8.6 Being Flexible in the Field

There are a number of field techniques that fall within the category of simply being maximally flexible in the field; any of these might, on occasion, allow you to get a quality shot that you’d otherwise miss.  We’ll very briefly enumerate some of these tricks in this section.
    The first trick is to be prepared to detach your rig from its tripod and use it hand-held.  I have a number of shots that I’ve captured this way, and that I probably couldn’t have captured otherwise. 

Fig. 8.6.1 : Sometimes getting the right angle, quickly, requires taking the lens off of the tripod
and taking the shot hand-held.  When shooting a big rig hand-held, you can use your body
and/or other objects (e.g., a tree or rock) as support.  Notice in the figure above that my left
forearm is supported by my leg.  Whatever you do, just be careful not to drop your rig
into an alligator-infested swamp!  (Photo by Linda Huber; used with permission).

In the field, birds sometimes appear seemingly out of nowhere, and when they do so, your tripod-mounted rig is often not in the ideal position to capture the bird.  You can pick up the rig and move it, and/or adjust the hight of the tripod via adjustments to the center column or the leg angles, but often this takes too much time—especially on rough terrain where there are no level surfaces.  In the case of the Canda warbler pictured below, following the bird with the tripod-mounted rig simply proved too difficult due to the many tree branches at different hights that would have required rapid tripod adjustments as the bird foraged.  Instead, I removed my 600mm f/4 lens from the tripod and used it very briefly as a hand-held lens (with image stabilization enabled).  The image below is the only satisfying photo of this bird that I was able to obtain, and it’s very likely I wouldn’t have got it at all if I’d left the lens attached to the tripod.

Fig. 8.6.2 : A very lucky shot.  I had been seeking Canada Warblers all week, so when one suddenly
appeared out of nowhere just 20 feet from me, my adrenaline went into overdrive.  Because the bird
was behind a mass of branches, I had to quickly detach my camera/lens from the tripod and find a
hole or
window in the mass of sticks and shoot the bird hand-held.  Image stabilization (IS) allowed
me to get a sharp image despite having to balance the huge camera rig loosely in my hands.

    A common reason for abandoning one’s tripod is the appearance of a highly desirable bird directly overhead.  Most tripod heads can’t point straight up, and even for those that can, raising the center column of the tripod for overhead shooting often takes too much time when a subject is suddenly spotted flying over.  In the case of the swallow-tailed kite (Elanoides forficatus) depicted below, I quickly abandoned my tripod when the bird appeared overhead, and positioned my large 600mm lens vertically in what I call the two-handed grip of death—i.e., with the $12000 rig (lens+camera) balanced precariously on my eyeball.  This was a
life bird for me, and this shot was the only (moderately good) one of this species that I was able to capture on my two-week whirlwind tour through Florida.

Fig. 8.6.3 : Another example of a shot I couldn’t have gotten without
detaching my lens from the tripod.  The bird appeared directly overhead
and was flying quickly.  By the time I had the huge lens detached from the
tripod and balanced precariously on my face, the bird was circling a
second time, and I was able to get this shot—the only decent kite photo
I took during my two-week trip to Florida.

Note that hand-held use of large lenses like this tends to be very physically demanding, and may even result in personal injury and/or serious damage to your equipment, so do so at your own risk.  I should also mention at this point that just carrying a large lens around in the field may conceivably result in injury due to repetitive stress on muscles, joints, or other body parts.  You’ve been warned.
For birds that remain at reasonable, tripod-accessible heights, frequent lateral movements of the subject can still require a bit of hustling on your part to keep the subject at a good shooting distance.  The tricolored heron (Egretta tricolor) shown below kept a group of about twelve photographers (including myself) hustling back and forth for about a half hour as it continually changed perches while hunting in a narrow canal in the Everglades.  Keeping pace with this bird required picking up my entire tripod-mounted rig and literally running to the next location so as to be ready for its next hunting foray.  Sometimes strenuous effort is called for in the field (being careful to avoid injury), and in some cases that effort pays off.  In this case I didn’t get any exceptional photos of the bird, but I enjoyed the challenge anyway.

