Picture perfect

by Sharon Oosthoek

If a sasquatch were suddenly to walk out of the forest,  you should try to squeeze off a few pictures, jokes nature photographer Robert McCaw. More typically, though, the best images are a result of planning, patience and a solid understanding of the habits of the animal you are trying to photograph.

“I go out to photograph – not photograph while I’m out,” says McCaw, whose images often appear on the pages of ON Nature. “Knowing an animal’s habits is really important. If I’m looking for red fox pups, I know almost to the week when to look. In southern Ontario, that’s around the last two weeks of May.”

Renowned for his stunning images of hundreds of bird species, McCaw goes out in May and June to photograph birds in full breeding plumage. Tip: songbirds are best shot in the early morning, when they are most active and the light is good. Later in the day, when the sun is high, it casts shadows that can obscure the subject.

If you are after raptors in flight, get up high so you can shoot them at eye level. “Hawk Cliff on Lake Erie is ideal because they go right past you,” he says.

Photographer Ethan Meleg, who also takes photographs for ON Nature, says anticipating an animal’s movements is important. “Warblers are especially tricky, because they’re always on the move, hopping about on branches. Figure out the direction they’re going in and try to get ahead of them instead of chasing them.”

Meleg and McCaw, along with nature photographer Dave Taylor, recommend shooting birds and turtles – both skittish creatures in the wild – from behind blinds. A blind camouflages the photographer, allowing the person to get closer to the subjects and observe them acting naturally.

Many professional photographers use a “bag blind,” which is simply a large piece of fabric – camouflage-coloured for spring, summer and fall, and white for winter – that fits over their bodies like a bag. A sleeve sewn into the fabric accommodates the camera lens.

Using a blind to photograph mammals is less effective than it is for birds and turtles, because mammals can pick up your scent. Larger animals are best shot in parks where they are somewhat used to humans, the photographers say, and usually at dawn or dusk when most animals are active and the light is ideal.

All three photographers prefer using digital cameras, arguing that the images they capture are as good as or better than those taken using film – and using a digital camera saves having to pay for film. “Once you’ve made the investment in digital, you’re way ahead of the game, so you can afford to buy better equipment,” says Taylor.

So what about equipment? Most of us don’t have $3,000 to drop on a lens, much less a camera. But if you’re going to splurge on something, go for a camera with a focus point, which looks like a rolling square in the viewfinder. Such cameras are not cheap – $1,500 to $2,000 at the low end – but they let you adjust the focus point by using a dial or thumb pad that moves the square around the viewfinder. Whatever is inside the square will be most sharply focused.

“What part of the animal should you be able to see with the greatest clarity?” asks McCaw. “The face and eyes – particularly the eyes. If the eyes are not in focus, the picture doesn’t have life.” Most nature photography requires at least two lenses, McCaw adds: a wider one – say 17 to 40 millimetres – for landscapes and a 70- to 300-millimetre telephoto one. But it’s not all about the gear, cautions Meleg. “Most people think gear is their limitation. It’s not. It’s all about perseverance. I always say my most important accessory as a nature photographer is an alarm clock.”

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