Wildlife photography can be tough. Finding and getting close to subjects is a supreme challenge. When circumstance hands you a great opportunity, take advantage of it.
On my recent trip to Costa Rica, we had a portion of our trip canceled due to flooding at our remote lodge. We were bummed because it was the part of the trip we most looked forward to. We scrambled with the help of our travel agent to make an alternate plan to salvage what we could. With her help we settled on a new destination.
We ended up staying in Manuel Antonio at the Hotel Gaia. The Hotel Gaia has a private scarlet macaw breeding program attempting to reintroduce macaws to the Manuel Antonio area. Through sheer luck, we arrived at the hotel about 3 hours after they released 6 juveniles into the wild.
Recognizing an Opportunity
As we checked in, I noted 2 people with “big lenses”. Hotel Gaia is a high end place and Costa Rica is a wild life destination so that didn’t seem extraordinary. We finished our check in and headed to our room. On the way I saw the same two photographers on a roof top balcony photographing something. This time I paid attention.
I’m not normally the sort to walk up to a stranger and strike up a conversation, at least without specific reason. I had reason. It turns out that the photographers were both “insiders” to the hotel and its breeding program. They filled me in. The breeding program had just release 6 new juveniles. Even though they had mostly settled into the trees for the day, the photographers said they would be active again around sunrise and sunset as long as they were in the area.
Setting a Goal and Making a Plan
After watching the macaws circle at a distance that first morning, I set a goal: a clear uncropped full frame shot of a macaw in flight. We had 3 mornings at the hotel which would give me opportunities to get the shot. I planned to get up at sunrise hoping to catch the macaws at their most active and in great directional light.
I did some scouting around the grounds for a locations to shoot from the day we arrived. It turned out the balcony where I chatted with the locals was about the best location for birds in flight. It commanded a clear view down on the entire valley on that side of the hotel. And the breeding cages were just below it in the jungle so the macaws seemed to hang out near it even when not in flight.
My plan was simple. I’d get up at sunrise each day and go to the shoot location. I’d say and keep photographing as long as the birds were actively flying around the valley.
Waiting for the Opportunity
There were a large number of opportunities to get perching and interacting with each other. The macaws liked to hang out in a few trees just a few yards from the drive. There were also plenty of opportunities to photograph them in flight at a distance and I took those photos too.
Getting the Shot
In the end, I had only 2 opportunities to photograph the scarlet macaws flying as close to me as I wanted. Both times came as a surprise, but I was prepared and paying attention so I had at least a chance of nailing a shot.
I was shooting my Nikon D810 and Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E with my normal wildlife settings.
- Shutter Priority Mode
- Auto ISO with ISO1600 maximum
- Spot Metering
- Group Focus Mode
I chose a shutter speed as high as I could get away with in the available light, often dimmer than I would like since it was around dawn. An “ideal” shutter speed for flying birds would be 1/2000s or faster but I was often at 1/1000s or 1/500s to get a proper exposure even at f/5.6 and ISO1600.
As the morning progressed I would adjust my settings to the changing light conditions. The brighter it was, the more settled the birds would become. The macaws were most active just before or just after the sun had risen above the horizon. Much of the valley was in shadow still. As soon as the sun was fully up, the macaws began to settle.
On the first close pass, I wasn’t able to nail focus quickly enough. The closer the birds fly the harder it is to track them and the less time you have. It’s a perfect storm of difficulties.
I was photographing a macaw perching in a tree just 10 feet from me. My wife was with me and she started pointing behind me and laughing. Another macaw had landed on a branch behind me and then fell off. I spun to photograph it as it swooped from it’s fall. Luckily, the lens’ focus was already pulled to close so the camera grabbed focus almost immediately.
I had my shutter speed at 1/500s when this sequence occurred. Note the high ISOs even at that “slow” shutter speed. The low speed resulted in motion blur in many of the images. The other settings (handled automatically by the camera, not me) are listed on each image.
You can see the metering system loose control as the macaw transitioned from front light to back light. The final shot in the sequence was after a had switched to manual to compensate for the hard back light.
The entire sequence (excluding the final frame) lasted 2 seconds or less. I’ve broken it down, but it was almost 100% instinct with the help of proper camera setup. I swung around, bringing the camera to my eye, settled the focus point on the macaw and let it rip. My D810 “only” shoots at 6pfs.
Wildlife Photography Prep
Wildlife photography can be challenging. When an opportunity presents itself, take advantage. The first way I did that was by getting up at dawn each morning to photograph the macaws. The second way I was prepared was by having the camera set properly for the conditions and flying birds.
When I put my super-telephoto lens on to do wildlife photography, I normally set the camera up for fast moving subjects. That setup is often a balancing act between the available light and shutter speed. Regardless of the conditions, I make sure I use the focus mode most appropriate to the subject (often Group for birds).