Behind the Lens: Shooting big bird with a big lens

My wife shot this photo of the collection of nests throughout the treetops as a lone bird jumps from tree-to-tree. A rookery of great blue herons are nesting in a group of giant white-barked sycamore trees off the trail Mill Creek Streamway Park in Shawnee.

My wife looks through my Canon 7D camera set-up with the 300mm lens with a 1.4x converter. A good sturdy tripod helps keep the focus steady. The nifty lens shade is made from a rubber boot fitting purchase for from Home Depot's plumbing department.

Wildlife photography is one of those areas that I never really approached. To me, that was something I might consider doing later in my retirement years. I could see it now: spending long days sitting in a wooded area, waiting for game to approach and slowly raising my weapon of choice (i.e., camera), fire off a few rounds of frames and then deleting all the frames out of focus.

I have colleagues who are more outdoor photographers than myself. They will trek off to exotic places like Alaska, Hawaii and Europe, searching for the elusive bird/beast/fowl/fish/rock/gerbil. I, on the other hand, end up in places like Omaha, Chicago or Tightwad, Missouri. The only wildlife I usually see on any trip are dead on the side of the road.

Birds. That was the request I got to shoot for a story on a rookery in Shawnee. Being so clueless on wildlife and their habitats, I had to look up the word rookery. I also discovered that the birds — great blue herons — were extra-large, carnivorous birds. Great, I thought, they might eat me.

So there I was, setting out on my first wildlife assignment. Now, over the years, I have taken my share of pictures of city squirrels, my pets (cats and dogs are easy subjects) and the occasional bird in the front yard tree. Easy to do with minimal equipment. But with these big birds, I had to use some serious gear. We’re talking a very long lens.

I pulled out my old Nikon 500mm mirror lens. I had just bought a Nikon-to-Canon adapter ring. This allows me to use any of my old Nikon mount lens on either the Canon 5D or 7D cameras I have. The only factor with this lens was that I had to use everything in manual setting. No autofocus, no autoexposure. It is also somewhat slow in speed, being a fixed f/8 lens. I had to do the shooting old-school style. I thought, no problem; I went to Old School U.

I went to where the rookery was located. Just off a small hike on the Mill Creek Streamway trail system in Shawnee. I was towing two cameras — a Canon 5D and 7D — along with an assortment of lens including the 500mm mirror. With all this and my tripod, I was set for bear.

The trees where they were nesting were fairly easy to find: two large, white-barked sycamore trees with about 20 nests near the tops of them. I immediately saw the thin-legged, longneck creatures with these giant wing spans. I felt like I stepped back into another time.

I had the 500mm mirror lens matched up with the Canon 7D camera. The 35mm equivalent focal length on this camera is approximately 1.6 times the lens focal length. So, the 500mm would now becomes a 800mm lens. That should get me plenty close to these birds.

I shot a variety of stills and video with this setup. Trying to follow-focus the birds in flight with the old focus lens was slow for me. My tripod does not have a fluid-type head that would be more designed for video work. So tracking the birds in flight with video was a little shaky.

I had positioned myself directly across from the trees in order for a clear shot. This required me to bushwhack through the trees and get closer to the edge of the creek. Had I stayed closer to the trail, I would have had other trees in the foreground obstructing my field of view.

After editing that night of the day’s take, I found I had few still photos of the birds actually in flight. I went back to the same spot the next morning, this time equipped with a different long lens setup. This time, I used a Nikon 300mm f/2.8 lens with a 1.4 converter on the Canon 7D. This made the focal length equal to 672mm lens.

Even though this was “shorter” in focal length compared to the mirror lens, it was a faster lens so I could shoot with higher shutter speeds without having to go higher in ISO range. Plus, I was mostly shooting stills and I could just crop if needed. Everything was shot in the raw format.

My wife came with me on this trip. We were both amazed at the gracefulness of the birds as they landed on the trees. I have given her my second camera with a 24-105mm lens on it so she could snap a few pictures. She got a great one with all the nests at the top as one of the birds was jumping between the two trees. Perfect timing.

Shooting wildlife is really like shooting anything, I’ve concluded. It really is just another challenge like any other sport or other event. For my retirement years, I wouldn’t mind photographing more wildlife. At least the kind that are alive.