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

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.