Fig. 8.6.4 : Even when your lens stays mounted on the tripod, rapid movements of the entire
tripod-mounted rig can prove critical when tracking an especially active bird.  This tricolored
heron kept a large group of photographers hustling for about half an hour.  Every time the
bird changed to a perch twenty feet away, we all picked up our heavy rigs and rushed to
the new location.  Bird photography is in some ways like belonging to an outdoor fitness club.

    As mentioned previously, an especially useful strategy in the field is to be opportunistic—i.e., to be perpetually on the lookout for a good shot of any bird, even those you’re not particularly interested in right at the moment.  Though you may be absolutely determined to capture a photo of an ivory-billed woodpecker, getting a nice shot of a snail kite or a sandhill crane instead probably doesn’t spell the end of the world.  While on a stakeout at a bald eagle nest, the red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) pictured below showed up just 30 or 40 feet from me.  I already had all my exposure parameters set for the eagles, and had found the perfect focus (manually) via live view, so I was hesitant to change settings for this woodpecker.  However, I was later glad that I did so, because it’s the only decent red-headed woodpecker photo I have, whereas I now have many photos of eagles.  The moral of the story is: don’t turn up your nose at a good bird just because the slightly better bird that you were hoping to get hasn’t shown up as expected.

Fig. 8.6.5 : Being opportunistic can really pay off in the long run.  While on a stake-out
at an eagle nest, this red-headed woodpecker suddenly appeared quite close to me.  Though
it required making some quick changes to focusing and exposure parameters, I was glad
to get this image of a species I hadn’t yet had much luck photographing.  I certainly wasn’t
looking for red-headed woodpeckers that day.

    Like many other nature photographers, when it rains I usually stay home.  But that’s not always a good idea.  When visiting an eagle hot-spot in Maryland I was told by a regular visitor there that his best eagle shots tended to be taken on rainy days, due to the reflection of flash light from the raindrops.  My own revelation about the utility of shooting on rainy days came when I was on a two-week visit to a warbler hot-spot in Ohio.  I drove out to the site on a rainy morning, expecting to be the only photographer there that day.  I was amazed to see twenty or thirty photographers lined up, each with an umbrella mounted over his or her rig. 
    Shooting in the rain does involve some special challenges.  First, you need to protect your equipment.  Pro camera bodies typically have some weather sealing that will offer at least some level of protection, but consumer-grade cameras generally do not.  Umbrella mounts can be purchased for use with some tripod heads; for other heads you can simply attach your umbrella (preferably an ultra-wide one) to your rig using duct tape or some other means (see section 4.4).  If the wind is blowing, your gear can still get wet under the umbrella; for passing storms you might get away with putting a large trash bag over your rig until the storm has passed.  I always keep some ziplock bags and large trash bags in a vest pocket, in case it rains; the ziplock bags are for memory cards, teleconverters, or anything else that might get ruined in a downpour.
    Note that even if your camera and lens are weatherproof, your flash unit probably isn’t.  Users of high-voltage battery packs for flash units (such as the Quantum) sometimes experience minor electrical shocks in rainy conditions.  Other miscellaneous problems encountered on rainy days are fogged viewfinders, fogged eyeglasses, and fogged (or wet) objective glass elements on one’s main lens.  Soggy ground can also be a problem for tripods.  Note that some of these problems apply also to snow, sleet, and/or freezing rain.  When shooting images that contain visible precipitation of any kind, be sure to use second-curtain sync for your flash (unless you’re already using high-speed sync), to avoid giving the raindrops or snowflakes the appearance of moving upward rather than downward (see section 7.2).
    Even on clear days it’s possible to get wet.  When shooting waterbirds from shore you’ll often find yourself accidentally stepping into the water.  While this usually only results in soggy socks, just be aware that there’s the potential for equipment damage if you happen to lose your balance and fall into the water (or if you get splashed by a passing jet-ski). 

Fig. 8.6.6 : To get this shot I had to kneel in shallow water, resulting in some
discomfort since I wasn’t wearing chest waders.  Bird photography can quite
literally help you to keep
in touch with nature.

When seeking low angles in water, it often does help for you to be willing to get a little wet (or to invest in a pair of chest-waders).  Kneeling or stooping in shallow water may earn you both a good photograph and a wet pair of underwear.  You need to decide what’s most important to you.