Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Wildlife Photography as a Retirement Hobby

A Trail Ride

Early November, 2013

A typical early morning November fog lay over the Walla Walla valley like a silver-painted rubberized arena dome.
It sealed the dampness of an overnight drizzle that left the sidewalk a brown-sugar hue.

I turned from the window, booted-up the laptop in the gloom of the living room and checked my email.
Fifteen new messages, none from anyone I knew.
In old World War II movies some pragmatic soldiers insist “all debts and friendships are canceled when you leave the squad.”

That has worked for me.

Now I take outdoor photos with Darlene and Nora.

I miss sharing photos via the newspaper, but NOT so much that I would continue the work-a-day, deadline strain.
 I upload many of the photos and stories on two sites, this one an one at www.tripper.smugmug.com .I would enjoy having people visit the web sites, of course, but if they don’t, I will continue to take photos and to write.
I roam the countryside with Darlene and Nora, and it’s fun.
It’s rewarding in itself, and sometimes with satisfying photos.
Also, I can practice so the images I capture will show improvement and be interesting.
I would like to see my photos approach the same quality that I see published by highly regarded professional photographers.
That may be a hopeless  prospect, however, but also a good thing.
I’ve been at it for about 30 years and stored half-a-million images on a pile of discs, in the early days, and more recently on a stack of external hard drives.
And I'm not satisfied, perhaps another half-million will do.
Anyway, like a snuffling blind hog may find the occassional truffle, I sometimes record a prime image, such as the coyote images from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

And these images of a coyote that crossed the road and dashed up a bluff on the Hanford Reach near Ringold.

A fictional major newspaper's business columnist in Jon Talton's Deadline Man considers that many bloggers, those who have little discipline and a limited number, if any, of readers, are wanna be writers.
Anyway, after many years of publishing a weekly outdoor column (1,533) with a photo or, eventually photos, and an uncountable number of sports stories for at least a handful of readers of a daily newspaper, being retired and publishing on line makes me feel like a wanna be.
That's OK.
 So, without readers or viewers, why hustle out every day with a camera?    Well, there's bonding with Darlene and Nora.
And there's pleasure.
My pulse-beat quickens when I stalk, say, a great blue heron.
When I poise the camera to fire a burst of images as it launches.
Its yellow eyes shine.
Feathers on its long, dark-edged wings ripple.
Its gnarly long-toed feet shed a cascade of diamond-bright water.

I'm impressed if  I check the LCD window and find one or more sharp, perfectly exposed images: the great bird rising from the water, neck stretched spear straight, sharp-pointed beak piercing the air,  dark-edged wings wide, scaly legs dragging diamond droplets.
And I’m pleased.
The feeling blooms when exposure and sharpness show on a computer’s full-screen.
Printing the image intensifies the feeling, especially when I share it with  Darlene. And probably with no-one else.
So, it’s a hobby for a wanna be.
Some people build bird houses and stacks them in a garage.
Photos reflect the past.
If they show improvement, or not.
That's OK.
 I'll always have the brilliant colors of a Mill Creek Fall with great blue herons.


Background: Before I quit teaching high school English, I worked as a sports stringer for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. When it's full-time outdoor writer retired, I accepted his beat on a part-time basis, along with my work as a stringer.

After two years, I quit teaching school (after 18 years) and took a full-time position at the U-B, as a sports reporter and outdoor writer. Early on, because my outdoor columns often involved extended time away from the office (on my days off and vacations, mainly), I  took my many of own photos.

