Wildlife Photography is about Perseverance

Stick with it until you get the shot.

A few days ago, while sitting at the dining table in the Mobile Mansion chatting with a friend, I happened to glance outside and spot a large family of quail about seven feet from my doorstep. I scrambled to get my camera and they hustled into the bushes, out of sight.

Since then, I’ve been working on getting a shot of these birds — especially the painfully cute baby chicks.

The Situation

My RV is parked on the edge of a cliff overlooking Squilchuck Valley south of Wenatchee, WA. I’m here for cherry drying; my helicopter is parked next door and the orchard I’m responsible for drying is across the street. Behind my trailer is a vacation home under construction. In front of the trailer — seven feet out the front door — is a mound of dirt and beyond that, a steep drop into the valley.

It’s quiet here at night. During the day, however, is a different story. On most days, there’s some combination of construction noises and orchard noises.

You’d think that shooting a photo out the front door of an RV at a subject less than seven feet away would be easy. Well, although I wouldn’t exactly call it difficult, it isn’t easy, either.

Preparation

First I need to make something clear. Although I’ve been known to take “snapshots” — most often with my phone — I’m usually after something quite a bit better than that. I have the equipment I need to get a good shot, so I started by gathering it together and assembling it:

  • Digital SLR. I have a Nikon D7000 that I got about six months ago. Not a pro camera, but about as good as you can get without going pro. (At least right now.)
  • Telephoto LensTelephoto lens. I have a Nikon ED AF-S Nikkor 70-300mm 1:4.5-5.6 G VR lens that I use for just about all of my bird photography. Again, not a professional lens and, as some have argued, not even a long enough lens for serious wildlife photography. But hell, this is a hobby. You have to draw the line somewhere. What makes this lens especially useful is the vibration reduction (VR) feature, which kicks in as necessary when turned on.
  • Monopod. I have a Manfrotto 679B monopod with a Manfrotto 90° tilt head on it. Yes, I know a tripod would be better, but I lack the skills to use a tripod with moving subject matter. Instead, I rely on the monopod to steady my shots.

I assembled these, made sure I had a card in the slot (don’t ask), and set the camera on Program mode. (Please, no lectures.) Then I set it near the door so it would be handy when the birds appeared.

I had some bird seed in the RV basement from the last camping spot, where I put up a bird feeder. I scattered a few handfuls where I wanted the birds to appear. I was hoping to capture them early in the morning, not long after the sun cleared the roof of my RV and illuminated that pile of dirt. That would put them in a golden light without shadows.

Back inside the RV, I slid open the plastic panel of my screen door. That that gave me an 8-inch square to shoot through.

Then I went about my business inside the RV, glancing out every now and then to see if the birds were there.

Failed Attempts

I don’t know if it’s because the birds are extra observant or if it’s because I simply make too much noise when preparing to shoot, but on the few times the birds showed up, they scattered before I had time to snap a single shot.

This happened several times over three days. Very discouraging. What’s worse is that I know how quickly these birds grow. The cute chick phase would only last about a week. If I wanted photos to include chicks, I had to get them soon.

Success!

My first success came on Sunday afternoon. After spending much of the day napping and reading and fighting off a big headache, I glanced outside and saw the chicks on the dirt pile. I grabbed the camera and began cursing immediately — I’d shut the plastic slide to keep out flies! After snapping a few shots through the plastic (not ideal), I very quietly slid it back open. That’s when mama bird appeared and hurried the chicks into the bushes.

I was about to give up (again) when a few more chicks appeared from the other side of the dirt pile. I started snapping photos. Then dad showed up. I dialed out the focal length to include dad and several of the chicks and spent a bit more time on composition. The result is shown below; you can see a larger shot in my Photo Gallery.

Quail Dad with Chicks

I do admit to being disappointed that I didn’t get that early morning light I wanted. I will try again.

Just One Example

This is just one example of how a wildlife photographer’s perseverance can be rewarded with a good shot. And frankly, it’s not even a good example.

After all, I was sitting in the comfort of the Mobile Mansion, just waiting for my subjects to appear. I didn’t have to stand or sit in the hot sun or in a swamp swatting mosquitos. I didn’t have to hike miles with heavy camera equipment. I wasn’t even watching for my subjects the whole time. I’d made getting the shot secondary to the rest of my daily routine.

In the past, however, I have worked harder — much harder — to get bird photos. In each case, I’d gone where I thought I might find subjects at the time of day I thought would give me the best light. In most cases, there was a lot of waiting involved. And in many cases, my efforts went unrewarded. (Good thing this is just a hobby for me.)

I guess my point is this: If you’re serious about getting good photographs of wildlife, you need to be willing to try repeatedly and/or wait to get the shot. With perseverance, you may be rewarded for your efforts.

What do you think?