|Small is Good!
by B. Moose Peterson
Wildlife photography is for sure, glamorous. Maybe more so in perception than reality, but I sure wouldn't trade it for anything! There is no doubt that in the pursuit of the glamorous side of wildlife photography, subjects that are big and grand are the ones that garnish the greatest attention from photographers. The money spent on this pursuit is mind boggling to me! Many find it hard to believe though when I tell them that as a photographer in business, I make more sales and more money from images of small critters over big ones. The ordinary over the glamorous it turns out!
Before you get excited about seeing Moose's first article on macro, that's not where I'm heading. Rather, it's about little mammals, subjects normally present in everyday shooting but most often overshadowed by the glamorous subjects. These smaller members of our natural history are just as challenging for photographers, if not more so, than their larger mammal counterparts. I've dedicated 20 years to capturing the biology of these little critters on film. Here is some basic biology and technology I use in my pursuit of photographing these cute little critters!
Finding these small subjects
Our smallest members of the mammal world, while the most common, can be the hardest to find. That's because being the smallest, they are typically on everyone else's menu! They have evolved to elude their predators, an ability that makes them able to elude our lens as well. So, how do you find them so you can photograph them?
The largest of the small critters to find are rabbits. These are best found early in the morning and near dusk. While this is the best light to photograph them by, it is a bit of a challenge. Wild rabbits, ones that have no daily contact with people, are point blank darn hard to find! That's because they are normally long gone before you have the opportunity to ever see them. The best place to look is literally under shrubs or near the edge where they can easily hide. Also look for their burrows and runs where they beat down paths coming and going from their burrows.
Probably the best option for photographic purposes is to locate rabbits that have contact with folks. Parks are really great resources for rabbit finding. Again, the rabbits will still be out really early or really late, but they are at least approachable once you find them. Even with this knowledge, there are some rabbits like the Pygmy Rabbit that even after years of trying have only been in my viewfinder once, and that was only for a brief moment! They make me feel like Elmer Fudd way too often!
Going down the scale of small mammals, the next cute little critters to find are squirrels and chipmunks. Truly wild ones can be potentially great subjects because when they can be approached, they tend to be just as curious about us as we are about them. Most folks typically experience these little darts of fur at campsite picnic tables. Feeding them to get them close is not a good idea, but once they have been fed by someone in their past, they will come close to everyone. This is something you can take advantage of without feeding them yourself.
Where I live, I'm very fortunate to have three species of squirrels and one chipmunk that live on our property. The annual summer pile of split firewood becomes their temporary home. That pile is a great place to find these little critters as they come and go from our bird feeders with seed-filled cheek pouches.
The smallest members of this small world are the mice, kangaroo rats and shrews. These critters are not easily found as they do not beg for food or sit openly under a bush. As the number one prey choice for 9-10 predators, hiding is not a way of life, it is their life!
Finding them is easiest in desert areas. There are more of them in this type of habitat and finding them takes just a handful of birdseed. Put out a small pile or two of seed around dusk, and then wait 30 minutes or so. If there are any mice or kangaroo rats in the area, they will be at your seed piles.
There isn't one of these subjects you can't photograph if you so desire! All it takes is a little homework. Today especially, you can go online and find out a lot about the basic biology of any of these critters. There are many new books like Smithsonian's, The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals, which has all the info you'll need to know where and when to find these critters. The more you know about your subject before you head out into the field, the better your odds and the better your images. (You'll find that the vast majority of the small mammal photos in this book are by yours truly.)
Techniques for these Small Subjects
Once you find your puny subject, what then? You've got to get close physically to your subject. No matter how much horsepower you have in your lenses, these critters are small, so image size is directly dependent upon your ability to get close.
Habituated subjects of course are the easiest to get close to and are a great starting place for working with small critters. Once you start working with these critters, you'll begin noticing behaviors like freezing in place, glancing off in one direction, twitching of the back foot, all indications that they are ready to flee. These are also signs that you’re doing something wrong and scaring them. Learning these signs from subjects already adjusted to seeing folks prepares you for working with the truly wild critters.
There are two things little critters are always after that if you recognize them, will aid in your getting close physically. Food and water are two critical elements these guys must have every day (each species being a little different in their needs of one or the other). Doing your homework to understand what they need, then being able to recognize and find it is the best way of getting close physically. When the critter comes to you because you're at its food or water source is a technique I constantly use!
