Where the Wildlife is Big and Close

There’s a saying in photography that “it’s not about the camera.” A good way to make a photographer wince is to admire one of their images and then ask, “What kind of camera did you use?” The joke is that it’s like asking a chef after a fabulous meal, “What kind of pots and pans did you use?”

And yet, when it comes to wildlife photography, there’s some truth in the notion that you do need decent equipment. An iPhone or a point-and-shoot does a great job in lots of situations—travel photography, landscapes, people, and so on—but it’s probably not going to be enough to capture a quality image of, say, a bear 300 yards away. So those of us who are passionate about nature photography tend to spend a lot of money on gear: a high-end DSLR camera body (or two), big heavy lenses, a tripod, a sturdy gimbal head to support the tripod, padded cases to carry everything in, and so on.

A blue-and-gold macaw at Bird Kingdom.

But investing in expensive gear is not for everyone. And when I give a presentation about wildlife photography onboard Le Boreal next January as part of the Penn State Alumni Association’s Antarctic cruise, I want to be able to offer useful advice for people who want to take good wildlife photos with the camera they happen to have.

So I’ve been thinking about compiling a list of places you can go where the wildlife is relatively (1) big and (2) close. Because that’s where you’ll have the best chance at good images, regardless of what you’re shooting with.

I’d welcome your suggestions in this regard. Here’s what I’ve got so far: Read more

You Might be a Bird Nerd If …

Each morning as I’m waking up, I try to remember the dreams I had the night before. Sometimes they’re nonsensical; sometimes they’re frightening. Sometimes they’re profound and poignant. Sometimes I try to puzzle a dream out and realize it’s my brain’s way of reassuring me about something: “Relax; you’ve got this.” And sometimes they’re just not loaded with much meaning.

A dream I seem to have every so often in that last category is that I’ve spotted some really cool and unusual bird, often right in my backyard. There’s not much more to the dream than that—other than the part where I wake up and realize that it didn’t actually happen, and/or that the bird doesn’t even exist in nature.

Last night I dreamed I was with a bunch of other photographers standing on a porch at some ecolodge, looking for a saffron toucanet—a beautiful bird in the same family as toucans, and one that I hope to see when I’m in Brazil next summer. And, sure enough, one landed on the railing directly in front of me. It was less than a foot away from me, looming over me, bigger than saffron toucanets are in real life. It was way too close to photograph, and besides, the sun was behind it, so it would have been a lousy shot all around. I just stood there, frozen, staring at it in amazement, and not wanting to move for fear of scaring it off. Other people were getting good photos—and laughing at my predicament.

Eventually the toucanet moved, and by then there were a lot of interesting birds lining the railings. But of course there was no memory card in my camera (as is always the case in dreams!), so I had to root around and find one.

And that’s all I remember.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly profound about this dream. No moral to the story—sorry! Mostly it just goes to show how geeky I am about birds, that I would dream at night about seeing them.

The photo you see above is of a real saffron toucanet, and it was taken by my friend JoAnne Fillatti when she went on the same Glenn Bartley trip to Brazil that I’ll be doing next summer. I really hope I’ll see a saffron toucanet, and I hope I can get an image half as good as JoAnne’s. A lovely bird and a beautiful image, wouldn’t you agree? Click on it to see it larger.

Some Close-Ups from Yesterday’s Bird Banding

I think the reason I enjoy attending a bird-banding session—and I bet this is true for any visitor who stops by—is that it’s a rare chance to see birds very close-up. They’re not a distant speck in your binoculars or your camera lens. They’re also not hopping or flying around from branch to branch, flitting in and out of view. They’re right in front of you, holding more or less still, in the gentle grip of some volunteer who’s weighing and measuring them and examining them. You get to see tiny details on their face and beak and wings.

For a photographer, that close proximity also offers a chance to get some half-decent pictures of the birds. In fact, bird-banding volunteers usually know how to hold a bird in what’s called the “photographer’s grip,” which allows you to actually see and photograph more of the bird’s body than the “banding grip.”

About a half-dozen volunteers—mostly Penn State undergraduates—worked at yesterday’s banding session at the Arboretum at Penn State. They set up “mist nets” at various locations near the Overlook Pavilion and in the fields behind it, and over the course of the morning they snared 11 gray catbirds, two northern cardinals, two downy woodpeckers, two tufted titmice, two goldfinches, a house finch, and—the best bird of the morning—a Swainson’s thrush. Each bird got fitted with a metal band for tracking its migration, and the volunteers took measurements and assessed the bird’s age and sex. The data get combined with information from other bird-banders nationwide, as a way of understanding the overall health of the species’ population.

