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Perfect Light

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Published on: Dec. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

As the graceful white bird lifts its head, water droplets fall from its bill in an arc of sparkling gems lit by the mid-morning sun. The bird - a great egret - has just caught a minnow in a water-filled ditch.

Jim Rathert, Conservationist photographer, pulls his car off the pavement and aims his window-mounted camera toward the bird. The egret's fishing success means it may remain long enough to allow a series of photographs. The bird is, by Rathert's definition, a cooperative wildlife subject, as opposed to one that immediately takes flight.

Cooperative to a point, that is. "They're plastic," he says of egrets, referring to the action of the bird's long neck, stretched straight up one moment and forward the next. "They can go from vertical to horizontal in an instant, ducking their heads out of the picture."

Rathert waits for the moment the bird's bright bill is isolated against the dark bank behind it. The water it stands in reflects golden grasses and blue sky. As the egret, backlit by the sun, gobbles a minnow, a breeze stirs the plume feathers on its breast. "Perfect light," says Rathert, "and I'm shooting the finest grain film I've got."

He's collecting "definitive" photos that clearly show what the bird looks like. He also captures its movement and behavior, as it wades on long dark legs, peers intently into the water and plunges its bill for the catch. The bird, evidently accustomed to this fishing place and passing vehicles, doesn't seem to notice Rathert's car. As the egret moves along the ditch, Rathert starts the engine, moves a few feet, stops, turns off the engine. He wants to keep within a distance that allows him to "fill up the frame" of film with his subject.

"I don't end a photo session," he says, shooting away. "I let the subject end it." He makes an attempt to get closer to the egret on foot, but when he starts to open the car door, the bird spreads its impressive wings like a splendid white cape and takes off. The egret has ended the session, but Rathert has plenty of potentially wonderful shots tucked away on film. "That made the trip," he says as he drives on.

In 10 minutes, Rathert has taught me a kazillion lessons in wildlife photography, including:

Be mobile. Circumstance dictates where you shoot wildlife photos from. Often it's on foot or from a blind, but occasionally it's from a vehicle. A vehicle is a roving blind, especially when you're in areas where animals are used to cars. The more places you investigate, the greater the diversity in your photos.

Increase your odds. Go where there are "cooperative" subjects - a wildlife refuge, for instance, where deer haven't been hunted. They're more likely to stay within camera range, since they coexist with a parade of people and vehicles. (But on the way to a wildlife area, stay alert for the unexpected egret in a roadside ditch.)

Be ready. Have your camera loaded before you set out for your shoot, so you won't be fumbling with film while keeping one eye on a double crested cormorant that flies just as you close the camera back. And when you're about to stalk an animal, be sure you're not at the end of a roll.

Show the animal clearly. A successful photo presents a "definitive" view of a wildlife subject. The best shots will be close-ups or include some aspect of habitat, food source, movement or behavior.

Invest the time. Go out numerous times and don't give up. Your patience will pay off. Invest time in gaining familiarity with an area and learning what lives or visits there. Wildlife will be more abundant at some times than others, depending on season, populations of species, availability of food, migrations and other factors. Add to your biological knowledge so you know the habits of wildlife subjects. That helps you set priorities in planning a day of shooting.

For Rathert, such a day in late October begins before sunrise, when he slowly cruises the roads of Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge. On this trip a car will serve as his roving blind. Like other wetland areas, the refuge attracts a variety of wildlife. Rathert calls it "inherently rich."

Deer, his first priority, are likely to be on the move at this hour. The eastern horizon is faintly golden through roadside trees, and delicate skiffs of fog drift over the marshy land. "Fog is makeup for the landscape," he observes.

His 35mm single lens reflex camera is ready, equipped with a 300mm lens. He can swivel the camera on a ball head, which is attached by a clamp to the lowered window glass. He also has the option of rapidly switching to a second camera with a 500mm lens by using a quick release adaptor. When he adds a 1.4 teleconverter, that bumps the 500mm up to 700mm.

What's the minimum lens for someone starting out in wildlife photography? Rathert recommends at least a short telephoto, such as a 70-210mm zoom lens. A 300mm is better. Even with the 300mm, he has to be fairly close to his subject - say 24 feet for a mallard - in order to get a close view of the bird with a bit of its surroundings. (When you see a photographer aiming a gigantic lens at a snow goose 400 feet away, the result will not be a close-up.) The camera usually should be stabilized with a tripod or other means, rather than hand held.

When a group of deer wander across the road, Rathert makes several exposures at 1/15 second with the shutter wide open at f 2.8. A slow shutter speed is necessary in this low light, though images will be blurred if the deer are moving. "It's nice light," Rathert remarks, and it's continually changing. "This time of day, everything happens so quickly."

It's more difficult than hunting, he says. With little light and at a great distance, a hunter could kill a trophy deer. Photography, where distance and light are so important, has its own challenges.

An owl takes off from a nearby tree, a flock of snow geese wings across the sky and a great blue heron flies from a watery area. "I can hear redwing blackbirds," Rathert says. He knows the area well, but each visit is a surprise mixture of weather, light and animal species.

