March's Sandhill Crane Festival in Othello was a great place to glean tips on wildlife photography. Here are tips for newcomers to the hobby.
OTHELLO, Adams County — Bob Barrett normally likes to photograph people playing sports. But as he wandered past reed-ringed ponds one chilly morning last month during the Othello Sandhill Crane Festival, he found similarities between trying to capture fast-moving people and skittish wild animals on film.
Neither is easy. If anything, animals are trickier: They’re often small. They hide. They move quickly. And most of them depend on camouflage to survive.
“Birds present a challenge, and I like that challenge,” Barrett said as he fiddled with his camera settings during a photography workshop presented as part of the festival.
Wildlife photography is a hobby for the determined. But you don’t need to spend tens of thousands on equipment to get memorable images. You also don’t need to go far, as Washington boasts some world-class spots for spotting wildlife.
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During the workshop, professional photographer David Gluckman, of Port Townsend, demonstrated some of the settings on his camera at Birder’s Corner, on the edge of the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.
Decked out in camouflage (it doesn’t show dirt, he jokes), Gluckman slung his 7-pound lens over his shoulder and tramped along the edge of a pond surrounded by yellowed grasses. Every few minutes, he planted his tripod and snapped a few images — a swan here, a redwing blackbird there, a Virginia rail that dashed out of the reeds. The group also spotted a mammal in the water, possibly a river otter.
Gouged out of the earth by ancient floods, the ponds around Potholes Reservoir offer what every living thing needs: water, food, shelter.
The “Coulee Corridor,” the name given to this area on Audubon Washington’s Great Washington State Birding Trail, is also a migratory path for birds and other wildlife heading north and south along the river corridor or east and west from the Cascades to the lowlands. According to Audubon, half of the state’s 346 bird species have been spotted along the corridor.
Late April is prime time for bird-watching, but in March, the sandhill cranes and bird photographers were both in full flock.
Christi Norman, program director for Audubon’s birding trail, is intimately familiar with the state’s wildlife hot spots. She says looking for wildlife forces a person to slow down and focus on surroundings — a nice break from everyday life. “I like to get out and spend a couple of hours just getting quiet,” she said.
First, the gear
Dedicated wildlife photographers tend to haul a lot of equipment. The three most important components: camera, lens and tripod. The camera should have enough megapixels, at least 4 and more if you intend to make large prints. Since animals can move fast, speed is also important: the more frames per second, the better.
Because it’s hard to get close to wildlife, a zoom or telephoto lens is a must, and professionals spend a lot on lenses.
Many use 200-400 mm zoom lenses, but price tags around $7,000 are steep for beginners. Gluckman advises starting out with something like a 70-200 mm zoom lens.
Point-and-shoot cameras with optical zoom lenses are a lightweight alternative, but they don’t shoot as fast, work as well in low light or give the same image quality.
Tripods or monopods are essential because telephoto lenses magnify every vibration or movement the photographer makes. If you don’t go out shooting wildlife very often, or aren’t sure which lenses you’ll prefer, renting might be an option.
Tips for newcomers
Beginning wildlife photographers should:
• Shoot a lot. Gluckman estimates that getting good pictures is about 50 percent luck.
• Go early. Many animals rise to feed at dawn, rest during the day and come out again at dusk. The light is also purest in the morning.
• Plan ahead. Bring extra batteries and the lenses you think you’ll need, as well as water, snacks, bug spray and sun protection.
• Be ready. “I’ve gotten some of the best stuff out of the window of my car,” said Gluckman, who drives with a camera on his passenger seat. He also advises always returning your camera to your most frequently used setting, so you’ll be able to grab it and shoot without fiddling with the controls.
• Go where animals are. Mike Dillmann, another photographer at the crane festival, suggests visiting a zoo or a wildlife sanctuary to practice photographing animals. Listen as well as look. You may hear animals before you see them. Be patient and willing to wait.
• Look for light. The best light for photographing wildlife is indirect, under partly cloudy or hazy skies. “You’re not photographing objects, you’re photographing light,” Gluckman said. Try to keep the sun behind you.
• Shoot in the largest format possible. This will allow you the most flexibility when editing.
• Follow photographic ethics. For wildlife photographers, this means not making animals do things they normally wouldn’t do: scaring them out of the bushes or making noises to get their attention, for example. Forcing animals to make unnecessary movements causes them to waste energy — a vital thing for migrating birds — and could make them susceptible to predators.
Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelance writer.