I like to photograph almost anything in nature. This past weekend I spend some time looking for salamanders and frogs. These guys are small and low to the ground, so how do you capture them?
First off you need to get low. Down on their level. This means the proper clothing and knee protection. I always wear my rain pants so I can wallow around in the mud and wet leaves. Knee pads or a garden pad are great ideas to protect your knees – we’re not getting any younger. A couple of Ibuprofen may also be in your arsenal to help with those aches and pains of getting low!
A macro lens, extension tube or close-up filters help you focus close and make your subject bigger if you’re using a DSLR or mirror-less system. If you’re using a point and shoot camera, then switch to macro mode. This is marked with a flower usually. This mode will allow you to focus closer. Try not to use the zoom when in the this mode, unless you can’t get close enough to the subject.
A macro lens is the best as it will render your subject life size on the sensor at it’s closest focusing distance. They have wonderful quality and a wide range of f stops, often opening up to 2.8. They also make great portrait lenses so you have multiple uses for them. They usually come in 50mm, 60mm, 100mm, 180mm, and 200mm focal lengths depending on your manufacturer. I prefer the 100mm for it’s size, distance to subject and focal length. However, this may not be in everyone’s budget.
An extension tube is a great alternative that I used for years with my 70-200mm lens until I could afford the 100mm macro. This is a hollow tube that goes between your camera and the lens. It changes the focal length of the lens so it will now focus closer and it doesn’t impact the quality of the lens you are using unlike the close-up filters. I also used it to great effect on my 400mm lens by reducing the 11.5 foot minimum distance. Now I was able to focus on a subject out in the water that I couldn’t get real close to but was closer than 11.5′ and still make him good sized in the image.
The cheapest method, but also lowest quality, are close up filters. These are essentially magnifier filters that enlarge the subject. They are an economical way to get started and see if you like this type of photography.
Armed with your set up, get low and get close. This brings your subject to life! You don’t want to have to crop 75-90% of your image to see your subject.
Last time I spoke to the Beginning camera user, in this post I’d like to give some tips for Advanced SLR users on shooting birds. Birds are a wonderful wildlife subject, since regardless of where you live there are probably birds around. They may not be brightly colored exotic birds, but you have birds and home is a great place to practice.
When shooting any kind of wildlife, I prefer shooting in Aperture Priority. This allows me to maximize my shutter speed based on current lighting by adjusting the aperture setting. I find manual mode to be too slow, however if you have light that is not changing on the subject then manual is fine. However, I often find myself in situations where the bird is moving around from shade to sunlight too quickly for manual mode. I rarely use shutter priority unless I’m trying for a blur technique. Shutter priority can get you into trouble in low lighting or when you have changing light. As a bird moves from sunlight to shade you may no longer be able to use the 1/500th you had it set to. If you don’t pay close attention the image will go dark and you’ll get home with a bunch of underexposed images. Instead I use aperture priority so I can adjust the aperture to get the fastest possible shutter speed for the light I have.
I start with an ISO setting of 400. Current SLR cameras have good quality at ISO 400 and this helps to get a fast shutter speed. For birds I want at least 1/125th second when they are posing. If I’m shooting flight at least 1/500th of a second. I set my aperture to 5.6 to start. If I need to increase shutter speed I’ll open up if possible. Once aperture is maxed out you will need to increase ISO. A sharp grainy image is always preferable to a blurry or slightly out of focus shot, unless of course you are trying some blur technique. Current cameras do well at 800 and 1600. I try to avoid anything higher. If you need to use something higher you probably don’t have good light anyway, so identification shots are all you should shoot for.
Continuous Shooting mode set to AI servo on Canons or AFC on Nikons helps the camera focus on moving targets. You will also need to take a lot of images to get a few good ones. Birds move a lot, so don’t be conservative with taking images, fire away!
White Balance setting depends on the lighting. Auto most of the time though.
These are the settings I start with: Aperture priority set to 5.6, ISO 400, continuous shooting and AI servo/AFC, white balance auto. Take a few shots and see what you are getting. I’m looking for a minimum 1/125th shutter speed for a perched bird. They move their little heads around a lot. Adjust settings as needed. Faster is always better, while too slow is problematic, especially during flight. I rarely go over F8 and then only when I’m trying to get more than one bird sharp in the image. So have fun, go practice on your boring hometown birds and you’ll be ready when you go to someplace cool like Costa Rica!