7-pt White-tailed Buck
This Shenandoah NP buck was feeding in a small clearing in the oak forest. One of my favorite wildlife photo subject orientations is directly side-on with the head facing forward, or even better, slightly toward the camera.
This particular deer has a slight u-shaped stance that I like. I also like that the legs are somewhat evenly spaced, adding a natural pattern to the shot. That three of the frame borders are clear of heavy contrasting lines is yet another bonus.
I often prefer to shoot level with the animal, but in this case, I had a better background when shooting at a slight downward angle.
311mm f/4.5 1/400s ISO 125
7x7 Bull Elk Bugling in Rocky Mountain National Park
My big lens choice for my Colorado trip was the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Lens with the built-in 1.4x extender. The decision to bring this lens was not a difficult one. I was going to be primarily shooting landscape with access to certain views limited to very long distances. I also planned to photograph wildlife in a range of sizes when the opportunity presented itself. For both situations, the zoom focal length range was more important that a (potentially) 1 stop wider aperture for this lens choice.
I came across this large, fresh-out-of-the-wallow, bull elk trashing a thick clump of small trees with its antlers. After shooting this activity for about 20 minutes from a bad position (from-the-rear was the only angle available to me), I decided to move on. I didn't have much time in this park and still had a long distance to cover.
I was back at the SUV with the lens and tripod torn down/compacted for transport in a Think Tank Photo Airport Accelerator backpack when I saw the bull finally leave the thicket (I think one of Murphy's Laws covers this situation).
I rapidly re-deployed the setup and worked my way to the opposite edge of the clearing that the bull had entered. If I had a 400mm lens prime lens, I would have needed to move back into the woods, making a clear shot far more difficult. A 300mm prime lens would have framed the scene wider than I wanted. With the zoom, a quick adjustment to 350mm was all that was needed.
My preference is to shoot wild animals at their level (a below-level vantage point also works well sometimes), so I setup the Gitzo GT3542LS Tripod in its fully retracted position. Getting a clean background was not going to happen, but I like the trees being present in this case. I did make sure that the bull's head was framed between trees. I adjusted my position to get a just-slightly-forward of a direct side perspective with the head framed between the trees. In this position, a large number of focus points land on the desired plane of sharp focus that includes the all-important eyes. When the bull bugled, I was ready.
You can't tell in a reduced-size image, but even with a wide open f/4 aperture being used, this image is razor sharp even when viewed at 100%. This encounter with the large 7x7 bull elk was another confirmation that the 200-400 L is, in very many cases, the ultimate wildlife lens.
350mm f/4.0 1/800s ISO 400
Black Rat Snake
A very unhappy black rat snake gets a taste of its surroundings in this picture.
Believe it or not, my 13-year-old daughter carried this snake home (she found it in the woods nearby). While the grass in the front yard does not make a good background for snake pictures, I was able to blur the grass into a very pleasing green color by getting down to a ground level shooting position, moving in close and aligning with a brightly lit area behind the snake.
This image represents the near maximum magnification of the Canon 200-400 L lens. I say near because the snake was constantly moving and I had to leave insurance distance to accomodate for its motion.
560mm f/5.6 1/160s ISO 200
Challenging AI Servo AF
A galloping quarter horse provides a challenge for a camera's AI Servo predictive AF mode. And it provides at least as much challenge to the photographer behind that camera.
243mm f/4.0 1/1600s ISO 800
White-tailed Deer Fawns in Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park
I love close, frame-filling wildlife photos, but I also love wildlife photos that show animals in their environment. Getting close enough to fill the frame with an animal is often quite challenging, but I often find environmental images even more challenging to obtain. Another thing I love is a challenge and the environmental wildlife portrait challenge one was one I took on during a recent photo trip to the Big Meadows area of Shenandoah National Park.
Be in the Right Location
Location selection is a big part of environmental wildlife portraits. Basically, you need to photograph wildlife in an environment that invites the type of photos you desire. I would not describe the scenery of all locations that hold wildlife as especially photo-worthy and the tighter-framed option works better in these less-desirable landscapes.
Just as important as a photogenic landscape is that wildlife, or more specifically, wildlife that interests you, is in the location. Location selection resources have never been more readily available. Simply search your favorite image sharing site for the subject that has your interest. Then determine where that image was captured.
Timing for Photography
With the location selection made, timing the photography in that location can be done. If you want fall-colored leaves, there will be a week or two out of the year that needs to be targeted. If baby animals are on your list, there will be an ideal time, likely in late spring.
For the example I share here, I knew that early June was a good time to photograph fawns and I knew that Big Meadows in the heart of Shenandoah National Park was a great place to find them. SNP scenery is very nice, though as with most locations, it can be challenging.
See the Image Coming
Within the chosen location, wildlife cannot be controlled (unless baiting, calling, etc.), so a photographer must work with the animals wherever they decide to be. Learning wildlife behavior goes a long way to set up the ideal shot, but wildlife is generally unpredictable. While locating wildlife, visualizing ideal shots will keep your mind focused on upcoming opportunities, including those that may present themselves at a later time.
