When Lightning Strikes

Behind the Shot: Advanced

There are moments where I’m hesitant to look back to see if I got the shot. It’s when the experience of shooting overwhelms me. These moments come unexpectedly and test us as ultimate problem solvers.

 

The sun was setting in the Everglades when a friend and I drove into the park in search of a spot for landscape sunset photos.  In the matter of minutes it went from semi cloudy to torrential downpour. “Well there goes our sunset... time for lightning photos” we told ourselves. By the time we parked our car, settling on a location, the rain had amassed so much that I had to run off into the rain barefoot. I only had one pair of shoes for this trip and getting it wet would’ve been a major drag. Which I don’t suggest anyone doing because there are venomous snakes that come out on paths during the rain (which I also later photographed). By then, the sky had fallen to complete pitch darkness and it was the sporadic lightning that led our way. Halfway to the spot where we would have some cover I noticed two football shaped silhouettes about 15-20 feet to the left of the path. “It can’t be!” I told myself. Two adult Barred Owls were perched out in the open!

 

F/4 1/8 Sec. ISO 25,600 600mm  A Barred Owl silhouette. Got the subject in focus without motion blur, but taken a millisecond too late from a lightning stike.

F/4 1/8 Sec. ISO 25,600 600mm

A Barred Owl silhouette. Got the subject in focus without motion blur, but taken a millisecond too late from a lightning stike.

 

I immediately accessed the challenges of photographing them.

  1. It was pitch dark, with the only source of light being lighting strikes. Thus in order to get this shot, I would have to shoot when the lightning struck. I would absolutely need some luck for this one. With landscape lightning photos, these shots are usually done with long exposures in multiple intervals. Shooting too slow would be out of the question even if I was completely still because there were high winds,heavy rain, and live subjects.

  2. I tend to shoot 95% handheld with my 600mm F4 IS II which meant I didn’t have a monopod nor a heavy tripod with me. This was quite a handicap as I knew I could only get this shot with a very low shutter speed. I’ve been able to consistently get away with shooting 1/60th of a second at 600mm handheld, but I gauged that I would need to be around 1/15 to get enough light. My final shot was taken at 1/8th of a second. This couldn’t have worked without bracing the foot of my lens on something and having impeccable IS (image stabilization) in my lens.

  3. No light meant no auto focusing, not even for my Canon 1DX II which focuses down to -3 EV. Solution? Good ol manual focus! This meant I had to quickly focus when the lightning struck and by trial and error, hopefully getting it right. Being very familiar with my lens helped as I had in the past shot with manual focus and was able to gauge the distance and attempt to get it by peeking at my focus meter on the lens, again doing this only when lightning struck. The hardest part of manual focusing was that I was hand holding and shooting at a thin depth of field. The slightest move either front or back would result in a subject out of focus.

  4. There is always a sense of urgency when shooting wildlife because there is a lack of certainty that your subject will remain still or even there. I reminded myself that haste makes waste! I needed to slow down, double check all settings, and correct for any errors before the situation changes. Spoiler alert: the owl flew away shortly after I got the shot!

  5. Having the right gear at the right time counts. I’m not endorsed or paid by Canon in anyway, but time and time again my 1DX II and 600mm F4 IS II have proven to be nearly weatherproof. I have shot during monsoon season in rainforests, out in open seas with splashing waves, high winds on sandy shore, and now this. All my buttons functioned as I needed and even with build up of water inside my lens hood and viewfinder I was able to consistently shoot. Having confidence in the durability of my tools allowed me to focus more on my shot.

Warning: Please be aware that I do not encourage shooting in inclimate weather situations. If you intend to shoot in such weather please do so at your own risk.

Reviewing my Contact Sheet. Please... all I need is one!

Reviewing my Contact Sheet. Please... all I need is one!

Solving these various challenges tested my understanding of the limits of my gear.

F/4 1/8 Sec. ISO 25,600 600mm  I got the lightning in this shot, but It doesn't help to have a moving subject under such conditions. I had to quickly refocus manually and recompose from a further distance.

