Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Watching wildlife a relaxing pastime

Among the natural wonders that wait for exploration by RVers is wildlife. An amazing variety of creatures great and small can be spotted while traveling throughout the United States and Canada. Wildlife watching is a fun pastime and can be enjoyed on many levels depending on your interests.

This can range from casual observation to serious wildlife-viewing expeditions. You don’t even need to leave your campsite to have wildlife encounters. Scampering squirrels amuse. Birds flitter about. Bears and raccoons often make visits and create mischief if you’re not careful how you store food and trash.

Bison in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When staying on public lands you might encounter wild horses, ponies, and burros. Of course, you also can embark on trips and tours specifically designed for viewing whales, bison, polar bears, and more.

In this post, I share ideas for capturing great wildlife photos as well as safety tips related to wildlife encounters. They may be cute but they are called wild animals for a reason and can be unpredictable and dangerous. I also offer suggestions for making the most of wildlife-watching expeditions.

Here’s to bears, bison, birds, bees, bugs, bunnies, and the many other critters sharing our planet.

Safely photographing wildlife

If you enjoy taking photos, you already may have a nice collection of pet pics. How about expanding your shutterbug skills to capture wildlife photos? Try photographing critters in national parks, state parks, national wildlife refuges, preserves, national forests, and other natural areas.

Pronghorn in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camera equipment

Determine the best type(s) of camera for your interest and level of expertise. I suggest SLRs and mirrorless cameras for their versatility. For extensive outdoor use, invest in a weather-sealed model. A telephoto lens or a lens with a telephoto zoom facilitates shooting from a distance while macro lenses work for close-ups of insects and other small subjects. A weatherproof camera backpack in muted colors works well for toting all the photo gear.

Weather

Protect yourself, too. Dress to stay warm and dry; in buggy places, wear a wide-brimmed hat— with mosquito netting if needed.

Photographing wildlife in the middle of a snowfall or other weather event can add drama and interest to your shots.

Wild burros in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Know your subjects

The U.S. Forest Service notes that capturing great wildlife images takes “preparation, patience, and practice.” Familiarize yourself with animal behavior. For example, many butterflies emerge in the early to mid-morning, warming themselves in the sun before they take flight. Such knowledge can help you find a great vantage spot. Wait for animals to come to you; they won’t pose if they feel you’re invading their space.

Photo tips

Follow the rule of thirds: Divide your frame into nine imaginary squares and place your subject in spots where the lines intersect. If an animal is looking in a specific direction include space in front of its head to improve the overall shot. Don’t just focus on your wildlife subjects; incorporate the surrounding beauty in some photos as well.

Be safe

You alone are responsible for your well-being around wildlife. Keep your distance; don’t feed them; avoid sudden or aggressive moves. If you encounter a bear, remain calm—if you can! Don’t run away. Avoid placing yourself between a mama bear and her cubs.

Here are some pointers for hiking in bear country: Hiking and Camping in Bear Country: What You Need to Know

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

Wildlife camping and viewing

Traveling in an RV allows you to experience a wide range of exciting and beautiful natural destinations. And one of the best things about spending time in these scenic spots is wildlife watching.

If you are looking to completely immerse yourself in nature, check out the National Wildlife Refuge System. This massive network of conservation lands and waters covers more than 95 million acres of land and 740 million acres of submerged lands and waters in the U.S.

Camping near these protected lands will not only help you avoid crowds typically found at national parks but you’ll also have less competition for campsites. Touring a wildlife refuge may be perfect for your next road trio:

Before you set out to explore the nature around you, it’s a good idea to take some steps to make sure you get as much as possible from your RV wildlife-watching experience. Learn how to identify wildlife through books or apps, take plenty of photos, and choose a wildlife-friendly location to make the most of your experience.

You should also be aware of your safety while wildlife watching. Keep your distance from predators or other creatures you don’t want to attract and follow local guidelines and signage in the area.

Big horn sheep in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watching wildlife in national parks

Know before you go. Every national park is unique and has specific guidelines, including minimum wildlife viewing distances and food storage requirements. Before you head out on the trail, take a few minutes to review the park’s rules.

Give animals room. The best way to stay safe when watching wildlife is to give animals room to move. Many parks require you to stay a minimum distance of 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from predators like bears and wolves. (Check with your park: for example, Olympic National Park requires a minimum distance of 50 yards.) Parks provide a unique opportunity to view animals’ natural behavior in the wild. In general, if animals react to your presence you are too close. If you’re close enough for a selfie, you’re too close. Use binoculars or a zoom lens and move back if wildlife approaches you. Let wildlife be wild and observe from a distance.

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

Whether you stay near a wildlife refuge or national park or in a boondocking spot, stop a moment to take in your surroundings while camping to see the wildlife around you—who knows what you’ll see!

Worth Pondering…

I would rather be amongst forest animals and the sound of nature than amongst city traffic and the noise of man.

—Anthony D. Williams.

Close Focus Bird Portraits

Just like when you are photographing humans, your focus is on your subject and the background is for framing it. Your goal is to make the bird stand out from the background.

