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.

Sandhill Cranes of Monte Vista

Sandhill Cranes by Gary Gray
Sandhill Cranes in Monte Vista

I’ll be heading to Monte Vista, Colorado this week to photograph the annual Sandhill Crane migration.

I don’t make this trip every year so it is time to update the portfolio and play with some new gear.

Stay tuned for photos.

Duck of the Day

Canvasback Duck by Gary Gray
Canvasback Duck

Back to the tree in the lake this morning for bird action.

Not much bird action. It was fairly cold this morning and the Great Blue Herons weren’t in much of a mood to mingle.

So, I worked the other birds instead.  This is my first photo of a Canvasback duck.  Go figure.


Heron Photograph by Gary Gray
Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Heron is what I refer to as an LST.  (Large, Slow Target)

As an LST, it’s easy to fall in to the trap of taking the easy shots. I fight that urge constantly and growing older doesn’t make success come easier.  No, it’s always better to try something a little different, to push the edges, to get a shot you don’t have.

There is a park near my house where the herons nest every year. You may have heard me refer to it as the tree in the lake. There are; however, three different lakes within a quarter mile circumference so I don’t always work from the most common and comfortable photographic vantage point.

On occasion, one or more of the nesting Herons will leave the nest for an extended visit to one of the other lakes.

Yesterday, I followed this Heron to a shallow area in the lake full of cat-tails and reeds. They sometimes hunt these waters for small fish, crayfish and other water critters

I’ve worked these birds in this location for many years but there are shots I have yet to get as things don’t occur when you want them to occur.

The real trick to wildlife photography.  Persistence and Patience

The Best Camera is the One You Have With You

Blue Heron by Gary Gray
Great Blue Heron in Flight

The Nikon D810 arrived yesterday afternoon so I had to test it at the tree in the lake this morning.

Seems in good working order. The Great Blue Heron like it, as best I can tell.

I can now retire the D800.  That leaves me with a three body field kit for this summer.

Nikon D7200, Nikon D750 and Nikon D810.

The D850 will have to wait a couple of years. Should be off back-order by then.


A Moose Story

Moose Photography by Gary Gray
Northern Colorado

Since it is “Moose Monday” I thought I’d tell a brief moose photography tale.

In the above photo, I’m standing in 2 inches of water in the middle of this huge field of willows.

I spotted this moose in the field and decided to hike out into the willows to get a better angle on him as he leisurely munched on the plants. He was at least two hundred meters from me and I wanted that mountain in the background. I figured he would ignore me being that far away.

He became aware of me moving in to the field behind him almost immediately and though he didn’t show any concern, he simply pointed his butt at me and continued munching his way through the willows as he walked away from me.

I continued to follow him through the soaking wet scrub for another hundred meters or so and ultimately decided that what I have is what I’m going to get. He wasn’t going to allow me to get closer than one hundred meters and I was paying a price for my enthusiasm, as it was not all that warm and I was not all that dry by this point.

I stopped, watched, waited for about 5 more minutes. He never looked up, he never turned to the side, he just kept his position. I went back to the road and moved out ahead of him and I had to settle for this shot instead.
Moose Photography by Gary GrayThe experience was quite memorable, even though the photograph didn’t turn out to be the one I was seeking.

Some moose are better than others.

Moose Monday

Moose Photography by Gary Gray

These two young moose twins were hanging out near my cabin one May morning a couple of years ago.

Life in Red Feather Lakes is not boring. From May through October, the moose move freely through the village and often stop to spend some time browsing the local plants.

For this shot, all I had to do was get the camera and not spill my morning coffee. The camera part worked out okay.