F/4 1/8 Sec. ISO 25,600 600mm

I got the lightning in this shot, but It doesn't help to have a moving subject under such conditions. I had to quickly refocus manually and recompose from a further distance.

I remember when purchasing the 1DX II, one of the features that set this aside from other sport cameras was that it had no apparent raw buffer limit. Most people said it was overkill. Was it? The Nikon D5 (183 shot buffer with 5 seconds to clear) or even the Sony A9 (241 frames with 38 seconds to clear) buffer seemed more than adequate. So after bracing myself to steady my lens, practicing breathing techniques to minimize shake, I literally held down the shutter for 30+ seconds at a time. Shooting at 14 frames per second.  That’s over 420+ photos in one burst! I did this until I felt I got the shot, which took around 2.5k shots.

(Buffer data provided by Imaging Resource https://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/canon-1dx-ii/canon-1dx-iiA6.HTM, https://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/nikon-d5/nikon-d5A6.HTM, https://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/sony-a9/sony-a9A6.HTM)

When I give talks, lessons, or workshops, high ISO is always a subject that people are wary about. There seems to be a lingering notion that a noisy image is a bad image… an unprintable image and yes, I’ve been guilty of this too. It took working professionally as a wildlife photographer to help me understand that an image is comprised of so much more than image quality, not to mention I have made large prints with ISO up to 6,400. Years ago, I would’ve without a doubt missed this shot, limiting myself to a maximum of 3,200 ISO. When it came down to this instance, it was a either a chance of getting it at ISO 25,600 or going home with all blurry photos. 

F/4 1/8 Sec. ISO 25,600 600mm  Finally!

F/4 1/8 Sec. ISO 25,600 600mm

Finally!

With all being said and done, this photo was created under a  truly incredible experience. I still remember the rush of excitement along with the hyperventilating due to the the cold rain blasting on my face. These are the moments I live for.  

 

 

 

 

 

Afternoon at Coney Island

On my drive home one day, I stopped by the Coney Island boardwalk for a short stroll. As always, I had my DSLR on me, this time mounted with the Canon 85mm 1.2 L II bokeh monster. I wasn't looking to photograph anything in particular, but seeing as how this is a portrait lens I took on the challenge to photograph people.

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 125     85mm

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 125     85mm

Sometimes there's no need to search.  A story is just waiting to be captured.

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 165     85mm

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 165     85mm

Who said the mega slow focusing 85mm can't do a bit of wildlife?

Tip: When photographing small or large subjects have something else in the photo to show a relation of size.  

30 minutes into my sauntering, I saw a young girl playing in the sand. She's got a stuff toy in one hand, Nathan's famous french fries in the other, and playing without a care in the world. 

 

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 160     85mm

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 160     85mm

I'm aware that a majority of people feel shy to engage total strangers, let alone photograph them. Knowing how to approach the situation is half the challenge. 

How does one approach such a situation you ask? Well first locate the parent if it's a child. I saw her father briefly glancing back at her across the boardwalk while buying another order of fries.  I'm also casually dressed without anything obstructing my face. Baseball caps, hoodies, sunglasses, bandanas, etc.. while fashionable, can make you seem awfully suspicious.  I smile genuinely  and make eye contact with both my subject and people around her. My camera is always visible and there is always a mutual acknowledgement of me photographing. I can't begin to list the numbers of times I see someone snipe with a telephoto from 100 feet away. It feels obtrusive and just darn right creepy.

If it's a young girl or boy, like the subject in this instance, I ALWAYS make certain that I make direct contact with the adult/parent acknowledging their permission to photograph their child. Approaching people with confidence is great for disarming people that otherwise wouldn't want to be photographed. Offering your subject a photo you have just taken or why you find them interesting to be photographed is always a method I use to build rapport. Sometimes your subjects will find themselves flattered and happy to take part!

Even in the heat of the shoot remember to check your settings periodically and photograph in multiple angles, remember to slow down and engage your subject. I often see other photographers snap away as if their subject is fleeting. Remove that the sense of urgency. Be focused, but also relax and enjoy the moments you're capturing and creating!

