Posts from the ‘wide angle’ Category

Theodore Roosevelt National Park—Prairie Dogs and friends

Ryan and I often break up the 17 hour drive home to Minnesota from Yellowstone with a night and half a day in Teddy Roosevelt National Park. The 36-mile auto loop is a fantastic road for wildlife photography…And no crowds!
Prairie Dog village Theodore Roosevelt National Park ND IMG_9549 Prairie Dogs are truly charismatic critters. How can you not like them? Well, I guess cattle ranchers hate them as cows can step in a hole and break their legs. But they’ve been successfully eradicated on much of the private lands of the west.

We tried this unique shot last year but came up empty (Not every wildlife photo must be taken with a telephoto lens!). We placed our cameras with a wide angle lens near the mouth of a Prairie Dog hole…then we retreated to the hillside and waited to trigger the shutter remotely. But Prairie Dogs have interconnected tunnels with many exits/entrances, and they usually outsmarted us. And the same thing seemed to be happening to us this time, but after we had given up and were heading back to the car, one Prairie Dog seemed reluctant to go down his hole as I approached. Maybe curious, maybe young, maybe not too experienced, but “brave” enough to poke his head out to check out the “three-legged predator” just outside his home. “Click” …got the shot. [Canon 7D with Sigma 10-20mm lens at 16mm, f13 at 1/800, tripod with remote trigger]

IMG_6144 The North Dakota badlands are much more lush and green than the South Dakota badlands [iPhone!]

Lark Sparrow Theodore Roosevelt National Park ND IMG_9227 Lark Sparrows are very common in Teddy Roosevelt but rare in northern Minnesota. It was a real treat to see and hear many along the auto loop. This guy posed in the tip top of a Rocky Mountain Juniper. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/250 (max flash sync speed), Canon 420EX flash and Better Beamer attachment (to extend the reach of the flash), handheld]

Western Meadowlark Theodore Roosevelt National Park ND IMG_9366 Western Meadowlarks are a symbolic bird of the grasslands of the American West. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/400, handheld from car (This is an exposure between firings of the flash…The flash needs to recycle after every firing, so it is best to set your exposure so even between firings you get a decent exposure of your subject.]

Mule Deer Theodore Roosevelt National Park ND IMG_9381 Check out those ears! Mule Deer, in fact, are named for their ears which are oversized as in Mules. It was a very dark, rainy, gray day so the color balance was a bit weird so I converted the image to black-and-white for better effect. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/640, handheld from car]

Dream Come True: Witness to a Great Gray Owl nest

Great Gray Owl nestlings in nest Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_6410Two Great Gray Owlets await mommy or daddy from their lofty nest in a large Tamarack.

I had the great fortune of having a good friend who was willing to share the location of a Great Gray Owl nest he had found recently. Kim Risen is a professional bird guide based out of Tamarack, Minnesota, who leads birding trips across the globe, from South Africa to South America to Costa Rica to Mexico and even in his ‘backyard’ of northern Minnesota. Kim found this nest on a June trip with a client. He’d seen young in this general vicinity several times over several different years. He graciously shared the site with me.

I first visited the Black Spruce/Tamarack bog with Kim and his wife Cindy on June 18th and made several more visits, the last on June 28th. Two owlets were in the nest until at least June 24th, then must have “flew the coup” around June 27th or 28th when we found them on the ground.

VIDEO SHOWING BEHAVIOR & COMMENTARY ON FAVORITE PHOTOS (7 MINUTES)

You can see more of my wildlife videos HERE

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7396Note mom in the bottom left corner of the image…She was never very far away. The young were generally silent…until they saw an adult when they gave a loud screech (can hear it late in the video). But the female often gave a rising “Whoop!” call. Robert Nero, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Great Gray Owls, says this call “is often given by the female on the nest as a means of communicating with the male.” Robert Taylor, author of The Great Gray Owl: On Silent Wings calls this is “food request call” and it is given more frequently during years of low vole supplies. It likely helps the male find the female too as he delivers the food to her so she can feed the owlets. May this also be the female’s form of communication with the owlets?…”You’re okay…I’m right here.”

