Category Archives: Technique

Wildlife Photography – Practice

Wildlife Photography image of a cormorant
Practicing at local ponds prepare me to capture this Cormorant in Morro Bay, CA.

Photography is like any other hobby – to improve you need to practice and this is especially true with wildlife photography. To practice my wildlife photography, I love to visit local ponds and zoos in my area. After all, I’m not much of a tracker, so I go where it is easy to find the animals. That way I can practice camera settings, technique, and composition to prepare for when I see animals in the wild. Fortunately, there are several ponds near my house with a variety of waterfowl and birds to practice photographing.

My Gear

Along with my camera, I pack a long lens (100-500mm range). My favorite Olympus lenses are the 300mm f/4 and the 40-150mm with a 1.4x extender. If I am photographing at a zoo through fences, I prefer the 300mm. Longer focal lengths eliminate the fence better. My gear is in my hand, or my backpack and I make sure to include extra camera batteries, memory card, water, and snacks. Sometimes I will use a monopod, but not if there are a lot of people around.

My Settings

African Lion image from a zoo.
This lion image was captured through a fence at the Wildlife World Zoo.

Setting the shutter speed correctly is crucial in wildlife photography. Generally, you have two options – a fast shutter to stop the action (like wings in flight) and the shutter speed should be at least 1/2000 sec. The second option is a slower shutter speed for panning shots. Panning requires a little more practice and the shutter speed changes depending on the speed of your subject. For example, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125 sec are shutter speeds I have used on wildlife. So, once you decide on the vision of your photo, set the shutter speed.

Focus is most often in continuous and either a single spot or a small group of spots. Birds flying in the air are easier to focus on using multiple spots. But to focus on a bear’s eye, the single spot is best. Get eye level with the animal to capture the strongest possible image. Below are a few images from zoos, ponds and my backyard.

Next time you have the opportunity – go out and practice!

Dandy Dandelion

Every spring we remove those pesky dandelions from our yard. This year, before the weed & feed came out, I picked a dandelion to photograph.

As a child, I enjoyed blowing the dandelion seeds everywhere, not grasping why it upset my parents. As an adult, when I look at a dandelion, I imagine myself wandering through those tiny seed pods; maybe it comes from reading The Borrower’s or Dr. Suess’s, Horton Hears a Who. So, I spent a few days photographing dandelions from my yard and I thought I would share my process with you.

Olympus OMD 1 Mark III, 60 mm macro, with Raynox DCR250 close up lens, 1/200 sec, f/4, ISO 200, two off camera flash, 50 image focus stack.

I started with a perfect, fluffy dandelion. But the image was busy and I struggled seeing into the seed pods, so I removed some of the seeds to gain a better vantage point. Using my macro lens, tripod and a Raynox DCR250 close up lens, I captured the above image at approximately 2.5x magnification. The off camera flash units were at 1/64 power with diffusion (copy paper). At this magnification, I chose to focus stack so that the closest seed pod would be in focus.

Next, I moved in closer keeping my exposure and flash settings the same. By adding extension tubes to the macro and Raynox lenses, I isolated an individual seed pod achieving almost 4x magnification. When using the Raynox, I use a plastic container on the end of my lens to diffuse the flashes. Anyone that has taken our Arizona Highways PhotoScapes Super Macro workshop (ahps.org) has used this diffusion technique. For these next images, I included my super macro setup and the single seed pod image.

Then, I continued to play with the dandelion seeds, pulling some away to reveal less seed pods drawing me to different compositions. The colored paper background added variety and I chose to capture single images with varying depths of field.

No Flash

Dandelion with green background
1/60 sec, f/4, ISO 200

While setting up the next shot, I added a continuous light to the background and loved the silhouetted dandelion. So, I turned off my flashes and captured silhouettes with and without extension tubes. Much to my surprise, I found a bug crawling around in the dandelion. It took a lot of twisting and positioning in front of my lens, but I finally captured the bug in the seeds. The final bug image expressed my original intent – as if I was that bug within the dandelion.

So, if you are looking for a project, find something simple around your house and keep “working the subject” by changing settings, lighting, backgrounds, etc until you achieve what you want. These images were captured over the course of three days. When I take on new projects, I like to review, reflect, and then reshoot several times. Regardless, have fun and I hope you enjoyed reading about my process.

dandelion in grass
iPhone photo.

