Five Reasons Why I Bagged My Best Wildlife Photos Ever

A friend of mine and I just spent eight days in Florida for the express purpose of photographing wildlife – birds mostly, but some bugs, a few alligators and even an unexpected SpaceX rocket launch. The quality of photos this trip surpassed anything I’ve produced before … and there are five good reasons why. Here they are …

1. Light

As they say, light is everything, and with the exception of one overcast morning we had sunshine, blue skies, and/or scattered billowy white clouds every single day. That meant ideal golden hours after sunrise and before sunset with that wonderful soft, saturating illumination on subjects. It was the first time in three springtime Florida trips I’ve had such good luck.

2. Opportunities

By design, we’d planned to be at two bird rookeries with great access (Gatorland’s rookery and breeding marsh and the Alligator Farm and Zoological Park bird rookery) plus the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge near Cape Canaveral where Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Tri-colored Herons, Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks and many other birds abound. This time of year means that there will be opportunities to see nest building, babies, plumage displays, mating, lots of flying, and just plain posing. Of course, I also took time to look down instead of up and shoot a few dragonflies and butterflies, and look off into the distance for a setting sun. The most thrilling non-wildlife photo op came on a transition day when our Steve’s Diner waitress informed us at 9:30 AM of the 11:11 AM launch of the SpaceX rocket just across the river, which serendipitously gave us just enough time to set up our gear for a shoot.

3. Equipment

This year for the fire time I brought a 500mm lens and 1.4 TC for my 5D Mark III so I could reach across lagoons and up to the top of tall trees to get shots that were previously out of my range. My trusty 100-400mm II lens and 7D Mark II handled most flight shots super well. An Induro travel tripod and Sirui swing-arm gimbal head gave me the stability and maneuverability I needed for my long lens. I was better equipped than ever before.

4. Anticipation

What at first seemed random and chaotic all of the time, became somewhat predictable some of the time. For example, male Roseate Spoonbills that land in a tree by themselves are nearly always looking for branches for their nests and won’t stay long. So, I learned to keep my lens trained on them for the inevitable spread-winged takeoff pose. Also, the male Great Egrets displayed their mating plumage in a bobbing dance move that repeated itself over and over again giving me time to anticipate when to pull the camera trigger. Learning their habits led to better opportunities.

5. Execution

This is where my training at RMSP’s Summer Intensive and workshops and subsequent photo tour experience paid off in spades. Even when one has plenty of opportunities, great light, super equipment, and experienced anticipation, an image can go sour if the camera settings aren’t optimal and/or the subject doesn’t fit in the frame. On this trip, I was mostly able to shoot at f/8, 1/1,250-1/5,000 sec, at ISO 400 or below, in AI servo (continuous focus) mode and single-shot mode programmed into a button near the lens for portrait or still subject shots when needed. While these were my standard settings, I could increase or lessen the aperture and ISO as the conditions changed.

Below is what i think are the cream of my 7,000-image crop. As usual there were plenty of missed opportunities, clipped or blurred wings, shaded eye balls, branches in the way, and under- or over-exposed images, so many in fact that I ended up keeping just 15% of them. The ones I toss, I learn from for the next expedition. But as far as the keepers … the ones that truly cause me to catch my breath and mouth a silent “Wow?” Well, those are the ones that make it all worth it!

If you want to prepare yourself for the kind of incredible photo experience I just had in Florida, Click here to learn more about Summer Intensive and what it can do for your photography. You will not regret it.



One thought on “Five Reasons Why I Bagged My Best Wildlife Photos Ever

Chuck Fowler

Excellent article Steve and great shots.

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