Prathap: You have some breathtaking photographs of birds and mammals.
What are the important factors to consider while taking interaction/intimate photographs of wildlife? How important is it to understand their behavior?
Melissa Groo: I think it’s absolutely essential to understand an animal’s behavior. The best wildlife photographers are naturalists to an extent.
Learning about the natural history of your subject can pay off bigtime in the field, not only helping you locate the bird, but also aiding in your prediction of behavior that will result in unique, and interesting photographs. For instance, knowing the speed with which a species moves can help you determine what shutter speed you might want to use if you’re trying to freeze it in flight. For a great blue heron, one can get by with 1/1250 sec. For a bluebird, I wouldn’t go below 1/4000, as I did here.
An example: one time, I was standing in a lagoon in SW Florida, using my tripod to photograph this juvenile Roseate Spoonbill. She began to preen and I tilted the camera upwards, leaving much more room above than below, knowing that often after spoonbills finish preening, they raise their wings up high and flap them, perhaps to dry off. I knew it was very possible this might happen and I wanted to leave plenty of room for those beautiful wings to lift up. Just a few seconds later, it happened, and I was ready.
Learning about what sort of habitat to find your subject in, what its favorite prey items are, or what behavior it exhibits when it’s trying to attract a mate―these are all pieces of information that can really help you become a better wildlife photographer.
Prathap: You talk about the importance of considering the safety of the subject. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Melissa Groo: I love to get close, just like any wildlife photographer. At the same time, I see how my presence is a disturbance at times, and I feel it’s very much my responsibility to minimize the impact I have on my subjects. It’s something I talk and write quite a bit about, as I feel it’s largely missing in the dialogue about wildlife photography.
With the advances in digital equipment, the explosion in nature photography, and the popularity of social media, there are a lot of spectacular shots out there, and many people are competing for the next more sensational shot. Instant messaging conveys the exact location of animals, and photographers can be there in minutes.
Many species all over the world are threatened by human pressure, diminishing habitat, poaching, and trophy hunting. Perhaps part of the reason I think a lot about these things is because I come from a conservation background; for years I studied an animal threatened by all those factors (the African elephant). But I think it doesn’t take much for anyone to recognize that many species these days have a tenuous hold on existence.
How can we as photographers avoid being yet another pressure, yet still pursue our passion or profession? Some decisions I have made are that I rarely photograph birds’ nests and I never offer food to predatory birds or other animals. Animals can get into trouble when they lose their natural fear of humans, from owls to foxes to coyotes.
I also pack up and leave when I discern that my subject is not going to be comfortable with me. It’s just not worth it to me. I feel strongly that the importance of the photo should never take precedence over the safety―and, really, the wildness–of the subject.
Prathap: Yet another interesting photograph. It’s quite common to avoid overexposing the details. But you seem to have done it intentionally in these photographs of Western Grebes.”
Were they intentionally overexposed in the field? Or was it done in the post? It would be very interesting to know about the image making process.
Melissa Groo: I intentionally overexposed in the field, in order to bring out details in the blacks of the birds, essentially using the “high key” effect. Spot metering the blacks, I upped the exposure by 2 stops in order to capture sufficient detail. It was a dark, overcast day, and overexposing was my only hope to get an image that had a good dynamic range. I think it worked out well here and resulted in an image that has a graphic appeal to me.
Prathap: This photograph of the Snowy Egret is my favorite. It’s truly amazing. I love it.
A brilliant band of colors in the background, amazing subtle details on the bird’s plumage, the pose, composition, lighting, and low angle, everything in this image is top notch.
Can you give us some tips on creating appealing images like this? How can one get the right exposure to keep the colors and the details of difficult-to-expose subjects like Egrets?
Melissa Groo: Your readers have probably already heard many times over to photograph at the edges of the day, either for the first couple hours after sunrise or the last couple hours of the day, before sunset. That is of course when the light is softest, and often has a warm quality to it.