The volunteers, and bander-in-charge Nick Kerlin, are really accommodating of visitors—if a family with kids strolls by and shows interest, Nick will typically ask the kid if he’d like to release the bird. Kids are usually pretty excited to do that. Similarly, Nick and the volunteers are always nice about letting me take a few photos of the bird before they release it.

The cardinal at the top of the page was one of yesterday’s captures, as was the tufted titmouse above. (Titmice are feisty little birds that do not like to hold still for photos.) Below is Read more

Bird Portraits

If you want to get some extreme close-up portraits of wild birds, one place to go is to a local bird-banding session. I’ve written about bird banding over on The Penn Stater magazine’s blog (here and here, among other posts); it involves stringing up fine-mesh “mist nets” to capture wild birds, then extricating them, taking some measurements, and fitting them with a tiny metal leg band so that scientists can follow their migration patterns.

Locally, the banding takes place in the spring and the fall—during bird-migration season—at the Arboretum at Penn State, under the direction of Nick Kerlin, who’s licensed by the state and federal governments to do this. It’s a great opportunity for Penn State wildlife and fisheries science majors to get experience in the process—and for a photographer, it’s a great opportunity to shoot portraits of the birds before they’re released again.

There’s a bird-banding session tomorrow morning at the Arboretum, and the weather looks good, so I’ve cancelled my Saturday-morning gym appointment (shhhhhhhh) and I plan to head over. You never know what birds might show up—earlier this season, they got a cuckoo (yellow-billed, I think, though both yellow-billed and black-billed are found in Pennsylvania in the summer). More commonly, it’s catbirds, chickadees, cardinals, titmice, and other fairly common birds. That’s a tufted titmouse I photographed last year at the top of the page, and the image below is of a song sparrow from a few years back.

If I get any good images tomorrow, I’ll post them here this weekend.

Learning Portuguese—or Maybe Not

When I put down a deposit last month on the Brazil trip for next July, I told myself I was not going to try to learn Portuguese.

Given how much I love to travel, I’m constantly wishing my language skills were better. I learned some Spanish in high school, though it didn’t really take. I’ve worked on trying to get better in recent years, as my travels have taken me to countries like Mexico, Cuba, Peru, and Costa Rica. And, being quite fond of Italy, I recently spent several years taking Italian lessons, to the point where I could actually carry on a halting conversation with someone in Italy—as long as that someone had a lot of time and patience.

But learning a language as an adult is hard, and I don’t think there’s room in my brain for anything beyond a little Spanish and a little Italian. As for Portuguese, well, there’s Brazil next July, and I do hope to get to Portugal someday, but that doesn’t seem to justify the time it would take to learn an entire new language.

I would, however, like to just expose myself to a little Portuguese. To get to Brazil and be able to say “Hello” and “Thank you” and “I’m here to photograph birds” and “May I have a Diet Coke with ice?” Maybe also to recognize a few of the words I see on menus and road signs.

To that end, Read more

The Colors of St. John’s, Newfoundland

In yesterday’s post on the world’s most colorful cities, I mentioned St. John’s, Newfoundland. I visited there in 2004 and I’m sure I took photos of the colorful houses in the “Jellybean Row” neighborhood, but I’ll spare you having to look at those images. For one, this was back in the days of film, so whatever pictures I took on that trip are stuffed in a box in my upstairs closet somewhere. But I also don’t remember my photos from St. John’s as being particularly good. Certainly not as good as the ones my friend Dale Keiger took.

Dale is a pal of mine from the alumni magazine world; he’s editor of the very fine Johns Hopkins Magazine and someone I’ve known since my first year at The Penn Stater back in 1996. And he’s an excellent photographer. I remember him visiting St. John’s a few years back and posting some great images, so the other day I asked if he’d share a few with me. He sent me the five photos I’ve posted below—just click on the first one to see it bigger, then hit “next image” to see the rest.

Dale has a blog of his own; you can visit it here.

(Header photo: John Jedore)


The World’s Most Colorful Cities

Procida, an island in Italy’s Bay of Naples. Photo by Shamballah via Flickr.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been attracted to bold colors. I wonder if it’s because our family used Fiestaware as our dinnerware—plates, bowls, cups, and saucers in red, blue, yellow, green, and more. Today, I still have most of that Fiestaware, but it’s considered vintage and collectible, so I no longer use it; instead, my kitchen cupboard is packed with new Fiestaware, which comes in even more colors.