The key for this white-tailed deer fawn image, in addition to being in a good location at the right time of the year, was thinking ahead. The deer were moving in a general direction and I knew that the white tree trunks in front of ferns and fronted with tall grasses were coming up on their route. The shorter green grass foreground would be ideal and I surmised that these fawns and their mother may pass through this location.
Be Ready with the Right Gear
I was partly right. The mother went slightly off-angle, but the fawns cooperated briefly by walking, broadside, in line and both within the plane of sharp focus, right into the scene I visualized. I was ready.
Under 10 seconds. That is how much time the fawns spent in my scene. That is both extremely short and very long. I had very few other decent opportunities that lasted longer, but 9 seconds is not much time to capture an image of wildlife in motion even when standing (head and ear angles were constantly changing). This was one of the last frames captured before they turned different directions and leaped off to explore somewhere new.
The 1D X Mark II was in manual exposure mode with Auto ISO selected. The light levels were changing rapidly due to clouds and both deer and grass are kind to autoexposure, making Auto ISO a great choice. The adorable fawns were running/leaping/frolicking constantly, so I was using a 1/1600 shutter speed most of time. It is usually better to have more noise due to a high ISO setting than to have a motion-blurred subject. With the fawns slowing down and with their distance being greater than usual (their movement was crossing individual sensor pixels at a slower rate), I quickly rolled the shutter speed down to 1/800. Auto ISO took care of the exposure adjustment, immediately selecting a lower noise level ISO 1000. High speed burst mode with Case 1 AI Servo AF and a single AF point placed on the lead fawn worked ideally.
The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Lens combo performed impressively on the entire trip. While this lens has many benefits (including incredible sharpness), being able to zoom to ideally compose a scene, especially one with multiple animals, is a big one. Though this image does not take in a wide, grand landscape, it includes enough surroundings to qualify for at least my own definition of environmental. At 362mm, this lens could be set to an even much wider angle. However, I didn't feel that additional surroundings were going to be positive additions to the image. I had enough angle of view at the chosen focal length.
I'll talk more about the 1D X II's amazing frame rate and why it was so important for this location in another post, but ... I made full use of the 14 fps. Just to clarify, there really are two different fawns in this picture. This particular frame taken from a burst captured both in nearly identical positions. Upon a quick glance, my daughter suggested that I may have clone stamped the second deer into the image. I assure you that was not the case – there really were two fawns there. The slightly different leg positions are the biggest clue.
The 1D X II's AF system performed especially well in the tall grasses the fawns were commonly found in and was ready when the fawns started leaping and playing.
Note that I used a monopod exclusively for support on this trip. While a tripod provides better support, a monopod is faster to use. With only one leg to retract or extend and with no leg angles to set, I could quickly move into positions and set up, a key to getting many of the images I captured on this trip. A monopod also means less weight to carry around. The wildlife I was shooting required shutter speeds fast enough to avoid motion blur, especially with the support of the monopod.
Seize the Opportunity
Be ready to take advantage of all wildlife photo ops made available to you. Even if focused on the environmental images, take the tighter-framed images when availed to you. Wildlife photography is extremely challenging and no opportunity should be passed on. Having a mix of subject framing will make a portfolio or gallery appear more complete.
362mm f/5.6 1/800s ISO 1000
Shenandoah White-tailed Deer
I had been following this buck for two hours. I already had many in-the-woods pictures of it including some bedded images. But when it moved into the edge of a clearing with great lighting and a great background, I was especially thankful for the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Lens I had mounted. This lens allowed me to quickly shooting a variety of subject framing with extremely good resulting image quality.
Also note the use of a monopod. Handholding this lens for most of that two hour period of time would not have been practical for me. And a tripod would have taken too long to adjust to get this shot. Using a monopod gives me much enough stability for the somewhat fast shutter speed necessary to capture the constantly moving deer. And the 1/400 shutter speed was not always fast enough for the latter.
338mm f/4.5 1/400s ISO 100
Blue Ridge Mountains
A classic Shenandoah National Park photo is of the tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Contrast-reducing haze provides a three-dimensional effect with the ever-more-distant mountains becoming lighter in color to due light scatter from the haze. Of course, a red sky helps the look.
I was chasing white-tailed deer with the Canon 200-400 L IS lens throughout the afternoon and planned a sunset location that would allow me to shoot the deer with the sun at my back until the sky put up its show. I simply turned and shot in the other direction to capture this photo.
294mm f/5.6 1/25s ISO 100
Big Buck in Big Meadows
Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park is a great place to find and photograph white-tailed deer. This 11-pt buck appears to be on a scent trail, but ... it just has its tail up while feeding.
400mm f/4.0 1/400s ISO 1600
Canon 200-400 L IS Captures Black Bear Cub and an Iris
With the amazing Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Lens getting a nearly-equally amazing $800.00 price reduction, I felt compelled to share an image captured with this lens.