I think it bears repeating here, though, in regards to white birds. It’s a very rare occasion when I will photograph a white bird in strong, direct sunlight. I think it often makes for an unappealing photo devoid of any detail. The details in a white bird’s plumage are much better served by overcast light, or, if there’s sun, during those moments just after sunrise or before sunset.
But I have found that a wonderful time to photograph white birds like egrets is just before sunrise and just after sunset. At these times, as long as it’s clear out, the atmosphere will be permeated with a soft glow just for a few moments. That’s when I photographed this Snowy Egret!
I arrived at the beach in southwest Florida about half an hour before sunrise, walked through a lagoon, and then set up on the shore, so that I was lying down, using my ground pod. (I photograph all shorebirds and wading birds while lying flat, as I think it results in a much more engaging image. I use the Skimmer Ground Pod, available from Naturescapes.com). I pay a lot of attention to backgrounds and am always pleased to find distant bands of color due to strips of land or vegetation or ocean, that will be rendered out of focus by shooting wide open. My settings here were ISO 800; f/5.6; 700mm; 1/2000.
The strong Florida sun came up about 3 or 4 minutes later, and I packed up and left that spot at once, as, in an instant, it became a much less pleasing shot!
Prathap: I am a great believer of keeping things simple, shooting from eye-level or ground-level, and getting the best background. And you are probably the best person who swears by these principles. Almost every photograph breathes it out.
Would you let us know the importance of keeping it simple, shooting from eye-level and the background?
Melissa Groo: Photographs that are simple, uncluttered, and from a low angle are definitely a love of mine. I think they are a great way to showcase a bird’s form and beauty. I also find that birds are much less afraid of me if I am prone rather than standing.
“Photographs that are simple, uncluttered, and from a low angle are definitely a love of mine.”
The following are considerations that I keep in mind.
When you arrive at your shooting location, try to situate yourself in areas that don’t have much clutter; for instance, if you’re on the beach, try to find a spot that is fairly free of washed up sticks, seaweed, etc. When you’ve figured out where you want to be in relation to the sun, and to your subject, consider the background you’ll have. Is it chaotic? Is it near enough so that even with a wide aperture it will be distracting? Try to reposition yourself such that background elements are as distant as possible.
Set up farther away than you would like, at first. You’ll get better photos if you first let birds get comfortable with you. Before long, you can slowly creep up on them, watching them carefully to assess if they’re getting nervous. My most interesting photos capture behavior that’s entirely natural and unexpected; these occur only because the bird is going about its business and not minding me.
Open your aperture wide. I usually use f/4, the widest my Canon 500mm I allows (or f/5.6 if using my 1.4x teleconverter). I tend to try to isolate my subject in such a way that it’s not overlapping or accompanied by another bird, unless I am trying to showcase their relationship somehow. I always shoot from as low as possible, and I use the ground pod as mentioned above (though a tripod with legs that spread flat can work too). Being at the level of the birds really helps bring a viewer much more into their world. And you see details on the bird’s underside that you miss when you are shooting from a higher angle.
A tarp that you can carry with you to lie down on if you don’t want to get too sandy or muddy is a good idea. I have a silicon-treated one that packs up very small and light. Someone also mentioned to me recently that a yoga mat can be a good accessory to bring for this purpose!
Prathap: Can you give our readers the best bird or wildlife photography tips? Do you have any recommendation on settings or gear for bird photography?
Melissa Groo: As far as equipment goes, there’s no question that a long lens is essential if you want to seriously get into bird photography. At least a 300mm. I have my trusty old Canon 500mm f/4 I that I’ve used ever since I got into bird photography. It’s often coupled with my Canon 1.4x III teleconverter to give me some extra reach (resulting in 700mm), and once in a while I use a 2x teleconverter. The 400mm f/2.8, 600mm f/4, and 800mm f/5.6 are all options. Add a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter and you can come up with some serious reach.