When photographing birds, it’s usually a matter of trying to get close enough to get a quality photo—and that’s even with the aid of a lens that provides ample magnification. Too often we get documentary photos of a distant avian subject but once in a while we get lucky and encounter a trusting bird, sometimes even a bird that walks, swims, or flies closer.

Having photographed extensively in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida, I must say that wintering birds that get familiar with people walking by or photographing at birding hotspots are more common in these states with high human populations than anywhere else.

Roseate Spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From my experience, there is no question that Florida and Texas birds—some resident birds even more than wintering birds—lead the way in the trust department to the point where it’s possible to get especially close photos of some individuals. This is especially true at some of the well-visited birding hotspots like the Venice Audubon Rookery and the World Birding Centers in South Texas but it can happen anytime, anywhere.

And with many species taking advantage of wetlands and impoundments created to hold water in low-lying housing developments in many suburbs, the birds get very accustomed to people who generally are excited or uninterested in seeing them in their yards or near their property.

Great White Egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Avian portraits

When I refer to the idea of close-up photos, I mean portraits of just the head, neck, and shoulders of the bird like your high school graduation photo so taking that kind of photo is usually going to be a larger bird to manage that level of close photos. The simple trick to taking advantage of such a trusting bird is to make the most of the opportunity.

Stay with it, don’t cause any level of alarm, and move slowly if you move. Focus on the bird’s eye and watch your background. In most cases, take some initial photos; then, if you have a chance to adjust it’s best to try to dial the aperture to f5 or a similar setting to reduce the area in focus. That technique will keep the bird in focus while blurring the background and it will increase the shutter speed to ensure the photos you take are sharper.

However, if your background is a uniform color, say a sky or water background, the aperture is less of a concern. The idea is to try to pop the bird apart from the background even beyond color differences. The bottom line is always “take what you can get and improve if possible.” In the moment it’s thrilling to be so close and to get optically closer yet with a telephoto or zoom lens zeroing in on the bird’s face, focusing on the eye.

Whistling Duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The key to sharing close photos of birds is that you need to have a photo of a bird with a sharp eye. That’s true if you are using a photo as is or if you are cropping the photo which is a secondary way to create a close-up of a bird’s face and neck, or face, neck, and shoulders—a portrait.

I must share that it’s especially fulfilling to take portrait photos like the images that illustrate this article. You feel close to the birds, in company with them as they permit you into their inner sanctum; and if you can just walk away without disturbing them or let them walk away as they wish, it’s especially gratifying.

The idea for this article came to mind after reviewing the photos of birds I had taken in various locations over our many years of RV travel. I noted the many large birds—the Wood Stork, Sandhill Cranes, Great White Egret, Great Blue Heron, Ibis, and a couple of others.

Wood stork © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For example, we were casually driving along Lake Okeechobee when I spied a pair of wood storks resting in the meadow near the lake. We quickly pulled off the road and suddenly sighted more storks on the edge of a pond closer to the large lake.

Quickly parking, I checked my camera settings and walked cautiously from the car for a closer view of the birds. I was immediately surprised by how close I was to the storks, so quickly zoomed down from my 400mm magnification to 200mm and took a couple of initial photos.

Then I quickly zoomed out to get a full-sized view and photos of the impressive Wood Stork as it waded a couple of steps in my direction. The grand bird was surrounded by sky blue water with barely a ripple on it which made for an especially pleasing background that was emphasized by the beautiful late afternoon light.

Wood Stork © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The chance opportunity to photograph the very trusting wood storks provided the best photos I’ve taken of the species to date of a bird on water or land.

Using a zoom lens was key to taking full-frame photos of the stork as well as being able to get portrait photos of the bird that show a lot of detail of the dinosaur-looking face of the big wading bird. Even I am impressed with the quality of sharp images produced during the few minutes I had in the stork’s company but you will find that the closer you are to a bird the better your lens seems to work. And if you are close, you don’t need to do any cropping to zero-in on the bird a bit more.

Before I sign off, I feel somewhat compelled to share with you that although the photos I selected to illustrate this feature are super-sharp on my big-screen laptop computer sometimes there seems to be a bit of a loss of image sharpness in the translation between my digital photos as viewed on my computer compared to when the same photos are published in a magazine publication.

That said, the birds’ eyes in each of these photos are remarkably sharp; if they don’t look absolutely sharp, it’s because of a difference between my original digital image and the online image but hopefully that won’t be a factor in the photos illustrating this article.

Sandhill Crane © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then too, maybe it’s because over the years of photographing birds, I have developed a fine-tuned eye for photo sharpness and that’s an important point to keep in mind; be sure that you don’t over-enlarge a given photo. Share sharp, clear photos that don’t show a grainy background or body lines which is a sure sign of over-enlarging a photo.

I find taking photos of birds entertaining partly because of the many variables. From dealing with awkward lighting conditions to creating blurs and flight shots the photography opportunities are endless. And any time we get close enough to take a head and shoulders portrait of a bird, it’s a great breakthrough that we will likely remember forever especially when you have a quality photo to share and display as one of your favorites.

