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How to Shoot Nature Photography

Kel Kyle captures all of the details of local flora and fauna with her Tamron 70-300mm VC lens.

By Jennifer Gidman

Images by Kel Kyle

It was only a year ago that Web developer Kel Kyle first started seriously photographing the world around her. Six months ago, she upgraded from her point-and-shoot to what she jokingly refers to as her “big girl” camera” — meaning she also started experimenting with a variety of lenses to capture her surroundings. “I’ve done architectural interiors with the Tamron 10-24mm lens and played around with the 60mm macro lens,” she says. “One of the images I shot with the 10-24 actually won third place in a local juried show! Then I got my hands on the Tamron 70-300mm lens.”

Kyle recently took a trip with fellow nature photographers and her 70-300 to Callaway Gardens, a resort complex in Pine Mountain, Georgia, that features an enclosed butterfly habitat, wooded gardens, bike trails, and a horticultural center. She was impressed with the 70-300’s portability as she strolled around the gardens. “I thought the lens was going to be heavier,” she says. “I was pleasantly surprised how light it was.”

The photographers were given special access to the raptor (birds of prey) area (“it was just us, the trainer, and the raptors”). Here, Kyle was able to tap into the sharpness and detail the 70-300 offered. “I took a shot of a red-shouldered hawk in their outdoor amphitheatre from about 30 to 35 feet away, hand-held with the lens fully extended at 300mm,” she says. “I shot it at 1/180th of a second, f/5.6, with my ISO at 250. I was going for a real close-up of his face and eye.”

The 70-300mm’s Vibration Compensation (VC) feature helped Kyle nail this shot. “I was blown away by the sharpness when the photo came off of the card,” she says. “The only thing I did in Lightroom was bump up the saturation and the blacks a bit. The rest is because of the amazing detail of the lens.”

© Kel Kyle

 

Backyard Benefits

When she’s not heading out to local nature preserves or the nearby Arabia Mountains, Kyle puts the 70-300 lens to the test in a more easily accessible location: her own backyard. “I shoot every day, even if it’s just shooting the birds and squirrels that are out here.” She says. “I set aside at least an hour or two a day to go out and just enjoy the entire process.”

It’s important to become one with your surroundings to ensure the animals become acclimated with your presence, according to Kyle. “They’re not used to the click of your camera, for example,” she says. “You need a lot of patience. Yesterday a squirrel stared at me for what had to be at least 15 minutes, just trying to make sure I wasn't a predator. I don't think I moved a muscle for a long time; I wanted it to feel comfortable. Sometimes I get too anxious, raise the lens too quickly, and boom! They’re gone.”

© Kel Kyle

This type of photographic persistence also allows you to learn about the various personalities of each creature or bird. “I’m learning more about bird identification: I’ve gotten to know the calls of the red-bellied woodpeckers, for instance,” Kyle says. “I’ve also found out that brown-headed nuthatches are the bravest birds on the planet. They come right at me! Yesterday a cardinal came at me while I had the lens all the way extended — it felt like he was in my eye! Big blue jays, though? The wimpiest birds in the world. They come in, see you, and they’re gone.”

Kyle aims to make her images as sharp as possible by alternating between manual and autofocus and concentrating on a focal point. “When I’m shooting wildlife, for example, I really want the eye to be crystal–clear,” she says. “It’s hard when the animals or birds are moving around so much. The other day, three cardinals were having a war at my birdfeeder; it was hard to capture them. But then one came down on the side of a log, at a nice angle; the sun was coming in on him and the lighting was perfect. I said, ‘Gotcha!’ I was also able to nicely blur out the background and give it a beautiful bokeh.”

© Kel Kyle

Because many of the images Kyle is capturing in her backyard are shot hand-held, the 70-300’s VC feature comes in handy. “I use the VC all of the time,” she says. “A friend lent me a zoom lens with a similar range but without image stabilization on it. Then I got the Tamron VC lens: I’m sticking with the 70-300 — it makes such a difference!”

© Kel Kyle

To capture the creatures at their peak, Kyle heads out before the sun shines. “I get up before the birds,” she explains. “I’ll sit outside, wrapped up in anything I can think of to put on my body. I’ll sit in that chair for an hour in 50-degree weather. I’ll also go out in the afternoon, around 3:30 or 4, for a couple of hours.”

Heading out during these different times of day has allowed Kyle to experiment with lighting. “I’m still learning how to harness the light and work with other elements,” she explains. “For instance, I’ve noticed I tend to bump my ISOs up too high, thinking I’ll get a lot of action. However, all I usually get is a lot of noise, so I need to watch out for that and ask myself what I really need to have my ISO at. I got a book about my specific camera and am reading a chapter a week, as well as information I’ve found online.”

Reveling in her backyard wonderland has made Kyle more cognizant of her surroundings. “I used to make fun of my mother and grandmother and ask them why they’d watch birds — now I love it,” she says. “When I was a Girl Scout as a kid and had to earn my photography badge, one of my leaders gave me a 35mm. It was really fun to just be outside, taking pictures. These days, I work inside all of the time; photography has brought me back outside. Yesterday I felt like Snow White as all the birds started to descend into my yard. I got an almost existential sort of feeling — it was so peaceful.”