Wildlife is unpredictable – and too often lives up to the "wild" in its name. Getting warm light from a very late day sun to hit an animal directly from behind your back (shadow pointed to the subject) with a good background is challenging. Having the animal be an incredibly-large bull elk and the background be maple trees in peak red fall color definitely increases the image value to me. Having the broadside bull scratch itself with its antlers, aligning the shoulders within a green portion of the background, the antlers within the glowing red section of tree and the head in front of the brightest background (high contrast draws the viewer's eye) was more than I thought to pray for.
This huge 9x8 bull elk had been bedded in the sage and grass. The sun was setting rapidly and while I captured many images of the head and antlers rising above the obstructions, I really wanted a full (or nearly full) body image in this setting. Fortunately, that happened. I was in a great position when the elk stood up. However, the bull's head, looking forward, was in the shade of trees on the horizon behind me. The back scratch was precisely what I needed to leave only the legs in the shadows, completing the image.
While I prefer to use completely manual settings, the light falling on the subjects was changing frequently and the shots were often being captured in haste. So, I opted to use manual mode with Auto ISO for much of my elk photography on this trip. The color of the elk bodies and their environment was neutral enough in brightness that, at most, only a small amount of exposure compensation was needed. In this case, I exposed this image 1/2 stop brighter than needed. The 5Ds R did not have any trouble recovering the red channel pixels that exceeded a 255 RGB value. This brightness adjustment left just a tiny patch of red pixels retaining 255 values, though even more headroom is available.
Based on the movement of the elk at the time of capture, ranging from standing (often looking at me) to running away, this exposure method meant that I could simply roll the top dial to select the shutter speed I needed for the scenario (to keep the image sharp) while keeping the ISO as low as possible. If only one elk was in the frame, the aperture was nearly always intended to be set at f/4, so don't read anything into my f/4.5 actually used aperture for this image. I must have inadvertently (sounds much better than "user error") adjusted the rear control dial at some point during the action. Bull elk are huge and at the distance required to keep the entire elk in the frame, f/4 was still not shallow enough to completely erase the background in most scenarios encountered.
The 600 f/4 is a large and heavy lens. Using it without support is asking for a shoulder injury. While a tripod with a gimbal head is the ideal support for this lens, I find a strong monopod (with twist-locks for quietness) to be much faster to setup and adjust. This speed is very important for positioning in wildlife photography as the subject seldom stays in place for very long. Setting up fast and quietly can mean the difference between getting a great shot and getting no shot.
As you may have guessed, I have recently returned from a photography trip. This one was a 10-day wildlife and landscape adventure to Idaho and Wyoming. As usual, the trip was exhausting but amazing. The in-the-field experience is not only great fun, but also extremely important in fully understanding how gear works in the situations it is designed to be used in.
This trip featured the new Canon EOS 5D Mark IV DSLR camera that arrived just prior to my leaving. I rotated the 5D IV and a pair of Canon EOS 5Ds R bodies between the primary lenses I was using at the time, namely the EF 100-400mm L IS II and EF 600mm L IS II for elk and other wildlife. The 5Ds R happened to be behind the 600 on this day and the resulting image is incredibly detailed, but I would not have been disappointed to have had the 5D IV behind this lens at this time. It too is a great camera. My 5D IV is quickly approaching 10k frames and completion of its review remains a very high priority.