Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online

For The Love of Loons

What draws the attention of most viewers when it comes to the visual aspects of nature photography?

For starters vivid colors, great light and good composition. The indigo bunting, scarlet tanager, a male wood duck, puffins, pileated woodpeckers and so many more come to mind.

However, here in the Green Mountains of Vermont one of the most loved and admired birds is the Common Loon. Although lacking in color, It's black and white markings, fluorescent red eye and spine chilling calls have made this bird a favorite amongst photographers and bird enthusiasts. But there are some unique challenges to capturing quality loon images.

Learning About the Loon 
As with all wildlife photography it helps to educate yourself about the individual animal you wish to photograph. The loon is the oldest living bird on the face of the earth and they are very territorial. It is not uncommon to find just one pair of loons inhabiting a pond or lake. Loons mate for life but there is no guarantee that chicks will be present should you happen upon a pair of loons.

In many bird species the male can be differentiated from the female by it's vibrant colors. However, with the common loon you cannot distinguish a male from a female strictly by appearance. The common loon is a large bird weighing seven to nine pounds, with a long dagger-like beak that it uses as a tool in nest building and for catching fish, frogs and other water specimens. Due the extreme rear positioning of their legs loons cannot walk on land. They are also the only bird in the world with solid bones. Because of their weight loons require great distances in order to "run" on the water prior to "liftoff", sometimes as much as a quarter of a mile.

Loon calls are unique and unmistakable and they have the un-neighborly habit of performing their nightly chorus of calls just when we humans like to sleep. Loons have four distinct calls: the tremolo, the wail, the yodel, and the hoot, all perfect for long distance communications. During the day loons use visual cues, such as wing flaps to communicate, but at night their calls keep them in touch.

When to Shoot 
Loon photography must be done with caution and patience and it's not unusual to make several trips with little or no success. As with any wild animal loons need to gain confidence that you are of not a threat to them. In Vermont it may be the first or second week of May before sightings occur (Winters are long here!!). This time of year loons are looking for nesting sites and I would recommend against approaching them during this period. If loons feel threatened they will flee the area and look for other bodies of water to nest on. This disrupts the fragile balance between nesting pairs. But once June arrives and they have established nesting sites I take to the water.

Photographing Loons 
Now that you know a little bit about these creatures let me take you through the process of photographing them. To better stalk loons I made two purchases: a kayak and a 100-400mm IS lens.

Let's begin with my kayak - an Old Town Loon 138. What attracted me to this kayak? Its long open cockpit is perfect for carrying gear and positioning my tripod (used only to hold my camera and lens, all my loon images are hand-held). I also found this kayak to be stable. I've experienced some windy conditions on Lake Champlain and never feared rolling over - one of several advantages the kayak has over a canoe. It's difficult to tip over in a kayak and with over $2000.00 worth of gear a canoe would be far too risky. That confidence also means you won't hesitate to move around for better shooting position. Another advantage is perspective. Never shoot down on waterfowl. Your images should give the viewer the feeling that you're in the water at eye level with the loon.

My choice of lens is the Canon 100-400 with Image Stabilization. Since I purchased this lens I find myself using slower speed films versus its predecessor, the Tokina 100-300mm f4.

With Image Stabilization I am able to shoot low speed, fine grained, color enhanced film such as Fuji Provia 100. It allows me to handhold, pan with my subject and shoot at shutter speeds as slow as 1/60th of a second at 400mm. Normally the longer the focal length the better. I have had loons swim within a few feet of me but in general I prefer to keep my distance.

My favorite time to photograph loons is at sunrise. Cloudless, calm early mornings provide great directional light. The water is motionless and more times than not, I find myself alone. Recreational boaters and birders will usually sleep through the best part of the day for photography. You must be an early riser!

The key to any wildlife image is the eye. If the eye is out of focus the entire image will appear out of focus. A loons eyes are a thing of beauty and critical to the success of the image. At sunrise wait for the light to break the plane the horizon and illuminate the subject from the east. In other words, the light is approaching from behind me, low in the sky, allowing for a front lit subject, illuminating the eye, creating a catch light, and bringing out distinct body detail. Watch for the loon to dive and go for a shot with glistening water droplets on its head after surfacing.

Don't allow the joy of the moment interfere with your photography. Be sure to concentrate your efforts not just on the main subject but the entire composition. Background and foreground elements are critical. The water should be calm and reflective and allow for a somewhat mirrored image, though with motion, a perfect reflection is never possible.

I enjoy creating images that have an artistic flare to them. I'll wait until the loon is positioned in reflective medium toned light as happens when trees are reflected from the shore, or from a deep blue morning sky. These types of compositions make for more interesting images and make metering a whole lot easier. Think quality over quantity!

Body positioning of the subject is critical to composition. I look for three distinct positions. First, left to right, and vise versa, subject parallel to the film plane with the head positioned slightly towards you and illumination coming in from either side, depending on direction of travel. The second and third positions are going away from you, or coming towards you, with the head turned approximately 90 degrees to the left or right. 

Again watch the light! The wake that is developed in calm water can add a whole new element to your image. Take a picture of a loon coming at you and it produces a flat face with two red eyes. Personally, I don't find this angle attractive. In my opinion it takes away from the true beauty of this bird.

Take care to keep your camera level, especially when shorelines or horizons are visible 

Don't press too close when chicks are present. It's better to stand off and use a long lens.

There are some challenges when photographing loons, the greatest being that you're not on a stable surface. Boats have a tendency to bob around! While sitting in a floating object, it's only natural for your body to move with it. Keeping the viewfinder level so your subject is not swimming uphill or downhill is critical and an easy mistake to make. This is especially true if shorelines appear in the frame. Early mornings and calm water help to minimize this problem. 

When young are present, be aware that, like any parent, the protection and survival of their young are the loons first concern. I've heard stories (but never witnessed) an angry loon. I've also never attempted to photograph nor witnessed a loon chick on it's mothers back. These types of images are usually captured from within floating blinds. I prefer wait until the chicks are mature enough to dive or swim on their own. My goal is to appreciate wildlife without causing them stress. If loons should flee an area while your attempting to photograph then your actions are being perceived as an intrusion upon their territory and you need to back off a bit.

I wish you much success and I hope you enjoy photographing these wonderful birds as much as I do.


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