Tips and Techniques for Improving Bird and Wildlife Photography

Taking your wildlife photography to the next level

Spring is on the horizon and although wildlife photography can be a year-round activity, I’m excited for the warmer weather, blooming flora, and lots of critters being up and active. We’re gathering our cameras, lenses, and other photo gear and itching to get outdoors.

Photographers at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yet, no matter the season, I am always excited to grab a long lens and explore nature and hopefully come away with some bird and wildlife photos. As I’ve said before, I’m not a professional photographer by any means. However, I certainly put myself in the enthusiast category and I’ve been photographing wildlife for many years.

Gilded flicker at Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife photography is more than just having a camera and pointing it at an animal. There are tips and techniques, both in terms of composition and gear that can help make wildlife photography easier and hopefully help you be more successful in capturing great photos of birds, critters, and other animals.

Elk at Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Below is a list of important tips and techniques for birding and wildlife photography that I’ve learned over the years and try to keep in mind whenever I’m out photographing birds and other animals. Keep in mind that this list of tips is by no means exhaustive but it does cover some important guidelines and suggestions for gear selection and shooting techniques as well as artistic and creative tips for improving your wildlife and bird photos.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Now, without further ado…

Photographers at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buy a telephoto lens

This first tip is, perhaps, a somewhat obvious one, especially if you’re already familiar with birding and wildlife photography but one key piece of photo gear for a good wildlife photography experience is a long, telephoto lens. There isn’t one particular focal length that works best for all situations; however, I’ve found that a solid starting point is a focal length of 400mm.

Wood storks at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Depending on your camera system, the options for a 400mm telephoto lens can vary quite a bit but be aware that supertelephoto lenses can often be expensive. You also have the option for a prime lens or a zoom.

Rocky mountain sheep in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In most cases a zoom lens is a great choice that gives you some versatility. A fantastic choice for a great wildlife-centric telephoto zoom is a 100-400mm-style zoom or a 150-600mm zoom. Several manufacturers make these types of lenses at both affordable and high-end price points. Some options may make optical comprises to some extent in order to make such a long-zoom lens reasonable lightweight and usable handheld so you’ll need to weigh what type of budget you’re comfortable with and what kind of image quality performance you’re looking for.

Inca doves at Edinburg Wetlands, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use a tripod or monopod

Since many full-frame format supertelephoto lenses are large and heavy, consider using a tripod or monopod or some form of support. Many of these lenses can hit in the 6, 7, or 8-pound range which can get very tiring to use handheld for any length of time. And birding and wildlife photography takes patience.

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

Mourning dove at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tired arms and general soreness means less steady hand-holding resulting in missed shots, blurriness, or missed focus, and just generally less enthusiasm to keep shooting. A good monopod or tripod can help get you sharper shots and keep you shooting for longer.

Roseate spoonbill in flight at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use fast shutter speeds

Be aware of your shutter speed, and in particular, use a faster shutter speed for sharper photos especially for birds in flight. The traditional rule of thumb has been using a shutter speed of “1 / the focal length” (in terms of a 35mm full-frame camera). For example, if you’re using a 400mm lens on a full-frame camera, a good starting point is 1/400ths of a second in order to avoid blurring from camera shake. However, that means the longer the lens, the faster the shutter speed needs to be. For birds-in-flight, however, a good starting point here is at least 1/1000s, but I’d recommend shooting with even faster speeds, such as 1/2000th of a second. But 1/1000th of a second at the minimum for birds in flight is a good starting point.

Yellow warbler at Benson-Rio Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pay attention to background elements

With a telephoto lens, you are able to bring faraway subjects closer and one of the best creative benefits to such a lens is the ability to isolate your subject and create smooth, blurry backgrounds. The ability to remove distractions is one of the great benefits to a telephoto lens. Be mindful of objects in the background. When photographing perched birds in trees pay attention to leaves, tree branches, and other objects that are positioned behind your subject.

Great horned owl at Estero Llano Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get creative with your shooting angles

When photographing birds, you’ll likely find yourself pointing upward into the trees. While this can work and make for some interesting images, you’ll often end up photographing the underside of the animal which might not be the most attractive pose or position or you may have to contend with your subject being heavily backlit with a bright sky. 

Green jay at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If possible, try to position yourself at a different elevation or more at the same level as your subject. As you might expect, this is easier when photographing ground-based animals as you can more easily get down to a lower position and more at their level. For birds up in trees, this can be a difficult task depending on your location and surroundings. Getting level with birds is more easily accomplished when photographing near bird feeders or if you’re fortunate to find yourself in a location with elevated walkways or trails that put you more up into the trees. For shorebirds, water birds, or other ground birds, again, the key is to go low and close to eye level.

Related Article: Bird Photography Basics: On Camera Equipment and Shooting Techniques

Plain chachalaca at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep the sun at your back

When possible, position yourself so that the sun is behind you and illuminating your subject. You don’t want to be photographing a bird or other animal with the sun behind it as it will likely be harshly backlit and underexposed. With the sun illuminating your subject you’re able to capture the beautiful colors and the sharp detail in fur or feathers of your subject.

Curved-billed thrasher at Whitewater Draw, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seek out good light

Consider the time of day when photographing birds in flight. Much like the golden hours rule for landscape photography, these are also ideal lighting conditions for photographing birds in flight. Light is softer, has a warming glow, and properly illuminates the bird. If the sun is too high in the sky, the underside of the bird will likely be in shadow.

Black-bellied whistling ducks at La Feria Nature Center, Texas

Research your shooting locations

Research your location before you go. You’ll be more comfortable and aware of your surroundings and you’ll have already scouted some good locations for wildlife and be prepped to set up shop and wait for photo opportunities.

Western scrub jay at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State and national parks, national wildlife refuges, and nature preserves are prime locations for birds and other wildlife and are conducive to photography. They often provide bird blinds and feeding stations which are ideal for observation and photography.

Birds sometimes land right where you want them © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be patient, be quiet and take your time

Last but definitely not least: be patient.

Related Article: The Basics of Bird Photography: Before, During, and After Photo Sessions

Birds and wildlife are unpredictable and they won’t often land or appear right where you want them. But that’s part of the fun of this type of photo subject, the unpredictability of it all. However, wildlife photography takes patience. Traipsing through the woods will alert most animals to your presence and so you’ll want to get into a good spot and then wait, quietly. Eventually, the birds and animals will likely start to ignore you or become okay with your presence, so long as you’re calm and quiet. 

Ground squirrel at San Pedro House, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the same lines as being patient, it’s also important to be diligent and observe your subject once you’ve spotted it. Don’t just snap a single frame and call it a day. Watch for interesting behavior or certain poses that can bring the subject to life and show some of its personality.

