Those of you who have been reading this blog for some time know that I am not a wildlife photographer. While animals occasionally inadvertently pose for me and I take their pictures, this doesn’t make me a wildlife photographer; it makes me someone who occasionally takes pictures of wildlife…and there’s a big difference between the two. One important distinction is that, unlike actual wildlife photographers, I don’t go out looking for wildlife. And I have never made a photo trip with the express intention of photographing wildlife.
But when I was in the stages of planning this Florida trip–a stage which didn’t last all that long, as I noted in an earlier post–I fully anticipated that I would spend some percentage of my time photographing birds in the Everglades, given how plentiful and (relatively) approachable they are in many areas. Landscape photography was, as always, my top priority but given that I planned to visit some areas where wildlife would be the principal focus, this represented something different for me.
If anything, I underestimated the amount of time I would spend photographing birds. They were a constant presence in the Everglades–on the ground and/or in the trees or in the air just about anywhere where there was standing water and frequently flying overhead in many of the areas where no water was evident. So even when I wasn’t in an area of the Everglades–the Anhinga Trail, Shark Valley, Paurotis Pond, etc.–where birds were the intended main subject, I often found myself pulling out the long lens after stumbling across birds wading or flying around. And, what’s more, I ended up finding a significant number of birds during my time in Big Cypress National Preserve, my day in the Keys and during the parts of several days I was in Palm Beach County, some 90 minutes north of Miami. If there was one constant on this trip, in fact, it was the presence of birds.
Birds in Florida are, compared to most other places I’ve been, both extremely numerous (particularly in the winter) and relatively approachable. In a few places that I visited–the Anhinga Trail and Shark Valley in Everglades National Park–the birds were extremely approachable, given their acclimation to the presence of people. All of this makes photographing birds much, much easier than it is most other places. It means that you don’t necessarily need or want the kind of reach (think 500-600 mm prime lenses with teleconverters) that are all but absolutely necessary elsewhere. It’s not that you can’t benefit from that length in some spots, but it’s definitely not required in others. (In some spots it would be an outright impediment.) I used my 80-400 mm lens exclusively when photographing birds and found it to be perfectly adequate the vast majority of the time. In fact, the broad zoom range was very handy when photographing in the avian-rich areas of the Anhinga Trail, Shark Valley and Big Cypress in particular.
Also, because many of the birds are quite large and will frequently perch or wade nearby, having a camera optimized for action photography is rarely necessary. That’s not to say you couldn’t benefit from a 10 frames per second camera, particularly if you’re inclined to “machine gun” images, but I never, ever clogged the buffer on my D800E (usable as an action camera, but not one designed specifically for it).
I think if you look closely you’ll see that many of my bird shots kind of reflect the landscape photographer in me as I often felt the impulse to reveal the scene in which the birds were situated. Partly for that reason, many of my favorite shots were made in Big Cypress, a beautiful, mature bald cypress forest/swamp that represents one of the most enchanting settings I’ve ever experienced. I’ve long wanted to photograph in a cypress swamp and I wasn’t at all disappointed by the experience. In fact, I was so enticed by it that I spent most of two full days in the preserve, photographing both landscapes and wildlife–birds and alligators.
In the next installment, I’ll talk about some of the technical aspects–an inevitable sideshow–that I worked with in my foray into bird photography, including, but not limited to, my harsh baptism into the world of attempting to photograph birds in flight. From my seat-of-my-pants experience working with back button autofocus to (gasp!) handholding the camera, it’s sure to be an interesting story.