High Key Effect

Some days, I just need to play in Photoshop. After spending a couple of hours at Lake Mary with my son and his new dog, Ryder, I had many fun images, but, the lighting was harsh. We went in the middle of the day and to compensate for the harsh light, I used center weighted metering to expose for the shadows. The images were okay, but I decided it would be challenging and different to create a high key image.

After making basic adjustments in Lightroom, I pulled the image into Photoshop. Here I opened the Silver Efex Pro plugin and chose the high key preset. That gave me the basic look but I felt it needed a few finishing touches. So, I added a dodge/burn layer to lighten and darken areas at whim. If you haven’t created a dodge/burn layer, it is very easy.

Hold down the Alt/Opt key while adding a new layer in Photoshop. change the blend mode to Overlay and then check the box to fill the layer with gray. Now, use a white brush to dodge and a black brush to burn in details. You will want to drop the opacity of your brush to 10-15% so that your dodging/burning is subtle.

That’s all it takes to dodge and burn in Photoshop. Next time you are working on images, take a few minutes to try something different – maybe you will like it?

Twirling

Several photographers I follow post “twirling” images. It is a different look, but since I love abstract photography it was worth an afternoon of watching YouTube videos and playing in Photoshop. I won’t say I am a pro at this effect, but I will say it was fun. Below you will see several images, before and after applying the twirl effect. If you are interested in this, I recommend following the tutorial I followed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pwsjgqI4eaY&list=LLUutBD_IesM1vaEiZiWQmgw&index=8&t=0s

Photographing Water in Oak Creek

Oak Creek at Slide Rock State Park, water
Oak Creek at Slide Rock State Park

Spring Break started with the announcement of a pandemic and the cancellation of, well, everything. What was a week of photography, workshops, and relaxation became stressful, instantly. My husband saw my stress and suggested a road trip through Oak Creek Canyon to Slide Rock State Park. Water in nature always calms me and the brisk March afternoon meant we had the place to ourselves.

waterfall at Slide Rock State Park
Olympus OMD1 MIII, 57mm, 2 sec, F/18, ISO 200, Bryan Hansel Waterfall Polarizer.

We hiked down to the creek noticing a waterfall we didn’t remember on our last visit in October. Since it was a cloudy afternoon, I used the Singh-Ray Bryan Hansel Waterfall Polarizer to blur the water. Next, we found moss under the bridge too. The contrasting textures from the exposed tree root and bright green moss drew me in. Therefore, it was time for the macro lens. After several different compositions, I used the 60 mm macro lens for a close-up image instead of capturing a 1:1 macro image.

Green moss and tree root
Olympus OMD1 MII, 60mm, .6 sec, F/10, ISO 200

Next, we walked down the west side of the creek and I noticed the ripples in the water. When photographing patterns like these, it takes me a few attempts to find the right shutter speed. Let me take you through my process. In the images below, number one is with a shutter speed of 1/30 sec., just slow enough to look blurry. Image number two used a shutter speed of 1/3 sec. creating an abstract image about the ripples. That was what I wanted: the right shutter speed to tell my story. Lastly, I adjusted the composition. Image number three used a shutter speed of .4 sec. and the blurred water ripples lead the eye through the frame.

Our short trip to Slide Rock State Park was a success. I walked away with a two photos I loved and two more that I really enjoy. That’s a successful shoot to me and to think the day started out stressful.

Backgrounds

A clean background can make or break an image. While walking near a waterfall outside of Ouray, CO, I spotted a Richardson’s Geranium with buds just beginning to open. So, I set up my tripod and grabbed my macro lens. After capturing the image on the left with the natural green background, I placed my diffuser behind the bud to block the wind. Then I noticed I could capture an image with a white background as well. Both backgrounds are clean and simple, but express the buds differently.

The image on the left has noticeable backlight on the buds but the image on the right highlights the red balls on the hair of the stem. Which do you prefer? The Olympus OM-D EM-1 Mark II, 60mm macro lens and settings: Left image: f/4.5, 1/180 sec, ISO 1600. Right image: f/4.5, 1/60 sec, ISO 1600 (notice the faster shutter speed due to the white background.)