I also still sometimes reach for my Canon 400mm f/5.6 as it’s a terrific lens for birds in flight. It’s not image stabilized, so it’s both affordable and light, and routinely delivers sharp shots.
I mainly use the full-frame Canon EOS-1D X, although I recently bought a 7D Mark II as my back-up camera. Haven’t had much time to give it a test drive yet, but I am eager to have a crop sensor camera again after retiring my first camera, the 1D Mark IV. These are all DLSRs, which I think offer the best options for long lenses, and for quick AF systems. I hear from some people that mirrorless cameras can be great if you’re looking more for portraits than action, and certainly their bodies and lenses are easier to carry around, so that may be an option for some.
I think a good tripod is very important. Although most of the time I shoot handheld, I have a Gitzo 3530LS with a Wimberley gimbal head. I think it’s common to spend a lot of money on the body and lenses, and then skimp on the tripod. They are expensive but if you buy a good one at the outset it’ll save you money over buying a mediocre one and then realizing down the road that you have to invest in a really good one!
As far as some ending basic tips on bird photography, I think the best advice I can give, is to simply stay with your subject. Once it’s accepted you into its world and is comfortable with your presence, really work your subject, photographing it eating, preening, resting. By taking lots of photos of your subject, you will almost certainly come away with something that is new to you, and aesthetically pleasing.
“We don’t have to travel to exotic places to come up with fresh and unique takes on birds; we simply have to stick with our subject and get to know it. “
If you want to freeze motion or capture unique behavior, keep your speed up as high as you can. I’d much rather have a noisy shot of interesting poses or action than a pristine-looking, blurry shot. If I have sufficient light, I rarely go below 1/1600 sec even when I am photographing a bird on the ground, as the bird might suddenly lift off, grab a prey item, or strike a wonderful preening pose. Buy the fastest CompactFlash card out there (I use Sandisk and Lexar brands), use continuous high speed and Servo modes, and try shooting in jpeg format to maximize frames per second (though be aware if you opt for jpeg, you limit your ability to adjust exposure in post-processing, and quality when printing). Above all, know your bird’s behavior, as you will more readily be able to predict action, and then capture it, by having your camera settings ready.
Experiment with light. The light does not always have to be at your back. I think that backlighting and sidelighting can yield very powerful, stunning images, really defining textures and forms.
Hone your sense of light and composition by looking at the work of artists in other media. I think that examining the work of wildlife artists like Audubon and Robert Bateman, and that of painters like Turner, Whistler, Degas, Sargent, and Wyeth, have improved my sense of light and composition.
Respect your subject. If you’re a teacher of photography, help your students learn to respect their subjects. No photo is worth endangering the welfare of the bird or other animal, especially when it has young to tend.
Prathap: What’s the best way to keep in touch with you, Melissa? You are beginning to conduct workshops and seminars in and around the U.S., as well as on other continents. Do you have any upcoming workshops that our readers might be interested in?
Melissa Groo: The best way to keep in touch with me is follow me on Facebook at facebook.com/melissa.groo. I keep it pretty well updated with announcement of news, workshops, etc. I will have workshops coming up next year, but am playing with several options right now, including some magazine assignments, so can’t quite announce yet. I do also offer one-on-one instruction. People can contact me, and see more of my work, at my website, at melissagroo.com.
I am also on Instagram now, @melissagroo. Instagram users may also want to know that last week I took over the Audubon Instagram account, and two photos of mine were posted every day, along with the gear and settings I used and a few basic tips.
I’ve also just been signed on as a regular wildlife photography columnist for Outdoor Photographer, beginning with the first issue of 2016, so people can subscribe to that to get tips and techniques from me. I also write a bimonthly column for the online wildlife photography magazine Wild Planet.
Prathap: Thank you so much for joining us, Melissa. It was a pleasure talking to you. Your knowledge will be of immense value to our readers. Thank you!
Melissa Groo: Prathap, I am honored and delighted to participate. Best wishes to you and your readers.
What can I say after this extraordinary interview with Melissa Groo!
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