Worth Pondering…

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.

—George Eastman

Bird Photography Basics: On Camera Equipment and Shooting Techniques

In bird photography, the camera should have a fast frame rate to capture the fleeting moments of birds

Photographing birds often encourages us to spend more time with them, study the birds closer, and appreciate the importance of watching and waiting to see what might happen next—or what different birds might slip into view. Photographing birds make birding more enjoyable in the field—and as you review and edit photos after your close encounters of an avian kind.

Cerulean warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capturing great bird photographs has its own set of challenges. Many beginners wanting to try their hand in bird photography may have a perception that they need to buy an expensive camera and lenses to match. While it is true that the top-of-the-line cameras and premium lenses produce superior results in challenging conditions, still don’t expect it to be the end-all-be-all. And a lens alone can set you back over $10,000.

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For successfully photographing wild birds in the wild, you need a camera, a long focal length lens, and a good tripod. Once you are confident about handling your camera and lens, you may wish to use them free-hand. But in the beginning, a tripod can benefit your photography especially with the composition and low-light situations.

Related Article: The Basics of Bird Photography: Before, During, and After Photo Sessions

Inca dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you feel carrying a tripod around is too cumbersome, you can also try handheld photography. But you need to maintain optimal body stability and posture to minimize the associated camera shake. Another option is to carry a monopod which would give you excellent results.

Tufted titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Personally, I have not used a tripod for 99.9 percent of the pictures that I have taken. They are not perfect but are reasonably sharp and focused. This is because I have developed hand and body posture stability through years of experience and practice.

Pauraque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are a few things to remember about the camera requirements when aiming for bird photography. The camera should have a fast frame rate to capture the fleeting moments of birds. Anything upward of 8 frames per second is good.

Green-winged teal © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With few exceptions, most common birds move around quickly. Their pictures can be blurry by the subject movement if the shutter speed is not high. A 1/2000 of a second shutter speed is a safe starting point. A camera with good ISO performance can achieve that. So aim for the one giving low noise results at ISO 1600–3200 range.

Cooper’s hawk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When considering the sensor resolution in megapixels, most cameras now offer plenty. A high megapixel count is beneficial when you want to crop the picture in post-processing. Look for cameras with more than 15-megapixels. Be mindful that large megapixel cameras produce large image files. You will need a powerful computer to process those images. A camera with an inbuilt GPS is an option to consider. GPS enables the camera to tag the location where each photo is taken. It also sets the time automatically.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Great horned owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep in mind that a camera is only one of the ingredients of photography. To make your photo stand out, you need good soft light. Soft ambient light conditions are available when most birds are active, mornings and evenings. So be prepared to wake up early.

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The next ingredient in the recipe is a long focal lens. Wild birds can be very skittish and are hard to approach. A lens of at least 400mm focal length is a good start. That way you also have the flexibility to approach the birds from a reasonably good distance.

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usually, when we have smaller focal length lenses we tend to go overboard and approach the bird too close for their comfort. You don’t need to spend a fortune to buy a prime wide aperture lens. Most camera manufacturers offer budget options in the popular focus length ranges.

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shooting technique becomes paramount in the field. By carefully selecting the shooting angle, it’s possible to separate the bird from the cluttering background. You can try to move slowly to find the best possible background. I have observed that abrupt lateral movements alert the birds to take off immediately. Thus, a patient and calm approach is necessary to obtain the best results under the given conditions.

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

Yellow-crowned night heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A background blur can be created even with narrow aperture lenses. A word of caution here; you don’t want to stress a bird or an animal in the process of getting your best photo. If the bird or animal shows any sign of discomfort, back-off or leave the area.

Royal tern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even with a good camera and a lens, an incorrect exposure can ruin the picture.

Mirrorless technology is the latest in advanced cameras. You can also try these models as they are light to carry and offer great results and quality.

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take advantage of the photo surprises that unfold, and be prepared for the next rare, unusual, or profound bird you get to see—and document it with photographs.

Related Article: The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

Worth Pondering…

We don’t take pictures with our cameras. We take them with our hearts and we take them with our minds, and the camera is nothing more than a tool.

—Arnold Newman

A Photographer’s Focus on Wading Birds

The watery world of wading birds

Tall wading birds—herons, egrets, bitterns, ibis, spoonbills, storks, and cranes—are among the most popular birds for birders and photographers—and for everyone. They are large and fairly obvious attracting our attention wherever we encounter them. They have long necks, long legs, long bills, long wings, and in-flight wading birds are most impressive—singularly and in flocks.

Ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As photographers, we are always hopeful of photographing wading birds to show their majesty, to document them catching prey, and to show them in the throes of mating displays in advance of the nesting season.

Reddish egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As winter melts into spring along the shallows of wetlands adjacent to the warmer areas of the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts, bright colors are flushing bare skin on the face of many species of wading birds with deeper colors accenting their legs and bill while some species grow feather plumes on their head, throat, back, or breast, providing ever-more impressive birds to photograph. As spring progresses, the wading bird progression will anchor the migration north with camera-toting birders intercepting their flight paths and stopover sites.

Great white egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wading birds are large, they are impressive, and they provide a variety of photo opportunities. Wading birds are among the first birds we hope to photograph—great blue herons, tricolored herons, great egrets, sandhill cranes—and we eventually seek out wood storks, roseate spoonbills, and yellow-crowned night herons—then we try to photograph all the wading birds. So we make it a point to seek them out, visit locations where we hope to find them, and marvel as we photograph each one.

Related Article: The Basics of Bird Photography: Before, During, and After Photo Sessions

Sandhill cranes © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because many wading birds are among the largest birds we encounter, they are a good group to start with as beginning photographers, but ultimately, we never get enough photos of wading birds. There are always more opportunities in different settings under different lighting conditions with the birds engaged in an array of activities. Wading birds as a group are just plain exciting to behold and to photograph.

Yellowlegs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Locations: Wading birds are usually associated with water—the shorelines of shallow ponds and marshes, tidal flats, and lakeshores—these are the primary habitats to visit regularly to photograph wading birds.

Whimbrel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Timing: Pick the time of your visits for the best possible lighting—mornings before 11:00 and afternoons after 2:00 are best now. As the spring season progresses and we adjust to the daylight savings change of time, we will need to adjust the periods we devote to photography.

White-faced ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sunlight: The need for good sunlight originating from behind you is essential to capture the best colors on all wading birds and that’s especially true with birds that have any iridescent plumage. In addition to providing more vivid colors, sunlight provides more contrast between colors and shades of colors too.

