It’s Enough To Make A Grown Man Cry

By: Gary Gray

As I sat and watched moose gathering the other morning, I was thinking about the paths of life that led me to this spot in the mountains and I came to the realization that in many ways I was like my father.

My father was an avid hunter. He spent most of his life living in Kentucky and while I was growing up, one of his favorite pass-times was squirrel hunting. It’s a hillbilly way of life, but for him, getting out into the woods for those morning walks searching for squirrels was a constant thought and motivation.

As his health deteriorated following his cancer diagnosis, one of his wishes was to get back out to the woods just one more time before he died. In a small way, that thought kept him going. He managed to recover from surgery long enough to achieve that wish.

I came to the realization that I had inherited a similar passion. Hunting moose photographs in the mountains. I wish he could have lived longer and that I could have shared my world with him. He would have loved it. Fleeting thoughts, brought on by the joy of being out in the wilderness. Experiencing a connection with nature that many never get to experience while I rationalized my past life experiences and the parallels to my place in the world these days.

My thoughts were interrupted by a moose walking along the road directly towards me. A young bull, on his own path and mission to get to some unknown destination somewhere along the road into the woods behind me, he showed no concern for my presence in his path. As he approached, I followed him with my camera and was able to catch a satisfying sequence of photographs. Once he walked past me, I started the engine and moved on up the trail from which he came.

A bit up that road, about a quarter of a mile, I noticed a pickup truck parked along side the road near a lake where the moose were gathering. A few feet from that truck stood a man, my age, maybe older, and with him was a small dog on a leash. He was simply staring off into the woods at the moose and enjoying the scenery, 10 miles from the nearest paved road.

I pulled to the side of the dirt road near the man and stepped out to exchange a few thoughts about the scene we were both witnessing together alone in the middle of nowhere. I wanted to alert him to the presence of many moose and about being cautious with where he walked his dog, as moose consider dogs to be wolves, their mortal enemy.

As we spoke, he said to me. “This is my favorite place on earth. My father and I used to come to this place all the time.” His memories of past times were strong and had never left him. Within a few moments of us striking a conversation, he began tearing up and became emotional. “I wish he could be here with me to see this today.” he said. I told him that I understood the feeling and shared the same reverence for this spot in the mountains. He tried to continue the conversation, but I could tell that I caught him at a moment of silent contemplation and that his emotions had taken hold of him. I was intruding.

He was slightly embarrassed and apologized for crying about his memories. I shook his hand and gave him a big smile. “Brother, I fully understand. I love this place too and it’s those fond memories of the past that help keep things in perspective.” I said.

I wished him well and apologized for intruding into his private thoughts along that isolated mountain road.

I smiled with understanding when he said “It’s okay, I just get emotional when I come out here. I miss sharing this with my dad. Pay no mind to me.”

It was time to wrap up the morning adventure so I kept driving along the road towards the highway. Within a short distance, my thoughts drifted back to my father and the kinship the stranger and I shared in that moment. Profound thoughts concerning the encounter overwhelmed me. My eyes moistened up and I had to pull off the road long enough to clear the slow forming tears from my eyes. Sharing that moment with the man in the wilderness had overwhelmed him and me both.

The beauty and serenity of being alone in the wilderness in what has to be one of the most magnificent places in the world has a way of taking hold of your thoughts. For a few brief moments that morning my long deceased father sat with me in that truck. The awesomeness of the experience can’t be measured, it’s too profound.

It’s enough to make a grown man cry.

Wildlife Photography Pointers For Working From Your Vehicle

By Gary Gray

I’ve been hosting wildlife photography workshops in Colorado for over 13 years. I’ll share some of the things I’ve learned over the years. Pointers on how to have a better wildlife photography experience while shooting from a vehicle.

Ethics

Your personal behavior is going to have a direct effect on your results. Someone else being stupid isn’t a license to be stupid. Always show respect to other photographers and tourists who may be in the same location you are working.

Respect the animals you are going to photograph. Don’t harass or chum or try to personally interact with them. Most animals are going to be aware of your presence. If the animals you are photographing change their behavior to compensate for your actions, you’ve gone to far. Animals have body language that is fairly easy to read. The most immediate clue large animals will give you is they turn their butts towards you. If you see a herd of deer or a small group of elk and all their butts are pointed at you, guess what their next action is? They are going to move away from you. Animal butts are a good sign you need to move on. Never approach a wild animal, even if they are friendly and habituated to human activity.

