Lessons in Nature Photography

Peggy Farren 2014-08-29

by Peggy Farren

If you have been following our blog, you know that I purchased a 100-400mm lens recently. I used it for the first time photographing dogs on dog beach. http://understandphotography.com/my-new-100-400mm-lens-and-a-better-beamer/

Mike Sullivan and Peggy Farren

Yesterday, I was privileged to take the Orange Jeep Tour out at Ave Maria, Florida. Because our tour guide has been a past student of mine, I may have gotten a bit of preferential treatment. Which I have no problem with!! But chances are, Mike Sullivan treats all his clients as well as he treated us. He was a really great tour guide!

I have been a professional portrait and wedding photographer for over 16 years. I don't have to think when I take pictures at a wedding or while doing a family portrait. I know exposure, I know lighting, I know composition - very well. However, once you get the technical side of photography down, practice is what will help you get those fabulous images!

I have taken all the nature photography classes that Understand Photography offers. I know in theory what you are supposed to do. But out there in the wilderness yesterday - it's not as easy as it seems!

I had to think about everything I did. I was very slow and missed most of the best shots. Here are some of the lessons I learned:

1. Leave your camera in Shutter Priority mode. The birds were flying out of the brush quickly. As a portrait photographer, I always shoot in manual. So of course my settings were all wrong to capture wildlife when I first got out there.

Dial your mode to S on the Nikon or Sony, TV on the Canon dial. It's an automatic setting where you set the shutter speed and the camera chooses the aperture for a good exposure. For bird photography, you'll want a fast shutter speed. If using a long lens you'll want a fast shutter speed. I was using my 100-400mm lens so I put my shutter on 1/1000.

Even if I was photographing a quick landscape, being in that automatic mode makes you ready for anything. shutter priority

2. Use automatic ISO.

When in Shutter Priority mode, you can set your ISO. Most cameras are calibrated for best quality at ISO100. But when out in nature with the lighting changing constantly, it's a good idea to set your ISO to Automatic to let your camera decide. auto iso

3. Know your camera. Using Shutter Priority mode, all my shots were pitch dark. Obviously something was wrong. Since Nikon users are always accidentally hitting their exposure compensation button and messing up their exposures in the automatic settings, I thought I knew how to "fix" my problem. But I'm a Canon user! LOL! Teaching can sometimes mess with your mind as each camera is so different! Anyway, it took me a few minutes to figure out where exposure compensation was in my camera (it's in the menu). Sure enough it was set to underexpose by 5 stops! I have no idea how that got set like that but it was an easy fix. Exposure Compensation Canon

3. Bring two camera bodies. I knew we would be hiking a lot so I didn't want to carry a lot of heavy stuff. I brought my 100-400mm lens on a crop frame camera (Canon 60D). I decided to put in my 18-55mm kit lens in my bag since it's nice and light.

Of course I never had the right lens on the camera for whatever I needed! If I had put that lens on a second camera body, yes, it would have been heavier, but I wouldn't have missed so many beautiful photographs!

Peggy and Marcel Orange Jeep Tour Aug 2014
Marcel was smart enough to bring two cameras.

4. Have a camera bag that you can carry easily. Our guide, Mike Sullivan, had a sling type of camera bag. Many people prefer backpacks. It was so doggone hot that neither of those options appealed to me. I have a fanny pack style camera bag that worked for me. I could keep the camera on my shoulder and everything else in the bag. fanny pack

5. Carry water and snacks. Another rookie mistake I made was to go out in the heat with no food in my stomach. I had eaten lunch at noon and it was about 4:30 pm by the time were were out in the wilderness. We hiked for 30 minutes or so in the hot sun and I started feeling a little woozy. I drank water and found a bit of shade (there wasn't much out there!). It helped a bit but not enough. Mike had a small bag of peanuts in his backpack. I ate those and almost immediately started feeling better. So eat before you go is another tip!

Peggy and Marcel Orange Jeep Tour Aug 2014
Mike Sullivan with Orange Jeep Tours

6. If you have a great guide, your trip will be so much more amazing! Mike Sullivan was FABULOUS! He has the awareness and the experience to notice everything! He could hear the different animals or see their shadows. He pointed out the alligator trails and saw some pink spoonbills at the very end of our trip! (Shameless plug - we have expert Everglades guides for our group and private photography trips).

7. Use manual focus if necessary. Mike pointed out this brilliant crimson dragonfly and suggested we use manual focus. On that big 100-400mm lens, it was a necessity! I tried to use auto focus but I just couldn't focus so specifically! Red Dragonfly

8. Remember you are in Shutter Priority and automatic ISO. At dusk I needed to balance the dark foliage with the sky. I put my camera in manual and thought I was bracketing. Bracketing means that you take a series of pictures with different exposures that you can later blend in Photoshop or your editing software. So I took one photograph with the meter on zero, then I slowed down the shutter two stops, then sped it up two stops. I "chimped", which means looking at the pictures on the back of the camera. All the pictures looked the same!! Hmmmm. I remembered to change from Shutter Priority to Manual so what was the problem? Automatic ISO!! Doggone it! So I changed the ISO to 3200 (remember it was pretty dark) and took the shots again.

Shutter Priority Mode
Automatic ISO kept giving me this shot. Not a good exposure!

Shot in Manual
Shot in Manual. Two shots blended together in Photoshop. One exposed for the sky, one exposed for the foliage.

I'll be posting more of my adventures in nature photography! It's amazing how each genre of photography has its own way of doing things and its own learning curve! Here I am with 16 years of professional experience, almost five years of teaching and I still feel like a novice since I have so little experience in nature photography!! The one thing about photography - you can never stop learning!

~Peggy Farren is the founder of Understand Photography training center. Check out her work here: www.naplesportraits.com

Here are a few more pictures from our outing. Remember I'm new at nature photography! I did hold back two cool shots as each of them will get their own blog post. Stay tuned!

Egret Peggy Farren
That's a blade of sawgrass in the foreground. The grass was so tall where we were walking.

Hawk Understand Photography
Ibis Peggy Farren
Roosting birds Peggy Farren

Silhouette birds at sunset

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Peggy Farren is an award winning, professional photographer, instructor, writer and speaker.

With over 17 years as a full-time professional photographer, Peggy offers photography training through her training center, “Understand Photography”.

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