1/640s @ f/6.3 ISO 320 @ 400mm
Today was a PERFECT day for wildlife photography and I had my best day ever. I’m in Southern Patagonia, Argentina (El Calafate to be exact). I’ve photographed birds in the Laguna Nimez Nature Reserve (on the shores of Lago Argentino) for the past three days. This is raptor heaven and I’ve photographed the Chimango Caracara (Milvago chimango) and the Cinereous Harrier (Circus cinereus) extensively. The last time I experienced such a great wildlife day was in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador (November 2015).
1/1600s @ f/6.3 ISO 200 @ 400mm
I got into the reserve about forty minutes earlier than usual and it made all the difference. The early morning sun was perfect—rising from low in the east and positioned strategically at my back. The soft golden light provided a nice catch-light in each bird’s eye as I snapped my shutter. I was the only person in the reserve and had it all to myself for about three hours. When I started to wrap things up is when other visitors began arriving—by that time the bird’s activity had diminished a lot (you snooze you lose).
1/640s @ f/6.3 ISO 125 @ 400mm
When I said this was a perfect day I meant it. Up early—fortified with a few cups of black coffee—and out in the field by myself. These images rank right up there with some of the best work I’ve ever done, at least from a technical standpoint. These photos are almost technically perfect, or at least as perfect as you can get in the wild (unlike a studio you don’t control Mother Nature). For the serious photographers among you I have included some field notes about these captures in the hopes that they might prove useful. To view larger high-resolution images click on each photo.
Image #1. This is one of the first images I photographed this morning on the trail. I came around a blind corner and this beautiful subject was ahead of me at about 25-meters. I began my slow sneak & creep to place the sun at my back and to get much closer. It took about two minutes to close the distance and I began my final approach—taking a shot, taking a step, taking another shot and taking another step. I was basically at eye level (a rare occurrence in bird photography) and all was GRAND.
Then my camera stopped focusing. What the F*%K. I panicked and started checking all of my controls. I had switched my lens focus range switch to 8.5m – ∞ to speed up my focusing time and evidently I was now closer than 8.5m. I quickly switched it back to 3.5m – ∞ and tried again. It still wouldn’t focus. I was closer than my minimum focusing distance (MFD) of 3.5m (11.48 feet). Wow. I stepped back six inches and BANG. Focus locked on and I got this shot, the last of the series. You NEVER get that close to a wild bird.
Getting that close reduced my depth of field (DOF) to about an inch (1.18 inches) even at f/6.3. I placed my single focus point on his eye and snapped—his eye and head are tack-sharp even at 100%. He starts to go soft in the shoulder area but who cares—it’s the eye and head that have to be tack-sharp (everything else is forgivable). He filled the frame and other than changing the aspect ratio to 5 x 7 in post this is straight out of the camera. Here is the final image resolution information 3689 x 5164 pixels at 738 pixels per inch (this is stunning resolution and will print very large).
Image #2. To fill the camera frame with a bird in flight (BIF) is problematic to say the least. The bird is hard to keep in the viewfinder and you run the risk of clipping wings and tails as he flies in & out of the frame. Focus is also a bitch (especially with my older Canon EOS 5D Mark II). Subject tracking on my camera is lame and it only shoots at 3 fps so my keeper rate is very low percentage wise. It’s still a great camera but not for wildlife on the move—the Canon EOS 1Dx Mark II (with state of the art autofocus and 14 fps), the new Canon EOS 5D Mark IV (with 1Dx Mark II autofocus and 7 fps) and the Canon EOS 7D Mark II (with modified 1Dx Mark II autofocus and 10 fps) are better choices for wildlife on the move.
I positioned myself (with my back to the sun) on the edge of the marsh. As the birds flew towards me they were lit beautifully with the morning golden sun (again a catch-light can be seen in the eye). Like Image #1 the focus on this bird is spot-on and tack-sharp when viewed at 100%. This is a real accomplishment with the older Canon EOS 5D Mark II (any Mark II shooters will validate that statement). The final image resolution information on this image is also stunning: 3017 x 2155 pixels at 431 pixels per inch—again, this photo will print very large indeed.
Image #3. This is another static (still) shot like Image #1 as opposed to a dynamic (moving) BIF shot like Image #2. I dropped to ground level (on my belly) and closed the distance to this beautiful bird. I actually got closer than my MFD again (3.5m) and had to retreat a few inches to get my autofocus to work properly. I can’t tell you how unusual that is—the wildlife photographer’s lament is: you can never get close enough. I filled the camera frame once again and the numbers speak for themselves: 4406 x 3147 pixels with 630 pixels per inch. At these close distances there is no finer wildlife lens than my vintage Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Super-telephoto prime lens.
Stephen F. Dennstedt
Photographer, Writer, Traveller
Southern Patagonia, Argentina