Prairie Chicken Photography Equipment
The fighting season starts in early Spring (the beginning of March). The Mid-west can be cold with howling wind. To make matters worse you have to be out there long before sunrise. So before talking about photography gear let's talk about gear for you. One of the blinds faced the wind, meaning that I had wind on me all the time. Did I mention that it was cold? My gloves just did not cut it, my fingers froze. When we are uncomfortable we can't enjoy our photography, we get miserable, and we want to leave. In this case, you can't leave as you may only leave after the birds leave. Thicker gloves are not the answer as they make controlling the camera near impossible. My next purchase will be thinner but battery powered heated gloves. I will also get heated socks. The lesson I learnt was that being comfortable is important for my photography. I was dressed well and my body was fine but my fingers and toes were toooooo cold.
The semi-permanent blinds were probably not designed with photographers in mind. They were too narrow. The fixed (unmoveable) bench did not leave enough room for a tripod between it and the window. With some maneuvering and allowing the back tripod leg to be at less of an angle worked. That meant that the long lens protruded out of the blind. Animals react to movement. With the lens moving from side to side as I shoot it could scare the birds off (hence my first suggestion below). Canon and Sony's long lenses are white and flashy!
Equipment suggestion #1
Use a lens hood. Sometimes they can make a huge difference in picture quality. They help to prevent flare and a loss of contrast. They also help to protect the lens.
Equipment suggestion #2
Use a gimbal head. Now I know that a bean bag on the window sill works for some people. This way there is no need to carry a tripod and head, and it also solves the space issue inside of the blind. But sometimes the action happens really quickly. There is no way you can move the camera as fast on the bean bag as you can on a gimbal head. Nor can you point the camera up (when the birds jump and or fly) as quickly from a bean bag as you can with a gimbal. Moving heavy gear constantly for two to three hours can be hard to do if you are not a weight lifting champion. Moving the gear quickly and tracking the action with a gimbal is effortless without tiring you out.
Equipment suggestion #3
Use fast lenses. I use the Sony 200-600 F6.3. If I had the money I would get the 600 F4. To freeze the action requires a fast shutter speed which shoots up the ISO which results in noise (grainy color dots). The faster the lens the lower the ISO which leaves you with less noise. I see people shooting with F7.1 or even F11 lenses and wonder how their images come out. Use the fastest lens you can afford. By the way, I love the Sony 200-600!
Software suggestion #4
DXO PureRaw 3. This software is great at dealing with the noise. If you regularly shoot at high ISO this program is worth every penny.
Settings suggestion #5
Shoot the lens wide open (for blurred backgrounds and to allow for a lower ISO). Use a high shutter speed to freeze the action. Use auto ISO. So I set my aperture as open as the lens can go (in my case 6.3), and the shutter speed at around 1600 or higher (depending on the light levels), and then with auto ISO I let the camera worry about the ISO and exposure. I have my "Zebras" enabled (to show when whites clip). If any Zebras show up I use exposure compensation to banish them.
Shooting suggestion #6
Be relentless and follow the action all the time but shoot at the highest frame rate in short bursts when something interesting happens. Stop pixel peeping or reviewing your images (unless nothing is happening). You don't want to miss shots because you were not ready. Things can heat up quickly and you may only have one chance. Focus on shooting now and look at the results when you get home. Having said this, there is also the danger that some setting is off and it may ruin the entire shoot. So by all means review the odd image here and there but do so quickly without wasting much time on it.
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