Green Jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although this niche is fun, it requires technical knowledge from every photographer. Go out and practice. Get familiar with your camera and play with the camera settings for bird photography.

Good luck as you search out photo opportunities and if you’re not in Florida or Arizona, stay warm!

Worth Pondering…

In my view you cannot claim to have seen something until you have photographed it.

—Emile Zola

The Complete List of Bird Photography Tips for RVers

It’s an exciting time of the year with new birds arriving at favorite local birding hotspots as well as in your yard and at your feeders. Are your bird photography skills amped? Are you planning an RV road trip to an exciting birding location?

It has been a while since I’ve posted an article on bird photography due in part to not taking a recent road trip to a bird-rich area. But with a variety of bird photography opportunities ahead, I’ll provide photo insights in a concise, fairly organized list of tips and techniques.

When I bought my first DSL camera eons ago, I certainly wish someone had offered this photography list to me; then, or at any time since then, it sure would have come in handy and made me a better photographer much quicker.

With that in mind, I want to share my best bird photography resource, a list I’ve created based on years of experience mixed with tips shared with me over the years by professional and hobbyist friends and other techniques gleaned by reading extensively in books, photography magazines, and online. I hope this information will give the reader a basic introduction or a helpful review of all the things you can do to improve your chances of getting more quality bird photos—now and for years to come.

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not every tip listed below will be useful for every photographer but anyone will be able to glean some valuable pointers and I hope this collection of photo methods also offers a bit of inspiration and enthusiasm for you to search for your next photo opportunities on your next RV road trip. Many of these methods become second nature with time like making sure the sun is behind you as you focus your lens on birds; checking to see where your shadow is pointing periodically, and holding your breath when you press your camera’s shutter button.

This is the kind of article that offers such a variety and thorough collection of helpful tips that I encourage you to print it out and post a copy on your bulletin board, and fold another copy to make it easier to keep it in your camera backpack, glove compartment, or your back pocket; and share it with other bird photographers too. This list will truly help make you a better bird photographer and I hope it adds a new level of enthusiasm and enjoyment for you with renewed and improved production from your camera and lens.

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird photography tips

Keep your camera within reach at all times. I never want to say: “I wish I had my camera!”

Quality photos require good sunlight. For optimum lighting, I make every effort to position myself between the sun and the bird with my shadow pointing at my subject.

The best time to photograph during any given sunny day is when the sun is at a 30- to 60-degree angle above the ground starting an hour after sunrise and again during late afternoon until an hour before sunset. This practice will provide more direct lighting for bird photography while eliminating most shadows. Avoid photographing during midday when the sun is overhead or mostly overhead as that’s when the effect of shadowing on the bird and in the scene is greatest.

Be aware of shadows on the bird you are photographing which may be caused by the overhead angle of the sun or when you’re not in the best position concerning the direction of the sunlight. In the field, you often don’t notice a shadow but because shadows are more pronounced in photographs, it’s good to watch specifically for shadows and adjust your position to avoid them when possible.

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check your own shadow periodically; try to keep your shadow pointing at the bird or birds you are photographing as this shows you are in the best position for optimum lighting and you are less apt to have shadows affecting the birds.

Keep in mind that when birding and especially when photographing birds, the welfare of the birds should be paramount. It’s always most rewarding if you can photograph birds without displacing them and you definitely want to avoid disturbing them if they are nesting, hunting, or feeding. Always live by the motto, “the birds’ welfare comes first.”

At the same time, there are always hyper-wary birds that will react to any outside activity and birds are constantly on the move so don’t over-react if a bird flies from a perch while photographing; often they just move to the next perch.

Wood stork © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Try not to get too close to birds; allow them to behave naturally. When you stop short of making birds fly, they may move closer in your direction. Give birds sufficient time to adjust to seeing you.

If you try to approach a bird, keep a low profile, move slowly, and don’t walk directly toward the bird; move at an angle to the bird that gets you ever closer. If necessary, walk slowly in a long zig-zagging fashion as you move closer while keeping the sun at your back.

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

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

Hold your breath any time you press the shutter button to help eliminate body motion.

Lightly squeeze your finger down on the shutter release button to reduce any jerky motion on the camera as you take photos.

Black-bellied whistling ducks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When photographing birds, stabilize your camera and lens as best you can to reduce body shake that can be transferred as you hold your camera. Body shake includes your beating heart, other natural internal movements, and breathing.

To brace your camera, lean your lens against a tree, post, window frame, or another stable option. When photographing in the open, you can brace your elbows against your chest or sides to provide more stability as you handhold your camera and lens (rather than holding your elbows out to the sides).

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. Dealing with a tripod, frankly, takes much of the fun out of bird photography. If you use a tripod, select one with thick strong lower legs to make sure the tripod is as stable as possible. When you use a tripod, you should also use a shutter release cable and that’s no fun either.