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

Green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shadows: Since sunlight also produces shadows, be aware of shadows on one side of the bird. After taking an initial photo, you may want to move to avoid shadowing. I also like to refer to my own shadow when positioning myself, so try to position directly between the bird and the sun—that’s when my shadow is pointing directly at the bird.

Tri-colored heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Overcast Conditions: When overcast it’s best to re-schedule for a sunny period. The quality of any resulting photos will have muted colors, low contrast, and dull surroundings. Any photos you take will be subpar.

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Water Reflections: Blue sky sunlight produces blue-colored water which provides a great setting for wading birds. At the same time, wading birds are the prime interest and whether the watercolor is blue, green, brown, or gray is less important. Water has unlimited variations produced by calm or variations of windy conditions, water flows, or waves. While you are focusing on the bird be aware of the water and its movements for enhanced photo quality. At times, when the water is calm, you may be able to take photos with the bird reflected in the water in front of it.

Willet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vegetation: Be aware of the background and foreground. Plants in your setting can be a welcome addition to add some contrasting green, yellow, or tan coloration while showing the bit of habitat. In some cases, plants may not be welcome if they hide parts of the bird in a distracting manner. If necessary, reposition to get a better background after taking a couple of initial photos. Or you may be able to simply wait for the bird to move to a better location. As with any composition, take the photos you can and try to improve on them if possible.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Yellow-crowned night heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Positioning: When photographing wading birds, take some images from a low position—kneeling, squatting, sitting, or lying on the ground—to get closer to water level or ground level and thereby closer to the level of the bird.

Immature White-faced ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stabilizing: Stabilize yourself while holding your camera by bracing your elbows against your chest when standing or bracing one elbow against a knee while kneeling. Bracing your lens against a tree, pole, fence, or car window will help too. Hold your breath when pressing the shutter button to help stabilize your camera and lens.

Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Action: Take several initial photos, then wait to see what happens next—wait for the action. Perhaps the bird will try to catch a fish; perhaps it will take a few steps as it hunts providing another angle to photograph, or maybe it will decide to take a flight to reposition to a new hunting area. Spend ample time with each photo subject and you will often be rewarded with another, possibly better photo opportunity. Also try to anticipate the birds’ next moves, rather than react to their movements a step behind the action. Action photos are always the most interesting and most revealing.

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Flight Photos: Your best bet for getting multiple opportunities to photograph wading birds in flight will come when you can find a flight path the birds follow between feeding areas and nest sites. Then it’s a matter of spending some time in position and watching for birds you can focus on and follow through your lens, taking multiple photographs of each bird in flight if possible.

Wood storks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Approach: Avoid alarming a bird as you approach it, especially if it is feeding—the bird always comes first. Keeping your distance and allowing birds to behave naturally will provide the best photo opportunities. If you try to approach a bird, move slowly and don’t walk directly at the bird; instead, move at an angle to the bird that gets you ever-closer.

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cropping: When reviewing your photos some simple cropping can improve the quality of your final images. A simple crop to remove extraneous background area will enlarge the bird within the photo frame. It’s best not to center your subject in the frame. Instead, leave some space in front of the bird (consider the Rule of Thirds).

American Avocet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

March and April provide a great time to photograph wading birds as many species migrate north. The weeks ahead should provide a variety of species for you to photograph. Waders are most active during May and June as they begin nest-building at rookeries and the variety of wading birds should keep your attention through the summer months. There’s a great wading bird photo season ahead, so embrace this exceptional group of photo subjects as often as you can, and Good Luck!

Read Next: The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

Worth Pondering…

A wonderful bird is the pelican
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

—Dixon Lanier Merritt

The Basics of Bird Photography: Before, During, and After Photo Sessions

Take advantage of the photo surprises that unfold, and be prepared for the next rare, unusual, or profound bird you get to see—and document it with photographs

There are many elements that go into a given photo. The position of the bird or birds, the location of the sun in the sky; positioning yourself between the bird and sun; composing your photos with respect to the surrounding landscape, and the technical aspects of using your camera and lens.

Photographing birds on a sunny day usually result in a pleasing contrast between the sky and the bird, in this case, a colorful Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With time, many of these elements become second nature and there are also a number of things you can prepare in advance of encountering the next bird. There are a host of things to consider while photographing and a few more to keep in mind when you review and edit your images and pick out the best of the best.

Take a few initial photos, then wait for the action, like this Tri-colored heron hunting for food © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I like to think of the following information as a standard for bird photography, especially for beginners but I think anyone can gain a number of tips and ideas that will simplify some of the mechanics and thoughts that factor into a given photo opportunity. Some of these techniques I learned during my first years of photographing wildlife, others I learned from other photographers either in person or by reading their magazine articles or online.

Of course, it is really just an outline of good photo practices that I’ve learned over the years which can be adjusted to your interests and conditions. Well, here goes:

Focus on a bird’s eye whenever possible, in this case, a pair of Mourning doves © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning and preparation

Even before I begin photographing, I work within a simple framework of planning.

Use a fast shutter speed (1/1200) to stop the action with a focus on the bird’s eye, in this case, a Roseate spoonbill in a natural setting © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s important to watch the weather and try to plan your photography for when there is plenty of sunlight. I watch the weather reports to make sure I will have quality sunlight. Bird photography is always best when there is adequate sunshine from the optimum direction and angle.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Sunny mornings and early afternoons are best for photographing. However, during the winter months, when the sun is positioned farther south in the sky, you can often photograph with good sunlight angles throughout the day.

I preset my camera so I’m ready to take a photo at a moment’s notice which happens fairly often when photographing birds. Then, when I’m in a position to photograph and have an extra moment, I double-check the settings and adjust any if warranted.

Be aware of the background and any distracting elements as you position yourself for the photograph, in this case, a Guilded flicker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You should never use the automatic setting on a camera. Instead, it’s best to set the Mode Dial to the Aperture-preference (Av) setting. Then set your aperture (f-stop) and the camera will automatically provide the associated shutter speed as determined by the amount of available light.

During sunny days, I preset the ISO to 400 with an aperture of f7 or f8 and the resulting shutter speed will usually be between 1/1200 and 1/2000—fast enough to stop most motion.

It’s always exciting when everything works in your favor, but advanced preparation always improves your luck when photographing birds, in this case, a Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lighting

Keep the sun at your back so the sunlight illuminates your subject as directly as possible.

Your shadow is a good indicator of the direction of the sunlight; try to keep your shadow pointing at your subject as best you can.