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7390On June 28th I went to photograph the owlets from my blind…But I saw no action in the nest. Just as I was contemplating this, I simultaneously heard my cell phone ring as well as a screech from ground level. I assumed the screech was one of the owlets who’d left the nest. It was Kim on the phone and he was in the bog and had seen the young on the ground. As he was talking I found one of the owlets ‘teed up’ on a stump… “Found one! Gotta go.” I set up my tripod and folding chair, then draped camo netting over myself and started shooting. The owlet stared at me for 20 minutes without taking its eyes off me, though its posture relaxed over this time. Then when he/she was comfortable that I was not a predator, the owlet started to look around, and even stretch.

Great Gray Owlet stretching_0002STREEEEETCH! FRAME EXTRACTED FROM VIDEO CLIP. The young Great Grays often stretched like this…Working their flight muscles I imagine. Fortunately he was facing me head on and gave me this unique perspective. [Note that when you extract a frame from a HD video clip you only get a 1920x1080pixel image to work with…and it’s shot at 1/60 second…and its basically a jpeg. Very limited use, but fine for the web].

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7389Though the owlets can’t fly at this age, they sure can get around! They will walk across the bog then climb leaning trees and stumps by using their talons for grip and using their beak to grab branches like a parrot, pulling themselves up, wings held over their back for balance.

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7390 - Version 2 (1)The ticket to not alarming wild critters is to move slowly, stay low, avoid eye contact, and talk to them in a low soft voice (don’t whisper!). And stay in plain sight so you are not mistaken for a sneaky predator. I got very close to this owlet…Close enough to use my 10-20mm lens with full flash. I love the low angle and wide perspective which really puts the owl in its habitat.

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7343

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7302Eye-level shot with Canon 400mm f5.6. I WISH I’d put my big flash and Better Beamer on! The images looked okay on the LCD but there is a weird greenish cast from the light filtering down through the canopy. Live and learn!

Great Gray Owl nestling Hedbom Rd Aitkin Co MN IMG_7410The sibling to the owlet on the stump, is this fuzzball. I found him/her on a comfy cozy patch of super-soft Sphagnum moss. I laid on my belly, crawled towards her (got soaking wet!) and inched to within a foot of her/him. He/she began bill clacking, an alarm signal, so I snapped a few photos (full flash) and backed off.

I wish this little family well and hope they find many fat voles!

[All photos and video taken with Canon 7D and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens or Sigma 10-20mm lens, Canon 580EX flash, Cabela’s Lightning Set pop-up blind, Manfrotto tripod]

Top Twenty Images of 2012

2012 is gone and I’ve had a chance to look at all my images from the year and pick my favorites. Time helps clear your vision. Some images I was crazy about right after I took them, are no longer exciting to me. Here I present my favorite images of 2012 in reverse order…Maybe not the most saleable nor necessarily the best portraits (which can be boring), but the shots that I kept coming back to..the ones that intrigued me…or were difficult to get…or were the most creative. And this last bit about creativity brings me to my big announcement for 2013…I will be releasing a new video: GET CREATIVE: WILDLIFE IMAGES BEYOND THE PORTRAIT this year. Stay tuned!

near Saginaw, Minnesota St. Louis County #20—The surprise image of the year…I was perusing photos from my June work for the Minnesota County Biological Survey when I found this very underexposed, blaah image. But then I saw the potential as a high-contrast black and white image. The result was a very graphic silhouette of a foraging Pine Warbler amongst the long delicate needles of a Red Pine. St. Louis County, Minnesota.