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Simple camera tech

Please don’t use the automatic setting on your camera. Instead, it’s best to set the Mode Dial to Av (aperture priority) then set your aperture (f-stop) and the camera will automatically provide the associated shutter speed as determined by the amount of available light. Watch how your shutter speed changes as you change the aperture setting in case you wish to use a faster shutter speed.

Preset your camera so you are ready to take a photo at a moment’s notice which happens fairly often when photographing birds. During sunny days, I preset the ISO to 400, and use an aperture of f8, and the resulting shutter speed will usually be between 1/1200 to 1/2000—fast enough to stop most motion. Then, when I’m in a position to photograph and have an extra moment, I double-check the settings and adjust any if needed. I also adjust settings if a change in the sunlight level or weather indicates a need for change.

Blue-winged teal © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I find the 400 ISO setting to be the best under good sunlight conditions. I tend not to photograph birds during low light periods but if the sun goes behind a cloud I increase the ISO to 800 if the shutter speed is reduced significantly by the shaded sunlight. I find that any setting above ISO 800 tends to produce grainy photos. Using an ISO of 200 or 100 provides better quality images but these settings tend to limit your shutter speed and/or aperture a bit so ISO 400 seems to be the best bet for me for bird photography with the sun at my back.

I keep my camera’s Al-Servo set so I can take a continuous series of photos. Using this setting, it’s possible to take a single photo but you can also take two or three at a time if you hold the shutter button down a moment longer. And when a bird is especially active such as when it’s flying or displaying, you can hold the shutter release button down for the camera to take a continuous series of images at a rate of three to 10 photos or more per second depending on the camera model you use.

Using the Al-Servo setting, I tend to take two photos at a time which provides a second image that usually shows a wing position change during flight or provides two images as a bird turns its head.

Mourning dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Composing your photos

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, swim into, or fly into. It tends to create a more pleasing composition.

To better understand how to position a bird within your photo frame, I suggest taking a quick look at the rule of thirds which artists often use when composing their artwork. Photographers also use this technique for photo framing and design although it’s just a guide to be aware of when composing photos. Ultimately, do what looks best to you.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Using a zoom lens can be helpful when positioning a bird in the photo frame, zooming in and out to include more or less background. But you can also reframe a photo and thereby reposition the bird in the frame by cropping it using photo editing software. By simply cropping extraneous sky, water, or plants surrounding the bird you can position the bird off-center, up or down as you wish by cropping the original photo and you will enlarge the bird’s size in the photo in the process.

Keep aware of the background as you are composing photos. Try to eliminate distracting twigs and grass from view which may simply be a matter of moving your camera to the right or left, up or down, or taking a step left or right to get a clearer background that is less distracting. However, in some cases, a twig with budding leaves or other vegetation can add a natural element to bird photographs.

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Getting a more uniform background can be accomplished with some success by reducing the area in focus (depth of field) to throw the background out of focus. This blurred background effect helps to emphasize your subject and is accomplished by setting your aperture to a narrow f4 or f5. That aperture should keep your bird in focus while blurring the background although this technique works best if there is ample space between the bird and the background elements.

Using a narrow f4 or f5 aperture also provides a faster corresponding shutter speed which helps stop any motion and create sharp images.

Plants and other natural elements are often a welcome background for bird photos. When that’s the case, 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 with—say above 1/400 for a motionless bird and 1/1000 or faster for birds in flight.

Green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While watching the area behind the bird for any distracting elements or unnatural colors watch for distracting shadows on the bird or around it as you get into position. Reposition as needed to avoid shadows and other distracting elements.

When photographing birds positioned on the ground as they swim in water or wade along a shoreline try photographing from your knees, in a sitting position, or even a prone position to get closer to the birds’ eye level. Try photographing from a bird’s eye view at times.

Golden-fronted woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile photo blind options

I like to use my vehicle (both car and motorhome) as a comfortable mobile blind. Birds tend to react to people but mostly ignore a parked vehicle. I have a few birding hotspots where I can park next to flowering trees, a wetland shoreline, or prominent perches where birds create fine photo opportunities.

Your vehicle provides the option to reposition a few feet forward or backward when needed or to drive onward to look for the next photo opportunity.

Turn off your vehicle’s engine any time you are photographing to minimize vibrations so you can keep your camera and lens as stable as possible.

Black-crested titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Also, stabilize your lens by holding it on the top of a slightly raised window or against the side or top of the window frame to reduce body shake that may be transferred as you hold your camera.

Hold your breath any time you press the shutter button to reduce any bodily vibrations and press the shutter button lightly to avoid a jerking motion.

Stay inside your vehicle and reduce any motions to make birds less wary. While birds often accept a parked vehicle, that changes if you open a door or get outside. (If you do need to step outside to photograph, don’t slam the door.)

Using your vehicle, explore a more expansive area occasionally to monitor where the birds are and where they aren’t. Take advantage of photo opportunities you encounter along the way and at the same time plan for future photo opportunities concerning the time of day the sun will best illuminate a promising area.