In the spring, black bears come out of hibernation and the cubs enter their new world, full of first-time experiences waiting to happen. This little cub may have never seen an iris before and though it was still nursing from its mom, must have thought the iris looked like candy. After pulling some unopened flower buds from their stems and carrying them around like toys, this little cub approached the big open flower. It proceeded with great effort to pull the flower off of the stem. Too cute.
With a cub this young, you can count on the mother being close by. The zoom focal length range of this lens allowed me to frame the cub reasonably tightly at 560mm with the built-in 1.4x extender switched into the optical path (with some cropping) and then quickly zoom out to 270mm sans extender to vertically capture the momma bear standing upright with a cub between her legs. No single prime lens would have worked in this situation (unless the widest-needed focal length was selected with most images needing significant cropping).
560mm f/5.6 1/250s ISO 1000
Number 3 Takes the Ball
Shooting sports with a zoom lens requires an additional level of skill and attention to utilize the full focal length range. Or, you can just set the lens to your preferred focal length and shoot when the framing is right. The former method is preferred.
400mm f/4.0 1/1600s ISO 160
Attentive White-tailed Doe
They don't like dogs. This doe was intently listening to a dog barking, providing me the opportunity to capture a tight profile headshot of the motionless doe. A 1/200 second shutter speed would not have been fast enough to stop motion at this distance if the deer was not still.
400mm f/4.0 1/200s ISO 200
Canon EF 200-400mm L IS Lens Meets Big Bad Black Bear
This was one of the longest, coldest winters that I can remember, and the leaves that have finally appeared, bringing color to the long-monochromatic landscape, have been calling me. While I have not avoided the typical spring landscape shots, I have been looking for creative ways to incorporate the beautiful light green color of the new leaf growth into my images. And then this guy showed up.
This is a big black bear. One way to tell that a bear is big is by the size of its ears (small) relative to the size of its head (large). It is also is one of the nicest-looking black bears I have seen, lacking scars and other deformities that these animals so commonly have (bears often do not play well with others). It is in especially good physical condition for recently coming out of hibernation. (Yes, the bear is indeed bad - it has been causing damage to multiple neighbors' properties, primarily targeting bird feeders.)
Photographing black bears is usually very challenging. Finding these animals in light bright enough for photography is frequently the biggest challenge. Photography is about capturing light and black, especially in the form of fur, is the absence of light. So, once you find a black bear, properly exposing their light-absorbing black coat is the next challenge. If using an auto-exposure mode, the camera will need to be instructed to under-expose the image by a significant amount. That amount varies depending on the percentage of the frame the bear is consuming and the percentage of the frame you are using for auto-exposure.
If the lighting is consistent (or not changing fast), a manual exposure setting is best. Either way, it is hard to completely avoid blocked shadows (pure black with no detail) – especially on the shadowed areas of the bear and especially if there are bright subjects in the frame (because they will become pure white). With a manual exposure locked in (the log is just under blown brightness before I reduce the final exposure of this image), I was free to concentrate on focus and framing.
Composition and focusing are two additional bear photography challenges. These animals do not stay still for very long – unless they are staring at what they think is a danger (or perhaps is food) to them (me in this case). The closer the selected focus point is to the bear's eye in the desired framing, the less time you will spend adjusting the framing after establishing focus. This means that the bear is less likely to move before the shot is captured and more images can be captured in the potentially short period of time that the bear is posing. A turn of the head means a new focus distance is needed and then I usually want a different subject framing (to keep the animal looking into the frame) and this usually means a different AF point becomes ideal. Sometimes I use only the center AF point and sometimes I use a more-ideally-located AF point.
While I would like to say that I had established this bear's patterns and was waiting for him for long periods of time, this encounter was more divinely-timed with me being able to very quickly capitalize on it. The 200-400 L performed incredibly well as always and the bear did also. The bear's position in the clearing with direct evening sunlight along with brightly-lit green spring leaves in the distant background could not have been better planned. This shot has become one of my favorite black bear pictures and I'm guessing that I will not find a better way to incorporate the spring leaves into a photo this season.
400mm f/4.0 1/160s ISO 640
Bedded White-tailed Buck
I had been following this 7 (or 8?) point white-tailed buck for over an hour when it bedded down. The deer became more and more tolerant of my presence and I was able to work in close enough to get a clear shot.
While my preference is for the look that longer focal length lenses give me for wildlife photos, I would not have been able to get a clear shot with these longer lenses. There was simply too much brush for use of the longer lenses here. That the 200-400 L offered me best-available image quality in a range of focal lengths was very important on this trip.
362mm f/5.6 1/125s ISO 250
Ovenbird with Ruffled Feathers
One of the keys to getting good wildlife photos around the house is of course having wildlife around the house. With even small yards able to attract wildlife (especially birds), the next key is having a camera with a good wildlife lens mounted and ready for immediate use when the wildlife shows up.
