Frequently Asked Questions
I often get asked questions about different aspects of my wildlife photography. I'm all to happy to answer most of them but thanks to my growing audience, who I'm thrilled to have, it has become a bit time consuming to answer all the questions. I thought it might be helpful to everyone to have answers to commonly asked questions right here on my website. Please also check out the video all about the wildlife photo gear that I and my friend Scott Keys use. I'll keep updating this page with new information in the future.
Q: What lens do you use for most of your bird photography?
A: I almost always use my trusted Nikon 500mm f/4 VR lens. It is not the latest and lightest generation lens but I love how it performs and it gives me the reach I require. Occasionally when I need to be really portable or don't feel like lugging along the big lens I'll use my Nikon 300mm f/4E PF lens paired with the Nikon 1.4x TC III teleconverter. This ultra lightweight combo still amazes me with how well it performs. I find the combo as sharp as my 500mm alone with the only loss being slightly less reach (420mm) and very slightly slower auto-focus due to the lowest aperture being f/5.6
Q: Why don't you use a 600mm lens for bird photography?
A: At the time I bought my 500mm lens (a used version) my personal requirements were that it be light enough for me to walk around with and be portable enough to easily shoot from a monopod. At the time Nikon's 600mm f/4 lens was much too heavy for my style of shooting and I felt I would have been stuck on a tripod with that lens. Currently Nikon's latest 600mm f/4 FL lens is lighter then my 500mm lens so if I was buying now I would most certainly choose the 600mm lens.
Q: What Camera do you use?
A: I currently shoot my Nikon D4s full frame Nikon pro body. Prior to that I used a Nikon D3s. I love these camera bodies for their incredible autofocus performance, fast frame rates and most of all low light, high ISO performance. I personally don't find any disadvantage not having the extra reach for wildlife that a crop sensor body would provide. Of course if I could afford to have both I would! These full frame bodies also work perfectly for my wedding photography which is how I make my living.
Q: Do you use a tripod for your wildlife photography:
A: I'd guess about 50% of all my bird photography is done from a Gitzo Carbon Fiber Monopod paired with a Really Right Stuff monopod head. 45% is done at a low ground/water level using a NatureScapes Skimmer Ground Pod paired with an Acratech Long Lens pan/tilt head. Only about 5% of all my bird photography is done using a tripod. Those circumstances are when I'm sitting up in a hide or when standing stationary in a location most often for birds in flight. I don't do either of those very often. I find the monopod much more versatile for quick small movements which I often require to get a clear photo of a bird I'm going after. A tripod is very cumbersome to move slightly left/right or even worst to quickly change height. I also have no issues getting sharp photos down into the 1/100-1/250 shutter speed range with the monopod. I demonstrate what I am talking about in this video about wildlife photo gear. I do know plenty of people that prefer tripods and if you find better results using one then you should stick with that.
Q: Do you use a polarizer for wildlife?
A: I have never found the need for a polarizer for my bird photography. The loss of light, usually 1 stop, is not worth any advantages it may give me. I'm sure there are certain circumstances where a polarizer has advantages but I've just never bothered. I do use one for wide angle waterfall photography though.
Q: What exposure mode do you use to capture most of your photos?
A: I would guess I use manual exposure mode roughly 60% of the time and Aperture Priority combined with Auto-ISO for the other 40% of my photos. With Aperture Priority and Auto-ISO I make sure to have my Auto-ISO settings set to maximum ISO of 12,800 (my camera body can handle that high ISO) and a minimum shutter speed of 1/500-1/800 based on what I'm shooting. That last part is the key to successful use of Aperture Priority + Auto-ISO for me. That makes sure that my shutter speed will not drop below 1/500 in all but the darkest conditions and allows me to concentrate on focus and composition of the image. I also use exposure compensation liberally when using those settings. I use the Aperture Priority + Auto-ISO when I'm shooting in quickly changing conditions or I'm on the move and not positive where my next photo will be taken. For scenes that are consistent lighting and I'm mostly stationary I will always default to manual exposure mode so I can keep a consistent look to my photos and have the most control over the exposure and the final look of my photo.
Q: What lens do you recommend for a beginner wildlife photographer?
A: I always recommend people think about what they want to photograph and how they like to shoot. There is no "best" lens for everyone. That being said I recommend even to beginners to spend as much as possible on your first lens. The lens is the most important part of your photography kit in my opinion so I say spend more on the lens then the camera. The Nikon 300mm f/4E PF lens paired with the Nikon 1.4x TC III teleconverter is an incredible lightweight prime (non-zoom) lens setup to get started and will work great for everything from basic bird portraits to birds in flight and can be purchased for roughly $2,500. On the Canon side I would suggest the Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens as a lightweight fast and sharp lens. While not cheap it's certainly cheaper then a brand new $10,000 500mm lens. If you however are interested in purchasing a big telephoto prime, 400mm, 500mm, 600mm lens then I do highly recommend purchasing used. I bought mine used and have been using it for years with no issue. Do your research and be sure to purchase from a trusted resource and you can save a lot of money and still get an amazing quality lens for less. Lastly there is always the option of the telephoto zoom lenses available from Nikon, Canon, Sigma and Tamron. Some of these lenses can create great results but they do have their limitations. Knowing those limitations is key to understanding what they are great for and where these types of lenses may fall short. Mainly fast action (birds in flight) and low light is where these zoom lenses will show their weaknesses. As long as you are aware that if you shoot mainly static or not fast moving subjects and shoot in really good light then you will be happy with them.
Q: What do you use to protect your gear when shooting in sand and near water?