This eventually immersed me in photography -- something in which I had  long harbored an unrequited interest -- as at least a semi-professional photo journalist.
With close supervision by prize-winning and highly regarded full-time photography pros at the paper, I acquired a 35-mm film Nikon FE2 body with a hand-grip battery pack, a Nikon 70-200-mm, F/2.8 zoom lens and a Nikon 28-mm, f/2.8 wide-angle lens.
I loved the rapid-fire (professional sounding?)  burst if images with the battery pack. I eventually acquired a second FE-2 body as a backup.
Sadly, I never worked in the dark room, however. Our professionals processed all my film.
Then along came the digital cameras. I started slow, with the tiny Nikon Coolpix 1800, and eventually acquired a second as backup. I didn't want to spend several days in the backcountry and have a camera fail.
Over about 25 years, I owned a series of Nikon’s more advanced DSLRs, including D70, D70s, D200 (2), D300 (2), D300s, D700, D3S and D800.
My stable of lenses, including macros, also grew over the years, many coming as kit pieces.
I often bought less expensive brands than Nikon, including Tamron, Sigma.
I also acquired tripods, monopods, filters, flash equipment and so on.
As an angler picks up seemingly essential gear that may seldom, if ever, be used, I acquired magnifying filters, lens covers, electronic shutter releases and a series of connecting rings that allow me to attach lenses in reverse for special close-up magnification.
Much of that stuff  has gathered dust or lay hidden in a trunk soon the Fed-Ex truck pulled away.
About 90-percent of my photos are taken hand-held with the following lenses, a Nikon 24-85mm, a Nikon 105mm Macro and a Sigma 150-500mm zoom.
I most often use the D800 with the macro gear so I can maintain plenty of pixels after severe cropping.
As in jumping spider images.

I also use the D800 with the long Sigma lens and the 24-85 lens for effective crops and color intensity, but sparingly.
Mainly, I use the D3S or D700 with the long lens, however, because I often shoot in low golden-hour light of early morning or late afternoon. These cameras also have faster bursts than the D800.
Since I record 200 or more images on an outing, especially when after birds launching or flying, processing the 36-mp D800 images becomes tedious. Using the camera's internal crop helps only marginally.

Nevertheless, I love the camera.
I usually fit the Nikon 24-85 to the D3S or D700, whichever is not attached to the big lens or the macro.
In order to avoid awkward changes of lenses on a dusty or damp outing, I lug along the three setups, for long shots of wildlife for scenes and for close-ups of insects or flowers.
I sometimes use the D300s with the long lens or with a Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 lens. The 300s features a DX sensor with 1.5 magnification that gives the 200mm lens the extended reach equivalent to 300mm. And the speed of the lens adds another benefit in low light.
I usually keep a 1.4 extender handy to add reach to a long lens and to add magnification with the macro lens. I also have a 1.5 extender and a 2.0 extender, but neither are the high quality.
So, I don't use them often, especially since I seldom rig up the tripod with the gimbal head.
With digital I began a limited processing of my own photos with Photoshop Elements (Elements 11 lately) and HDR Photomatrix Pro 4.2.
Over the years I have saved thousands of images, at first on disks and then on external disks.
A few years ago I began posting  (storing) photos at www.tripper.smugmug.com and more recently adding photos and stories at www.outtripper.blogspot.com .
I worked fulltime for the U-B until April 1, 2010. I continued doing a weekly outdoor column until the last one appeared in the paper in April, 2013.
As I said, the U-B published a total of 1,533 of my columns,.

I have squirreled away copies of each published column, probably to be tossed out someday.       
My role as a journalist, more or less, framed most of the thousands of images that I collected during those years when I traveled, hiked, camped, hunted, fished or did stories about people who did interesting thing in the outdoors.
Primarily my photos highlighted or illustrated a story. In the later decade, my stories and photos often filled the front page of the Diversion section.

That eventually gave way to the page being shared with other outdoor/recreation material.
Anyway, if my photos had an artistic quality or were interesting enough to stand alone, in addition to highlighting the prose, so much the better.
Mainly, however, the photos functioned to enhanced the column.
And that was generally easy enough to accomplish and to accept.