The incredible combination of the 1D X Mark II and EF 200-400mm f/4L IS lens has been taking on this duty for me recently. I have had a very high number of black bear sightings this spring (most frequently after the sun sets), and the range of focal lengths this lens has, including up to 560mm with the built-in extender, along with the f/4 aperture has been valuable.
On this rainy Wednesday, it was an ovenbird that made my day. This bird is typically found deep in the forest. While they tend to be low to the ground, the light levels there are dismal. On this day, heavy cloud cover provided reasonably bright and very soft lighting at the edge of the forest where this bird happened to be. The wet conditions provided a saturation boost and some tiny water droplets on the bird. The situation was ideal.
I quickly grabbed the camera and lens combo, threw the switch to place the extender in the optical path and went into action. I worked into a position that gave me an attractive background with a clear view of the bird, initially a profile. While I captured some ideal profile images, the bird began hopping into different positions and in this one, the tail wind ruffled its feathers. I'm still undecided between which of the two poses I like best, but decided to share this one as it appears more lively.
What is in the ovenbird's mouth? Good question. One item is an insect leg, perhaps from a grasshopper. The other is unknown, but perhaps a piece of moss or similar.
On this day, having a camera and lens ready to use for wildlife gave me a nice set of photos out of a very brief encounter with circumstances aligning nicely. The entire session only took a few minutes out of my day. Be ready and when opportunities arise, make the effort to go after them.
560mm f/7.1 1/200s ISO 2500
White-tailed Deer Mother and Fawn Interacting
Spring is when most baby animals make their entry into the world and who doesn't love a baby animal photo? Baby animals are the definition of cute.
Create your spring baby animal photography plan now (regardless of the season you happen to be reading this tip in). Determine what your baby animal subject(s) is(are) going to be, determine where they are located and plan on being at the right location to photograph them when they are introduced to the world.
This year, my animal of choice was the white-tailed deer. Newborn whitetail fawns are about the cutest animal on the face of this planet. They are also full of energy and very playful, making them very fun to watch.
My selected location for white-tailed deer fawn photography was Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park. Whitetail fawns are born in late May and Early June, and I made it a priority to be there in that time-frame.
Watching the weather forecast about a week out, I booked a lodge room for one night. I know, that date was too far away for anyone to accurately predict the weather, but I needed a bit of planning time. The weather forecast was for "cloudy" and that meant I would have decent light all day long and wouldn't need to concern myself with harsh shadows even in the woods.
A couple of days later, the forecast changed to sunny and another day later the National Weather Service began calling for about 80% chance of rain for both of the days I would be there. I prepared for rain (rain gear for both me and the camera equipment along with a large umbrella). What I didn't plan for was heavy fog the entire two days and I really didn't expect it to rain most of the time I was there, but that was reality.
While I sighted many deer, those with fawns were not interested in being in view of photographers (even when approached in a vehicle). The fog drastically reduced contrast and cut realistic photo distances down to 30' (10m) at times, so approaching was necessary. After a long day, what I really felt like doing was hitting bed early the first night, but I continued the effort. That perseverance was rewarded when watching a doe in front of some bright ferns at the edge of the woods.
The ferns made an interesting background and as I was photographing her, she was bleating. Deer bleat to communicate, so I knew that there was another deer or a fawn nearby. With no warning, the cutest little fawn came bouncing out of the woods and began nursing.
The adorable fawn drank with fervor and I shot similarly, capturing nearly 200 images in the about-8 minute long encounter. While the fawn drank, the mother cleaned it and when the fawn finished drinking, it peered out from under the mother, providing additional poses including this one (I also like this image cropped tighter, emphasizing the fawn and removing the bright ferns). Then both went back into the woods and darkness came over the scene soon after.
While my trip overall was not one of my more productive efforts, but 8 minutes with one of the world's cutest animals produced a series of images that made the effort worthwhile.
On this trip with ultimate image quality being my goal, the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II and Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS (used for this image) were my wildlife lenses of choice with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III mounted behind them. When hiking longer distances, I carried the 100-400 L II and also used it from the car at times when the light was strong enough. The 200-400 L was my choice when the light waned and often used it on a monopod when not moving too far from the car. Both lenses and the camera performed amazingly.
Determine which baby animal you want to photography this or next spring and create your plan to photograph it!
258mm f/5.0 1/320s ISO 1600
Riding at Sunset
My favorite natural outdoor light is from a rising or setting sun shining under heavy cloud bank. The background will go dark and the subject will pop. This light generally does not last very long, so you need to be ready for it.
On this particular evening, I was testing the AI Server AF capabilities of this lens. Images like this are some of my reward for such work.
400mm f/4.0 1/1600s ISO 1250
As I was lying in the grass photographing this black rat snake, I noticed an insect walking up the snake's body. So, I got ready to capture whatever happened. The bug reached the end of the road, turned around and left. A very anticlimactic ending I thought.