Whatever the reason, I love color. And I’ve always been delighted when my travels take me to a city—or a part of a city, or even just a street—that bursts with it. The La Boca neighborhood in Buenos Aires, where I visited as host of a Penn State Alumni Association tour to Antarctica in 2002, was probably the first such place for me—and I’m really looking forward to seeing it again when I host another Alumni Association trip to the Antarctic next January.

St. John’s, Newfoundland, was next; I was there in 2004 as the first stop on a NatHab trip that mostly focused on puffins and whales and icebergs. There, I came upon a neighborhood full of brightly painted houses, an area that I later learned is known as Jellybean Row. More recently, I went on a photography trip in 2012 to Mexico, where we spent time in the beautiful city of Guanajuato, shooting sweeping vistas of color from above the city and strolling around the neighborhoods to photograph boldly colored houses.

Burano, Italy. Photo by Tina Hay.

A year or so after that, I read an article about a beautiful place in Italy called Burano, where every house is a different color. I knew I’d be hosting a Penn State trip in Italy the following spring, but had no idea whether Burano was anywhere near where we’d be. A quick Google search told me that Burano is an island that’s part of Venice—exactly where I was planning to go on my own after the main trip was over. I figured out in advance how to get to it: You take the No. 12 vaporetto (water bus) from the Fondamente Nove stop in Venice across the lagoon, about a 45-minute ride. When I got off at Burano, I immediately felt as though I had stepped into some technicolor wonderland. I wandered all over the town, taking in the multicolored scene, and thinking, How can you help but be happy in a place like this?

There are plenty more such cities worldwide: Portofino, Italy; Copenhagen; parts of Charleston, S.C.; many of the towns in Italy’s Cinque Terra; Bergen, Norway; the beachfront in Capitola, Calif.; and many more. Just the other day a Facebook friend of mine, Sandy Meyer, posted a photo of colorful houses in a town in Ireland called Kinsale. Maybe you know of, or have visited, some others?

Below is a slide show of some of the more richly colored locales that I know of; some of the photos are mine, and others I’m using with permission. Enjoy.

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Photo credits: 

Procida, Italy: Shamballah

Rainbow Row, Charleston: Allison Richards

Capitola, Calif.: Ali Eminov and Ted Silveira

Copenhagen: John Anes

La Boca: Sandeepa and Chetan


While I’m pretty pumped about hosting the Alumni Association’s trip to Antarctica next January, I’m also in the beginning stages of salivating over a vacation I’m planning for next July: to Brazil. I’m signed up for a photography trip to the Pantanal region with Glenn Bartley Nature Photography.

The Pantanal is a ginormous wetland area—like Florida’s Everglades, but 10 times bigger. And it’s teeming with wildlife, including caiman (similar to crocodiles), anteaters, monkeys, and giant river otters. You’re also almost guaranteed to see capybara—the world’s largest, and perhaps cutest, rodent:

Capybara. Photo by Dagget2.

The Pantanal is also one of the few places left where you can see jaguars—and, for many visitors, that’s the main draw.

Jaguar. Photo by Dagget2.

But what interests me most are the birds: hyacinth macaws, spot-billed toucanets, jabiru storks, several kinds of kingfishers, tanagers, and more. To spend the better part of two weeks photographing all of that is my idea of the perfect vacation.

To get an idea of the beauty of Brazil’s birds, Read more

Hire a Local Photographer to Show You Around

Street performances of tango are a common site in Buenos Aires.

As I continue to daydream about the Antarctic trip that’s four months away, I’ve been thinking about our first stop: Buenos Aires. We start the trip with a day or so in Argentina’s charismatic capital city before flying to Ushuaia, at the southern tip of the country, where we board our cruise ship for the Antarctic peninsula.

I loved Buenos Aires when I did this trip 15 years ago, so I’m going down there a day early in order to see more of it. And I’m thinking about signing up for a photo tour.

Just about every major city worldwide has photographers who’ve made a business of offering photo walks—you book them to take you around to some of the best places for doing photography. You might be part of a group tour, or it might be just you and the photographer, one on one.

Two years ago, for example, Read more

Keep Those Buildings Upright

The first stop on our Antarctica trip next January, as it was back in 2002, will be Buenos Aires—a city that I loved and can’t wait to see it again.

In looking at my Buenos Aires photos from 15 years ago, one thing I noticed was that I hadn’t yet learned how to avoid “keystoning” when taking photos of buildings. Keystoning is what happens when you try to shoot a tall building and you have to tilt your camera up to get it all in. That tilt skews the building’s proportions and makes it seem as though the building is falling away. In this post I want to share with you what I’ve learned about how to avoid that problem. Read more