07-Best2012 Ruby-throated Hummingbird female and Liatris Skogstjarna Carlton Co MN IMG_0064370 #19—I spent much quality time with our backyard hummers this summer. We mainly hosted females but occasionally a bully male would show up…but never when my camera was in place. I was using flash and a Better Beamer to throw light onto the hummer but in this shot the flash did not fire. But I like the resulting softer look…No harsh light blasting the tiny bird. My home in Carlton County, Minnesota.

11-Best2012 blurred leaves Rock Pond Duluth MN IMG_0067511 #18—Fall leaves always seem to vex me…I have a hard time creating interesting images of the stunning scenes around me in late September/early October. On this windy day I used a tripod and a very slow shutter speed to render the leaves a colorful blur while the trunks remained relatively still. I like the contrast of white vs. orange and blur vs. sharp. Rock Pond, UMD, Duluth, Minnesota.

16-Best2012 Bald Eagle from firetower at Big Bog SRA Koochiching Co MN IMG_0055770 (1) #17—Eye-level Bald Eagle shots are not easy to come by! And this one has a story…It was taken 80 feet up in a firetower! I was visiting Big Bog State Recreation Area in far north central Minnesota and decided to climb the tower to get a bird’s-eye view of Lower Red Lake and surrounding forests. Some distant eagles caught my attention and I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if one flies past me in my aerial perch…And the miraculous part is that one did! It was not a gleaming white and black adult but rather a dramatically patterned youngster. I panned with the bird and amazingly it came out razor sharp.

18-Best2012 Swans geese St. Louis River fog Fond du Lac MN IMG_0055161 #16—I cross this bridge over the St.Louis River on the outskirts of Duluth every day on the way to work. It has many moods and this hazy spring afternoon created a bucolic and blue still life of swans, ducks, ice and trees.

IMG_0070171 #15—My youngest son, Bjorn, shows great promise as a wildlife photographer…At least he looks good in khaki!

19-Best2012 Cedar Waxwing Gunflint Trail Brule River Cook Co MN File0113 #14—Not a set-up! A fortuitous find that resulted in a very nice portrait with a little behavior too. This very rarely happens but it did this August morning on the Gunflint Trail. I’d just returned from a early morning paddle on the Brule River, loaded up the canoe and was pulling out of the dirt parking area when I spotted the foraging Cedar Waxwings in a heavily-fruited Mountain Ash.

15-Best2012 water lily File0169 #13—Just a very pleasing composition (to me anyway)…a water lily on dark water taken from a low angle to get the reflection. I also love the purplish lily pads. Cook County, Minnesota.

04-Best2012 Lower Yellowstone Falls IMG_0067608 #12—A very long exposure with my 10mm Sigma lens was made possible by a 9-stop ND filter. I love the soft ethereal feel of the powerful Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, belying the thunderous roar. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

17-Best2012 Snowshoe Hare Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_0002136 #11—I had to include this portrait as I have been trying to get a decent winter Snowshoe Hare photo for years! And on this snowy Sax-Zim Bog day, I succeeded! The hare really felt it was invisible and stayed put as I crawled closer and closer through the snow.

12-Best2012 Abandoned house and tree Itasca Co nr Northome MN IMG_0055660_59_58_tonemapped 88-0-7-4-10 #10—Seems like I always slip in a non-nature subject. I really enjoy photographing vernacular architecture, including abandoned buildings like this farmhouse. A HDR image and sepia color finished it off. Itasca County, Minnesota.

10-Best2012 Polyphemus Moth Antheraea polyphemus detail Skogstjarna Carlton Co MN IMG_0057753 #9—Abstract macro image of a Polyphemus Moth’s wings turned upside down to create a strange “face” complete with big blue eyes and a puckered mouth. My home in Carlton County, Minnesota.

05-Best2012 Swinging bridge flood IMG_0058741 #8—The banner headline of 2012 for us Duluthians/Carltonians was the Great Flood of June. It affected all of us dramatically. But my most powerful image was this shot of the raging St. Louis River taking out the historic and much loved Swinging Bridge of Jay Cooke State Park. Read more here.