Florida Highlights – Gulf Coast

Englewood, Florida
Florida’s Gulf Coast, iPhone photo.

My first time in Florida was 35 years ago and that trip was centered around visiting family and going to the newly opened Epcot Center. This year, I returned to the area with my husband and the trip was full of beaches, wildlife and seafood. Our 10-day trip was relaxing and I thought I would share some of the highlights here.

Matlacha

Kayaking near mangrove trees
iPhone photo of Rod kayaking along the mangrove trees.

When we planned our trip, our goals were to see Sanibel Island and the Everglades. We didn’t want too much planned and chose to make up the itinerary as we went. As a result, we booked flights into Fort Myers and found a small Airbnb in Matlacha with kayaks. Matlacha is a small island between Cape Coral and Big Pine Island and an inexpensive alternative to Sanibel Island. During our first day, we recovered from jet lag by taking out the kayaks. It was as easy as walking out the back door. With the protection of Big Pine Island, paddling was a cinch and we investigated the mangrove trees up close. In addition, dinner was a short walk from the house where we ate fresh gulf shrimp on the waterfront and enjoyed local brews.

Sanibel Island

Shells on Sanibel Island, Florida.
Shells on Sanibel Island

Our interest in Sanibel Island came from Rod’s research before our trip. He read about great shelling on the island and his research was right. We spent hours at several beaches on Sanibel Island in search of the best seashells and I grabbed a few photos of waterfowl too. We spent another morning at the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge capturing photos of egrets, osprey, herons, pelicans, ibis, and cardinals. I spent so much time photographing birds, Rod got a little bored and took a nap in the car.

Englewood

Rod and I at the Cowboy Chord Club ready to jam on our Ukes.

We visited Englewood, FL to participate in the Cowboy Chord Club, an acoustic jam group. I’m sure it seems kinda funny that we went on a vacation with our ukuleles and crashed a Meetup group, but we had fun! The group took song suggestions so Rod and I were able to rqeuest a few of our favorites to play. Afterward, we talked to the locals and were encouraged to check out their beach; so, we did. We found a waterfront restaurant with fresh fish and live music before we headed to the sun filled beach. As a result of low tide, many shells were visible and we shelled for a few hours before driving back to Matlacha. On our drive back, we found an alligator in a pond in front of a church. We made a quick U-turn to capture photos.

Marco Island and 10,000 Islands Boat Tour

Great Egrets captured from a moving boat in Florida.
Great Egrets captured from a moving boat. Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 300mm, F/5, 1/5000 sec, ISO 400.

The tour on Marco Island named “10,000 Islands Boat Tour” was the only thing we scheduled before our trip besides the Airbnb, flight, and rental car. As It turns out, we were the only passengers on the boat, so I guess we didn’t need to schedule it so early. The tour was okay, we opted for a longer tour and later realized we didn’t get all that we were promised, however, we did see a lot of wildlife and get to visit one of the 10,000 islands that receives very few visitors. For example, we saw egrets, dolphin, osprey, heron, pelicans, a tern and spent more time shelling (our favorite past time). Capturing the birds from a moving boat was a new challenge and much harder the photographing birds in flight. (See “For the Photogs” below for details on photographing birds.)

Cape Coral

burrowing owl image captured with a tripod in Florida
Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 300mm with 1.4x teleconverter, F/5.6, 1/800 sec, ISO 250, FotoPro x-go plus tripod.

Before leaving Matlacha for the Everglades, we were told about burrowing owls in the Cape Coral area and went out to find them. It turns out we had driven past them for days! Since they are protected, stakes are places around their perch to protect the area. The more we drove, the more we saw them in empty fields, front yards, along busy roads…everywhere. I photographed them in many of these areas but preferred the empty fields. The front yards with groomed grass didn’t give the photo a natural feel. Read about how I used my tripod capturing these images, in my blog titled: Benefit of Using a Tripod. Stay tuned for the next post – Florida: Gators and Vultures.