Working from a vehicle

Be quiet. Don’t have conversations with those around you. Don’t stomp around through the woods or along paths, snapping sticks and twigs or crunching gravel. Take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints. If you are working from a vehicle, turn the stereo/radio off. Turn the ringer off on your mobile phone.

Be still. Once you’ve positioned yourself, don’t move around. Don’t pick up your gear and head out into a field to get closer. No sudden movements. Try to avoid direct or prolonged eye contact with the animals. If you are innocuous, there’s a good possibility that the wildlife will lose interest in you and meander closer.

Never try to chum wildlife with food. Wild animals don’t eat potato chips or ham sandwiches. Moldy bread can be fatal to ducks. Be smart and let them feed themselves. Your food is only going to create a greater risk to their survival. Don’t use artificial sounds to lure wildlife to you.

Every photographer I know has iBird on their smart phone. Don’t play bird sounds in hopes of attracting birds. Leave the elk calls at home.

Remember that you are not in charge of what others do. It’s not your responsibility to make sure everyone you see around wildlife is behaving properly. I’ve seen many obnoxious tourists and photographers ignoring everything and everyone in a quest to get a photo. They have the right to be there. Keep your temper in check and don’t let things escalate into a conflict with others. I normally just move somewhere else so I don’t have to interact with obnoxious people.

Most of my wildlife photography is done from a vehicle. There’s a lot of wilderness and many forest roads to explore in Colorado and the vehicle offers me the best opportunity to get closer to animals because moose, elk, deer, bighorn, and mountain goats don’t consider automobiles to be a threat. At least not until they see a person.

When exploring an area, always make a second pass. I have routes I travel all the time and I always do a couple of laps at least. Animals move frequently and you may not have seen anything on one trip through, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t something there.

Always check your six. I can’t count the number of times I’ve driven through an area only to look in the rear view mirror and see something crossing the road 50 yards behind me. It’s like they were waiting for me to pass before crossing.

Have your camera ready and with you before you see the animals. When entering a wildlife search area, having that camera ready to go can make the difference between getting a shot and watching a critter disappear into the woods. Often times you’ll only have a couple of seconds to get a quick shot out the window. Speaking of windows, keep the window down when on patrol. Even if it’s cold. Otherwise you could easily be too late as the animal is gone before the window is down. Don’t smoke in the vehicle. That smoke can waif through the windows directly in front of your lens.

When you are on patrol and spot animals, don’t slam on your brakes and jump out of the car. That’s a sure fire way to scare an animal off. If you can’t shoot from the window and must exit the vehicle. Creep to a halt before the animal is reacting to you. When you exit, get out of the vehicle on the blind side using the car as a visual obstacle. Don’t walk out from behind the car into the open. Peek around the car and try to get shots from a covered position. If you are on the side of the vehicle that faces the animals, stay in the vehicle and shoot from the window.

Don’t shoot from a moving vehicle, your shots will be blurry. Don’t shoot through the window glass, your shots will be blurry. When stopped, turn the engine off in your vehicle. Exhaust can waif in front of your lens and create convection distortion and you’ll also eliminate the vibration caused by the engine running. Never rest your lens on the top of the window with the engine running. Be still. don’t wiggle around in the vehicle. Ask others in the vehicle to be still as well.

You’ll often be alerted to the presence of animals by a group of cars pulled off the road ahead of you. Don’t drive directly into the group, and jump out. Try to get shots through the window only after you’ve made a silent and unobtrusive approach to the scene. You don’t need to aggravate those who got there first by scaring off their subjects. Never slam the door. Slowly close it without making noise. Also, don’t leave your car door hanging wide open when you walk away from the vehicle. Push it closed gently. If the driver needs to move the vehicle that closed door is going to help them move quickly and silently. Take the keys out of the ignition before you exit the vehicle. There’s nothing more annoying than your car beeping away like a garbage truck in reverse while you’re trying to get a photograph without being noticed.

If you are traveling with three people in a vehicle, pick the back seat. You can shoot from both windows. The driver and other front seat passenger are going to be stuck with only one direction to shoot.

Never put your camera on the dashboard. If you forget it’s there and move the vehicle, it will roll off onto the floorboard and, well, that could be disastrous for a lens or the camera.

Safety

Your safety and the safety of the wildlife should always be a prime consideration. Don’t put your passengers or yourself at risk by trying to shoot from the side of a busy highway. Don’t put your vehicle in a situation that it can’t handle. Muddy roads with deep puddles can often be much more hazardous than they appear to be. When I know I’m going to be on some rough terrain, I always take my 4×4 pickup truck with off road tires. The last thing you want is to break down in the middle of nowhere with ten thousand dollars worth of camera gear left in your car while you hike 10 miles to get help.

