I cut my journalistic teeth in the newspaper business, starting in sports photography and expanding to write and photograph any subject the boss told me to. I tell everyone who asks and will listen that my sports photography background translates perfectly to wildlife and nature photography. Sometimes you have to think fast and adapt to changing conditions. That doesn’t just happen when you’re photographing wildlife and people in the outdoors. It can happen early or late in the day, when the light is changing fast, both erasing and creating photo ops as it does.
But where I really get to test my skills at composing photos on the fly is when I’m literally flying. Because I volunteered and because no one else on the magazine staff really likes flying around in a little Cesena (aka vomit comet), I’ve become the agency’s go-to-guy for aerial photos. My motto: “You buy I’ll fly.”
When you’re walking through the woods, you can easily move this way and that to perfect your composition. It’s not that easy in the air, but I think I’ve gotten pretty good at anticipating where I need to be and then talking the pilot through the turns to get me there. The trick is, you’re moving at about 120-140 mph and you’ll only be in the right spot for a few seconds. Miss your mark and you’re taking another pass.
It’s not incredibly difficult with a normal lens. But if you throw a telephoto on, all bets are off. That was the case yesterday when, during a flight from Kearney to Crescent Lake north of Oshkosh with many stops to and from, I spotted this cow elk wading across the North Platte River west of Lewellen. We made seven passes as I looked for the best angle to include the cow and the golden cottonwoods. I would’ve stopped at four, but on that pass is when I saw all of the other elk on both sides of the channel. (You could say I was very focused on the cow in the river.)
This photo came on the sixth pass. I shot 129 frames and threw half away that were out of focus or had too much motion blur, a number that would’ve been much higher if not for Vibration Reduction. I’ve got other keepers but none are what I envisioned. I wanted her to be a bigger part of the frame, like in the photo below, but you don’t get that and color from the air with a 70-200 unless you fly low enough that you don’t get to fly again. Flat light, not getting more elk in a well-composed frame that are easy to see (I counted 14 in all, including the four cows and calves on the bank behind this girl and a bull in willows with only one time visible), speed bumps spoiling composition and bla, bla, bla … all contributed to my dissatisfaction.
It’s not a bad photo and I really like it, but I’ll have to admit that as well as an aerial photo can tell the story of a landscape, wildlife are best photographed on the ground. Ah, if I’d been on the riverbank and had her walk through the water between me and the those cottonwoods …
Photographers are never happy.