Learning to get close physically means applying one of the things I tell photographers over and over again. Don't be in a hurry to get nothing! Translation, slow and easy wins the race. Move slowly, ever so slowly towards your diminutive subject and start watching for signs of discomfort. When you see these, you need to stop, wait until either the subject becomes comfortable with you and proceed, back off or stop all together. You'll find getting close to small critters a heck of a lot more challenging than getting close physically to large subjects like deer.
In this process of getting close, you need to look at your angle of view. The idea of course is to take photos, the best possible photos. Most settle for capturing images of small critters by shooting at our eye level while standing up. This is boring! The best images come from taking the images at their height, which means getting down! How far down? Totally down on the ground if possible! I've come back from crawling after subjects with more than one shirt with ground in grass and dirt stains. Getting down and getting close physically then is a true challenge for the wildlife photographer after small mammals!
Tools for Photographing the Small
If you're trying to get close physically, doing it on the ground with all the horsepower you can muster, what do you do? There are a number of options I can recommend that I have found work great for me.
For the bigger members of the small world, like rabbits, I prefer using the 600f4 AFS with TC-14e and Kenko extension tube. This combination on the D1H gives me a 1260f5.6 lens that focuses down to a mere 14 feet! A little bunny rabbit, one of my favorite subjects, nearly fills the entire frame with this combination. What about getting down though with this massive setup?
You have a number of options. You can use a tripod that goes flat. The height of your lens off the ground with this is about ten inches, which is what my Gitzo 1548 and Wimberley head combo come to. This is perfect for rabbits. While laying flat on the ground, you can slowly scoot up the tripod/lens and wiggle up behind it. This is a setup I continually count on that delivers, getting up close and personal to the smallest bunny!
You can also remove the head from the tripod and place that flat on the ground as well. While this makes for a lighter setup to work with, and no tripod legs to get caught in branches and the like, it is not as stable as the flat tripod. You can improve the tripod head only solution by simply attaching it to a small board via a ¼ 20 bolt. This provides you with stability while getting you as low as possible.
The other two lenses I prefer to use are both handholdable, so tripods are not required. The Nikon 80-400VR and 300f4AFS are great options for photographing small mammals (or the Canon 100-400 IS or 300f4). These lenses are physically very small, but have quite a bit of focal length power. Yet more importantly, they can focus close. For example, the 300f4AFS focuses down to 5 feet! The 300f4AFS also can be used with a teleconverter, providing even greater horsepower. With these lenses, crawling like a bug for ground level images is quite easy.
Photographing the Small Guys
This is really the easiest part of the entire equation I think. There are a couple of things to keep in mind that might make your images better than the next guy's.
Flash is often required in photographing these little critters. Since so many of them come out when it's nearly dark or dark, flash is required. This first of all means you're good with flash. But you want quality light, even if it's your light. I prefer using the Sto-fen Omni bounce in photographing these small critters. It mellows out the light from the flash, which really helps keep these cute critters cute. It also has another important feature.
Most of these small critters, since they do spend much of their time out at night, have large eyes. You can best communicate this feature photographically by having a big highlight in the eye. That's where the Omni Bounce comes in. It creates a big highlight, which really looks great in those big eyes.
Many of these small critters have long tails. You don't want to cut those off in your photograph because they are an essential part of who they are. This means that while you're focusing on the eye, you need to keep an eye on the tail. The best scenario is to have the tail wrapped around their body so you can see a bit of the tail and the entire tail tip in the frame. Since these small critters don't understand English and didn't go to modeling school, you have to be patient in getting the perfect pose with the tail. But if you're looking for it, you'll have more luck capturing it.
Squirrels often wrap their tail over their back. This is the classic pose to capture because it is so cute. Cute sells in every sense of the word so capture it!
Finally, always have those extension tubes in your pocket. While I'm not an eyeball photographer by nature, when I can get close physically to these little critters, I mean really close, I want to be able to focus on them. Extension tubes are the best way to accomplish that. When you attach a tube and you are close physically, the image size of the subject becomes amazingly big. Almost Sci-Fi big, which is kind of fun!
That's what it's all about, fun! While these small critters are not the most glamorous, they are tons of fun to capture with your camera. They will challenge your biological and technical skills in capturing the photograph. The good thing is that no matter where you live in the world, you can probably find one or more of these small critters in your backyard to photograph. That means besides no travel time or expense to photograph them, you can work with them over and over again, improving your results. Have fun with these little fur balls; I've been chasing them for 20 years and have no intention of stopping!