560mm f/8.0 1/125s ISO 400
Old Shenandoah Buck
This old buck was feeding at the edge of a woods. To get a ground-level perspective, I was sitting in a small drainage ditch.
400mm f/4.0 1/500s ISO 320
Mosquito Bites Black Bear Cub
See the mosquito on this black bear cub's ear? The black bear is at the top of the food chain in Pennsylvania, but that does not mean they don't get bit. Getting bit is certainly going to be on the back of everyone's mind when photographing a bear cub this small as the highly protective mother is guaranteed to be nearby.
A mother bear nearby makes the zoom capabilities of the Canon EF 200-400 f/5.6 L IS Lens highly desirable. To capture this picture of a tiny cub required use of the built-in extender for 560mm of focal length (plus a small amount of cropping). To capture a full body portrait of the much larger mother (with or without cubs in the frame) required a wider focal length. Bears are very unpredictable and may not have tolerated (or stayed long enough for) a lens change. The 200-400 L lets me work fast, capturing the ideal framing potential from the situation.
560mm f/5.6 1/320s ISO 1250
Blue Ridge Mountains Buck
Using a zoom lens allowed me to quickly capture this deer's full body along with some of the also-attractive surroundings after also capturing several more-tightly framed pictures at longer focal lengths. All this before the deer moved its head away from between closest oak trees in the background.
200mm f/4.5 1/400s ISO 125
Ear Cleaning at Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park
Sometimes, it's all about the ears. The white-tailed deer mother cleaning its fawn's ear in the bright green grass of Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park was just too cute to not share.
As I have mentioned before, photographing white-tailed deer in Big Meadows is very challenging. Though I took a lot of photos in my few days there, some quickly stand out over the rest to me. In addition to the cuteness factor, I liked this frame for a couple of reasons. The first is because of the relatively evenly colored bright green grass framing and strongly-contrasting the animals – but not obstructing them. I also like the balanced overall position of the animals. And, all the eyes are sharp.
One of the big challenges to photographing moving animals is often keeping the proper AF point(s) selected and when an animal changes direction, the proper AF point may be on the opposite side of the viewfinder. If the primary subject's eyes are not in focus, the image will likely end up in my recycle folder. This means that keeping the selected focus point(s) on the primary subject's eyes is more important than maintaining ideal subject framing. Getting both right is the goal of course, but I am more likely to delete an image because the eyes are out of focus than because the framing isn't perfect. Cropping can often solve the latter issue.
While I concentrated on keeping the ideal AF point selected and placed on the subjects (the doe's nose in this case – to keep both sets of eyes in focus), the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II's high speed burst mode took care of catching the frame of what seems like the ideal ear position in both animals.
Seeing and capturing too-cute moments like this one feed the addiction!
400mm f/5.6 1/640s ISO 800
Great Sand Dunes NP and Sangre de Cristo Mountains
The sand dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park and the beautiful Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind them are a common target for landscape photographers. To compress the dunes against the mountains requires a long distance perspective and if the dunes are to be large in the frame, a long telephoto focal length must be used. Fortunately, the road leading into GSDNP provides easy access to the that long distance perspective and sharp telephoto lenses are readily available. Unfortunately, there are other issues to be dealt with.
Haze (including that caused by smoke, dust and air pollution) kills contrast and heat waves are potentially seriously damaging to image sharpness.
The haze/air clarity problem is nearly always at least somewhat of an issue when shooting from this distance and the best way to combat haze during the capture is to use a circular polarizer filter. This filter will not completely eliminate the haze, but it definitely helps. The best way to reduce haze after the shot is by increasing contrast. Both were used for this photo.
Far harder to control is the major issue I dealt with at this time of day in GSDNP and that is heat waves. Aside from moving closer (which changes the composition) or choosing another time of the day (or another day completely) to shoot, there is little that can be done about heat waves. Heat waves can be problematic at even short distances (and complicate outdoor comparison testing of lenses).
Being at this location at the right time and day is ideal and both air clarity and heat wave issues can be mostly avoided with the right timing. Locals of course have that timing luxury, but I had only half of a day to spend at this location. I was intent on maximizing my time and embracing what I found.
Many prefer to shoot this location early and late in the day (and I photographed until dark), but I found the dune shadows to be harsh at this time and also-liked the more-subtle tonation of mid-afternoon lighting on the dunes. In this case, I was able to run bands of color through the frame horizontally with the first snow of the season forming the top non-sky layer. Even though I was using the extraordinarily sharp Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Lens and a circular polarizer filter, the end result has a soft painterly effect (visible at full resolution) thanks to the heat waves.
282mm f/11.0 1/60s ISO 100
Buck Looking Back, Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park
Did I ever tell you that the Canon EF 200-400 f/4L IS Lens is really sharp? My daughter and I had one evening and one morning to photograph deer in Shenandoah National Park. The evening presented us with primarily darkness including dense fog and light rain (and wind), but the morning proved much nicer.
