hours while the cranes are in the fields.

Don’t forget to visit the restored mining camp just west of town. You an stretch your legs as much as you like there, the hike up the hill to the mines is a bit tough but worth while!

Look around east of Creede for bighorn sheep and elk. We had the fortune of spotting a herd of bighorns sheep there!

Additional Products and Services

If you enjoy the content and find it useful, please consider a purchase of our many additional products and services. Sales of these products keep the doors to this site open!

Professional Photographers of America (PPA)

Please feel free to visit my PPA Page where I am a member in good standing backed and insured by the best professional photographer association in the country. I can be contacted through the form available on my portfolio there.


One thought on “How to Photograph Sandhill Cranes

Leave a Reply