For the Photogs:

To photograph flying birds, a minimum of 1/2000 shutter speed is used to stop the movement of the bird wings. However, when photographing stationary birds, the shutter speed can be slower. In addition, when I was on the boat, I shot at 1/5000 sec. shutter speed and the captain slowed down the boat too. It was still a tough shooting situation. Even though the captain slowed down the boat, the waves were unpredictable and always hit the boat when I was ready to press the shutter. For maximum success, used continuous focus, continuous shooting mode (burst), and image stabilization when photographing birds. As you would expect, it takes lots of practice and timing to capture strong images of wildlife. Good luck!

Reddish Egret in Florida
Reddish Egret. Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 300mm, F/4, 1/1250 sec, ISO 200, FotoPro X-Go Plus tripod.

The Benefit of Using a Tripod

Barred owl captured with a tripod
Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 300mm, F/5.6, 1/80 sec, ISO 1600, tripod

Do you dislike using a tripod? After teaching photo workshops for several years, I recognize it is not a popular piece of gear for new photographers. Tripods can be clunky, unstable, awkward, and temperamental. The “unstable” can be solved by purchasing a quality tripod from the start. Many photographers start with an inexpensive tripod and then realize why it was inexpensive…it doesn’t support their camera or is not built well. Save yourself some time and money and buy a good tripod from the start. The clunky, awkward, and temperamental can be overcome by using it.

I often hear participants state they only need a tripod when photographing landscapes, low light, or macro subjects, well, that is not true. A tripod in any shooting situation will improve the quality of your photos. Here is an example when I used a tripod in full sun to improve my photos.

Ibis image taken with a tripod
Ibis with a crab. Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 300mm, F/6.3, 1/4000 sec, ISO 400.

While in Florida on vacation, I photographed birds, from egrets to owls and they entertained me for hours. But holding a long lens for hours was not a solution for sharp photos, so I used my tripod. I started with my Olympus 40-150mm lens (80-300mm FF equivalent) and handheld many images, but since I use live view at 3-5x to verify sharp focus on the eyes of my subject, holding the camera still at this magnification was impossible. Even more so when I switched to my Olympus 300mm lens (600mm FF equivalent). As a result, I grabbed my tripod. Not only were my images sharper, but at the end of the day, my arm wasn’t sore from carrying the weight of the long lens.

Burrowing Owls

Photo of burrowing owl, by Amy Horn taken with a tripod
Burrowing Owl. Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 300mm with 1.4x teleconverter, F/5.6, 1/1250 sec, ISO 250.

One afternoon in Cape Coral, Florida, I spent hours photographing burrowing owls. These small owls are only 7-10 inches tall and like all wildlife, a photographer should keep a good distance to not disturb them. Therefore, I chose to use my Olympus 300mm lens and 1.4x teleconverter giving me a focal length of 820mm (full frame equivalency). With such long focal lengths, a tripod was a must. We drove to several neighborhoods in Cape Coral to photograph these owls with different backgrounds.

I recently purchased a Fotopro X-Go Plus carbon fiber tripod for airplane travel since it is smaller, lighter and fits in my suitcase. If you purchase a tripod for travel, be sure to check the weight of your gear with your heaviest lens and make sure that is below the max load of the tripod you are considering. With my lightweight Olympus system, my max load is less than most DSLR’s.

Using a tripod to capture images of owls
iPhone image of cpaturing burrowing owls
Buttonbush by Amy Horn

Buttonbush

When we saw the “Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary” on our Google search, we knew it was a must visit location. The name is almost as good as the Great Dismal Swamp (we’ve been there too!) It is located in Southwestern Florida and is known for alligators, waterfowl and other swampy visitors. We arrived shortly after they opened to capture wildlife in soft light. What we didn’t expect to see was a buttonbush shrub (Cephalanthus occidentalis). Resembling a Dr. Seuss tree, this unique bush caught our attention quickly. I used my 300mm lens (it was attached) and focused on the button closest to me. Although I had my macro lens, I really like how the buttons fill the frame from using the 300mm lens. Buttonbush plants are found from Mexico to the Artic and mostly in wetland areas.

The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary didn’t disappoint. In addition to the buttonbush, we saw a red-shouldered hawk, barred owl, woodpeckers, and a green anole. Next time you are in Southwestern Florida stop in to the swamp!