It was quite a summer of photography and I definitely had to up my game this season! For nearly four decades in Colorado I have enjoyed photographing our beautiful mountain landscapes, iconic wildlife including bighorn sheep, mountain goats, deer, elk and even a few bear! I have been successful shooting all these subjects from the fully manual era to auto focus, early digital, and finally to these times of amazing technology that could barely be imagined when I first began this amazing journey with my Minolta X-700 35mm film camera.
My first digital camera was the original Canon 1D. The camera was so intuitive and amazing that I never even bothered to learn how to use it’s advanced focusing system. The camera was so good at finding the subjects I was interested in that I didn’t even need to learn any more about it beyond it’s most basic settings. Unfortunately that camera had only a 4.5 megapixel sensor and quickly became obsolete as camera technology exploded at light speed.
By the time the Canon 40D was introduced I was doing a bit of sports photography and was forced to master single focus point selection which involved only one additional button and a joy stickl on the back of the camera. By the time the 70D arrived I was confronted with increasingly difficult situations which required learning “back button focus“. With that skill mastered, I was able to rapidly switch between servo and single shot photography with just a thumb and one button on the back of the camera.
But this summer was different, starting with the discovery of the eagles nesting in Eleven Mile Canyon. No big deal at first, the mother eagle was just sitting in the nest with her eaglet and my previously acquired skills were perfectly sufficient. Then it happened, the eagles flew! They took flight in some of the most magnificent photographic opportunities I had ever been presented with!
And suddenly I was a complete failure as a photographer 😦 All my pictures were blurry and the opportunity for game changing images was lost. Back to the drawing board… Of course there were some obvious solutions, shutter speed too slow being the first major culprit. A quick trip to the internet provided the necessary information, birds in flight require a shutter speed of at least 1/1250th of a second, preferably 1/1600th and up. I decided upon shutter priority mode with auto ISO to accomplish this task and I began to get some pretty decent eagles in flight captures.
After extensive observation I learned a bit about eagle habit, what time of day they might fly, when they might return and even a couple of indicators for when they might be getting ready to take flight. Eagles are big and tend to soar in steadily making accurate focus a fairly dependable action. I believed I was set, my skills were up to the task of photographing raptors 🙂
One day the eagles weren’t there and I decided to venture further into the canyon in search of them. As I scanned the banks of the South Platte River looking for signs of additional subjects I spotted a huge nest on a dead tree high overhead. Closer inspection revealed a bit of motion in the nest so I parked Big Blue and got out with my long lens for a better look.
Sure enough, there was a large bird in the nest with two small bobbing heads… But what was it, a hawk of some kind perhaps? I climbed the opposite bank for a better look and surmised that this beautiful birds must be osprey. I shot for awhile and headed for home with my cache of fascinating images. A quick check on the internet confirmed my original assessment, indeed there was a family of osprey nesting high above the pristine waters of the South Platte River.
Subsequent trips to the viewing area revealed that further advancement in my birding skills was going to be required… for the first time I was forced to deep dive into the capabilities of my camera. Settings that I had glossed over when I purchased my Canon 90D were now items of interest… First image priority, second image priority, acceleration and deceleration, erratic motion and focus point switching were all in play with the osprey. Flight without any kind of warning, rapidly changing direction, flying through the trees and dipping and diving had rendered my previously learned skills completely inadequate.
Now by the end of summer, many dozens of hours of practice, study and trial and error have elevated my skills to a new level. I have confidence that I have my camera settings dialed in, my skills honed and my patience perfected… as much as humanly possible 🙂 Now for what I have learned …
In a nutshell, I’m not going to try to go into great detail about camera settings since each camera manufacturer and each camera is different… but at least for birds in flight and probably many other additional applications, this is what I have learned:
For starters, if I am anticipating birds in flight right from the get go, I’ll put my camera on shutter priority at 1/1600th of a second with auto ISO. For birds in flight you are going to need at least a 400mm lens if not longer, so I make sure I am using my 100-400 with my 1.4x extension attached. That limits me to F8 and consequently one focus point, but I’ve discovered that unless the bird is flying against a pure backdrop such as the sky I have better luck with the greater magnification and a single point anyway. Tv mode also allows me access to the rear wheel for quick adjustment of exposure compensation which I am going to need if the bird flies high with the bright sky in the background.
If I get on scene and the birds are in the nest I may want to dial back my shutter speed to 640 which is going to bring the ISO down quite a bit for a cleaner picture. If a beaver is swimming downstream or I see some deer walking across the stream I may bump the shutter speed up to 1/800th or so to freeze the motion. But if nothing else is going on and I am going to just watch a nest for action I’ll bump the shutter speed back up to at least 1250 or 1600 depending on the light.