Drive slowly when on the back roads. You’ll see more action that way and it keeps the dust down. If traffic begins stacking up behind you, be polite, pull over and let them pass. If you’re behind someone driving slow, keep some distance until you can pass without being obnoxious about it. It’s not rush hour in the city. Don’t be a road hazard and always assume somebody behind you is going to be impatient with your slow driving. Driving slowly also reduces the risk to wildlife which can run in front of you without notice. You don’t want to run into a moose going 40 miles per hour. It will kill the moose, it could kill you or your passengers and it would definitely do damage to your vehicle.

Never follow behind animals moving along the road. If you get behind them and move with them, they’ll panic and could hurt themselves trying to flee. Just pull over and wait a couple of minutes. They’ll probably be off the road by the time you see them again and if not, pull over and wait some more.

That’s my advice and I’m sticking to it.

A Primer for Achieving Sharp Focus on Super-Telephoto Lenses

By: Gary Gray

The article photo of the deer was taken with a Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD A011 super-telephoto lens, hand held, using a Canon EOS 6D full frame DSLR. Settings: 1/1000 sec, f/6.3, ISO 1250, 552 mm.

A few tips for beginners and folks learning how to use a super-telephoto lens like the Tamron 150-600mm.

In my workshops, the biggest problem I see students have with long super-telephoto shots is getting sharp images. It’s normally a question of technique and knowledge of how to use the lens.

The first task is to learn the reciprocal rule. The minimum shutter speed should be the reciprocal of the focal length. If you’re shooting it at 600mm on a full frame body, you don’t want to use a shutter speed slower than 1/600th second. If you have a crop sensor camera, multiply your focal length by the crop factor and apply the reciprocal rule.

I seldom shoot wildlife or any telephoto subject at less than 1/1000th a second, and faster is better if you have the light for it.

If you are attempting panning shots at with a shutter speed slower than 1/1000th a second as your hit rate will be low. Lower shutter speeds may be possible for an artsy look, but in general, the faster your shutter speed, the less the subject or your movement will affect the image sharpness

I try to at least use a mono-pod when possible even though you may have a fairly usable lens hand held. A tripod is best though if you can use one.

Turn off Image Stabilization when using a tripod, it will not help you and may ruin images by correcting while stable.

On a tripod shooting a fixed subject, use your mirror lockup function. It can take 10 seconds for the lens to steady up after barely touching the camera.

Use a tripod rated for the weight of the entire setup and use a high quality head for stability.

If you know how to do it, adjust the lens micro-focus. My super telephoto lens is the Tamron 150-600 and is very close to perfect but did have a tweak of 2-3 clicks on both my main bodies. I’ve seen Canon L lenses be as far off as 16 clicks, so don’t let major adjustments freak you out. Every lens is different. Micro-focus calibration does help a great deal sometimes.

I usually fire shots in 3-4 frame bursts, not for spray and pray, but for sharpness. When you push the shutter button, you’ll flinch and move the camera. A burst will allow the flinch movement to dampen out and one of the shots will almost always be sharper than the others in the burst.

When working from a vehicle, here are a few tips to keep your images looking good.

When you stop the car, turn the engine off and allow the vehicle exhaust to dissipate. This is especially important in cold weather. Automobile exhaust can waft into the field of view creating distortions and even visible exhaust vapor in the image. In addition to the vapor issue, a running automobile is vibrating. Motor vibrations will transfer to the lens and will result in a loss of sharpness. If others are in the vehicle, ask them to remain still. There’s nothing worse than trying to hold a subject steady in the viewfinder at 600mm with someone doing the wiggle dance elsewhere in the vehicle.

Another consideration is the temperature differential between the inside of the vehicle and the outside environment. When searching for wildlife that I’ll be photographing through a window, I try to keep the inside vehicle temperature as close to the outside temperature. Rolling down a window in very cold weather with the inside of the vehicle being toasty warm can result in additional vapor distortions from the warm air hitting the cold air, at the point of interface, your window. A stable temperature will prevent the lens from clouding and will lower distortions.

There are beanbags made specifically to drape over a partially raised window for resting your camera on. With the engine off, using a beanbag will help you steady the shot in a manner similar to using a mono-pod. It doesn’t have to be expensive to be effective. Even a small amount of cushioning between the lens and window will help.

Camera body settings.