08-Best2012 Sharp-tailed Grouse Carlton Co MN IMG_0056142 #7—A rite of spring, the congregation of Sharp-tailed Grouse at their dancing grounds or leks, is an event I hate to miss. But it is always difficult shooting. They are most active just before sunrise when the light is poor…And it is April so the weather is often cloudy and windy. Visibility in the cramped blind is not great either. This time I resorted to a slow shutter speed and panning. I love the shot as it conveys the manic intensity of the males as they dance, pursue females, and chase off rival males. Carlton County, Minnesota.

09-Best2012 Moose bull called in Dumbell Rd Superior National Forest MN nr Isabella IMG_0066747 #6—One of the few straight-up wildlife portraits in the collection, but I had to include it. Much has been made of the dramatic decline of Moose in Minnesota…and it makes me very sad. They are one of my favorite mammals. I learned to call Moose years ago…imitating the sound of a female. After a several-year dry spell, I was able to call this young bull in this fall. Intense moments followed as he was deciding whether I was a cow Moose or some stupid human. Thankfully he came to the right conclusion! See the video here.

14-Best2012 abstract river rocks IMG_0069193 #5—Can you tell what this is? Colorful river rocks below a Yellowstone National Park stream. It’s funny…I really don’t like abstract painting but I love much abstract photography.

06-Best2012 Ring-billed Gull Duluth MN tungsten w-2 1-2 CTO gels on flash IMG_0065801 #4—Two icons of Duluth in one shot! The Aerial Lift Bridge and a Ring-billed Gull. Not your typical wildlife shot but one that is certainly unique. In this technique I learned from flash/lighting guru ??? you set your camera to tungsten white balance (to turn the dark brooding sky blue) and then use a flash with an orange CTO gel to throw a very warm light on the subject, in this case, a Ring-billed Gull.

13-Best2012 IMG_0068269 #3—Often times I’ll get home from a trip and when viewing my images in Aperture, I’ll come across an unexpected prize. It’s like Christmas as a kid! I thought I knew what my favorites would be from viewing them in the field on the back of my camera…but I’m often wrong. This is one such image. It was taken into the sunlight to backlight the Bison’s fur…but it was mostly a “G&G” shot (grab-and-go)…No premeditation, No tripod…Jump out of the car and “snap.” But after converting the image to sepia, I really loved it. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

02-Best2012 Monarch IA IMG_0065536 #2—I really concentrated on wide-angle wildlife this year and this may be my favorite. Crawling on my knees for hours on an Iowa prairie in September finally netted me this image. Read the whole story here. Northeast Iowa.

01-Best2012 Great Gray Owl peek-a-boo McDavitt Rd Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_0058141 #1—Drumroll please…My personal favorite from 2012. Read the whole story of this bog encounter here. See the video here. I like the Great Gray Owl’s furtive glance around the trunk of a spruce…It lends an air of mystery. It is very “Brandenburg’s-wolf-peek-esque” if you’ve ever seen his famous photo. Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota.

Gulls in my Face! How to make gulls look sexy!