 

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 160     85mm

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 160     85mm

This angle works, but how about something more engaging?

 

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 160     85mm

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 160     85mm

Better.

Tip: A slight bend in the knees or sitting down will offer a vastly different perspective. 

A story is much more than the image itself. Be open about your intentions, try not to be judgmental, remember to always stay respectful, and you'd be amazed how much people are willing to share. In the hour of photographing his daughter, I spent 55 minutes talking, and 5 minutes of actual shooting. Why so much chit chat? The more you know about your subject, the more you can use angles, shadows, lighting, interactions, environments, to convey their unique and personal story. Plus, it's also fun!

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 160     85mm

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 160     85mm

The 28 year old  father had just picked up his daughter from school. He's a single parent whose priority is his daughter's well being and education. He shared that while they are legal immigrants, the current political climate has him feeling unwelcomed and scared for their future in this country. He was initially scared that I may judge him for his Latin American background, but felt more comfortable sharing after he saw my interest. Always think before you talk in these situations as the last thing you'd want is to offend your subject. I can't begin to count the times I've seen well meaning people say racist or offensive remarks. Again, I stress that I know most people are well meaning, but being sensitive to other people is also granting myself a chance to learn something new. 

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 100     85mm

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 100     85mm

If you happen to feel strongly about certain political views, remember that this is about their story. Regardless of how you may favor or oppose their point of view, the session that they've granted you is all about positive sharing and respect. The more empathetic you are the deeper the meaning of your photos will be.

 

F/2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 320     85mm

F/2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 320     85mm

As a wildlife photographer I naturally gravitate to anything that has wings. I don't discriminate!

I was trying to get all three gull heads in focus. Dialing my aperture from F/1.2 to F/2 gave me more depth of field to work with. A high shutter speed is also essential for high speed gull action! 

Tip: As someone who works with wildlife it is also my duty to remind people not to feed wild animals (impossible to do in NYC), especially with French fries, but more importantly approach the conversation with compassion and do so through empathy. No one likes to be "taught" or talked down upon. I generally give some interesting facts about the animal's natural diet and state how that is what keeps them most healthy. The goal is to build awareness not to be a jerk! 

 

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 100     85mm

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 100     85mm

Sometimes getting the shot you want means waiting at a spot and having the subjects walk pass you. There is so much story waiting to be told. 

 

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO250       85mm

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO250     85mm

Walk around and observe. Sometimes interesting moments happen right before your eyes! Keep your finger above the shutter and always pay attention to the backgrounds of your subjects. I thought the red danger sign behind her was most appropriate for the situation. 

 

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 250     85mm

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 250     85mm

Look around for colors and straight lines. I loved the green bars and red benches at this outdoor gym. Composition can either make or break a photo.  

 

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 160     85mm

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 160     85mm

I often refer back to my histogram when shooting, but sometimes blowing out some whites can lead to interesting results. I felt that the blown out highlights in this photo gave the feelings of staring at the sun. 

 

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 100     85mm

F/1.2     1/8000 Sec.     ISO 100     85mm

Before I left I wanted to get a shot of the boardwalk where so many people have walked along. Somewhere where I had once walked and photographed.  

 

 

 


 

Journey Back Home

The Epic Journey Back Home

 

Every year hundreds of thousands of Snow Geese and tens of thousands of Tundra Swans make their way to Middle Creek, Pennsylvania, for several days to rest along their way back to the arctic. The man made lake here provides safety for the birds as they sleep there at night and graze the nearby hills before flying out.

Best time to visit would be from mid/late February to early March. Spikes in warm weather shortens their stay in the area so plan accordingly for weather so that you don't arrive on a day when they've all left. 

F/4     1/400 Sec.     ISO 100     600mm

F/4     1/400 Sec.     ISO 100     600mm

Each time I visit the area, I remind myself to get there early for the perfect sunrise shot. For one thing you aren't the only person interested in this spectacular spectacle during the frigid but well worth it golden hour and the small parking lot is less than adequate to handle an excess of 30+ or so cars. Cars start piling in around 5:30am so if it happens to be filled when you get there, don't fret. Overflow parking lengthens to the sides of the main road. A visit during noontime when the geese are less likely to fly and most likely on the hills grazing will yield an easier time parking. 