Consider the possibilities of photographing birds during sunsets and sunrises, in this case, a flock of ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be aware of shadows on the bird you are photographing caused by the angle of the sun when you’re not in the optimum position. In the field, you often don’t notice a shadow but because shadows are more obvious in photos, it’s good to watch specifically for shadows and adjust your position to avoid them when possible.

Keep the sun at your back so the sunlight illuminates your subject as directly as possible, in this case, a House finch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird Photo Ethics

Try not to disturb birds, especially if they are feeding, nesting, or are caring for young—the birds’ well-being always comes first.

Related Article: Best Birding in Arizona: Tips on Where to Go, Species to See, and How to Identify

The color of a sunrise or sunset adds an interesting element when photographing birds, in this case, a group of Wood storks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t get too close; allow birds to behave naturally. If you see a bird become aware of your approach, stop and wait to see if it will relax after a few minutes. In fact, when you stop short of alarming birds, they may actually move closer in your direction on their own.

Photographing a bird in silhouette works in some situations, in this case, an anhinga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you try to approach a bird, keep a low profile, move slowly, and don’t walk directly at the bird; move at an angle to the bird that gets you ever closer, slowly zig-zagging if necessary while keeping the sun at your back as best you can. Don’t look at the bird for long; give it the impression you are interested in something else.

A fast shutter speed stopped this Willet in its tracts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anticipate the next move of the birds you are photographing and be prepared to photograph that action.

When you find a trusting bird, spend a little extra time with it. You may get another perspective on the species’ behavior and you may be able to photograph another of the bird’s activities.

Photographing birds in blue-sky water usually result in a pleasing contrast between the water and the bird, in this case, a green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the Moment

Focus on one eye of the bird to be sure your focal point is in the middle of the bird. If the eye is not in focus, your photograph will suffer.

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

If the bird is swimming, wading, or walking consider repositioning yourself lower to the level of the bird by kneeling or even lying down in some cases.

A fast shutter speed is required to stop the action, in this case, a black skimmer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stabilize your camera and lens as best you can to reduce body shake that could be transferred as you hold your camera. Lean your lens against a tree, window frame, or another stable option. When photographing in the open, you can brace your elbows against your chest as you handhold your camera and lens.

Some birders use a tripod to help stabilize their camera and lens, but for many of us, using a tripod is cumbersome at best, especially when photographing flying birds. For me, dealing with a tripod takes much the fun out of bird photography. But if you use a tripod, consider using a shutter release cable to optimize the stability the tripod provides.

Using a blind provided closer access to a location that attracts birds including this green jay and then wait for the action © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Field Settings

Keep aware of the background of your photo. Try to eliminate distracting twigs and grass from view which may be a simple matter of taking a step right or left in some cases to get a clearer background that is less distracting. However, in some cases, a twig with budding leaves or other vegetation can add a pleasing natural element to a bird photograph.

Getting a more uniform background can be accomplished with some success by reducing the area of focus (depth of field) to throw the background out of focus, in this case, a Cassin’s kingbird © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Getting a more uniform background can be accomplished with some success by reducing the area of focus (depth of field) to throw the background out of focus. The blurred effect helps to emphasize your subject and is accomplished by setting your aperture to a narrow f4 or f6. That aperture should keep your bird in focus while blurring the background (and foreground). Be aware that this technique works best if there is some space between the bird and the background elements.

Preset your camera so you’re ready to take a photo at a moment’s notice (this pair of Royal terns won’t keep this pose forever) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Using a narrow f4 or f6 aperture also provides a faster corresponding shutter speed which is helpful in stopping the motion of fast-moving songbirds and birds in flight while creating sharper images overall.

It’s fine to have plants or other natural elements show in the background and in some cases, you will want to embrace the background. Then, you may wish to increase the area in focus around the bird by dialing the aperture to f11 or f14 as long as you have plenty of shutter speed to work

Burst photos are perfect because they allow you to capture multiple shots as your subject moves, in this case, a Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Composition and design

Try not to center a bird in the middle of the photo; leave a little more space in front of the bird for it to look into, walk into, or fly into.

To better understand how to position a bird within your photo frame, consider the “rule of thirds” which artists often use when composing their works. Photographers also use this technique for photo framing and design, although it is just a guide to be aware of when composing photos.

Related Article: The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

Sometimes you can position a bird within the frame while initially taking a photo.

Stay with the bird and wait for an interesting pose, as in this case, a Ladder-backed woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Simple Editing

When using photo editing software, I edit a photo as little as possible; but simple cropping of an image can improve some photos immensely. Cropping extraneous areas of a photo can also increase the size of the bird in a photo frame—effectively zooming in on the bird.

Try to keep up with your photo reviews and editing, preferably after each photo session. Keep your photo files orderly and easy to access.

Your patience may be rewarded by the sighting of a rare bird sighting, in this case, a clay robin, also known as a clay thrust © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s easy to keep your photos on external hard drives, separate from your computer, although it’s always convenient to have a file of favorite photographs saved on your computer.

Keep two copies of all photos—preferably in different locations to ensure you never “lose” any of your valuable photos.

Worth Pondering…

We don’t take pictures with our cameras. We take them with our hearts and we take them with our minds, and the camera is nothing more than a tool.

—Arnold Newman

13 Tips on Capturing Photos on the Road

Here are a few tips to help take your photos to the next level when you’re on the road

With cameras on our phones, everyone is a decent photographer these days. It’s easy to grab a snapshot or a selfie at a moment’s notice. But sometimes it’s difficult to capture mementos of our travels—nature shots seem ho-hum and boring. So here are 12 tips to help take your photos to the next level.

Note the even light without the harsh mid-day light © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Look for even light

When you take a photo, you are really just capturing light, so you need to be able to pay attention to all your light sources and understand how they will interact with the mechanics of your camera. 

Avoid the harsh mid-day light by shooting during the Golden Hour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beautiful, sunny days look gorgeous but cameras can struggle with the harsh shadows cast by the midday sun. If you’re shooting portraits, place your subject in the shade to get the same exposure on their face and body. You can always bump up the brightness using a photo editing app to get it exactly how you want it to look as long as the light is even.

Spanish moss in the Lowcountry © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re shooting a landscape photo, try angling your body so that the sun is at your back, shining on whatever you’re shooting. Unless you’re into artsy stuff, in which case, I love the look of bright, dappled sunlight coming through tree branches with just a hint of a lens flare. This technique works especially well for Spanish moss, the silver garland that hangs from live oak trees in the Southeast especially in the Low Country where it is just about everywhere you turn.

