Finding Subjects to Photograph at Home
Connie Cassinetto (Via the Lens)
Keywords: d500, z7, wildlife, animals, z_24_70, 500mmpf
While I would really like to travel right now, as I would normally be doing to some degree, I am not yet comfortable taking that step (but I’m definitely giving it some thought). Covid-19 has all of us locked in place to some degree, depending on a variety of businesses that are affected, our geographic location and/or our health status. I’m not too worried about my health, even though I am 67, I have no underlying illnesses and my overall health is good, but I don’t want to get sick either! But, like most of us, I really want to photograph something, preferably some wildlife in a scenic setting but it looks like I won’t be doing that anytime soon.
Recently, I’ve taken to my porch to harass (theoretically speaking) the birds. A couple of weeks ago I finally received a telephoto lens that had been on back order for months so I’m using the time to learn the lens. I did not mind it being on back order since I was not sure I wanted to spend the money on it and I had actually forgotten about it, since B&H had told me so many times that it was not available.
Then, it showed up at my door and now, after having used it to photograph from my porch, I guess I’m keeping it! Prior to taking to my porch I was able to get around in the county I live in to photograph wildflowers and it was nice to get out and photograph anything at that point. Having the opportunity to photograph both subjects let me use the Nikon D500 with the new Nikon 500mm PF lens as well as the Nikon Z7 with the Z-24-70 lens and the Nikon 24-170 lens with the Z converter. I don’t want to forget how to use my gear!
As someone who likes to photograph many different types of subjects I’ve learned that each type of subject requires a very different approach, although there are always settings and techniques that overlap. There was a beautiful super-bloom of field poppies in a canyon about half an hour from my house in April that I was able to visit twice, but prior to that I was able to find other varieties of wildflowers on local hiking trails. As I love nature in general I can almost always find a flower or some other subject in nature to photograph in the hopes of turning the image into something even more beautiful that what I originally saw.
I actually like to play around with software to process images as I enjoy attempting to create an image the way I want it to be seen. The image below is an Indian Paintbrush wildflower, this flower is indigenous to California and can be a challenge to shoot due to the difficulty that can be a part of photographing images that are red. If I were going to print this I’d probably have to use the Soft Proofing feature in LrC and proof it with different types of paper, carefully checking the gamut range for each paper. My intent with this image was to create something a little more mystical in nature than simply a red flower in nature. I toned down the blacks in the Basic panel and used the Brush tool to work on exposure in various parts of the image as well as to add texture on the flower. I went over the background of the image multiple times with the brush tool to further block out the black areas.
The show stoppers for me during our wildflower season were the poppies, the field of poppies in the canyon I mentioned was simply breathtaking. Potential images were everywhere, from that one single shot to a shot of the entire area; it was hard to decide what shot to concentrate on so I just kept on seeking out compositions and taking shot after shot and I was able to get some images that I really liked. I generally shoot flower images with a wider aperture as I like to focus on the subject in front and blur out the subject in the background, but sometimes I will close the aperture down somewhat to get a bit more focus on the background, maybe at f/8, if I want to show an image with a lot of flowers as the subject and more depth of field. I most often end up sitting on the ground when I shoot flowers, or actually laying down to shoot upwards.
Shooting a flower from underneath lets me highlight the shadows or the lines of the flower and I can use the blue sky as a backdrop, as seen above. Most often, when processing the images, I try for a muted, very light in nature, softer look to convey the delicate nature and gentleness of a flower, but sometimes I will go for a harsher look with a black background. There are so many ways to photograph and process wildflowers and that is what makes taking these images a challenge and fun. The poppy image below, for me, showed the profusion and color of the poppy field.
From wildflowers, and with the delivery of the new lens, I’ve moved on to action shots from the front porch. Photographing hummers at the feeders and other birds heading for the water-filled bird bath is an altogether different challenge. For these shots, I use a different camera and a different lens. I have not had any great success with the Z7 and action shots but I probably need to work more on figuring that out. Something else to keep me occupied in the days of Covid-19! On my porch, sitting comfortably in my chair and hand-holding the Nikon 500 mm PF lens attached to my Nikon D500 I can catch hummingbirds, Titmouse, squirrels, and a few other bird species. I almost caught a fox but he surprised me and I was not quick enough!
The hummers can be a challenge as they move very quickly. Generally, I focus and expose on the very edge of the feeder. I’ve used both back button focus and shutter focus as well as auto-ISO and a set ISO and I’ve used different focus modes, such as single or group. I normally use Matrix for exposure. Sometimes back button focus is what works for me as I can set the focus as needed then simply wait and click away when the bird gets near the feeder. But if it’s a day when my brain and my hand are not communicating well together, then I might try out shutter focus.