This decent-sized 7pt buck tending a doe amidst the short red saplings in Big Meadows was a grand find on this morning. We worked around the deer to get the morning sun at our backs and, as best as we could, stayed within ideal photo range of it for over an hour. The buck was very attentive to the doe and gave us some nice behavior images. In this image, the buck had been cleaning its back (see the ruffled fur?) and stopped to look at the doe.
I used the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS Lens for this image. While my preference for wildlife photography is the look that the EF 600mm f/4L IS II Lens provides, the 200-400mm focal length range has proven more useful to me in this park, primarily because of the need to work in front of obstructions. Fortunately, image sharpness is something this zoom lens does not sacrifice. Take a look at this 100% crop from the ultra-high resolution EOS 5Ds R:
This image was captured at 400mm with a wide open f/4 aperture (to create as much background blur as possible). The RAW image was processed in DPP 4 using the Standard Picture Style with sharpness reduced to only "1". While the camera is extremely sharp, its resolution is unforgiving to lens quality. The 200-400 L is definitely 5Ds R-ready. It is simply a very impressive lens.
400mm f/4.0 1/800s ISO 100
Pretty Girl on Her Pretty Horse
A young girl rides her black quarter horse through a mountaintop field. By shooting from a low position, I kept the rider's head above the skyline and any distractions that would otherwise be present. I did not need a 1/1600 shutter speed for this shot (and could have dropped the ISO setting accordingly). But, this was a short rest between the galloping runs I was setup for. The 1D X delivers clean high ISO images, so the quality loss was minimal.
222mm f/4.0 1/1600s ISO 640
Dear Little Deer
This cute little Shenandoah whitetail fed into a small clearing I was photographing in. The colorful leaves in the background were the reward of planning my trip for just after the leaves fell.
400mm f/4.5 1/400s ISO 125
Girl and Ball on the Move
The Canon EF 200-400 f/4 L IS Lens is a great choice for sports action photography including soccer. With the great focal length range, wide f/4 aperture, excellent image quality and action-capable AF system, this lens will be bringing home many great images including at the professional sports level.
376mm f/4.0 1/1600s ISO 160
Forkhorned Buck Eating a Branch
This small buck was standing in tall brush and eating the topmost branches while watching for danger. Getting a non-obscured shot of his behaviour was not easy.
560mm f/5.6 1/500s ISO 500
We didn't harm the snake, but I don't think it appreciated my daughter carrying it 1/4 mile home with her. The snake appears to be in maximum curl-to-strike mode. This is approximately the maximum magnification this lens can deliver without external extenders or extension tubes being added.
560mm f/8.0 1/250s ISO 400
Twin White-tailed Deer Fawns, Shenandoah National Park
Most of the time, images of wildlife approaching are better than those of wildlife going away. The problem is, where the wildlife is going to go is not always predictable. It is much easier to follow wildlife than to stay ahead of it.
These incredibly-cute twin white-tailed deer fawns were with their mother and she was meandering through the woods, feeding in a seemingly random manner. I was constantly adjusting my position, trying to be in the right place as they passed through a potentially good scene.
When I saw the adorable little fawns headed for a fern-bordered clearing, I immediately saw the potential image and moved into position. I couldn't have requested a better direction, though they came through very fast. With the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II in high speed burst mode, I was able to capture a string of images as they came through. The fast frame rate afforded me the opportunity to be quite selective, choosing my favorite body positions. This one stood out to me for the symmetry in the fawns' stride along with their head positions.
Photographing in the woods with direct sunlight reaching through the canopy makes lighting very challenging. The giant overhead softbox that a cloudy day creates resolves that problem and this day had been perfect. There was direct sunlight in the early morning, providing great warm lighting in the fields of Big Meadows. As the sun rose and the lighting cooled, cloud cover rolled in and provided great light for photographing in and near the woods all day long. This image was captured at 2:39 PM on a late spring day.
But, just because the lighting is good does not mean that the animals will be there. Deer typically feed early and late in the day and finding them mid-day can be challenging. Many photographers don't feel that mid-day is worth their time. Perhaps I'm not that smart, but ... this mother had two hungry little ones to feed and was in need of additional meals. I was out hunting for subjects and our paths crossed.
As I've mentioned before, a monopod is faster to setup and adjust than a tripod and the monopod was a key part of my kit on this encounter. Being able to set up fast enabled me to position myself closer to where the fawns currently were, making the ideal position prediction more accurate.
Another fawn photography tip I'll share is the timing for fawn photography. You will probably agree that fawns are their cutest just after birth, before they grow very rapidly. But, newborn fawns are not as active as those a week or two old. The newborns stay hidden in their beds a significant percentage of the time, making them harder to photograph. If your time is short and you want your encounter rate increased, consider timing your photography trip for a week or two later than you would for just-born fawns.
400mm f/5.6 1/500s ISO 2500
11-pt Big Meadows Buck
This 11-pt Big Meadows buck appears to be sticking its tongue out at me (I didn't take it personally).