Along the La Sal Mountain Loop Road near Moab, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Understand the exposure triangle

Here is a brief summary of the three parts of your camera’s exposure.
ISO: This sets how “sensitive to light” your camera becomes. A higher ISO number means the camera will be more sensitive so you can use a faster shutter speed or smaller aperture, but will also be progressively more grainy with higher and higher numbers.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Sky Mountain Golf Course at Hurricane, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shutter Speed: This sets how long your shutter will stay open, letting light hit your sensor. Slower shutter speeds will produce motion blur if anything in your image is moving but they let in much more light allowing for a lower ISO or tighter aperture. Faster shutter speeds can “stop time” and make even quickly moving objects appear to be frozen but they let in much less light, so you’ll need to compensate with a larger aperture or a higher ISO.

Near Woodland, Washington© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aperture: The “aperture” of your lens is much like the iris of your eye—it can be opened very large to let in a lot of light or it can be opened only a tiny bit to let in only a very little amount of light. As I discussed above, a wide aperture will produce a very shallow depth of field while a smaller aperture will produce a much deeper field of focus.

Skaha Lake in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It should be obvious that ISO, shutter speed, and aperture all affect each other. If you open your aperture, you’ll need to speed up your shutter or use a lower ISO. If you change your ISO, you’ll need to adjust either your shutter or aperture (or possibly both) to compensate to get the right exposure. Once you have mastered the exposure triangle, you can leverage the parts of the triangle to more accurately capture what you see.

Sunset near Casa Grande, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Time your best shots for the golden hour

An hour or so after dawn and an hour or two before sunset is what photographers call “golden hour.” It refers to the special golden quality the light takes on during those periods when the sun is low in the sky and its rays are slanting through the atmosphere.

Related Article: 10 Essential Photography Tips Every Photographer Needs to Remember

After shooting the sunset in the above photo, I turned around… © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Golden hour makes any subject look a little more magical whether you’re shooting a mountain at dawn or a late afternoon desertscape. If you’re looking to capture some really special keepsake photos, plan your best shots for golden hour and watch as Mother Nature gilds your subjects with light. And if you’re shooting a sunset, don’t forget to turn around as the scene before you might be even more amazing.

Get close to the subject © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Get close to your subject

One common photography pitfall is shooting a subject from too far away. But getting closer and filling the frame can make for more dynamic shots whether you move physically closer to your subject or zoom in a bit. You can still shoot “wide” or from further away but adding a handful of close-up shots will imbue your photo story with rich context and detail it may otherwise be missing.

Getting closer to focus on the details © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Focus on the small things

To build off that, sometimes it’s not possible to get closer to the subject of our photos. In which case, why not rethink the subject? Instead of shooting a photo of the sunset, try focusing on something nearby instead. A stand of saguaro or a row of palm trees, a bee on a flower, or a sandcastle casting a long shadow on an empty beach. You’ll still get the benefit of that beautiful sunset light but a shot of a smaller detail is more likely to bring back the feeling of that place and time as opposed to a generic photo from further away. Sometimes specificity just makes our memories stronger.

Shooting the above Altimira oriole involved shifting my position to avoid unwanted background objects © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Check the backgrounds

We’ve all seen funny pictures online of people who were unwittingly photo-bombed by their surroundings. Animals popping up unexpectedly or a background object captured at just the right moment to make it look like it is part of something else. When you’re intently focused on capturing your subject, it can be easy to overlook unwanted elements in other parts of your photo. Like a shirtless guy drinking beer just behind your smiling partner’s shoulder or a dog in the middle distance picking that exact moment to heed nature’s call.

Yellow warbler at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park in South Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So take a second to scan your photo composition and look for unwanted elements. Sometimes it pays to wait a few extra seconds for tourists to clear your shot, giving the illusion that your surroundings are more serene than they really are.

Related Article: Travel Photography Tips You Don’t Usually Hear

Approaching the Flat Iron Trail at Lost Dutchman State Park in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Selfie safety

A hiker in Arizona recently slipped and fell 700 feet to his death after trying to take a selfie on the Flat Iron Trail in Lost Dutchman State Park. Time and again, the smallest misstep, distraction, or lapse in judgment has resulted in severe injury or death. To help raise awareness, the National Park Service published a guide to safe photos. “Be aware of your surroundings whether near wildlife, thermal areas, roads, or steep cliffs,” the website says.

Focus on where you walk especially when surrounded by beauty; Cathedral Rock hiking trail at Sedona, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stay focused on your surroundings, not your shot. Tripping, slipping, and falling whether into water or from great heights have all led to selfie deaths. One moment of inattention or distraction could mean the difference between life and death.

Keep your eyes focused on where you’re going and where your feet are more so than what’s in the viewfinder of the camera especially if you’re trying to take a selfie. Make sure your feet are planted firmly before you line up the shot and then don’t move once you do that.

Joshua Tree National Park in California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Consider a selfie stick already

Sure, they’re kind of silly and we all had a good time making fun of selfie sticks when we first heard about them, but the thing is, they can be useful. For one thing, you can take more than selfies with them. They’re perfect for capturing group shots without leaving anyone out. No need to set the timer and dash to get in your own family photos. It’s like having an extra-long arm to help you angle your camera perfectly, so you don’t have to cross your fingers and hope a stranger has good photography skills and the patience to get your shot just right. And if you happen to be in an area where there’s no one around to take your photo, well, then nobody will judge you for using a selfie stick, will they? It’s goofy, it works, I don’t have one but you can embrace it. I won’t laugh!

Using a tripod for bird photography at Whitewater Preserve in Southeastern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Look for a flat surface

In case this isn’t obvious, tripods are perfect for setting up things like long-exposure photos, videos, and group shots. Monopods also provide support for cameras and help photographers steady their shots and are less cumbersome to tote than tripods. But if you’re a casual photographer, you might not want to lug a tripod (or monopod) around with you.

Using a tripod for bird photography at Bosque National Wildlife Reserve in New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep your eyes peeled for flat surfaces where you can prop up your camera to capture shots that require total stillness. For instance, you might set the self-timer and then run into the frame to capture a cool portrait shot on a solo hike. Or maybe you want to do a time-lapse of fog moving across the water or the moon rising. Get creative with your surroundings to help get the shot you want.

Photographers at Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Northeastern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And if like most of us, you’re using your phone as a camera, there are some very cool, bendable mini-tripods you can get online to help position your shot.

10. Use a BlueTooth remote

Another easy hack is to buy an inexpensive BlueTooth remote control to trigger your shutter. Rather than using a self-timer, you just keep the small control in your hand and press the button to signal to your camera or phone to take a shot. It’s great for self-portraits or setting up your camera to capture skittish birds while you hide behind a tree. Or, shy, small, peaceful wildlife, like rabbits. Don’t do this with bears.