A: I don't use any lens/camera protection when shooting low in the sand. I'm often using my ground pod (mentioned above) which keeps the camera and lens just above the sand so it's not always touching. Sometimes I will take it off the ground pod and just lay it in my hand over the sand, the bottom of the camera is often laying in the sand when I do that. Basically when I'm done shooting in beach/mud my camera has a lot of sand or mud on it. My camera and lens are weather sealed and I have not personally had any issues. Only once I had some wet sand work its way into a button on the back of my camera and it got stuck, that took some time to clean out but everything was fine once I got that out of there. When shooting low over water I am very careful not to get the camera or lens in the water. I'm often laying along a shoreline with a ground pod or sitting in the water with the camera on a tripod that is set up in the water as low as possible.
Q: How do you clean your gear after a particularly dirty outing?
A: After any outing that has my camera and lens covered in sand, mud, or salt water I clean my gear when I get home. I start with a can of compressed air to blow off the sand/dirt then take a damp cloth or paper towel and wipe everything off. The entire lens (other then front element) and camera, I wipe off the screens, the dials, buttons, everything. Especially after shooting in saltwater environments I do my best to get all the salt off the gear. Since everything is weather sealed there is no issue with the damp cloth. If I was using my tripod/monopod or ground pod in the salt water I disassemble the tripod/monopod entirely taking apart each column piece and wash everything off with fresh water then let dry. I've been doing it this way for many years and still have the same gear I started with.
Q: How much do you edit your photos?
A: My goal with my wildlife photography is to create and share a beautiful, creative and hopefully unique photo. To achieve that goal I personally have no problem with removing small distractions and adding significant dodging and burning to make my photos meet my vision. You can watch me edit a handful of my photos by watching any of my realtime edit videos. Every wildlife photographer has their own self imposed rules and guidelines for how much they want to edit their photos, anywhere from only basic cropping all the way to complete digital art. I think the most important part of doing any editing more then basic color, dodging/burning and tiny distraction removals is to disclose what you have done when you share the photos. When ever I do any significant change to the image that takes it pretty far away from what was originally captured I do my best to disclose that to my audience so they don't feel deceived by the finished photo.
Q: Do you add blur to your foreground/background in post production?
A: I never add any fake blur to my photos in post. The smooth background and foreground in many of my shots are from shooting at 500mm at f/4 which is wide open on my lens. That creates the really shallow depth of field found in my photos. The very smooth backgrounds are also created by having a great distance from the subject to the background, a topic that my good friend Scott Keys wrote a great blog post about.
Q: How do you pick out the best photos to share after you shoot hundreds or thousands?
A: I have spent quite literally the past 15 years looking through hundreds of thousands of photos and picking the best. Both for my wedding photography and wildlife photography, I've become decent at culling through photos. There are things I'm looking for in general when looking through. I usually delete all the crap first (there is usually a lot of that), then pick what might be good with a little editing, edit them all (just quick global Lightroom adjustments) then delete anything that didn't hold up after edit. Then I scan through the finished edited set once more and choose the best to share. They all get set aside in a collection that I visit each morning to choose what to share. Often photos that I had an emotional connection to capturing have a greater personal impact soon after a shoot. By setting them aside and revisiting them over the next few days/weeks that connection will often fade and I can look at a photo more critically to decide if it's really good or if I just really enjoyed taking it. That being said sometimes there is nothing wrong with sharing a photo that has a personal connection, even if it may not be the "best". You can also check out my entire process from this behind the scenes video.
Q: How do you store and backup all your wildlife photos?
A: My storage and backup system has been updated and changed over nearly 20 years of working with digital image workflows in a personal and studio environment. I was once in charge of 2 Mac servers and 8 mac computers that all ran on a network and required safe backup. My main photography business is wedding photography so obviously I have to take backup very seriously.
My current setup is a 1TB portable SSD with my master Lightroom catalog on it and roughly the last 2 months of RAW files. My entire 50k+ photo catalog has Smart Previews rendered for it and stored on that SSD which means I can access all my photos to edit, change metadata and export medium res files from just the portable SSD. I have a second 2TB external hard drive that is always connected to my main iMac desktop which is where all of my RAW files (other then the very recent ones) are stored. Since this is my main work station my Lightroom Catalog almost always has access to these files. When I am on the go I use my laptop and take the portable SSD with me and I have access to my entire catalog via smart previews and my most recent (roughly 2 months) of RAW files so I can do complete edits with these recent photos on the go. This setup allows me to have 1 master Lightroom Catalog that goes with me wherever I go and I don’t have to worry about updating anything. About once a month I’ll move the older RAW files to the larger 2 TB external hard drive to free up space on the portable SSD. I never store anything on my internal computer drives.
Both the 1TB SSD and 2TB external HD are backup up via Time Machine (hourly) on my iMac and via Backblaze online so I have an always up to date local backup that keeps version changes as well as an offsite backup that also keeps version changes. This backup strategy will cover accidental deletion via human error and a total loss of equipment due to catastrophe such as lightning power surge that fries entire computer and drives or fire/flood, etc. I urge you to employ an automatic backup system in your workflow. I can’t recall how many times I’ve known people or read stories on social media that have lost years or all of their wildlife photography due to not having any backup in place. At a minimum, sign up for the $5/month Backblaze backup plan which is unlimited and will give you a safe copy offsite. I always recommend a 2 stage backup system that has a quickly accessible and local backup copy as well as an online backup. I also recommend any backup strategy be automated, if you rely on remembering to backup photos manually you will make a mistake or forget and potentially loose something very important. The best backup runs without you having to think about it and can maintain version history to some extent that will prevent accidental deletion from wiping out the backup copy of the deleted files.