Unfortunately, at this time (Oct 2013), most of the big buck in Shenandoah National Park are wearing large GPS radio collars that include a black case under their chin, a leather strap around their neck, a black antenna behind their ear and a large green plastic identification number on each side of their neck. I understand that it is necessary to study the deer movements in light of chronic wasting disease, but the collars are very obnoxious in appearance.
The position of this deer hides most of the collar, with Photoshop taking care of the rest.
320mm f/4.0 1/400s ISO 2000
Shenandoah National Park Buck
When photographing a GPS radio-collared buck such as this old Shenandoah NP example, careful attention must be paid to head angle (assuming that you want to remove the collar in post). Because the radio-covered white patch under the chin and the whiskers leading into that area are nearly impossible to rebuild, head-down positions work best.
Tripods will give you the most stable shooting platform, but the speed and flexibility of monopods often rule for wildlife photography. Here I was shooting from a drainage ditch. I quickly hopped in and setup the monopod for near-ground-level shooting. The buck might not have remained in place while I figured out how to set it up down in this somewhat-unusual shooting location. The 1/500 shutter speed along with image stabilization was easily enough for sharp photos – except when the deer moved faster than its normal feeding movements.
400mm f/4.0 1/500s ISO 250
White-tailed Deer Fawn, Shenandoah National Park
Although the two days I spent in Shenandoah National Park last June were mostly rainy with heavy fog, I managed to get close enough to this adorable just-born fawn for some clear images. The white-tailed deer fawn may be my favorite baby animal and this photo alone would have made the trip worthwhile.
My camera choice for this trip was the EOS 5D Mark III. I made this choice for the combination of image quality (the EOS 5Ds and 5Ds R had not yet arrived) and AF performance.
While I had several telephoto lens choices along, the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Lens was my primary wildlife lens. The deer I photograph in Shenandoah National Park are often at least somewhat approachable (though mothers with fawns seem to be an exception), making 400mm often adequate and the 560mm option is available at the throw of a switch. The other issue is that getting close to the animals is often a requirement to eliminate trees and other obstructions. The need to get closer makes even 400mm on a full frame body very frequently too long (unless head shots are desired). The zoom range feature of this lens offers plenty of flexibility in framing at a range of subject distances.
My second choice lens on this trip was the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens. This is another incredible lens that offers an even longer focal length range than the 200-400. Yes, the 200-400 has the built-in extender, but the 100-400 is also compatible with extenders. The 100-400 is considerably smaller and lighter, but the 200-400 has a wider aperture – a full 1 stop wider at the long end. As I mentioned, the weather was rainy with heavy fog, which translates to dark and being able to stop motion in 1/2 as much light was important.
The next thing you are going to say is that ... this photo was captured at f/5.6. That is correct. The fawn happened to be at the edge of a clearing with an above-average amount of light on it. It had been nursing from its mother moments before and I was using f/5.6 to gain some depth of field. So, in this case, the 100-400 L II would also have worked well.
Moments later, the fawn was bouncing around in the woods and ... that meant that the 200-400 L was the right choice.
400mm f/5.6 1/320s ISO 1600
Feeding White-tailed Buck
A buck feeds at the edge of a small clearing in SNP. As moments like this do not come often or last long, I was shooting fast. Slightly too fast in this case as I did not allow enough room to the right of the deer for proper compositional balance. No worries – just another fix for Photoshop to take care of.
400mm f/4.5 1/400s ISO 125
Black Bear Sow and Four Cubs
Seeing a mother black bear with 4 cubs is a rare opportunity. To get a photo opportunity of the same is even rarer, and to get a decent photo of the same is ... priceless.
The cubs were very fun to watch. They were in non-stop motion, running around, climbing on things (including mom) and playing with each other (rolling over each other). This activity level meant that things happened fast. Getting all four cubs in a single frame was very challenging (an image with less-than-four cubs would be far less remarkable) and a decent composition of the same was nearly impossible. Having the 200-560mm (with built-in extender) zoom focal length range was extremely helpful in this situation.
In this specific scenario (my only 4-cub image worth posting from this encounter), I decided to center the primary subject – the apparently-not-happy momma bear. I generally like to compose animals (and people) with more space on one side frame – so that they are looking into the frame. But, the large bear was positioned straight forward and looking (more like glaring) in the same direction with cubs on either side adding balance. I moved the camera just slightly to the right of perfectly centering the large bear to give the cub on the right a little more room to look into the frame because it was a "stand"-out.
Selecting the ideal aperture was another challenge for this encounter. At f/4, I needed and an ISO setting of 800 to get a barely-adequate-for-the-activity 1/320 shutter speed. At 300mm, at this distance, the under-1' (.3m) depth of field provided by f/4 does not keep more than the primary bear's eyes in focus. Using a narrower aperture of course provides more depth of field, but it also requires raising the ISO setting.