Using the burst mode when shooting the above green jay, I was able to sort the keepers from the dozens of photos taken © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Go ahead and burst

Burst mode is when a camera just automatically takes shot after shot of stills in a row. You can typically trigger this function by holding down the shutter button on your camera or phone. It’s great for capturing quick-moving action, like someone doing a cartwheel or a cheetah going for a run. But it is just as handy for getting selfies or group shots because you’ll capture twice as many photos as you typically do, allowing you to sift through the stills for the perfect moment.

This photo was a keeper while using the burst mode © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can also use burst mode to create really cool stop-motion effects, almost like a movie, since there are subtle changes from shot to shot. There are a million ways to experiment and play with burst mode, so let your imagination fly.

Being ready for the caracaras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Be ready—moments come and go quickly

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in a perfect position to capture a truly memorable image but had my camera in my bag, or turned off, or on the wrong settings. Some shot opportunities only last a second or two and if you don’t have your camera in your hand, turned on, and set to reasonable settings you may miss it. When I’m shooting, I’ll frequently double-check my camera settings. I’m constantly adjusting the exposure triangle (see above) to fit what I’m shooting so I can be ready when the opportunity arrives.

Lady Bird Johnson Park in Central Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Practice!

We’ve all heard that practice makes perfect but I prefer the adage that perfect practice makes perfect. Photography is an art form that requires a lot of mental thought be put into every shot. I’d recommend practicing each of the previous tips one at a time until they all become second nature and you can easily do them all at the same time. Then you’ll be armed with the tools you need to truly capture what you see.

Worth Pondering…

We don’t take pictures with our cameras. We take them with our hearts and we take them with our minds, and the camera is nothing more than a tool.

—Arnold Newman

Selecting Camera Mode: Manual, Aperture Priority & Shutter Priority

Use the mode that helps you capture the image you want

Are the settings on your camera really so hard to understand? Of course not, but it can seem that way at the start, especially if they are not explained to you in simple terms you can understand.

Great white egret at Corkscrew Sanctuary near Naples, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For some photography snobs, shooting in manual mode is a badge of honor, shunning any other mode as something akin to cheating. I do shoot in manual mode, but I use Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority as my preferred modes of choice.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Typically represented by a capital A (or sometimes Av, short for Aperture Value) on the camera mode dial, aperture priority allows the photographer to dial in this specific exposure setting—the ƒ-stop—and asks the camera to calculate the correct corresponding shutter speed in the instant before the shutter is released. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s back up just a moment for a better understanding of how aperture priority mode works.

Related: 10 Essential Photography Tips Every Photographer Needs to Remember

Amish Country, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A camera has three primary exposure modifiers: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. The aperture (also called ƒ-stop) is the size of the opening in the lens which modifies the amount of light that’s let into the camera.

The shutter speed modifies the duration that light is let into the camera.

Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And the ISO (or film speed, back in the old days) represents how sensitive to light the sensor will be. A higher ISO is more sensitive to light (and produces more noise) while a lower ISO is less light sensitive but produces a cleaner signal and better image quality. These days, though, sensor technology is so good that even high ISOs still look great.

Related: Photography: The Geometry of Nature

One of many frog murals in Rayne, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s by adjusting these three settings in combination that proper exposure is established. If you allow in less light with a smaller aperture, you’ll need to balance it with more light from a longer shutter speed. Add to one, take away from the other. Simple, right?

Roosevelt State Park, Mississippi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Well, sometimes it’s not so simple, particularly in situations in which the light is changing. This could be when I’m photographing in full sun then moments later in shade. These changing situations make automatic exposure modes more convenient than continuously recalculating the correct manual exposure.

Sandhill cranes in Bosque National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But rather than turning over all the control to the camera, modes such as Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority allow the photographer to retain manual control over one specific setting. In this case, it’s Aperture Priority, where the photographer sets the ƒ-stop and the camera calculates the correct shutter speed to accompany it.

Hoover Dam and Colorado River, Nevada/Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aperture Priority mode is particularly helpful in situations where the photographer wants to set a specific depth of field and have that setting take priority over the shutter speed.

Applegate River Valley, Oregon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aperture Priority is my mode of choice with landscape photography. To create a sharp image area through greater depth of field the photographer can dial in a tiny aperture such as ƒ/22, and in Aperture Priority the camera will determine which shutter speed will produce the correct exposure. Be warned, though, that in this case, a tripod may be necessary if low light requires a long shutter speed that’s too long to handhold.

Related: Travel Photography Tips You Don’t Usually Hear

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now that we understand the way Aperture Priority mode works, we’ll look at its counterpart on the automatic exposure spectrum: Shutter Priority exposure mode.

Often represented by an S or Sv on the camera mode dial, Shutter Priority mode sees the photographer dialing in a manual shutter speed and leaving the selection of the appropriate aperture to the camera’s brain.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As with any automatic exposure mode, Shutter Priority is particularly helpful in changing light situations, though it’s useful in any situation in which it’s the shutter speed you primarily want to control.

Ladybird Wildlife Center in Austin, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For instance, when I’m shooting birds I want at least 1/500th, I can set the shutter speed in Shutter Priority and let the camera pick the correct aperture to accompany it.

Related: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Moose Farms Maple Sugarworks, Vermont © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be aware though if your shutter speed is too fast for the available light you may end up with underexposed images. This can be corrected by dialing in a higher ISO.

Worth Pondering…

Great photography is about depth of feeling, not depth of field.

—Peter Adams

10 Essential Photography Tips Every Photographer Needs to Remember

From just-starting-out to novice to experienced, there’s something we can all learn to improve our photos

Photography is a beautiful journey, filled with adventure, and an occasional killer photo. Regardless of where you are on that journey—just starting or embarking on a professional career—these 20 quick little tips will help you and your images stay in focus.

Highland Hammock State Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. No matter how pro you get, it’s still a passion play

Don’t lose the spark that got you into photography. Your passion for creating beautiful images of things that interest you is the underlying motivating force behind every shot you take. When that spark goes out, it also leaves your images. So, treat your inspiration and creativity as the most vital skill you have. Honor it, cultivate it, and nurture it.

Usery Mountain Regional Park near Mesa, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Lighting is everything

You can always get to know light better. Whether it’s landscape photography or birds, lighting is the most important part of photography. Try different ways of capturing light.

Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Park, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Establish your own composition rules

Whether it’s an adherence to the rule of thirds, a love of circles, filling the frame, dramatic lines, or repeating patterns, your choices in how you frame a shot defines your photography.

