Interesting Backgrounds

Sandhill Cranes by Gary Gray
Sandhill Cranes at Monte Vista

I prefer the scenery of Monte Vista over that of Bosque del Apache or Kearney Nebraska for photographing the cranes.

Blanca Peak at the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo mountains is a prominent landmark and the long sprawling flatlands that engulf the area are a perfect setting for photographing these large, beautiful birds.

These birds group together and begin moving around the area during the day in flights. This particular field is looking towards the east and in the afternoon is a very well lit scene.

I normally try to get a few shots of these large groups as they feed in the fields.  Birds gathered in mass in fields will sometimes trickle out of the setting in small groups. The trickle flow of birds in and out always provides good opportunity for photographing the cranes in flight.

If you situate yourself properly, taking sun location into account, you can find numerous opportunities for close fly-by shots of the birds exiting the field.

Sandhill Crane photography by Gary Gray
Sandhill Cranes Take Off

Alternately, you’ll find small flights of birds frequently joining the group. These small formations of arriving birds often in groups of 6-12, provide interesting formations to photograph as well.

Sandhill Cranes by Gary Gray
A Flight of Sandhill Cranes About to Land

I keep a constant eye on the background areas surrounding the birds and their approach to the group. Once I know the backgrounds I want to see, I watch for birds flying in or out of that scene and then take my shots accordingly.

Remember, closer is better. Don’t fill up your camera buffer too soon on these scenes. It’s easy to start firing shots and lose ability to get shots as the bird gets closer to you. Patience on these glide in shots is a must. If you’ve positioned yourself correctly, you’ll get well lit birds with interesting backgrounds.

The Dance

Sandhill Crane photography by Gary Gray
Dancing Sandhill Cranes

From a technical standpoint, Sandhill Cranes do not pose a significant challenge.

You’ll have three major considerations for insuring the optimal quality of your photographs.

  1. Light
  2. Location
  3. Optics

Regarding the light, it is no different from any other subject matter lighting. You’ll want the sun in behind you for most shots, giving you direct sunlight on the animals. For Monte Vista, there are a number of standard shooting locations that are optimal at different times of the day as the sun moves across the horizon.

When I’m reviewing and selecting locations, I always take the sun location in consideration and I look for birds with the type of light I want to see. Even on cloudy days. Don’t pick available birds over properly lit birds. Poorly lit subjects are a waste of time. There is also no substitute for proximity. Well lit, close birds are what you are after.

Another consideration is your background.  Monte Vista is fairly simple. The Sangre De Cristo Mountains are going to be a primary backdrop. What you want is the fewest distractions and most appealing background. Let the birds appear in your preselected setting. Take your time and set your possible shots up in advance.

I would concern yourself more with your choice of lenses than your choice of camera body. To achieve the best results, I recommend you have lenses with focal lengths between 400-600mm.  Zooms or primes, it doesn’t matter. I prefer zooms as they are more versatile and generally lighter than the big primes lenses. If you are using a crop sensor body such as a Nikon D500 or Canon 7DII, that extra reach may be of benefit.  I’d keep a wider angle lens handy too, as those landscape and blastoff shots can sure look sweet with mountain backdrops.

Of course, not everyone will have a second camera body with them, but if you do have a second body, that’s where you use the wider angle lens and remember to keep it handy. Blastoffs occur without warning. If you have to look for a camera to photograph it, you’ve missed it.

My kit is a 200-500mm zoom on a Nikon D810 and a 70-200mm zoom on a Nikon D750. The D750 hangs around my neck or is within arms reach at all times. The 200-500mm is typically mounted on a gimble head to a tripod.

I keep a spare battery in my pocket close to my body so it will stay warm and ready to swap.

As for camera settings, I normally use manual aperture and shutter speeds with Auto-ISO. On the longer lens, I normally keep the shutter speed between 1/1600th  – 1/2000th a second. This freezes motion fairly well and helps to keep those birds tack sharp.

For aperture, I normally set for f/7.1 which gives me adequate depth of field for one or two birds close to one another. For group shots, you’ll want to stop down to f/9 or f/11 to keep those birds sharp. For single birds, you can go as low as you like but remember, it’s about getting the eyes sharp. Keep those eyes sharp.

If I’m using the long lens on a tripod, I turn off the vibration reduction. Sometimes the VR will actually make things worse.  I almost always use the VR when hand holding shots of the cranes.

The goal, well lit, close, sharp images.

In future posts I’ll explain the types of shots you’ll be looking for and the techniques I use to get them.




Back from Monte Vista

Sandhill Cranes by Gary Gray
Sandhill Cranes in Flight

The Greater Sandhill Cranes that migrate through Monte Vista are the same group of birds found in Bosque del Apache from December – February.

Each year, the town of Monte Vista hosts the Sandhill Crane Festival, normally around mid-March. I don’t attend the festival as it’s a bit too crowded and hectic. My trips to Monte Vista are normally during the week before or after the festival

There are hotels in Monte Vista and nearby Alamosa. I typically stay in Alamosa due to the infrastructure. Monte Vista is more of a sleepy town, and has its’ own charm; though, I’m not going there to be charmed by anything except birds.

In the coming days I’ll discuss the general concepts and techniques of photographing these magnificent creatures.

Adventures in Photography

Sandhill Cranes by Gary Gray
A Flight of Sandhill Cranes About to Land

Back from Monte Vista. I had to cut my trip short when one of the tires on my Subaru decided to deflate with vigor.

I did learn something new as a result. You can’t buy tires for a Subaru Outback in southern Colorado without having to wait. Nobody stocks tires for a Subaru Outback.

So I ended early rather than attempt to explore the great unknown on a doughnut spare tire.

127 miles later, I found my new tires.

As for the Sandhill Cranes.  Well, I did manage a few photographs.

Check back soon.

A Bird’s Life

Wildlife photography by Gary Gray
Sandhill Crane – Monte Vista, Colorado

Each year in March, the city of Monte Vista, Colorado is the host of the Monte Vista Crane Festival. This year, it will occur from March 9th-11th.

Monte Vista is less than half a day drive for me, so this will be my next photographic adventure.

There are three main Sandhill Crane festivals that are easily accessible from Colorado.

Bosque del Apache, New Mexico, normally best in early December.

Monte Vista, Colorado, best in mid-March.

Kearney Nebraska, hosted by the Nebraska Audubon Society, March 22-25 this year.

I’ll be in Monte Vista sometime this month.  Hope to see you there.