I love a couple things that most people dislike…gulls (no such thing as a “seagull”) and dark overcast skies for photography. And today I wanted to combine these two to create an artistic, out-of-the ordinary image.
How did I get so close to the gulls? Remember, these were all shot with a 10mm-20mm lens…So you need your subject to be VERY close in order to appear somewhat large in the frame. The answer is stale bread! Once in a while I buy a large bag of unsaleable bread products from the local day-old-bakery. They call these “wildlife bags” and for about $5 you can have lots of fun. The disturbing part is that this particular loaf I was using today was about 6 months old (It had been in my car all summer) and there was not a speck of mold on it! I just shudder to think what we are putting in our bodies. But gulls have stomachs of steel.
The look I wanted was a dark and gloomy sky with the gulls lit in flight with a flash. But to get this “cold-warm” look you need a special technique. First you set your camera’s white balance to “tungsten,” this makes the dark gray sky a pleasing blue. But if you just used straight-up flash on the gulls they would also look bluish. So you need to “warm up” the light from the flash. To do this, I velcroed on two 1/2 CTO gels…These are orange gels that turn the light from your flash a very warm hue…It would be the equivalent of setting your camera’s white balance to “shade.” for example.
I then enticed the Ring-billed Gulls to very close range with scraps of bread, bagel and english muffin. Most would come within 3 feet on foot…Not quite close enough. So I tried throwing the scraps in the air…that worked much better. So I’d throw the bread in the air and then hold the camera at arm’s length and just keep shooting. Fresh batteries allowed the flash to recycle fairly quickly but even so I lost many images to the flash not firing. The result is that the gulls white feathers are neutral to slightly warm instead of bluish…A much nicer look.
Flash is great fun…but it is not often used creatively on wildlife. I had a blast with this and if you want to be further inspired, read Joe McNally’s “Hot Shoe Diaries,” “The Moment it Clicks” or any of his flash books.

Flash with CTO gel in place.

Yellowstone Abstract & Artistic

In Yellowstone, you could take wildlife portraits till the cows come home…or should I say, “until the Bison come home?” But I always try to think a bit out of the box in order to get some unique images. A few years ago, our buddy Chris Gibbs came with us to Yellowstone. Along one “boring” stretch of snow-covered road that traversed a recent forest fire, Chris rolled down his window and started shooting. Ryan and I looked at each other…What the heck was he shooting? The scene outside was anything but beautiful. But Chris was playing with a slow shutter speed, using the contrast of the black trees and white snow and the speed of the car to create very interesting abstracts. We all jumped in and tried the technique, and had a blast doing it. Next time the “light is bad” or it is harsh midday sun, think creatively and play around with exposures, flash, underexposure. The beauty of digital is that we aren’t losing money with every shot as in the “good old film days.”

Colorful stream rocks during a long exposure. Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f32 at 1/5 second on tripod.

Dawn Bison backlit by strong sun, his breath visible in the chilly air. Converted to sepia and contrast increased by use of Curves in Aperture. Canon 7D with Canon 400mm lens, f5.6 at 1/2000 second, underexposed by 2 stops.

A long exposure blurs the water and rocks to create a true abstract. Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f32 at 1/3 second on tripod.

An accidental photo of a bison with a 20mm lens from inches away…But I love it! The vignetted look, the texture of the Bison’s pelt, and the golden backlit hair in the lower left…It works for me. Of course, it will never sell, but we need to take photos for ourselves first and foremost.

Bridget says I take too many silhouettes…But she actually likes this one! I underexposed the scene by 3 full stops in the field then changed the white balance in Aperture so the sky went from blue to gold. The adult and calf are nicely separated and you can even see their individual legs. Canon 7D with Canon 500mm f4 lens and 1.4x teleconverter, f5.6 at 1/500 second on tripod.

Creativity isn’t limited to the field…Here I opened a stream rock image in Photoshop and applied the “poster edges” filter to create a crazy pattern.

I really liked this Raven image right out of the camera…EXCEPT the background color was blaaah! So I performed a tight crop, took out the background, replaced it with a solid color and then applied the “poster edges” filter in Photoshop. I love the accentuated pattern of the breast feathers.

Yellowstone Wildlife from Inches Away

Ryan Marshik and I recently returned from a mid October trip to Yellowstone National Park and so the next few posts will be images from this photo feast. As usual (this was our 6th trip to Yellowstone together), we left about 3pm from Duluth and drove straight through…It takes about 17 hours or so, and we cross the breadth of Minnesota and North Dakota and half of Montana. It’s a great time for us photo buddies to catch up, talk gear and technique, and listen to some photography podcasts.

On this trip I really wanted to try some “wide angle wildlife” shots, to get a more intimate portrait than is possible with a long telephoto lens. But I’m also including here a few shots taken at very close range with a longer lens that emphasize interesting details of wildlife subjects.
Stay tuned for more Yellowstone blog posts in the coming week.