Reminds me of the old film, The Thomas Crown Affair starring Steve McQueen.
Near the end, Crown insists, "It's not the money. It's me."
A bit pompous, I suppose.
So, as a wanna be, I want to discover value or interest in the photo alone.
Not in having it published.
It enhances my hobby to have that as a goal.
Yet, old habits will be hard, maybe impossible, to change.
Besides, who wouldn't enjoy the attention, or having the money?
Nevertheless, I probably won't carry a tripod and set up careful 30-second shots of hooded mergansers on our regular forays along Mill Creek, the Walla Walla River or to any of the Northwest's wildlife refuges that we frequent
A major photography publication featured a spread with giant magnificent waves rolling toward shore.
The photographer set up a tripod and collected 700 images during a time with perfect light. And, of course the photos are stunning and enviable.
I wish I could do what he does. 
Strategy: Pure luck made some of my most interesting photos possible. The photo of Nora the Schnauzer dashing across Bennington Lake Dam carrying a barn owl’s face, for example, resulted from three rapid frames as she passed.


Consider the image of a flying kingfisher with a small fish clutched in its beak.           It appeared zipping  downstream on my right. I glimpsed the bird approaching, jerked up the camera,  fired a burst and caught a couple of clear, sharp images.

The heron spearing a small yellow catfish and giving me a haughty stare occurred when I stopped at Hood Park on the Snake River to let Nora pee.
I followed her to the river and the bird stalked its prey 20 yards out, in knee-deep water. It stabbed the fish just as I raised the camera.
I clicked off a 25-frame sequence of the heron carrying the tidbit to shallower water, slamming it down and stabbing it a few times before working it so the spines would not hinder gulping it down.

I drove along a bank, just as a badger looked from its front door. I turned around and caught it.

Seemingly out of nowhere a mink ran across a weir toward me with a two-meal-sized crawdad in its mouth.

Once, when snapping an osprey eating a fish on a power poll, I inadvertently recorded an image of a long ling of white crap rocketing from its rectum.

That's luck, good or bad?

I have recorded several photos of birds voiding their bowls, of course, but none that did so with such force.
After many such instances, I have learned one important thing about luck. The more time you spend in the photo opportunity land, the more often you will get lucky.
Then, of course, I have made some efforts to help luck by keeping a camera with the big lens dangling from my shoulder.
The Sigma, with a  f/5.6 aperture, lacks ideal quickness. So, on cloudy days or at the golden-hour times at dawn or dusk, I use an ISO from 3200 to 6400 and an F/9 aperture setting and a shutter speed of at least 1/800 of a second.
Usually, however, I use a faster speed.
I often start a walk with the camera's shooting mode at aperture priority to get the camera’s take on the appropriate shutter speed for the ambient light.
Then I turn to manual shooting mode and snap a few shots of big rocks in the stream. With the LCD open to the RGB window, which flashes  over-exposed spots in the image. I record several images and adjust the shutter speed until I detected an exposure I like.
When walking along Mill Creek in the late afternoon or early morning on a sunny day, we invariably pass through several levels of light.
The light conditions vary significantly less on dark days with low clouds or lingering fog.
Or sometimes even on high overcast or hazy days.
So I often record an image, check the RGB window and adjust the shutter speed for the best exposure.
I prefer an image to be a bit under exposed rather than over exposed.
This strategy works well with the Nikon bodies (D700, D3s or D800) because of their high ISO.
I often use the D300s, with its more limited ISO, during the brighter times of day.
Careful preparations -- and the more careful the preparations are, the better -- improves my chances of taking advantage of the lucky happenstance of seeing a mink, heron, osprey, kingfisher or merganser with a fish or crawdad.
I have captured many interesting images in unexpected situations.
I have missed more than I can count, however, such as the Osprey standing on a rock with a trophy rainbow a trout. Oh, I got the osprey and the fish on the rock, okay.

And I stood patiently waiting for it to pick up the fish and lug it away. As often happened, I looked down to check the camera’s setting and the bird took off with the fish.
Oh, darn!

I missed the shot, of course. Blurred movement on the next shot, muffed by a too slow shutter speed, before finally getting a somewhat clear image as the osprey disappeared.

So, even when I’ve been lucky enough to stumble on a good photo opportunity, I have way too often botched it.

Yet, it pays to be prepared.
I’m working at it.
Every day.

My photo galleries may be viewed at  www.tripper.smugmug.com 


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