Also if I find myself in a low light situation anticipating action I may go to manual on the mode dial and use the widest aperture available, which is going to be F8 with the 1.4 attached, or F5.6 for my lens at its widest focal length without the 1.4x, and the lens fully extended to 400mm. In Tv mode, the camera may select a stop down from the widest aperture which may bump you into a higher and less clear ISO range. And of course always be paying attention to your background. If it is brighter than the light on your subject you may need to bump up your exposure compensation. A bright sky may require at least +1. As in the case of the osprey and bald eagles with their bright white heads, you are probably going to want to dial that back to -1/3 or -2/3 to avoid blowing out the brilliant white feathers.
Well I guess that’s about it for now… I have to say though, I’m looking forward to autumn and prime season for the majestic large mammals that mostly stand and pose for me. Even with all the learning and practice a lot of birds in flight don’t turn out and I am going to enjoy the much higher success rate on the big animals 🙂
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You may remember that I had finally settled on the settings that I was going to include as part of my custom modes on the mode dial on my Canon camera. Well those settings were blown apart yesterday morning. I had settled on Aperture Priority set to F8, Auto ISO capped at 3200, exposure compensation +1… and a new setting that I found in the auto ISO menu section that allows a photographer to boost shooting priority to a faster shutter speed which I decided upon because of the difficulty dealing with the massive pixel density of the 90D. I boosted that to the maximum value of three stops in hopes of avoiding slow shutter speeds in low light that might not be sufficient to overcome camera and subject movement.
All was well and good shooting in the low pre-dawn light of the mountain mornings and
in the persistent overcast conditions that we’ve been experiencing as of late. Enter the sun… yesterday was a beautiful brilliant sunny morning and there were deer everywhere! I shot well into the morning as the sun rose higher in the sky. It was definitely brighter, no where near the harshness of the mid day sun but bright enough for me to want to recheck my settings and exposure values. Well it turns out my camera was still shooting at ISO 3200 with shutter speeds of a 2500th and even faster!
There is no way that I am going to need a shutter speed of 1/2500 of a second to shoot deer in bright light that are mostly standing still looking at me! Even if you consider eliminating camera shake, using the rule of reciprocal with a focal length of 400mm and a crop sensor, your starting point would be a 540th of a second. I double that speed these days to account for the amazing pixel density that modern cameras are capable of so the next increment using that theory would be 1250th on my camera with my settings. Back in the day I used to shoot bike races at 1000th of a second and those riders were flying!
So I pondered that problem for a while and realized that is was just not going to be feasible to allow the camera to guess at what I would like for shutter and aperture values. The only way to solve the problem would be to use manual mode for the shutter and aperture. I’ve already decided that with my 100-400 meter lens, the optimum aperture for wildlife photography is F8. Starting with the resulting 1250th benchmark factoring for camera shake, I compensated for the two stop image stabilization available on my lens and dialed back to an 800th of a second, plenty fast enough to capture any action my docile deer friends might be engaged in. I’m happy with the +1 exposure compensation I’ve been using to achieve ETTR exposures and optimize the signal to noise ratio.
The only exposure value I’m going to allow to float is the ISO. I previously had it capped at 3200 but I have removed that allowing the camera to go all the way to 25600. The reasoning behind that is if I have to unexpectedly leap out of my truck and grab a shot in a hurry without having time to mess with settings, at least I’ll get some kind of properly exposed shot… it may be noisy but I will at least capture something to mark the moment to put on Instagram!
Fortunately I was able to test out my new c1 setting today and I’m pretty darned happy with the results! I got some pre-sunrise shots followed by some captures in light similar to what I experienced yesterday. I purposely did not mess with the c1 settings so as to make sure to test my expectations. On a normal day I might decide to use c1 as a starting point and make adjustments to my shutter speed based on changing conditions and subject activity. Hope you enjoy these captures of my friends the “Three Amigos” 🙂
It’s been more than a month since my last post and more than a few people have been starting to ask if I’m still alive. I’m happy to report that rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated and that I am indeed alive and kicking 🙂 This month however has not been without it’s challenges!
On March 14th I finished my shift at my full time job looking forward to a week of vacation in which I had visions of photographing mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep and maybe even a bear or two! By midnight after the swing shift it was becoming apparent that my plans were changing rapidly. Soon a 911 call, a new lesson in pain and an ambulance ride were in the works and my vacation plans were kaput. A couple of hours later I was in surgery for repair of a life threatening incarcerated hernia followed by a second surgery the next night which was necessary to correct some pesky internal bleeding. Now a full month later I am finally feeling like life could return to normal at some point!
Whiling away the hours discussing cameras and photography with my photo bud Kevin have revealed that I need to direct some much needed attention to unexplored camera functions that I have never managed the time to look into. Especially in Waterton Canyon I have noticed the requirement to rapidly and extensively change camera settings for different subjects.
One moment I might be photographing a beautiful landscape along the river while the next moment might find me scrambling to capture a bighorn sheep preparing to leap into the clear blue water. This can be difficult and often the action occurs before the settings are changed and the moment is lost.
