Field Notes on Photography

I was just thinking about how different it is to take photos of coyotes and, say, woodpeckers. One is not harder or easier than the other. They are just so very different.

Finding these animals in the first place could prove to be difficult in the Bay Area — these are rare animals to encounter in this area.  I’ve come across coyotes in some parks. Those that are less shy become the focus for my camera. I’ve seen a woodpecker only a few times in the last two years –  twice in the apple tree right in my front yard!

Both coyotes and woodpeckers involve a focus problem because of the long closeup lens which I use. Although the lens appears to bring the animal closer, the lens in itself cuts down on the amount of available light. Photography is about light — the more light, the better.

Coyotes are up at dawn when the light isn’t so good and they normally are on the move. Woodpeckers are hidden behind leaves and branches. These same leaves and branches obscure a lot of the light and create shade and shadows.

The secret to capturing these animals on film is to get in close enough without disrupting the animal’s activity: not so far away so as to loose all the detail, and never so close so as to interrupt their activity level. If the animal ignores you, you are at a safe distance. If you cause them to flinch, or flee, you have entered their “critical distance” — obviously at this point your presence has interrupted their life: you have interfered with wildlife which cannot be your aim if you are a wildlife photographer.

Once the photos are taken, how do you choose what to keep? For a coyote, I tolerate more blur, in favor of retaining photos with as many poses showing movement and expressiveness. A coyote is probably one of the most expressive critters you will ever find, with more choreography to its movements than any other animal. A coyote is so many things: nimble, delicate, rough, lithe, quick.  Facial expressions can be read: boredom, tension, alertness, inquisitiveness, anger, fear, compliance, curiosity, annoyance, etc. The features to capture are long: ears, snout, legs, neck.

Which photos do you keep of the woodpecker? A woodpecker can be found in all sorts of positions and orientations on a tree. Its extensions, unless you can get it landing or taking off, are of less interest than that of a coyote. However, first and foremost come  focus and clarity in the details — its eyes, feathers, and markings. The setting in which you find the bird counts for a lot when photographing them.

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