If you’ve managed to find parking in the lot, there is another 10 minute walk to get to where everyone sets up and patiently wait for the geese to take to the skies.

Tip: There is no running and gunning here so bring a tripod and claim your spot as you wait. 

I’ve shot this event this year with a 24-70mm, 100-400mm, and 600mm. So which one is my favorite? It depends on the number of geese and composition. On the wider spectrum a wide angle lens can give context to the overall atmosphere while a telephoto gives you reach for grazing or in flight shots. 

F/5.6    1/1250 Sec.     ISO250     360mm

F/5.6    1/1250 Sec.     ISO250     360mm

Notice that with a moderate telephoto range, you’ll be able to focus on a larger area of geese while capturing details of either the sky or the woodlands behind. Shooting at a smaller aperture F5.6 - F11 can also keep the depth of the layers of geese in focus. If you were to shoot the same photo with a super telephoto prime, there would be instances where the geese towards the back fall out of focus relative to the geese closer to you. 

F/8      1/2000 Sec.     ISO640     600mm

F/8      1/2000 Sec.     ISO640     600mm

Getting tired of shooting massive clutters of geese? A super telephoto of 600-1200mm will drastically help with isolating particular birds. Landing shots are always fun. 

F/4    1/2000 Sec.    ISO200    600mm

F/4    1/2000 Sec.    ISO200    600mm

Tip: Remember to try different angles and points of view. Getting low will get you the perspective of a fellow geese.

With a 24-70 you’ll be able to capture the action that most closely mimics the way human eyes see the world. This is a magical range when it comes to photographing the environment or context of where the geese fly. 

F/4    1/400 Sec.    ISO100    600mm

F/4    1/400 Sec.    ISO100    600mm

If the conditions are right, a full day of shooting equates to a batch of keepers. Though I do recommend staying for a full two days in preparation for poor weather. 

The experience here is something that cannot be replicated or told through photos or videos. It’s the thunder that’s created by hundreds of thousands of snow geese taking off, the cold wind on your face as you angle your head up for the fly by, and just the sheer experience of understanding how epic nature is.

F/9    1/1250 Sec.    ISO800     312mm

F/9    1/1250 Sec.    ISO800     312mm

Always look around for backgrounds to give a sense of distance and proportion.

F/4     1/2000 Sec.     ISO320     600mm

F/4     1/2000 Sec.     ISO320     600mm


 

Bonus: Don't forget the other critters around the Wildlife Management Area. I generally do this during midday when the geese are grazing at locations inaccessible to driving or walking. Midday lighting is often harsh so get extra excited if you happen upon a slight overcast. 

F/8     1/1000 Sec.     ISO4000     1200mm                                                                                                                                

F/8     1/1000 Sec.     ISO4000     1200mm                                                                                                                                

Eastern Bluebirds are common on the trail towards the shooting site. Look in the woods on the left of the trail to spot them. If you're lucky you'll be able to see some fighting action as this is the time the males fight for the attention of the females. 

F/7.1     1/1000 Sec.     ISO500     840mm                                                                                                                                    

F/7.1     1/1000 Sec.     ISO500     840mm                                                                                                                                    

There are nesting Great Horned Owls around the vicinity. In my experience, friendly locals are more than happy to share some interesting spots. Can't say the same for the grumpy owl.  

 

F/8     1/1250 Sec.     ISO800     840mm                                                                                                                                          

F/8     1/1250 Sec.     ISO800     840mm                                                                                                                                          

While I wasn't able to find a Screech Owl this year, I'm sure there are still around the woods there. 

 

 

The marker is placed at the location of the proper parking lot. I've made the mistake of going directly to the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area parking lot during my first visit and missed sunrise. Don't make the same mistake as I have and happy shooting! 

Donate