Enter Custom Modes 1 and 2, something I’ve never bothered to mess with in 18 years of digital photography. So I’ve decided to have one function for wildlife and the other for landscape photography. For wildlife I’ve selected Auto ISO with a cap of 1600 and a minimum shutter speed of 1/500th of a second. An exposure compensation factor of +1/3 of a stop seemed like a pretty reliable selection along with high speed drive mode, back button focus and AI Servo for a focus mode. Then you just go to menu settings and find the custom camera modes, select and then register settings. The menu will ask you if you want C1, C2…. or more if you have a camera with additional modes. Wildlife is now C1 on my Canon.
For C2 and landscape photography I selected aperture priority set to f6.3, ISO 100, slow drive mode and again exposure compensation of +1/3.
Now I can easily and quickly switch between wildlife and landscape modes with one quick turn of the main dial. No more missing the money shot! As for the video settings I don’t really care, I don’t make money on video and the camera seems to just do what I want as if by magic.
Now all I need is for somebody to come up with a cure for this blasted CoVid-19 so the stay at home order can be lifted!
If you would like an escape from the monotony of staying at home you might enjoy a visit to my YouTube channel for some nice footage of deer, elk and bighorn sheep! Please subscribe if you like the videos and want to be notified next time I publish!
As usual the day began with no clear plan. Saturday is my big day for picture taking so I had in mind a couple of ideas, one of which was driving to the peak to hide from the heat… I really didn’t want to pay the $15 toll though so I just headed out, reminding me of when I was a teenager. My mom would ask me where I was going, I never really knew so my reply was always just “Out.”.
Out now days usually starts at the gym where I can clear my head and figure things out. Sure enough while I was working out it occurred to me that the middle of June might be a good time for a journey to Bald Mountain. There are a lot of pretty wildflowers up there including some that look like yellow daisies, some mountain bluebell and even the Colorado state flower, the columbine. And with Pikes Peak in the background it is always a winning combination. I usually just hike up the rugged trail that leads there but I don’t think 14 year old Kitsu is up for a hike of that magnitude, 2000 feet in a little over two miles. But luckily, Rampart Range Road goes right past there, a bit rough but not too bad in my old Dodge pickup. The lighting was pretty good and I noticed that even at ISO 100 on the speed setting I was getting shutter speeds of over 1,000th. Decided I wanted some good depth of field for close up flowers so I switched to aperture priority and selected f11 for my lens opening.
So up we went, me and the doggies. Well it turns out I may be a week early on that shoot, but it is a pretty day and the yellow flowers are in full bloom so it was worth a stop and a mini photo shoot and at 10,000 feet we were still successful in avoiding the heat for awhile.
I was also thinking about Deckers Corner, a place on my bucket list to stop in and have a couple of beers. Always was envious of the bikes outside and wanted to stop in and chill for awhile but a nagging wife who didn’t like mountains, streams, relaxing or me doing anything that wasn’t on her honey do list made that a battle not worth fighting. I was thinking, some pictures of fly fishermen, a dip in the cool headwaters of the Platte River for the doggies and a cold beer on a beautiful day at a place on my Bucket List! Too much to turn down. So on our way down the mountain we drove through town to Highway 67 and turned towards Deckers.
On the way I noticed some great views of Devils Head which was worth stopping for and soon we arrived in Deckers. Turned left onto the dirt road and drove back along the river. Such a beautiful day there were quite a number of fishermen, men and women so I guess fisherpeople must be the correct terminology. The lighting was good and I was satisfied with the exposures the camera was picking on Program Mode. Quarters were a bit tight in the river valley so I decided to use my 18-55 wide angle to drink it all in. Looks like I have some nice ones, so I believe that was a good choice!
We cooled off for a while and then it was over to the bar. Was a bit surprised that on such a beautiful summer day there was not really much of a crowd. No one on the beautiful front deck… with some difficulty I located the front door which looks like the door to an ice cream shop instead of the bar. Upon entry I was surprised to discover the reason for that, it is an ice cream shop now. There is still a bar though and they do serve beer so I thought, what the heck, at least I can check off a bucket list item. Sat down and waited, but the staff was not overly interested in customers so after about five wasted minutes I gave up and left. No wonder nobody goes there anymore! In any case, that idea is off my Bucket List.
A quick drive back to Woodland only to discover that the traffic and crowds are terrible this weekend… Decided to brave Walmart for some supplies and wait out the crowds in the air conditioning at home. And to work on the pictures and a blog post 🙂
Steve Krull is a prolific sports and nature photographer selling prints and stock images online as S.W. Krull Imaging at various sites and agencies. Click this link to view all the products and services offered by Steve Krull and S. W. Krull Imaging. Additional services include, wedding photography, portraiture and model portfolios, and event photography. Additional products include fine art stock imagery, prints and gift items