If you see a promising photo op as you are driving be especially aware of any vehicles driving behind you and keep safety your priority. You may need to drive by a bird, find a safe place to pull over then return to the bird’s location to try for a photo op. Pull safely off the side of the road in the best possible position to photograph your subject concerning the direction of the sunlight, but always keep vehicle safety a priority.

Vermillion flycatcher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Photo editing: composition, design, and filing

When using photo editing software, I alter the photo as little as possible; but simple cropping of an image can improve a photo immensely and it can increase the size of the bird(s) within a photo frame by cutting out extraneous parts of the background effectively zooming in on the bird.

Try to keep up with your photo review and editing process which is usually best performed as soon as possible after each photo session. Keep your photo files orderly, organized, and easy to access.

Use a uniform naming system—perhaps one that identifies a bird in a photograph along with the location (state followed by location) and year and month it was taken. An example of my naming system is AZ, Catalina SP_cactus wren­­_2022_11.

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I keep three copies of all my photos in different locations to ensure I never lose any of my valuable photos due to damage by fire, flood, or theft. I keep my photo files on an external hard drive with my computer that travels with me in my motorhome, on a second external drive located in my home, and in the cloud.

Enjoy sharing your bird photographs. Attach a photo or two to your emails, and texts, and by all means share them on social media applications. Bird photos are interesting and inspiring; they may open a line of conversation or lead to learning more about the species. You may even be surprised (and gratified) when people start introducing you as a photographer.

Photographing birds is usually not easy and in addition to all the other things that contribute to getting quality photos of birds, there is always a definite Luck factor—Good Luck!

Royal tern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I have posted a variety of tips and techniques in previous articles:

But in this article you have an easy to refer to reference list—the best I can offer to anyone interested in photographing birds—whether you are a beginner or a seasoned pro.

Have a lot of fun, get excited, display your favorite photos, and share your photos with others— it’s all part of the joy of photographing 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

The Best Basic Tips for Spring Photos

Are you ready? New birds will be arriving at favorite local birding hotspots as well as the feeders in your campsite.

With another spring season of bird photography opportunities ahead, I’ll revisit what I consider to be the basics of bird photography. I wish someone had offered such a list to me when I bought my first SLR camera and zoom lens. I’ve created this list using my experience along with tips from professionals and others I gleaned by reading extensively. I hope this information will give you a good introduction or a helpful review of all the things you can do to improve your chances of getting quality bird photos this spring.

Yellow-rumped warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not every tip listed below in short, concise form will be useful to every photographer but everyone will be able to glean some pointers. I hope the list also offers a bit of inspiration and enthusiasm throughout spring migration and beyond. Many of these methods become second nature with time like making sure the sun is behind you as you focus your lens on birds and holding your breath when you press the shutter button.

This list will help make you a better bird photographer and add a new level of enthusiasm with renewed production from your camera and lens.

I keep my camera within reach at all times. I never want to say: “I wish I had my camera!”

Rose-breasted grosbeak © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quality photos require good light. For optimum lighting, make every effort to position youself between the sun and the bird with your shadow pointing at the subject.

The best time to photograph is when the sun is at a 30- to 60-degree angle above the ground—during morning an hour after sunrise and again during late afternoon until an hour before sunset. This practice will provide more direct lighting for bird photography while eliminating most shadows. Avoid photographing during midday when the sun is overhead or mostly overhead.

Be aware of shadows on the bird you are photographing caused by the overhead angle of the sun or when you’re not in the best position concerning the direction of the sunlight. 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.

Ladder-backed woodpecker © 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. If necessary slowly zig-zag from side to side as you move ever closer while keeping the sun at your back.

Don’t get too close to birds; allow them to behave naturally. When you stop short of making birds fly they may move closer in your direction.

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

Green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Hold your breath when you press the shutter button to help eliminate body motion.

Lightly squeeze your finger down on the shutter release button to reduce any jerky motion on the camera as you take photos.

Peregrine falcon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When photographing birds, stabilize your camera and lens as best you can to reduce body shakes that can be transferred as you hold your camera. (Body shake includes your beating heart and natural internal movements.)

To brace your camera, lean your lens against a tree, post, window frame, or another stable option. When photographing in the open, you can brace your elbows against your chest or sides to provide more stability as you handhold your camera and lens (rather than holding your elbows out to the sides).

Some birders use a tripod to help stabilize their camera and lens but for many of us using a tripod is cumbersome, especially when photographing flying birds. Dealing with a tripod, frankly, takes much of the fun out of bird photography, at least for me. If you use a tripod, select one with thick strong lower legs and you should also use a shutter release cable—that’s no fun either.

Black-crested titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Simple camera technique

Don’t use the automatic setting on your camera. Instead, it’s best to set the Mode Dial to Av (aperture priority); then set your aperture (f-stop) and the camera will automatically provide the associated shutter speed as determined by the amount of available light.

