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Students Behind the Lens: Garrett Sheets

Tapping into his ornithology background, this Missouri high school student captures photos of birds and other wildlife, as well as nature and landscape photos, with the Tamron SP 150-600mm VC G2 lens.




By Jenn Gidman
Images by Garrett Sheets

Tundra swan, cackling goose, green-winged teal, hooded merganser, red-legged partridge. These are just a handful of the more than 800 birds that Garrett Sheets has photographed all over the world—a fact made more compelling when you discover Garrett is still a senior in high school. The Missouri teen started bird-watching when he was in elementary school and his older brother took an ornithology class, and the photography bug hit him soon after.

© Garrett Sheets
600mm, f/6.3, 1/400 sec., ISO 400
Click image to view larger

"I just followed in my brother's footsteps," he says. "We got a small Canon point-and-shoot camera, and I started using that to take pictures of a lot of the birds we were seeing. I soon realized I loved the photography aspect of it all, too."

When he was in ninth grade, Garrett, who counts nature photographer Glenn Bartley and bird photographer Alan Murphy among his inspirations, was selected to participate in a North American Nature Photography Association program for young photographers, a weeklong course to the Smokey Mountains with nine other youth photographers. "Several different nature photographers worked with us on a number of different skills, from macro photography to taking wildlife photos of bears, deer, and other creatures," he says. "That really drove my love of photography even deeper."

Garrett soon set to work saving up money for his own DSLR. "I made posters to advertise my services and started doing odd jobs for neighbors, people at my school, people at my church, trying to get as many jobs as I could to earn some cash," he says. "I was finally able to purchase a Canon EOS 6D, and my first lens was the first version of the Tamron 150-600mm lens. That was my initial photography setup, and I had that for about four years. It went with me in all my travels, including to Spain, Africa, Texas, and out west in Washington, Nevada, and California."

For his January trip out to Wyoming's Grand Tetons, which produced the pictures seen here, he brought along his newest photographic tool: the Tamron SP 150-600mm VC G2 lens. "I immediately noticed how quick the autofocus was and how sharp my images were with that lens," he says. "We were taking a horse carriage ride to view elk, and I was able to capture them walking right next to me. Then mallards would suddenly fly overhead, and I was able to quickly switch to the 600mm end of the lens and focus very quickly to capture a sharp image of the birds. That lens allows me to capture both types of shots from the same position, which is incredibly handy when you're taking pictures of wildlife. And the lens worked great for landscapes, too. Some of my favorite photos from my trip are the ones I shot at 150mm of the sun rising, with the light hitting the peaks of the Tetons."

© Garrett Sheets
400mm, f/6.3, 1/2000 sec., ISO 400
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© Garrett Sheets
150mm, f/6.3, 1/6400 sec., ISO 400
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© Garrett Sheets
300mm, f/7.1, 1/3200 sec., ISO 320
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Garrett prefers to head out in the early morning for his wildlife and nature photos, so he can be well in place when that "amazing" light hits the scene after sunrise. He strives to capture clean, sharp images of the animals in front of his lens, engaging in their regular behavior in their natural habitats. "I don't want any outside elements encroaching on the image," he says. "And I don't like to do too much in post-processing. I want the scene to look pretty much the way it looked when I saw it."

© Garrett Sheets
150mm, f/8, 1/320 sec., ISO 400
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© Garrett Sheets
600mm, f/6.3, 1/4000 sec., ISO 320
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Learning the ropes can be challenging for any new photographer, but Garrett takes it mostly in stride. "I put in a lot of work to ensure I always have the best possible conditions," he says. "I'll check out the weather ahead of time, or I'll set myself up for success by creating a blind and making sure I have mealworms to attract different types of birds. I've also been working lately on cleaning up my backgrounds so the focus is more on the wildlife in my photos."

For Garrett, the most challenging part of photography is when those prep efforts don't pay off. "I'll spend all that time setting up for an image, and then the birds will just fly away, for example," he says. "You're that close and it just doesn't happen. That can be especially frustrating if I'm visiting a certain place for a limited time, like when I was in the Tetons, and I'm not able to get the photos I had planned. It's not like I can just go back the next week and try again. I'd have to plan a new trip."

But despite the learning curve of his craft, and the challenges that go with it, Garrett has already become hooked on the more rewarding aspects of photography. "It's so satisfying, after envisioning a certain image for so long, and then working hard for it, to finally nail it," he says. "There's nothing like that feeling of looking at my LCD screen and seeing an image I just created, after thinking so much about it beforehand."

Although Garrett has so far concentrated most of his photographic efforts on wildlife, his recent explorations of landscapes—"I'm saving up for the Tamron SP 24-70mm G2 for that purpose"—and openness toward other genres underscores his desire to keep learning and growing as a photographer. "I might get into macro photography at some point, as that's almost a natural progression from wildlife and nature photography," he says. "And I've found I love astrophotography. I'm fascinated by it and hope to do a lot more of it."

© Garrett Sheets
150mm, f/7.1, 1/1600 sec., ISO 320
Click image to view larger

Garrett's more immediate plans include participating this summer in a program run by CECCOT, a conservation and research group based in the Amazon rainforest in the southeast of Peru. "I'll be heading down there to assist in teaching a photography course to folks from all over the world on how to take pictures of birds and wildlife," he says. "From there I hope to start leading my own photography workshops in South America and in Texas. I already work with the University of Washington helping to document different types of birds, so I hope to expand on that work."

As for advice for other up-and-coming shooters, Garrett recommends finding and latching onto whatever your particular photographic passion may be, but to also strike the right balance to keep that passion intact. "I remember one time I was entering photos into a bunch of contests and I spent something like seven hours trying to choose which images I liked best to submit," he says. "I got burned out a little bit. You don't want to kill the real reason you love taking pictures."

To see more of Garrett Sheets' work, go to www.garrettsheetsphotography.com/.