Most recently setting the ISO at a set point has worked well when I know the light won’t change at the spot I’m focusing on. There are so many variables that I cannot say there is any one way to get this kind of shot except to say that using a wider aperture does work best to isolate the subject and blur the background. I’m generally shooting at a set aperture of f/5.6, which allows me to get the bird in focus and blur the background. This setting is as wide as my Nikon 500 PF will go but going any wider open with the aperture might not allow for enough sharpness throughout the subject. The image below is interesting because my shutter speed was only at 1/400 of a second but I actually got the shot, which is rare with a hummingbird due to the swiftness of their flight. (I think of them as the ballerinas of the sky!) The slower shutter speed also allowed for some motion to show in the wings. I don’t use flash for nature shots and would not even know how to go about that.
The hummer below was shot at a faster shutter speed and it stopped the wing action except for a little bit of motion on the far wing. The degree of motion you want in a shot gives you an idea of what shutter speed you need, in general a shutter speed of around 1/2500 of a second is good for hummingbirds but it does depend upon at what point in the flight pattern that you get the shot. For the shot below, I had the ISO set at 1600 and I used a very fast shutter speed with the aperture wide open. The light behind the bird was fairly good and consistent. There are actually trees behind the bird in the distance but they are obscured by the wider aperture setting and by the distance away from the subject.
One of the other birds I get in my yard is a Titmouse (I’m always curious if the plural would be Titmice? I did not google it!). These are really cute little fat birds and they love getting in the bird bath. They generally come in a small group. I was able to get some close-up shots of one on the birdbath as he seemed to be pondering his next move.
They flit about pretty abruptly and I have not yet got one in flight but I really liked how the new telephoto lens brought the little guy up close and personal, in conjunction with the processing after the shot in LrC. I use the Transform tool a lot in LrC to enlarge the subject and this is an image where I enlarged the subject to 123 from 100. How much you can enlarge the image depends upon how sharp the initial image is. This tool also allows you to move the subject around once it is transformed. The camera was set on auto-ISO for this shot.
While Covid-19 is keeping me, and mostly likely almost everyone else, at home I’m trying to keep my photography skills honed up. I am glad I did not get the new telephoto lens prior to the whole Covid virus thing as now I actually have time to play around with it and get used to using it. I do plan to put the lens on the Z7 and see how that turns out for action shots.
I know that at some point we’ll all be able to get out again to photograph our favorite subjects but I have to admit my patience with it all is wearing thin. In the meantime, I’ll just have to keep bothering the wildlife in my yard to keep my skill set from evaporating into thin air until I can start traveling again. Until we can all get out again, look for subjects around your home or neighborhood and keep on photographing as much as possible.
Originally written on June 25, 2020
Last updated on December 22, 2020
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User on November 30, 2020
Fascinating, Considering the Covid threat. Yes we all want to and need to stay safe, Hopefully the Vaccine that is !Looming! will help.. Really enjoyed your article. Trevor
Rich Volkerding (Cluse) on August 2, 2020
I enjoyed you photos. I noticed when photographing in my yard, it seems I see a world I just walked by and didn't notice the details as mush a before. Birds and close up is another world. The idea mentioned about adding flash really does open up new images too. Thank you for your posts.
Dave Hayford (Patriot Dave) on July 2, 2020
Connie, nice shots. I particularly like the Hummer shots. I have spent years shooting these little jewels and know first hand how difficult it is photographing them. It for sure will test your skills. I have actually planted a Garden specifically for them we call Hummer Haven. Their attendance at the garden and feeders will get better as the summer progresses. Have fun shooting them.
Connie Cassinetto (Via the Lens) on July 1, 2020
Hi David, Thanks for your comment. I'll have to look up wildlife flash photography and do some experimenting, it's good to keep learning. I think our "lock-downs" are going to continue for some time as the virus seems to be gaining speed. It's turning out to be a good opportunity to use the time constructively by learning new things.
David Gibbs (GibbsAsia) on June 30, 2020
Hi Connie, I enjoyed your article and looking at the nice pictures. The high shutter speed bird pics especially so. It takes some patience and some skill to get those kind of shots. You may want to consider playing around with adding some flash light just to make your photography time more interesting. Using a speed flash on your camera's hot shoe can produce some pretty amazing images even when you have natural ambient light and it's fun to play with. I am doing basically the same thing. I am on curfew where I live and have been at my home for 105 days now. Photography, my pets and my garden have kept me going.
Connie Cassinetto (Via the Lens) on June 25, 2020
Hi Doris, you are welcome. It is amazing what does frequent our yard without us even knowing. I really wish I would have gotten the fox shot! I'm hoping I get one yet. If we just look around we can continue our photography in a different way until we can get back to doing it the way we'd like to.
Doris Johnson (DcamZ) on June 25, 2020
Great article. I’ve been searching the backyard for things to photograph for a while. I started with the flowers in the back yard. Then I purchased a bird feeder and that’s when I realized there were other than black crows that frequent the yard. I photographed dragonflies and bees. I hope the pandemic ends soon, because I’m getting very short on variety now. Thanks for letting people know there is beauty right outside our doors.