Top Shot

Kentucky Thoroughbred photograph by Gary Gray
Kentucky Thoroughbred

It is no surprise that this image has by far been my best selling stock photo for the month of March. I took this shot on April 27th, 2008, almost 10 years ago to the month. It was Kentucky Derby time then and it’s coming up again on the first Saturday in May.

Horse photos sell if they are good shots of interest and demand and was one of my reasons for going back to Kentucky two weeks before the Derby last year. Get more photos of Kentucky horses at the prime time to get them. I do know a little bit about Kentucky horse country. It was my backyard growing up. If I lived there today, thoroughbred horses would be high on my priority list for photographs.


Adventures in Backyard Photography

Crows by Gray Photography
A Murder of Crows

My family pet, Doobie has new friends to play with.

A flock of crows has been hanging out in the cottonwood trees about 100 meters from our back porch. They gather here multiple times each day and when Doobie is in the yard they like to fly over and taunt him. I’ve watched one crow intentionally drop a stick in the yard. Some do laps.

I hope to document more of this activity. It’s fun watching the new pooch learn about the urban wildlife we have living with us.

Oh, and there’s at least one handsome fox frequenting the yard. I’m going to put the camera trap up today and get some photos. He has a nice multi-shade, thick coat and he is larger than the average suburban red fox too.

I Have My Camera With Me

Colorado Landscape Photographer Gary Gray
Priest Lake Cabin

Browsing through my landscape photos this morning looking for a lazy day Sunday image, I came up with this photograph from the San Juan Mountains at a place called Priest Lake.

This photo was taken shortly after a robust snow storm hit the area near Telluride. It made for difficult driving but offered up some great photography.

I love it when seasons collide and I have my camera with me.

Photography is a Business Too.

Colorado Landscape Photographer
The Dallas Divide – Colorado

One of my continuous photographic endeavors is to steadily increase my stock photography catalog.

For the entire months of February and March to date, this has been my hottest stock image.

This photo of “The Dallas Divide” in the San Juan Mountains was taken last Autumn on one of my photo tours using the Nikon D7200 and the 18-140mm VR kit lens. It’s a great portable camera kit and is capable of taking outstanding landscapes.

The real trick I suppose, is to keep taking photos of everything you see. Those photos can be converted to cash. Photography is a business too.

The Interloper

Great Blue Heron by Gary Gray
Great Blue Heron – Colorado (NIkon D810/200-500mm VR)

Spring is in full swing here in Colorado.

This morning’s weather was exceptional so I made my way to the tree in the lake shortly after sunrise this morning. It’s good to know and understand the light in the location you’ll be working. Though these birds are roosting in an open area, the sunrise light is actually obscured by trees and buildings for a wee bit on sunny mornings. No reason to rush.

Today, a new great blue heron showed up. When he arrived, he was quite surprised to see that all of the available nests in the trees on the island had been claimed. There are two nests with great blue heron in occupancy, with one mating pair in the most visible nest. The remaining nests are occupied by mating pairs of cormorants. This guy shows up thinking he’s found a spot, but the nesting cormorants would have nothing of it.

When the mating male heron left the nest to go stick hunting, this guy decided to make a pass at the now unattended female. He didn’t even bring her an offering of a stick. If you read my post yesterday, you’ll know her heart is not for the taking. She immediately gave this stick-less schmoozer the cold shoulder and a threatened him with a face or belly full of angry beak.

She’ll have none of the interloper.

Some Days, All You Have To Do Is Show Up

This morning was a very nice morning of photography at the tree in the lake.

The bird activity was primarily the double-crested cormorants, however, the great blue heron were present and ultimately gave me a present. Photographically speaking.

This morning’s gift was an entire great blue heron mating sequence in good light.

So, guess what today’s entry is going to be about.

These next five photographs explain everything. (Nikon D810/200-500mmVR)

It all starts with the stick. The male great blue heron will bring sticks to his nesting desire. If she likes the stick she will add it to the nest. If she really likes the stick, well, you’ll see.

She likes the stick.

She more than likes the stick. This is “thestick she has been waiting for.

Notice how the feathers on their necks puff up. Look at her gaze at the male suitor. This is the moment they choose each other.

The male asks her to mate and the female obliges by positioning herself in her new family nest.

Once the female has positioned herself, the male mounts her.

I’ll spare you the additional bird sex, but I will tell you that it last about 10 seconds and he’s gone.

Some days, all you have to do is show up.

Photographers And Birdwatchers Gather

Sandhill Crane Photography by Gary Gray
Sandhill Crane Playing Toss the Twig

In Monte Vista, one can spend a great deal of time simply watching the birds for particular behaviors. Sandhill Cranes spend most of their day browsing together in fields for grain. The grain is left there intentionally and the local marshlands are irrigated to keep the habitat attractive for these migrating birds.

Sandhill Cranes Photography by Gary Gray
Dancing Crane

A bird that is eating doesn’t make a very exciting image, so one must keep an eye of the sub groups within the flock for the birds that are displaying mating or aggressive behavior. Constant instances of dancing and wing flapping can be seen throughout the field of cranes, but we’re looking for the birds that are close, well lit and unobstructed to photograph.

Monte Vista Sandhill Cranes by Gary Gray
Birders and Photographers Gathering at A Favorite Viewing Spot

Often, Sandhill crane photography is as much a social event for the photographers as it is a photographic event. When the birds gather, the photographers and bird watchers gather.


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.