Preset your camera so you are ready to take a photo at a moment’s notice which happens fairly often when photographing birds. When I’m in position to photograph and have an extra moment I double-check the settings and adjust any if needed. During sunny days, I preset the ISO to 400, use an aperture of f8 and the resulting shutter speed will usually be between 1/1200 to 1/2000—fast enough to stop most motion.

Blue-winged teal © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Personally, I find the 400 ISO setting to be the best under good sunlight conditions.During low light periods or if the sun goes behind a cloud, I increase the ISO to 800 if the shutter speed is reduced significantly by the shaded sunlight.

I keep my camera’s Al-Servo set so I can take a continuous series of photos. Using this setting it’s possible to take a single photo but you can also take two or three at a time if you hold the shutter button down a moment longer. And when a bird is especially active you can hold the shutter release button down for the camera to take a continuous series of images at a rate of three to 10 photos or more per second depending on your camera model.

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Composing your photos

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, swim 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 artwork. Photographers also use this technique for photo framing and design although it’s just a guide to be aware of when composing photos.

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

Willet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Getting a more uniform background can be accomplished with some success by reducing the area in focus (depth of field) to throw the background out of focus. This blurred background effect helps to emphasize your subject and is accomplished by setting your aperture to a narrow f4 or f5. That aperture should keep your bird in focus while blurring the background although this technique works best if there is ample space between the bird and the background elements.

Using a narrow f4 or f5 aperture also provides a faster corresponding shutter speed which is helpful in stopping any motion and creating sharp images. Adjust your ISO if necessary.

Whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile photo blind options

You can use your vehicle as a mobile blind. Birds tend to react to people but mostly ignore a parked vehicle.

Your vehicle provides the option to reposition a few feet forward or backward when needed or to drive onward to look for the next photo opportunity.

Turn off your vehicle any time you are photographing to keep your camera lens as stable as possible.

Cassin’s kingbird © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stabilize your lens by holding it on the top of a slightly raised window or against the side or top of the window frame to reduce body shake that may be transferred as you hold your camera.

As mentioned earlier, hold your breath any time you press the shutter button to reduce any bodily vibrations and press the shutter button lightly to avoid a jerking motion.

Stay inside your vehicle and reduce any motions to make birds less wary. While birds often accept a parked vehicle, that changes if you open a door or get outside.

When you see a promising photo op be especially aware of any vehicles driving behind you and keep safety your first priority. You may need to drive by a bird, find a safe place to pull over, and return to the bird’s location to try for a photo op. Pull safely off the side of the road in the best possible position to photograph your subject with respect to the direction of the sunlight. Keep safety a priority, as always.

Royal tern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Photo editing: Composition & design

When using photo editing software, alter the photo as little as possible. Simple cropping of an image can improve a photo by increasing the size of the bird within a photo frame or by cutting out extraneous parts of the background—effectively zooming in on the bird.

Try to keep up with your photo review and editing process which is best performed as soon as possible after each photo session. Keep your photo files orderly, organized, and easy to access.

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use a uniform naming system—perhaps one that identifies a bird in a photograph by its location or name along with the year and month the photo was taken. An example of my naming system is: AZ, Catalina SP_2023_03.

Keep at least two copies of all your photos and preferably keep them in different locations to ensure you never lose any of your valuable photos due to a computer crash or damage by fire, flood, or theft. I keep my photos on my laptop for easy access and on external hard drives.

When photographing birds, there is always a definite luck factor. Good Luck!

I provide a variety of tips and techniques on an occasional basis usually mixed into narratives describing photo opportunities but here you have an easy to refer to reference list.

Common moorhen © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following I offer additional posts for your photographing and reading pleasure:

Have fun, get excited, display your favorite photos, and share your photos with others—it’s all part of the joy of photographing birds. Enjoy this spring season!

Worth Pondering…

Photography is the beauty of life, captured.

—Tara Chisholm

30 New Year’s Resolutions for RVers in 2023

Set new goals for the open road

New Year, New Me, or so the saying goes! It seems that every year when we change over from the old to the new, people start making New Year’s resolutions.  These resolutions tend to be focused on things like living better, being more organized, or living a healthier life.

When it comes to RVing though, there are a few resolutions that come to mind as staples within the RV lifestyle. Of course, your resolutions will be unique to you and your lifestyle, but there are New Year’s resolutions that I think that every RVer regardless of lifestyle can make when going into this New Year.

Here are 30 New Year’s resolutions for RVers to consider as you start planning for the year ahead.

Water filters should be replaced at least twice yearly © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Learn how to perform maintenance tasks on your RV

It’s essential to keep your RV in good working order and that means being able to take care of basic maintenance tasks yourself. Whether checking the dry-cell battery water level (they are your lifeline); inspecting your propane system; inspecting tires for cracks and uneven wear and checking air pressure; changing your water filter; and keeping an RV maintenance log/checklist to keep track of your maintenance checks, repairs, and replacements, resolve to learn the skills you need to keep your RV running smoothly.