St. Mary’s, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Shoot like a pro, think like a student

As good as your photos get, there’s always room to learn and improve. When you keep a student mentality, it keeps you curious and focused.

Twin Falls, Idaho © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Zen and the art of Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO

Here’s what you need to know about the big three: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Each is designed to give more light with a payoff. Understand what each element takes away as it increases light:

  • A larger aperture gives more light but takes away the length of your depth of field (blurrier backgrounds)
  • Slower shutter speeds give more light but make your images blurry with camera motion or subject movement
  • Higher ISO offer more light but adds noise to your image

When shooting in manual, know what the controls take away as well as what they give you.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Leading your viewer

As lines recede in space, they converge. We know it as perspective. Photographers use leading lines to engage the viewer by drawing their attention into and through an image and to create a dynamic feel. Experiment with the height of your camera, how you position it to look down a road or meandering stream, and where the lines all lead. Kneeling down can dramatically change the way a photo will feel. Likewise, looking down from a high point will alter the perspective. And don’t forget to turn around. A stellar shot may be behind you.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Move closer

As the legendary photographer, Robert Capa used to say, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” To get the composition you need, sometimes you need to get close—really close. Moving in close to foreground subjects adds incredible depth to a photo. In most cases, you’ll want to shoot at a small aperture to maximize the depth of field in the resulting image.

Parke County, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Always have your camera with you

Put your camera in an unassuming backpack or another option, and keep it near at hand—just in case. You can’t take a photo if you don’t have your camera handy.

Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. There won’t be a next time

I’m sure I’m not the only one who says “That’s a great scene, but I’m just too tired, or I’m in a hurry. I’ll return later when there’s improved quality of light or come back another day.” There’s rarely a next time—and if there is, conditions have changed.

Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Learn by adjusting

In the beginning, you go out and shoot, and some images look good and some don’t. Then you adjust and get a higher percentage of good images. As you move on from there, never stop those little adjustments. That one step closer to the subject, a slightly steadier hand, experimenting with leading lines—these little things will improve your photography one small adjustment at a time.

Want more on photography? Right this way!

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Once the amateur’s naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur.

—Alfred Eisenstaedt

Photographing Wading Birds

Wading birds are excellent photo subjects; they are large, have striking plumage, and often permit you to approach them, or they may even approach you

Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and Arizona are meccas for bird photographers. Not only are the birds numerous, but they are also surprisingly easy to approach.

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wading birds are interesting subjects for nature photographers. They have tall spindly legs like stilts that keep their bodies high above the waters in which they fish. They also have pointy beaks that they use like harpoons to impale their dinner prior to eating it.

They bear the names of herons, egrets, ibis, storks, bitterns, and spoonbills. They are attractive birds, big, dramatic as they search for food or take flight; they are stealthy hunters of small animals ranging from fish to crabs, frogs and salamanders, crayfish and tadpoles.

Roseate spoonbills and white ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watching a heron stalk its dinner is an amazing sight. Their searches and hunts provide epic photos for beginners and pros and every nature photographer in between.

In general, wading birds are patient while hunting and may stand motionless for long periods of time waiting for prey to come within reach. When moving, their steps may be slow and deliberate to not scare prey, often appearing frozen in time.

Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wading birds provide photographers with a variety of colors and body styles with a common interest in shallow water and the foods the shallows provide. They have long legs and long toes, with an elongated neck and bill. You can usually find at least one wading bird in action any time you visit a wetland area, ranging from coastal shores and marshes, to rivers and creeks, lakes, and shallow wetlands.

Wood stork © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The size of their spread wings, while gliding, flapping, or landing offer dramatic photo opportunities that test your ability to follow the bird’s wing actions. If you take a continuous series of photos as a wading bird passes, or as it takes off, or lands, you can pick the best of the best or series of three or more images that show the action in stages.

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to the birds themselves, wading bird photos often include water—water colored varied shades of blue, gray, green, or sunset hues. Calm water permits you to compose photos with a reflected image which can create exceptional photographs. Plants, especially water plants, are common elements in wading bird photography too, and you can compose your photos to include the bird as a part of the greenery, or as the subject next to, among, or surrounded by plants.

Green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like any bird, if you are close enough, you can compose a portrait of a wading bird, which can be especially dramatic when the bird has plumes or colorful facial skin during the nesting season. Some wading birds also feature colorful, if not unusual, eyes that can dominate a portrait.

Redish egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Techniques to keep in mind in the heat of wading bird photography include a fast shutter speed for stop-action photos. Because wading birds tend to be tall rather than long, consider turning your camera 90 degrees to utilize a vertical frame while still keeping some space in front of the bird so it has a space to look into comfortably, or wade into, or run into or fly toward. As always, be ready for action, try to predict a dramatic movement, and enjoy the process when you have an active subject like a hunting Snowy Egret or a “dancing” Reddish Egret.

Tri-colored heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Everyone enjoys seeing wading birds, and attempting to photograph storks, herons, egrets, ibis, spoonbills, and others can be a great way to improve your bird photography and add new drama to your library of nature photography.

White ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

We don’t take pictures with our cameras. We take them with our hearts and we take them with our minds, and the camera is nothing more than a tool.

—Arnold Newman

Selfies Don’t Kill People

Height, water, trains, and animals lead the list of factors involved in selfie deaths

259 deaths worldwide have been attributed to the selfie between 2011 and 2017.

While that statistic may sound alarming, there are well over 1.4 million accidental deaths per year worldwide. Risk taking is not a new phenomenon nor is doing it in an attempt to become famous. That we are all talking about selfie deaths is likely just the result of the media’s obsession with reporting about them. 

Canyonlands National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No one has ever been killed by a selfie. A lot of people have been killed by stupid behavior. No beautiful destination has ever been ruined by an Instagram post. A lot of beautiful places have been ruined by irresponsible assholes. 

selfie

[sel-fee]
noun
An image that includes oneself (often with another person or as part of a group) and is taken by oneself using a digital camera or smart phone, especially for posting on social networks.

New River Gorge National River, West Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2016, Ponnurangam Kumaraguru, an associate professor with Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) Delhi in India, served as the principal investigator with researchers at IIIT and Carnegie Mellon University on a study called “Me, Myself and My Killfie: Characterizing and Preventing Selfie Deaths.”

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kumaraguru, a computer scientist who is interested in following societal problems and patterns and developing solutions through technology, said he read an article about someone who died while taking a selfie and was intrigued. He lives in India which leads the world in “killfies,” the word sometimes used to talk about deaths tied to selfies.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

He and his team collected newspaper articles on selfie-related fatalities to document and categorize the problem. Height, water, trains, and animals were the leading causes of death in the 127 cases the team studied. They also found that the victims were primarily young and male: The majority was 24 years old or younger and 75.5 percent were male.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2016, a man was taking a selfie by the Ganges River in India when he slipped and fell in. Six others tried to save him and all seven died after being swept away. “It is not about just me trying to take a selfie and making my life dangerous, but I’m actually putting others also at risk,” Kumaraguru says.

