Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, right?
Conventional wisdom says use a long lens for wildlife – at least 400mm, and longer is better for birds. And leave the short lenses at home?
Evening landscape, Bosque del Apache NWR
Not really. I always carry a second camera with not-so-long lenses alongside the super-telephoto when I’m shooting wildlife. I’ll need it for landscapes and closeups, and just maybe for group flight shots.
My shorter lenses are primes in the 35mm-135mm range.
Waterbirds Go To Bosque For The Food
The Arctic feeds almost 500,000 breeding sandhill cranes each summer. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge hosts 5,000-10,000 of those cranes every winter, along with 12,000 to 24,000 snow geese and other migrating water birds. Cranes and geese will fly over 3500 miles to get there before winter snow covers all their food.
Some of the 5,000 cranes wintering at Bosque
Bosque del Apache is a much shorter 107 mile drive south of Albuquerque, so we humans don’t have to work so hard to get there.
Marsh or Farm?
Bosque has two loop roads, the Marsh loop (south) and the Farm loop (north). The birds will defy all your expectations of where you think they should be, so you’ll want to try both loops. Water-loving snow geese may be on the dry fields looking for food, while grain-eating sandhill cranes may be in the ponds preening and slurping water. That afternoon, birds weren’t very close to the road anywhere. The big lenses were a bust, but I shot evening light with the short lenses anyway. I figured I’d probably gotten a few good silhouettes, but sunset color was fleeting and duller than my last trip here 14 years ago.
Morning sunstars along the Farm loop
After a barely-edible dinner in Socorro and what I thought was unproductive shooting the next morning – I again hadn’t done as well as I thought I should with the big telephotos – we took a break for better food further south in Ruidoso. What I didn’t think about were the shots from the short lenses, the in-your-face wetland landscapes, reflecting ponds and marshes with sun-starred winter trees that hadn’t quite lost their leaves. Those were the real money shots.
When we arrived back at Bosque a day later, I was refreshed and ready to go. After another early morning at Chupadero Mountain RV Park a couple miles outside the refuge, we went searching for geese. As the fog burned off with the rising sun, we found them. They were in the empty cornfields with the cranes, on the extreme north end of the Farm loop.
Sandhill cranes in flight, with 135mm f/4
Small groups of cranes and geese flew overhead. There were a couple mass liftoffs before mid-morning. It was satisfying to just watch.
Snow geese – on the ground and in the air
But all good things come to an end. In this case, low-angle winter sun extended my shooting time, but the light got pretty hard about 10am. We headed north to Socorro’s old Spanish plaza for revitalizing hot chocolate and coffee.
Flight and Travel Shots with Short Lenses
When I’m capturing wildlife with a second camera and 135mm lens, I need to get close enough to allow cropping without too much resolution loss. Some of this is luck, but more is careful observation. Birds tend to choose the same overhead flight paths, and it’s up to the shooter to see this and find the best position. Manual focus lenses complicate this a bit, requiring subjects moving perpendicular to the camera’s aim to allow easier focusing. This positioning also helps autofocus lenses lock on.
After observing and choosing your position, you’ll want to set the camera for over-exposure. I shoot aperture-priority because I’ll have other things to worry about in the heat of battle. I usually set exposure compensation for flight shots from +0.7 to +1.7 EV. With white snow geese, I stay towards the +0.7 end of that range to avoid blowing out detail in white feathers. A digital camera lets you check this on the fly with histograms and LCD previews so you can change exposure if you need it.
Then I pick an ISO for shutter speeds in the 1/1000 to 1/4000 second range after sunrise. Recent digital cameras have low-enough noise to make ISO 1600-3200 quite usable in raw-format pictures.
The flight shots were all captured with a Leitz 135mm f/4 Elmar from the early 1960s, just $150 on ebay a few years ago. Everything else here came from a 50mm f/1.4 or 75mm f/2 lens.
In the sunstar landscape, one sunstar is direct and the other reflected. There was some diffraction around the tree branches to begin with for the direct sunstar. Stopping down to f/11 enhanced it and produced the second sunstar in the water reflection.
I started with a 50mm lens for the sunset pond silhouette, but switched to a 75mm to narrow the angle of view. The camera’s live view didn’t show me shadow detail – current LCD technology lacks the eye’s dynamic range, though it makes composing easier on a tripod. I focused and composed as well as I could in my Leica M camera’s optical viewfinder. In DNG or any other raw format, you’ll always get more contrast range on pixels than the LCD or EVF show you.
Practice is important with longer focal lengths. I’m very used to 135mm, since a 135mm f/4.5 was one of the two lenses I had in my teens (the other was a 50mm f/1.5). But no amount of practice and stealth will get you safely close enough to wild birds or mammals with 135mm. You’ll need 400mm or longer for wild couples and closeups. Just bring the 135mm and shorter lenses too. Sometimes a knife is the right tool, even in a gunfight.
Sandhill cranes after hours
Sandhill Crane Species Field Guide, retrieved from https://www.savingcranes.org/species-field-guide/sandhill-crane/
Sandhill Cranes Take Their Time Returning, retrieved from http://nmindepth.com/2015/12/14/sandhill-cranes-take-their-time-returning
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge New Mexico Map, retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/y99quf68