2. Plan at least one cross-country road trip in the year

Whether you’re a seasoned RVer or a newbie, there’s nothing quite like the thrill of hitting the open road and exploring new destinations. Start researching routes and must-see attractions with RVing with Rex for your epic adventure now.

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

3. Spend more time exploring regional and state parks

Many RVers are drawn to the freedom and flexibility of the open road but it’s also important to take the time to explore the natural beauty and history right in your backyard. Resolve to spend more time exploring local and state parks in the coming year and discover all your region has to offer.

Boondocking at Quartzsite, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Try boondocking at least once

Boondocking is camping (often on BLM land) without access to electrical, water, or sewage hookups. It can be a challenging but rewarding way to experience the great outdoors.

Kayaking at Stephen C. Foster State Park, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Learn a new outdoor skill

RVing is the perfect opportunity to try out new outdoor activities and hobbies and there’s no shortage of options to choose from. Learn a new outdoor skill in 2023 whether it’s rock climbing, fishing, hiking, kayaking, or geocaching.

6. Seek out new destinations

While it can be comforting to return to familiar destinations year after year, it’s also important to mix things up and explore new destinations. Challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone.

7. Invest in new gear to enhance uour RVing experience

Whether it’s a new cooking set, a portable generator, or hiking poles, there are always nifty RV-related gadgets to improve your RVing experience. 

Reducing clutter makes for happy RVing © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Reduce clutter

There’s no denying the fact that RVs are tiny places to live. Partly for this reason, clutter builds up quickly. Since nobody wants to live in a cluttered space, it’s best to purge things in your tiny home on wheels at least twice a year or when needed. And I know that it is a much more difficult task than it appears.

And the problem is not just cleaning up the mess. In the words of best-selling author Jordan B. Peterson, “I also want to make it beautiful.” Writing in Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, the famed clinical psychologist continued, “Making something beautiful is difficult but it’s amazingly worthwhile. If you learn to make something in your life truly beautiful—even one thing—then you have established a relationship with beauty.”

9. Take a course to improve your driving skills and safety

RVing can be a lot of fun, but it’s also important to prioritize safety on the road. Brush up on things like backing up, lane changes, and emergency braking.

Drive-in sites at Vista del Sol RV Resort, Bullhead City, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Try out different types of campsites

One of the best things about RVing is the variety of campsite options available from beachfront to the mountain to lakeside and pull-through to back-in to pull-in. Make a New Year’s resolution to try out different types of campsites and see which ones you like best.

Quartzsite RV Show, Quartzsite, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Connect with other RVers on the road

RVing can be a solo pursuit but it’s also a great way to connect with other like-minded individuals. You might make some lifelong friends along the way. The ultimate RV gathering happens at the beginning of each year in Arizona at the Quartzite RV Show (January 21-29, 2023.

12. Plan a group RV trip with family or friends

RVing is a great way to bond with loved ones and there’s nothing quite like a group RV trip to bring people together. Organize a caravan and create lasting memories on the road.

13. Set a goal to save money on fuel costs

The cost of fuel can add up quickly while RVing but there are steps you can take to minimize your expenses. Reducing your speed and making sure your tires are properly inflated are two ways to save on fuel.

Glacial Skywalk, Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Set a goal to visit every state

Set a goal to visit every corner of the U.S. and/or Canada. This can be a long-term project but it’s a great way to truly experience all that North America has to offer in an RV.

15. Try new recipes in your RV kitchen

Cooking in your RV kitchen can be a fun and rewarding experience but it’s always nice to have new recipes to try out. Grab a cookbook, research recipes online, and borrow some from fellow travelers. Expand your culinary horizons on the road.

Consider investing in small kitchen appliances such as an Instant Pot, a slow cooker, and an air fryer to make the job of cooking in your RV a cinch.

16. Volunteer your time or skills with a local organization

If you are in a location for an extended period, you may want to participate in volunteer opportunities. Whether it is at a beach clean-up, animal shelter, or a docent at a local park or museum, RVing can be a great way to give back to the communities you visit.

Thousand Trails Lynchburg Preserve, Lynchburg, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Join a membership club and receive RV park discounts

There are numerous RV membership clubs and associations that provide a various benefits such as camping at a discounted rate and access to exclusive parks. Each has its perks and drawbacks. Is it reasonable to become a member of several RV clubs? It depends on your RVing style, wants, and needs.

Some of these are:

  • Escapees (SKP) RV club
  • Passport America
  • Thousand Trails
  • Good Sam RV Club
  • FMCA (Family Motor Coach Association)
  • Harvest Hosts
  • Boondockers Welcome
  • Hipcamp

18. Become a workcamper to save money on living expenses

If you’re looking for a way to save money on living expenses while RVing, workamping is a great way to see new places and meet new people while also helping to reduce some of your costs.

19. Record your travels through journaling and/or photography

Documenting your travels can be a meaningful way to reflect on your experiences and share them with others. So write, photograph, and record videos of your travels and experiences.

Hiking trails at Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Spend more time outdoors

Most people assume that by living in an RV, a person automatically spends a ton of time outside. While this is true for some RVing families, it isn’t always the case. Seeing as how the outdoors can benefit your health, making it a goal to spend more time outside in the New Year is a great idea. 