Raven from behind. Minnesota ravens are incredibly shy and difficult to get close to. Not the case in Yellowstone! And the big revelation is that they are not really black!
The elk rut was waning but this young bull was still feeling his oats.
A Least Chipmunk from 4 inches away. I placed the camera on a favorite feeding rock and then remotely tripped the shutter while eating a bagel sandwich at a picnic table 50 feet away. 10mm lens at f16 1/500 second.
This curious guy actually put his nose print on my camera lens! The only way to get a shot like this with a tiny animal large in the frame and the background also relatively sharp is by using a very wide angle lens (in this case the Sigma 10-20mm set at 10mm) and triggering it remotely. 10mm lens at f16 1/400 second.
Bison own the roads in Yellowstone. Not a great shot but a very interesting image. Shot out the window with a 10mm lens…Inches from his nostrils. No, he did not get snot on my lens nor gore the rental car!

Iowa Prairie Monarchs…from 4 inches away!


I really have a passion for “wide angle wildlife”…which can be a challenge with critters…most of which would rather be a long ways away from us stinky, scary humans. And, of course, to get the bird, mammal, reptile or butterfly a respectable size in the frame, and not just an indistinguishable dot, you have to GET CLOSE!

So, on September 6th I found myself taking a detour off the highway near Lime Springs, Iowa to check out Hayden Prairie State Reserve. It is a 242 acre parcel of tallgrass prairie..and sadly the largest tract in the state outside of the Loess Hills. The prairie honors Ada Hayden, an Iowa farm girl who became one of the first woman botany professors in the country, receiving her PhD in 1918.

I had a few hours to shoot before sunset and I noticed many Monarchs feeding on the sunflowers and goldenrods. But getting close to the Monarchs was not easy…First I tried just walking up to nectaring Monarchs on the head-height sunflowers…but they didn’t appreciate that. Then I discovered a patch of goldenrods where the nectar must be especially good and abundant. The butterflies were a bit more tolerant here. And as anyone who’s shot a lot of wildlife knows, every individual has a different comfort zone. So I just kept trying to find a mellow Monarch.

The image I had in my head was getting the Monarch large in the frame, shooting into the sun so the sky was dark and the sun would be a starburst. Backlit subjects can make for tricky exposures. I knew I had to shoot at high-speed sync in order for the butterfly and sky to be in the same exposure range. I’d pre-set my camera on manual exposure to f22 at 1/1250 and my Canon flash was set to high-speed sync. Then I autofocused on my hand at 4 to 6 inches and then turned off the lens autofocus. The technique was to crawl as close as I could to the Monarch, then extend my arm with the camera and start shooting…keeping my finger on the shutter button as I reached out towards the butterfly. It was low percentage shooting but lots of fun. My knees paid the price though.

The photos here are images you could not get with a telephoto lens…Note the extreme depth of field in the shots.


Crawling through tallgrass prairie can be tough on the knees…and jeans!
The Monarchs were starting their migration south to Mexico’s Mariposa Monarca Biosphere Reserve where they would overwinter. As any school kid knows, this migration is one of the most amazing in the animal kingdom…A fragile butterfly flying several thousand miles south to the mountains of Central Mexico where this species has likely overwintered for thousands of years. Even more amazing may be the fact that it is a different generation of Monarchs that returns to the north each spring. You can actually track the Monarch’s southward flight on the internet. Check out Journey North’s Monarch Migration map here to check on their southward flight.
To get the “starburst” sun you need to be shooting at f16 or smaller aperture.

Baptisia leucantha Largeleaf Wild Indigo or White Wild Indigo, a unique tallgrass prairie plant. Note the crazy large seed pods.

[All photos taken with Canon 7D and Sigma 10-20mm lens (between 10mm and 16mm) at f22, ISO 400, 1/1250 second, Canon 420ex flash set to high-speed sync at -2EV]