by Monte Comeau
June 30, 2014
I have the good fortune of living in an area where I can drive to one of the premiere Loon breeding areas known to photographers. Lac Le Jeune, BC is a tiny spot on the map that attracts professional photographers and commercial photography workshops from all over the world with participants paying very large sums of money to the tour operators just to get the chance to see one of these wondrous creatures.. The Loons on this tiny fish filled lake in particular are quite ambivalent to small boats as there are many people fishing and they do not pay much attention to them as long as they keep their distance.
Being a Wild bird photographer I want to get as close as possible but also am very aware that these birds and all birds for that matter have a comfort zone we should really try to avoid crossing at all costs. I will not get into all the good environmental practices we should adhere to as photographers when approaching wild birds in their nesting habitats but I think we all agree that we need to give them their space. I will outline my personal method of approaching the birds and what equipment I use.
My mode of transportation on these small lakes is a kayak. An inexpensive small 10 foot plastic model you can pick up at any box store for less than $500. The reason I prefer this type is they are wider providing much more stability and very maneuverable. You do not want to be on something the least bit tippy with $20,000 in photography gear on board! Some of these lakes have narrow channels through the reeds that lead to other open areas of water so these small kayaks work great for what I do. A word of caution: Your insurance provider will not cover you gear when water-born. I discovered this standard clause after many years of thinking I would be covered if some disaster occurred. So if you plan on doing this be aware of the risks.
My main camera body is the Nikon D4. I also use a D7100 DX crop body for the extra reach and huge amount megapixels. Filling the frame with 24.5 megapixels gives you an enormous amount of detail and allows you to do 50% crops and still maintain a great image. If you shoot small birds a lot like I do then you know that cropping is part of the game.
If I know I am going to be shooting something special I will use the Nikon 600mm f/4 VR. In my opinion there is just no other lens on the planet that gives such a unique perspective of your subject. Combined with the lower point of view shooting from the kayak provides the results are beautiful. For you Canon shooters I am sure the Canon equivalent will provide this same look and feel. If you cannot afford this beast of a lens I would suggest you rent one for a weekend, every photographer should try these out at least once. All the images in this article are shot with the 600mm and D4. Some have the Nikon 1.4 TC attached as well.
My most used lens by far is the Nikon 200mm-400mm f/4VR Zoom. Not the beautiful results like the 600mm but very very good. For myself, this lens is fairly lightweight for a telephoto and easily handled in the kayak. I sometimes take both bodies and lens with me on the kayak but generally I only take one telephoto and a wide angle just in case I see a beautiful landscape and I am feeling creative.
I shoot handheld. Even with the 600mm. The camera settings I use allow me to do that and mounting the lens just does not provide me with enough flexibility to get in position quickly to get the photos when the opportunity presents itself. I can usually brace myself and the lens tightly enough to provide extra stability and like I mentioned the camera settings I use are essential to allow me to handhold the heavy lens.
The D4's image quality at high ISO's are a huge help in allowing me to use the auto ISO setting and customize it so that the camera will never go below a 1/1600 of a second shutter speed. I set the camera in Aperture priority mode because I want to control the depth of field and with the confidence in knowing that the shutter speeds will never go below the 1/1600 threshold I usually just leave the settings like this and shoot away. I also set the maximum ISO to not go over 1600 just to ensure the images remain high quality. I should mention the F4 lens are a huge help in this and I generally shoot wide open or f/5.6 if I get too close to my subjects. On the D7100 with these same settings the image quality suffers somewhat from noise at 1600 so I usually dial that down to a maximum 800 ISO.
I use spot focus so that I get what I am aiming at. Generally with birds I focus on their heads to get the eye as sharp as possible. I find when using any of the other focus methods I get less keepers. I realize I have this very good focusing system on the D4 with 51 focus points and a bunch of other very advanced features but I still use the single point focus, hard to change old habits I suppose. I change my metering mode between matrix and spot depending on the backgrounds. I have found that if the background is darker then matrix metering will help with a more balanced exposure. If the backgrounds are on the darker side and you spot meter you will see that the background will appear much darker than it actually is and sometimes the image seems unbalanced to my eye. It is just a preference that I like so try it yourself and choose the results you like. When the background is bright I always use spot metering. This will ensure the subject is properly exposed.
Approaching the Loons is something I try to do very slowly. I will circle around from a greater distance to get the light at my back and then try to slowly drift towards the birds. I have the camera in position and as I drift towards them and I start taking shots. I am usually looking for anything different than the static bird. Any type of movement makes a huge difference to the photos. Once I am at a comfortable distance from the Loons and they are not agitated or showing concern for my presence I will stop the kayak and shoot as many images as I can in good positions for about 5 minutes then I will slowly move away. I often times will approach again from another angle to provide different backgrounds keeping in mind the position of the sun. Getting out of position with the light behind the birds will not give you the results you are looking for so in my opinion this is one of the most important aspects of any bird photography. All the gear in the world will not help you if you have bad light, one of the reasons I actually prefer to shoot in cloudy and even rainy conditions. The light is so much better!
If you have any questions regarding this type of photography feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be happy to share what I know.
Monte Comeau is a former professional school photographer living in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia who operated his own business until 2010. Since retiring from professional photography as a day job he has become an avid bird and wildlife photographer. The equipment used to make all the images above is the Nikon D800 and D7000 camera bodies and mainly the Nikkor 400mm 2.8 VR lens.
Web site: www.comeauphoto.ca
Watch Video of Monte photographing in his kayak
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