Rathert spots a spike buck and photographs it as it chews on vegetation. Leaving the car at this point, he says, could cause the deer to run. "Focus on the eye," he advises. "It gives the photograph the illusion of being totally sharp." He's always on the lookout for a monster buck and predicts, "sooner or later our paths are going to cross." But he warns of disappointment for photographers who are after specifics. "Keep your eyes open and go with the opportunities."

He uses binoculars to check out birds on distant water, pintails and green winged teal, and adds a tip for photographing ducks flying across your field of vision: with a 300mm lens, a minimum shutter speed of 1/250 second will stop most of the action but leave the wing tips blurred, "a nice effect." A tripod allows smooth panning.

More deer in a wooded stretch make a striking picture that runs away before he gets there. "It hurts badly," he jokes, "but I get over it."

The increasing daylight reveals silvery green and russet grasses. At a low spot, Rathert spies another quarry, a swamp sparrow about 50 feet away, needed for an upcoming article. He switches to the 500mm and uses a "Shw-shw-shw" sound to attract the bird's attention. Swamp sparrows are tough, he explains, always moving, and he wants to capture a view that shows the faint eye ring, as well as the rusty wing.

Around 10 a.m., Rathert drives to a privately owned wetland near a highway between Squaw Creek and Mound City. A lone coot near the water's edge proves cooperative, swimming around within camera range, and it's nicely reflected in the water. Rathert waits for a profile, a catch-light in the bird's eye and the bird's proximity to the reflection of a utility pole, all at once.

Other photos get away - basking turtles dive in, and a great blue heron, typically spooky, flies as Rathert sneaks up on him.

Following his own rule, "the more habitats you cover, the greater the diversity of photos you'll get," Rathert moves on to Bob Brown Conservation Area, a managed wetland, in the afternoon. A Harlan's red-tailed hawk, soaring in circles and working toward the road, causes him to jump out of the car and hand-hold the camera, aiming upward as the hawk nears.

At 1:30 p.m., there's an unexpected opportunity, a button buck munching clover near the road. Rathert stops, thumps the side of the car to get the deer to look at him.

Though Rathert prefers mobility, he sometimes uses a blind that sets up in about 30 seconds. The camouflage fabric has "snoots," like short elephant trunks, to hide a protruding long lens. A blind works when you have an attraction such as food, a nest or water.

When you set up a blind in view of a snag in water, the perch is a "bird magnet," he says. In an open marsh, he has pushed a stick into the water and photographed kingfishers that landed there. Also, skittish turtles will return to a log or the top of a muskrat den to sun themselves once you're concealed in a blind. A homemade blind could be made of PVC pipe sections and a tarp.

On leaving the Bob Brown area, Rathert brakes on the gravel road and jumps out of the car with camera in hand. "It's a Massasauga rattler!" He's already taking pictures. It's only the third Massasauga he's ever found, and he discovered one of the previous ones by stepping on it - briefly.

The gray pattern of the snake's skin blends with the gray gravel, but the ability to spot the least movement and the most camouflaged critter is part of Rathert's success. That, and a deep interest in nature, which he says is probably the main prerequisite for becoming a good wildlife photographer.

"The photography is the final step," he says.

A Flock of Wildlife Photos at Home

No need to pack for an African safari to begin your pursuit of wildlife photos, when you can look out your window and simply check who's there. A good place to start is with the visitors to your own bird feeder. Birds and squirrels become cooperative subjects when attracted by the food you supply.

You say you don't want that man-made bird feeder in every photo? Rathert recommends an auxiliary natural perch nearby. That could be a tree already growing in the perfect place, or you can use a branch you find on the ground (but not a rotten one). Position it securely at a natural angle to provide a place where birds will perch between visits to the feeder. "You create your own outdoor mini-studio for the birds," Rathert says.

Because you have control over the situation, you'll be free to concentrate on photos, rather than galloping after an elusive subject in the wilderness. The wilderness can come later, when you know more about your camera equipment's capabilities and the quirkiness of wild subjects. At home, you control:

Distance. Position the feeder and perch near a window and set up your camera on a tripod in the house. Shooting through an open window is better than shooting through glass that tends to be reflective.

Or put up a blind or a "hide" outdoors. Once you're concealed, birds will return to the feeder and ignore you. If the distance is right and you use a long lens (as opposed to a wide angle lens), you'll fill up the frame for a definitive bird or squirrel photo.

Background. The idea is to isolate your subject against a distant background. If you're lower than the perch, you may have a sky background; if you're higher, a background of grass or foliage. You can arrange your outdoor studio to avoid distractions such as a neighbor's white house in your photos.

Angle of light. You may be able to situate yourself and the feeder so you have, for instance, early morning light coming over your shoulder to illuminate the birds.

If your photos are blurred, it may be due to movement of the animal or the camera. Try a faster shutter speed and stabilize the camera.

Be patient - that purple finch is sure to turn its back or fly just as you have a beautiful shot, but it will return.

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