Group Action

by John Fan

I visited Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico again in December of 2014. The refuge is home to tens of thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes each winter. This is a place so dear to my heart that I have visited many times in the past. I have never left empty-handed.
 
 
Sony A7711  .  Sony 300mm  f/2.8  .  1/15s  .   Gitzo Tripod  .  Jobu Pro2 Gimbal Head  
 

After I arrived at the refuge, I photographed in various locations the first day and figured out where the birds were overnighting. The birds' behavior was different every time I visited, and this trip was no exception. So the purpose of my first day there was largely to scout out the area. There were not many birds in the refuge this year. However, on the way back to my hotel that evening, I saw hundreds of sandhill cranes on a pond near roadside. So I decided to return to that spot to photograph them in the morning.

I arrived at the location an hour before sunrise the next morning. I could see many cranes over the pond but no snow geese. I set up my gear and patiently waited in the dark.

"Instead of increasing the ISO and shutter speed to freeze the action, I deliberately slowed down the shutter speed to 1/15 second to capture the motion effect of the wings."

Just before sunrise, I heard a loud noise from the east. I looked up and noticed that the sky was blanketed with snow geese. It seemed like there were thousands of them! They circled the pond and started to land on it in a very orderly fashion, and I immediately started photographing them. The light at that predawn hour was very dim. Instead of increasing the ISO and shutter speed to freeze the action, I deliberately slowed down the shutter speed to 1/15 second to capture the motion effect of the wings. It's a technique I use often; many of my published works were done using this technique. 


"Dream Landing": Sony A77II, Sony 300mm f/2.8, Gitzo tripod, Jobu Pro2 Gimbal head


"The birds were so densely packed in the air that I could barely see the sky. I always wonder why they don't collide into each other."

The landing process took about 15 minutes. Just about the instant that the last snow goose landed, they all took off in unison without any warning. It took me by complete surprise. Fortunately, I was constantly capturing the landing action; all I had to do was continue to shoot. It was an absolutely breathtaking moment. The birds were so densely packed in the air that I could barely see the sky. I always wonder why they don't collide into each other. The takeoff lasted a few seconds, and then all of them were gone. Apparently, this pond was used by the snow geese as some sort of rendezvous to wait for all of the geese to arrive.

It was such a memorable experience that I decided to come back again the next morning, but I wanted to do something different the second day. I brought a second camera with a wide-angle lens mounted on it. I decided to capture the environment when the snow geese took off. It was a predictable event this time around when the myriad of geese arrived and started landing. I photographed the landing scene as usual with my telephoto lens, but this time the birds did not take off immediately. They waited for another half an hour. When they finally took off, they did not take off all together; instead, they left in large groups. With my wide-angle lens I photographed each group of birds as they flew over my head.


"Takeoff": Sony A99, Zeiss 24–70mm, 30 mm, handheld


"But this was the first time I photographed them up close, giving me a great opportunity to try something more creative."

I have photographed snow geese at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge a few times before, and I have witnessed the massive numbers of snow geese taking off. But this was the first time I photographed them up close, giving me a great opportunity to try something more creative. I often previsualize when I photograph landscapes, but wildlife photography is to a great extent a spontaneous sport. This was one of the rare instances that I previsualized for wildlife photography. I had this idea, and I knew it was going to be a special shot. It was photographed using a composition and technique that I use for landscape photography. Is it a wildlife photo or landscape photo? It doesn't really matter. When I saw my picture on my camera's display, I knew I nailed it.
 
POST PROCESSING
I always capture images in RAW format to acquire as much information as possible in the field, even when I photograph wildlife. Memory cards are so cheap these days that I carry several 64GB cards with me so I never have to worry about running out of storage. 

Back at home, I open them up Adobe Lightroom to make some global adjustments to the Exposure and Color Temperature before I send them to Adobe Photoshop to make further detailed adjustments to the Contrast, Saturation, Sharpness, and so on. During post-processing, I decided to convert "Dream Landing" to black and white to enhance the dreamy effect.
 
TIPS
1) Always scout out the area. Study animal behavior as well as light and composition. The best photographs are most often taken in an environment that you are familiar with.

2) Always try something new. Wildlife photographs do not have to be captured with a long telephoto lens. A wide-angle shot to include the environment may have a surprising effect.

3) Bird photography does not have to be captured with a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. It doesn't have to retain every detail so that one can count the feathers. A slower shutter speed will help to blur the wings to give a sense of movement. 
 
BIOGRAPHY
I am a fine art nature photographer based in Chicago, USA. My interests involve nature subjects, ranging from landscape to wildlife. My work has been published extensively in international magazines, books and exhibited in galleries. I am also the winner of many prestigious international photography awards. 
 

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