Backyard Nature

HummyZinnia

Andrew here. Wildlife photographers typically make landscape photographers (who famously have to be in crazy places before the sun rises for the best shots) look like they have an easy time. Wildlife photography often involves hauling huge (and incredibly expensive) equipment into remote places and waiting… and watching… and following, and studying… and waiting. And did I mention waiting? And hauling? Not that I have any objection to hauling and waiting and watching… But that doesn’t always have to be the way it’s done.

We live in a pretty urban area on the edge of Washington D.C., but this year we decided to tailor our garden habitat to support (and attract!) the local fauna. This has allowed me to literally practice my photography from my living room.

Now, I’m not going to be getting any world class images of bears flipping salmon out of the river or the sun rising through moose antlers from my backyard, but if you’re interested in practicing your wildlife photography skills and learning to appreciate the surprising amount of beautiful wildlife where you already live, I highly recommend it.

Nom

A few tips:

– Find out what native plants support interesting wildlife where you live (milkweed for butterflies, for example, which need all the help they can get these days).

– Arrange the planting so you can at least see it from inside your house if at all possible. If not, consider building in a space to put an outdoor chair where you can comfortably watch from far enough away not to disturb, but close enough to photograph.

– Don’t overestimate your lens’ reach. Take some test shots from your vantage point before you plant everything to make sure you’ll be able to see what you want to see.

– Plan your backdrops. A beautiful hummingbird with a trashcan in the background probably won’t be the image you want. Consider planting flowers far enough in front of solid greenery that you get a nice solid, not-distracting background.

– Be patient and learn the behavior of your visitors once they arrive. You’ll start to see patterns of where birds land, and how the butterflies choose flowers. You don’t have to chase them around with your lens if you can anticipate where they’ll likely land. You can even build in perches to encourage them to choose certain places in easy reach for you.

This is a great opportunity to hone your photographic skills and support your local wildlife at the same time. There are lots of resources out there (including a great class by Moose Peterson on KelbyOne) on how to take great backyard wildlife photos. You never know what you’ll find right in your backyard, and you’ll learn good skills before you go trekking out into the wilderness!

HummyLantana

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It’s Full of Stars

Andrew here. Sometimes you don’t have to go as far away as you think to get something interesting.

I live a few minutes outside Washington D.C. For years, I’ve wanted to try my hand at photographing the night sky and Milky Way, but there’s far too much light pollution where I live. All my travels over the past few years have been to other urban areas or to remote areas that were completely clouded over at night (with the incredibly fortunate exception of our one aurora night in Iceland last March), so I’ve just never had a good opportunity to try to see the Milky Way.

This summer, a couple of my photographer friends decided to visit Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and came back with some great night sky shots. This past weekend, I joined them.

It was amazing to be less than two hours from D.C. and able to see the Milky Way with my naked eye. There was some city glow in the distance and some hazy fog along the horizon, but there was no question what I was seeing up above.

There are many websites with detailed guides to shooting the night sky, so I’m not going to try to recreate those here, but here are a few quick tips:

– Use a program like Stellarium to find out when you’ll have the Milky Way visible where you’ll be, and what the sun and moon cycles will be like to get good, dark skies.

– Scout ahead of time – having a clear view of the night sky is easy enough in most places, but if you want any other compositional elements (and just for safety) it’s good to scout out the area before it gets dark.

– Use a headlamp with a red filter to help you work in the dark. The red filter will help protect your night vision and the headlamp means you’ll have your hands free.

– You will, of course, need a good tripod and a wide aperture, wide angle lens for best results. That said, you can do some creative things with other lenses, so if you don’t have the “right” one, give it a go anyway.

– Finally, focus on a light in the far distance (or focus on something far away if it’s still light out) and lock your focus in place by turning off autofocus and taping your focus ring in place with gaffer’s tape. (I failed to do the latter part and it cost me a lot of shots when I apparently bumped the focus just slightly at some point.) Just racking the lens to infinity usually doesn’t quite get you where you need to be on most lenses.

For more details on planning your trip, Dave Morrow has a great three part tutorial on Youtube here. It’s very worth checking out if you’re planning your first shot at the Milky Way.

One last recommendation: Make sure to put the camera aside for a couple of minutes and appreciate what you’re seeing. At night, the curtain of the sky gets pulled back and lets you see the galaxy we live in. Realizing what you’re really looking at is a truly amazing experience once that sinks in. It’s hard to imagine a more inspiring vista than 200 billion stars spread out over 120,000 light years of space. What a view.


This image is not a composite — it is a single image shot using a timer delay. I composed, set the timer, ran out and tried to stand still for the 8 seconds of the exposure. As you might imagine, it took a few tries to get right, but I think it was well worth it.