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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
Backyard Safari
by Jim McGee

For a wildlife photo to be valid or serious you have to hike into a secluded wild location. Backpacks and hiking boots should be involved and liberal amounts of insect repellant must be worn. Bonus points are awarded for leech removal.

This seems to be the prevailing attitude among some photographers. You can only take wildlife photos in really wild places. That discourages a lot of folks. It's one thing for a guy like Moose to go hike through Alaska. Heck that's what he does for a living.

"But I work in an office. A cell phone goes along on vacation so the office can still reach me and the destination is Disney World with the kids and another couple. I guess wildlife photography is out for me."

Wrong! Whether you realize it or not there is wildlife right outside your back door. Photographing the animals that live in your backyard presents many of the same challenges as photographing in the wilderness. But you do miss out on the mosquitoes and leeches. Darn!

Let's assume that you live in the 'burbs. Depending on what part of the country you inhabit you can find anything from squirrels to bear in your back yard. Early morning is the best time for this sort of thing. Get in the habit of taking just 15 minutes out of your morning routine to just sit in the yard. Forget the camera, just watch. If your yard is like mine the first thing you'll notice are rabbits and squirrels poking around and munching. Then you'll start to notice different bird species. In my area it's sparrows, robins, jays and cardinals. Animals that live in close proximity to people have little fear of them. House cats are the prime predators in my neighborhood.

Canon D60 and 100-400mm IS lens, 420EX flash ISO 100 White balance set to overcast

With a little more time you'll notice some other critters. Again I'll use my yard as an example. Red tailed hawks ride the air currents over the creek and woods beyond my yard. Ravens, traveling in twos and threes, are a common sight as are Canada Geese during seasonal migrations. At dusk each evening I'm grateful for the brown bats that swoop and dive after mosquitoes that otherwise would be swooping and diving after me. Less common are raccoons, muskrat, woodchucks, and on very rare occasions a deer. Lest you think I live in some secluded area my home is only 15 minutes from downtown Philadelphia.

Pick a species as a subject and set a goal of getting five good images of that subject. You can start with something easy like rabbits. The ones in my yard are so tame that they sun themselves next to my driveway and only move when I come within five feet of them or have the dog is with me.

Next move on to something tougher like squirrels. Now getting a shot of a squirrel sounds pretty easy. The best description I've heard for squirrels was on Sex and the City where they were described as "rats with cuter outfits". They certainly breed like rats. They're everywhere! So go ahead and get the easy shot of the squirrel on your lawn out of the way. Now try something a little harder - some good shots of a squirrel in a tree. Those little suckers move pretty fast don't they!

Suddenly your ability to handhold at focal lengths over 300mm is an issue. So is your ability to spot focus in tricky lighting conditions because there is usually sunlight filtering through the leaf canopy that can throw your exposure completely out of whack. "Hey nice squirrel silhouette." You're trying to compensate for all these things while the little suckers are hopping from branch to branch. They're never sitting still and there always seems to be a branch in the way when you get that perfect shot. Not so easy eh?

Fill flash helps a lot if you have a separate flash head but how much flash should you dial in? How much should you vary the flash depending on the distance to the subject? At what distance does your flash fail to reach the subject? This is starting to sound more challenging than you thought isn't it?

Once you get your squirrel shots you can try birds, which are an even tougher subjects when they're up in the canopy. A way to cheat is to put out a branch in your yard near a bird feeder. Birds will tend to light on the branch before flying to the feeder which will give you the opportunity to shoot them in a controlled environment. The hard part will be keeping the squirrels out of the bird feeder. For this type of shooting the toughest thing may be locating the branch so that you have a clear background. The background is important so that you get natural looking bird shots rather than shots of a bird in front of your neighbor's house.

Finding the Time

You can find subjects right outside the office on your lunch break! Nikon N70, Quantary 28-80mm f3.5-5.6 Kodak Royal Gold. Exposure unrecorded

The good news is that you can do all this just a few minutes a day. When I was getting started in photography I used to walk from my office down to a drainage pond in the complex at lunch. Tall reeds grew in the pond and it sat much lower than the surrounding offices so backgrounds were no problem. There were always Canada Geese (which also breed like rats) and usually some ducks. Sometimes there were other migratory birds, and you would occasionally see frogs and small snakes if you were looking. I'd eat lunch on a bench near the pond and then snap a shot or two if something caught my eye. "Something" might be a bird or the play of light in the water and reeds. Some days I'd snap a few frames, some days nothing would catch my eye. But it was all great practice and a lot nicer than lunch at the local Greasy Burger.

Whether it's at a pond at work or your backyard, when you visit the same place every day you'll start to notice rhythms. Animals are creatures of habit. They tend to do the same things in the same places each day. They'll get used to seeing you there and after a while won't take much notice of your presence. The picture of the squirrel here was taken in a dogwood tree in my yard. Each fall the tree fills with small red nuts. Each morning while the nuts are on the tree two squirrels, who seem to be a pair as they travel together, climb the tree and sit in it's branches eating nuts. They make quite a racket cracking the shells with their teeth and their animated antics are interesting to watch and photograph.

This type of photography is a pleasant diversion that you can work into your daily routine and it will also develop your skills so that when you do get out into those wild places you know exactly what to do to capture that once in a lifetime shot. All the enjoyment you get along the way is just a bonus.


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