Most brands of cameras have similar functionality; however, the names the mfg uses for these functions may be different. Some of the settings I use are as follows.

Auto-focus is always set to AI Servo mode. I want the camera auto-focus to continuously track the subject. Why? Everything is always moving. You move, the subject moves. A single focus lock is insufficient to insure good focus on any moving subject, at any speed, at any distance. You see an animal, you push the focus button, the camera focuses, by the time you fire the shutter the subject and you have moved. Continuous focus tracking will give you a much higher likelihood of getting an in focus image.

Back button focus. If your camera allows you to use your thumb to press a button on the back of the camera to turn start the camera focusing, use it. I always use back button focusing and shutter button for exposure and shutter firing. Thumb and index finger coordination is pretty simple unless you have a deformed hand. This technique also allows you to focus and recompose.

Use the center focus point. The more focus points you use to auto-focus, the more likely the camera will get it wrong. The camera doesn’t know where a deer’s eye is. Spot focus on the eye, recompose and fire the shot. The internal processor will also have less work to do calculating a correct focus and it will speed up the focusing action.

Correct diopter setting is a must for monitoring focus accuracy. The diopter adjustment is found along side the view finder. Your first line of defense against an out of focus image is your eye. If the diopter is not correctly set, you’ll never know if the image is in focus until you look at the image on your computer. Change your lens, change the diopter. Change your eye glasses, change the diopter. When you are firing off shots, be aware of the focus quality you see in the viewfinder.

Some DSLR’s will allow you to configure the shutter to not fire if the lens isn’t reporting a focus. You’ll have a choice of setting the shutter fire priority to either focus tracking or shutter priority, meaning if you set your camera to fire shots even if the lens isn’t reporting a focus, you’ll probably end up with a lot of out of focus shots. This may work for spray and pray, but an astute photograph doesn’t waste time and chip on getting bad results. The drawback to using focus priority is that the camera may not fire when you think it should because it’s not in focus. You’ll have to make the call on how to configure it, but at least be aware of the techniques and configuration possibilities.

Depending on the brand of lens you are using, the manual focus ring may be able to cause problems if you have your hand cupped around the lens over the focus ring. Some lenses allow manual focus while auto-focus is enabled. If you have a grip on the focus ring, simple hand movement can defocus the camera. Watch where you place your hand when shooting. I try to keep my hand as far out towards the end of the lens as possible, away from the focus ring and only touching the zoom ring. Same thing when resting the lens on something. Don’t rest the lens on the focus ring.

Lastly, get out and practice often, review your results and correct your mistakes.

Practice makes perfect. Perfect is an acceptable result.

The Depth of Field Myth

By Gary Gray

Originally published in 2007 on Have Camera -Will Travel, I’ve since made a few edits to this article and am republishing now as one of my most popular articles from the past. It is still relevant.

There seems to be a common belief that the camera with a full frame sensor will provide the photographer with more or less, (depending on which techno-wiz camera geek you talk to) depth of field than a cropped sensor camera such as the EOS 30D, which can be viewed either as an advantage or a drawback (depending on which techno-wiz camera geek you talk to.) On some internet forums you’ll find never ending debates over this camera vs. that camera and the difference in depth of field one format sensor will provide you over another.

Forget about all that. If you’re like me, I don’t need nor do I want to take a ruler and a calculator with me when I’m strolling around with my camera, so I can calculate a minuscule depth of field change between camera bodies. What ever your need as a photographer may be, I am here to show you that the different camera bodies will provide virtually identical depth of field when using identical focal lengths and the same exposure. The more depth of field that the Full Frame sensor supposedly gives you is a myth. Functionally, from a photographic standpoint there is no difference.

Below are two photographs, taken one right after the other, using the EOS 30D and EOS 5D with a Sigma 105mm Macro lens, pointing at a yardstick from the same exact distance using a tripod. I’m manually focusing on the 20 inch mark of the yardstick. The only obvious difference between the shots is the field of view (not to be confused with the depth of field.) The EOS 5D will give a wider field of view than the 30D using the same focal length lens. If you examine the depth of field provided in both shots by tracing the yardstick from the 20 inch mark, you’ll see that the focus field is identical.

Image on left EOS 30D, APS-C / Sigma 105mm Macro f2.8/ISO 100
Image on right EOS 5D, Full Frame / Sigma 105mm Macro f2.8/ISO 100

I can’t think of any better way to explain this than by using actual photographs. The depth of field is the same, the field of view is different.

The crop body does not modify the depth of field.

Put the calculator away and take pictures.

Nuff said…