There are many ways to support this goal. You might choose to invest in a better outdoor setup with things like lounging chairs and outdoor games. Another option is to get set up for hiking and make a point of taking at least one hike in every place you visit. You could also learn a new skill such as kayaking or fishing to encourage yourself to get that fresh air and sunshine that is so good for you. 

Myakka State Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Visit more parks

Another fantastic way to get outside more is by visiting the many amazing state and national parks across the country. These parks allow you to soak up the sun while also exploring some seriously beautiful and fascinating places not to mention making some incredible memories that are sure to last for years to come. 

Grab a national park pass and visit as many national parks as you can throughout the year. If you’ll be in a particular state for a while, look into purchasing an annual pass for the state parks there. Of course, you should always ask about junior ranger programs at every park you visit. 

22. Try something NEW, while camping

Relaxing is numero uno but how about spicing up the camping trip with some boating, trail (bike) riding, or go GeoCaching? GeoCaching is fun at any age and can be enjoyed with your friends and family. It’s treasure hunting—and you can use your phone. Wooo, the kids will love this one!

Galt Farmers Market near Lodi, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Support local growers

Nothing beats fresh produce and homemade bread, jams, and jellies. Stop at farmers’ markets along the way. Not only will you be able to enjoy the freshest foods and eat healthier, but you’ll also be supporting local small businesses. 

24. Be present in the moment

In today’s fast-paced lifestyle, it’s easy to forget to take time to be present wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, and whoever you’re doing it with. From texting, and scrolling through social media, to even recording and taking pictures during a hike, there’s just so much noise that can get in the way.

Whether you’re all packed up and on your way to your next adventure or sitting by the campfire, make a conscious effort to really enjoy the experience. Breathe in the stillness of the forest, relax and recline by the lake, or engage in quality family time with a rousing night of games and fun! There’s so much to do that’s waiting for you. Make sure you don’t miss it.

La Sal Mountain Scenic Loop Road, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

25. Take the road less traveled

An important resolution for the New Year would be to take things slow and take the road less traveled. Everyone is in a rush to get from one place to the next so they don’t take the time to enjoy the journey. Instead of driving along the interstate, go an alternate route and drive the scenic byways.

Give yourself room to breathe and enjoy the countryside. Eat at that little diner and get that big glass of sweet tea. Take the family and go blueberry picking at the farm down the road or buy the freshest fruits and vegetables at a roadside stand. The best part about traveling in an RV is being able to make memories along the way, so be sure to take full advantage of each trip!

26. Go stargazing

No matter who you are, something is awe-inspiring about looking up at a star-filled night sky. Stargazing is an incredible pastime that is just not possible to do when living in the city. Take some time this year to visit a Dark-Sky Preserve and spend time with family and friends looking up at the stars. There is always something magical happening in the night sky, so be sure you don’t miss it.

Winter camping at Fort Camping, Fort Langley, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

27. Camp every season

Though spring and summer usually take all the glory for camping, there is a lot of fun to be had camping during the fall and winter months as well. Make it a resolution this year to camp in every season so that you can experience the wide variety of camping that the wilderness offers.

Our word of advice though: be sure to properly plan for camping in the cooler weather. The gear you’re going to need will be quite a bit different and you will need to prep things differently than you do for your summer excursions.

Not only will the scenery look different from season to season, but the wildlife will also vary greatly. So don’t forget to bring your binoculars and camera to spot all sorts of creatures, regardless of the season.

The Giant Peach (Peachoid) at Gaffney, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

28, See a classic roadside attraction

No road trip is complete without a stop at a kitschy roadside attraction. Even if you’re not traveling cross-country, there’s likely a piece of forgotten Americana around the bend that could use a visit. Look for the World’s Largest Roadrunner, the World’s Largest Pistachio, Wigwam Motel, or the Giant Peach.

29. Join a hiking group

Looking to meet new people? Hiking (or running or biking) together can be a great way to enjoy the company of others.  

Santa Fe, New Mexico, a bucket list destination © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

30. Finally make it to those bucket-list destinations

Last but not least, I must mention bucket list destinations. We all have that list of places and experiences. Often, we don’t reach these destinations due to commitments, things breaking, or simply because they are out of the way.

This year is the year to reach those must-see locations that you haven’t made it to yet. Plan your travel around them and make them a top priority. Remember, you travel so you can see the country, so make sure you get out there and do it!

Bird watching is a popular pastime with RVers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Embrace new opportunities on the road with New Year’s resolutions for RVers

There are many potential New Year’s resolutions that RVers can consider as they start planning for the coming year. From learning new skills to seeking out new destinations, the possibilities for growth and adventure are endless.

No matter your resolutions, it’s important to have fun and make the most of your RVing experiences. So as you start planning for 2023, remember to be open to new opportunities and embrace the unknown. Happy travels in the coming year!

Worth Pondering…

Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.

—Brian Tracy

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