Raising the ISO to 1600 would have been acceptable to me, but ... I didn't want to go to ISO 3200 and the resulting f/8 aperture would have provided a still-not-nearly-deep-enough DOF of about 1.5' (.5m). Yes, the cubs would be less out of focus with the narrower apertures, but the background would also be more-focused, creating less separation from the big bear. As is often the case, there were multiple setting combinations that would have worked for this example and a compromise was required. I'd probably make the same decision the next time.
300mm f/4.0 1/320s ISO 800
White-tailed Deer Fawn holding Branch, Shenandoah National Park
The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II is an amazing camera, but I continue to use the Canon EOS 5Ds R a considerable percentage of the time. The primary benefit of the 5Ds R is its incredibly high resolution. Lighter weight, especially without the battery grip installed, is another advantage.
When planning my fawn photography trip to Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park, I expected the higher resolution to be my preference and packed a pair of 5Ds R bodies along with many spare batteries. I also packed the 1D X Mark II, with expectations for this camera being more for additional in-the-field experience in support of the currently published review.
The Big Meadows meadow is thick with vegetation. Thick patches of thigh-high briars are found throughout and grass covers much of the balance of the meadow area. The grass is not exceptionally thick, but it sends stems and seed heads up rather high and there are few openings void of the tall grass.
While somewhat attractive, these seed heads create problem. The fawns are short – shorter than the grasses. While the fawn may be easily visible, a very high percentage of my fawn photos include a grass across an eye or blocking enough of the fawn's face to detract significantly from the image. With the sun at my back, the ideal lighting for wildlife photography, the grasses created shadows directly on the fawns and the shadows were just as detracting as the grasses themselves, creating double trouble. With careful timing, images could be captured when the fawn passes between the grasses. That is if the fawn was moving slowly and if the wind wasn't blowing.
The problem was that the fawns were seldom still or moving slowly and the grasses move in even the lightest wind, making accurate timing nearly impossible and even challenging with the fawn standing still. Compounding the problem was that grasses close to the camera were not so visible in the viewfinder, but they still contributed to a noticeable contrast reduction in the image. There are a lot of things to concentrate on when photographing a randomly moving animal (focus point selection to mention one) without having to keep track of blowing grasses and their shadows. Shooting from a higher position than ideal (ideal being level with the subject) was often helpful in getting above some of the grasses, but ... the 1D X Mark II's fast frame rate delivered a much greater number of keeper images than the 5Ds R was capturing.
Capturing images at 14 fps, there was often the right combination of body and grass positions in at least one of the frames from a burst. Or, subsequent frames captured so quickly could potentially allow portions of one image to be composited with the other, such as for removing an offending blade of grass.
I'm not sure if this fawn was playing or experimenting with a new food, but it was adorable for sure. I held the shutter release down for the short period of time it was holding the branch in its mouth. While I captured well over a dozen images, only one image gave me a clear view of the fawn's head.
Grass was my #1 nemesis in Big Meadows and was responsible for the delete button being pressed on thousands of images, but the 1D X II ensured that there were plenty of great shots remaining in the keeper folder.
Overall, the success of my three days in Shenandoah National Park was largely due to the 1D X II's capabilities. Even when the grass interfered visually, I was impressed at how adept the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II was at focusing on the fawn. Foreground obstructions are notorious for grabbing AF's attention, but very frequently the 1D X II figured out that the fawn was the real subject and remained locked onto it.
400mm f/4.0 1/500s ISO 2500
The 1 Post Processing Adjustment Needed for Killer Sunrise/Sunset Images
On this day in Shenandoah National Park, white-tailed deer and more specifically, fawns, were my primary target. However, I knew that sunsets from the Big Meadows area were often beautiful and therefore, I coordinated my efforts to be in position to photograph the sky should it blow up in color. And on this evening, it did.
I only had the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Lens with a EOS 5Ds R behind it and a Gitzo monopod under it. Fortunately, that ended up being an ideal setup. With the brilliantly colored sky being relatively small in scale, the telephoto focal lengths allowed me to get a frame full of color.
I photographed this scene through and after sunset, but liked this image, with the last bit of sun still shining over the distant mountain, the best. With a great sky, interesting and colorful images can be made with little or no content other than just the sky in the frame. In this situation, I liked how the mountain in shadow gave the image a base in addition to adding some needed framing below setting sun.
The colorful sky found just before, during and just after sunrises and sunsets help to create some of the best landscape images possible. But, there is one post processing adjustment that can give these images some extra "pop" and that adjustment is saturation. Find the saturation slider in your image processing tool, slide it to the right and watch your image come alive.
But, don't move it too far to the right. Use caution in the amount of saturation you add as this adjustment can easily be (and often is) overdone. Add the desired life to the image without creating a garish overdone look that screams "I ADDED TOO MUCH SATURATION!" I like to come back to a processed image the next day to see if I still agree with my original decision. Sometimes, I change my mind months later.
The sky was so amazingly colored on this evening that I only adjusted the saturation setting for this image to "1" (in Canon's Digital Photo Pro software).
377mm f/5.6 1/1250s ISO 100
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