Three Rules for Wildlife Photography, continued: Be Prepared
There is a saying in Science:
One December morning a few years ago I was at White Rock Lake to practice shooting BIFs of White Pelicans taking off and landing at Sunset Bay where they like to hang out in winter. I was experimenting with different settings, trying to get proper exposure of these white birds in bright sunshine. Suddenly all the ducks along the shore flew into the water and when I turned back to look at what caused this commotion, I saw a large, male Bobcat slowly walking in the weeds no more than 10 yards away. As adrenaline rushed into my system, I quickly took several shots of this beautiful animal. Fortunately my brain then kicked in and reminded me that I had just been shooting fast-flying white birds in bright sunshine but now I was shooting a darker, slow-moving subject in shade. So I quickly reduced shutter speed from 1/2500 to 1/500 which then reduced ISO to 1600 for this new scene, and I resumed shooting the bobcat. Those first few adrenaline-fueled shots I took were dark, very noisy and not very good. If I had not remembered to reduce shutter speed, I would have missed this opportunity to get good shots of a wild bobcat at very close range.
The lesson from this experience is to be prepared for any opportunities that may arrive. Being prepared means always being aware of what settings your camera currently is using and what settings need to be changed if something unexpected suddenly appears. If you are walking in an open field with bright sunshine, is your camera setup to shoot BIFs? If so, what do you need to change if suddenly you see a Pileated Woodpecker land in a nearby tree? If you are in bright, open space but then enter a wooded area with lots of shade, what do you need to change to handle the reduced light?
Being prepared also means anticipating action and setting up ahead of time to capture that action. About 30 minutes after the bobcat left, a Red-shouldered Hawk flew into a tree overlooking the area where the bobcat had been. I was able to get fairly close to him, closer than I normally can get, because he was intently watching that space. I took a few shots and made sure I was ready for a BIF shot once he decided to fly out of there. Then suddenly he took off, hovered briefly, and dived down to the ground. I was able to get a few shots in flight, but I couldn't see where he had landed.
Although I couldn't see the hawk on the ground, I knew my lens was already close to being in focus and my camera was set for a BIF to capture him once he flew out of there. Then, soon after landing he flew up carrying breakfast in his beak. Apparently a mouse thought the coast was clear since it was so long after the bobcat had left. I don't know if the hawk noticed movement before flying to that tree or if he had learned that good hunting possibilities can be found in the wake of a ground predator like that bobcat. But my anticipation and preparation were rewarded by this shot.
Another time I was at Grassy Waters Preserve in West Palm Beach, Florida and saw a Great Blue Heron not far away obviously stalking some prey. After about five minutes of stalking, he finally struck and grabbed a large water snake. I knew the heron would not swallow this snake alive. I anticipated that he would fly out of there with the snake and go where he could kill it first. So I backed up from the edge of the pond in hopes of getting far enough away to capture all of the heron as he flew to the other side of the pond. I also prefocused on the water where I expected him to fly so my lens wouldn't have to hunt far to reach focus. I didn't get quite far enough away, but the shot still turned out.
One thing you can do to be better prepared next time you go out is to look closely at your photos that weren't good and ask yourself what you could have done differently that would have made them good shots. We naturally are inclined to just dump bad shots into the trash and forget about them while congratulating ourselves for the good ones. But understanding why a shot was bad is a very effective way to become better prepared for the next time something unexpected happens.
So I hope to see you out in the natural world with your cameras, experimenting with different settings, learning what works, what doesn't work and why. There is much beauty out there waiting to be captured by those who are prepared.
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