The so-called selfie deaths aren’t anything new. There’s hasn’t been an increase in the frequency of accidental deaths since the advent of Instagram—people have always managed to find stupid ways to die. Smart phones could stop working tomorrow and a teenage boy will still find a way to put his life at risk in order to impress a girl even if he can’t snap a photo in the process. The biggest change would just be that the rest of us wouldn’t see a photo of the shenanigans and would never get the chance to get outraged about it. 

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When people get the opportunity to visit a really cool national park or see a neat wild animal, it is only natural that they want to document the experience and share it with their friends. Again, this is not a new phenomenon. Are Ansel Adams’s photos of Yosemite Valley really that different from an Instagram photo that tourists snap in the same spot?

Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Every time I see a news story about national parks and other public lands being “loved to death,” and blaming social media for a boom in visitation, I can’t help but see a missed opportunity. More visitors should equal more dollars for the places that we love; the only reason that it doesn’t is that the media and politicians would rather grandstand about other issues.  

Jungle Gardens, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Every time I see a news story blaming a selfie for a death, I also see a missed opportunity. If social media was powerful enough to draw a person to that place and inspire them to take a photo then surely it can also be powerful enough to reach that person with a powerful message about responsible recreation. 

Are you practicing safe selfies? It might be time to examine your photo-clicking habits and put caution first. Consider these suggestions for practicing safe selfies:

Snake River at Twin Falls, Idaho © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stay focused on your surroundings, not your shot. Tripping, slipping, and falling have all led to selfie deaths. A single distraction or moment of inattention could mean the difference between life and death. Keep your eyes focused on where you’re going and where your feet are when taking a selfie. Make sure your feet are planted firmly before you line up the shot, and then don’t move once you do that.

Worth Pondering…

As Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

RV Travel Photography Tips & Tricks

A better way to capture stunning images on your next RV road trip

Comedian Steven Wright once said, “Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time.” Substitute the word “driving” for “walking” and you’ll see why RV road trips are a great way to see, experience, enjoy—and of course—photograph Roadside America.

World’s Largest Roadrunner near La Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Road trips offer photographers the advantages of being self-contained and allowing them to travel on their own schedules. Simply put, road trips offer freedom—freedom to come and go as you please and the freedom to shoot what you like, when you like, and for as long as you like.

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Think for a moment about the jaw-dropping photos you’ve seen in magazines and online? The diversity in landscape and ecology that America offers is so magnificent and varied.

Audubon Swamp Garden near Charleston, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And how fortunate are we as RVers to have opportunities to travel and access these stunning locations and photograph them using an amazing variety of digital devices? An RV trip gives us the chance to explore all that nature has to offer. Travel up mountains, through forests, and across deserts, all while enjoying the beautiful scenery and fascinating wildlife. Of course, you’ll want to mind your COVID behavior which includes maintaining a distance from people and keeping a mask handy for any public areas.

Historic Georgetown, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fortunately, there an unlimited variety of readily accessible natural areas for RV travelers to visit and to photograph if you’re prepared and have a little bit of luck on your side.

Planning is the key to success with any photo shoot and that’s especially true for road trips. In planning your trip, consider that you’re basically chasing the light. You want to be in scenic locations during optimum lighting conditions when shadows and highlights come together for awesome images.

Roosevelt State Park, Mississippi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re prepared, you’re simply increasing your chances of capturing a great shot. The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to maximize your chances of nailing that beautiful sunset…or desert scene…or deer-in-the-meadows photo.

Desert wildflowers near Yuma, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dr. Louis Pasteur, inventor of pasteurization, has a very meaningful quote attributed to him: “Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind.” Now, while Dr. Pasteur may have been referring to the field of scientific observation, it can easily apply it to landscape photography.

Or the words of the great photographer, Ansel Adams: “Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.”

Amador Flower Farm, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before setting out on a nature shoot—especially if it’s at an unfamiliar location—take time for some “online reconnaissance.” Access to some amazing technologies can make our jobs as landscape photographers easier. One such piece of technology is the mobile phone and its use of GPS.

Let’s say you’re planning to photograph the sunrise or sunset at a specific location. To help prepare you can research some of the more obvious things like weather forecasts and driving routes along with any potential hazard alerts for the area.

Lake Kaweah on the road to Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another favorite online tool is Google Maps. The sheer amount of geographic and topological information available on Google Maps is staggering. Spend some time exploring Google Maps and you’ll have a better understanding of the area and a more precise idea of where to go and what to expect when you get there.

Snake River at Twin Falls, Idaho © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If there’s one variable that will change things up on you no matter how much due diligence you put in, it’s the weather. While weather forecasts are worth spending time researching they’re not an excuse for being caught off-guard. If the forecasts call for mild temps with scattered clouds you should still be prepared for the chance of showers.

Texas sunset near Corpus Christi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Let’s say your intent is to photograph the sunset. You know where you’re going, you have the right gear with you, and the weather is all but guaranteed to be great for the setting sun. So how are you going to capture it?

Sunset near Casa Grande, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sure, you could just fill the frame with the sun and call it a day but you’re here to convey the beauty of the landscape in front of you, right? You also want to give your viewer a sense of place and depth. One of the best ways to do so is with strong foreground elements. Pay attention to what you’ll use to accompany the actual sunrise or sunset. Saguaro cactus and palm trees can be used to your advantage when photographing a sunrise or sunset as shown in above photos.

After doing a 180-degree pivot I took this photo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And don’t forget to turn around and shoot away from the sun for some amazing scenes in the glow of the late afternoon light as seen near Casa Grande, Arizona.

Landscape Arch in Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In certain situations you’ll be able to use natural surroundings to frame the sun as I did at Landscape Arch in Arches National Park.

“If you are not having fun, you are doing something wrong.”

On your road trip, focus on having a ton of fun. The more fun you have, the more you’ll enjoy your photo experience which will result in a high percentage of “keepers.”

And, be flexible because as much as you plan, things can happen—with the weather, traffic, detours and so on. When things don’t go just right, take a deep breath. “Smile, be happy,” as the Bobby McFerrin song goes. Be happy that you are on the road doing what you like to do: Make pictures.

Worth Pondering…

We don’t take pictures with our cameras. We take them with our hearts and we take them with our minds, and the camera is nothing more than a tool.

—Arnold Newman