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Photography In The National Parks: Being Ready To Point And Shoot With A DSLR

Big lenses, such as this 500 mm f4, come in handy when photographing wildlife in national parks.

The coyote was coming down the road towards the Lamar Canyon bridge in Yellowstone, straight at me.

I wheeled into the pullout, angled the car just right, rolled down the window, plopped a bean bag over the door frame, grabbed the Nikon D600 with the borrowed 500mm lens and settled it atop the bean bag. Flipped on the camera, aimed and - nothing. With my eye to the viewfinder there was no coyote, only black.

The battery was still sitting in the charger at home. Luckily, I have a back-up plan for those days when being anxious to get out into the park makes me careless. I took one of my two spare, and charged, batteries from the bottom of my purse. With the camera still on top of the bean bag I popped the battery in and aimed at the advancing coyote.  

Two shots and then nothing. My routine is to put a fresh battery in the camera and then reformat (delete the previous day's photos that have already been downloaded into my computer) the memory card before leaving in the morning.  But, because I had not remembered the battery, my memory card was still full, except for space for those first two shots of the coyote.

By this time the coyote is nearly next to my car. I quickly think about my options, which are to grab another card out of the card folder in my purse or format this one and loose the two shots. I am literally panicking because these are my last few minutes with the "big girl lens" and the possibility of getting the ultimate head shot of a coyote in perfect morning light is passing me by.

I reformat the card and aim to shoot once again. Less than three minutes have gone by since first spotting the coyote and I am finally ready to shoot his rear end. Time's up!

The Art of Being Prepared

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Being prepared, and carrying a big lens, enables you to capture shots such as this Golden eagle carrying away its duck dinner. Photo by Deby Dixon.

As a nature and wildlife photographer, getting the best shots depend on being prepared for that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that is bound to come my way if I am out looking and putting in the time.

But, being in the right place at the right time means luck and perseverance, which can be expensive, particularly in Yellowstone National Park in the winter. Factor in the cost of gasoline, food and lodging, not to mention warm winter clothing and wear and tear on my vehicle in the sub-zero temperatures, and the tally adds up quickly, and substantially.

The last thing I need is to drive the dark, icy roads out to Lamar Valley in the park's northeastern corner and find wolves in front of me before remembering that my memory card is back home in the computer and the battery is in the charger. Which is why I have a small inverter and extra battery charger in my car, along with fully charged batteries in a bag that goes everywhere with me (for those times when I run out without a camera bag, not really planning to shoot anything) and a wallet with extra memory cards.

Don't laugh at the simplicity of this. Just recently a photographer was trying to squeeze out a few extra shots on a nearly dead battery and full memory card and had not thought of putting an inverter in his car.

Another thing that I do, because good, fast memory cards are expensive, is take my laptop with me so that I can download images and reformat the memory card. Believe it or not, having a laptop and a wireless card handy have also saved me some editorial sales while out in the field. Such is the life of a traveling photographer where being prepared is the crux of my success.

I also carry a number of other tools, such as an extra camera body and wide-angle lens for landscapes, that have saved me more than once.

The Size of The Lens Can Matter

Now for the gear. Most dedicated wildlife photographers own big lenses that cost them thousands of dollars and are heavier than most luggage that is allowed on airplanes these days.

For years I have been shooting with a shorter, slower lens and lusting after one of those big lenses. And hearing others say, "It is not the equipment, it is the photographer." I do believe it is the photographer and not the equipment ... until it isn't.

I purchased the Nikon 80-400mm ƒ4.5-5.6 about four years ago after looking at the fabulous work that another photographer did with the same lens. But my shots didn't come out like his, which was plenty of proof that skill comes first. I promised myself that until my images were as good as his, I would not spend the money on big glass.

Well, that day came awhile back, but the money did not, and I have been feeling stale for some time now. There is only so far that one can push a piece of equipment - only so much that it can give.

Just recently, thanks to the equipment rental program at Bozeman Camera and Repair in Bozeman, Montana, I had a chance to try a Nikon 500mm ƒ4 lens for shooting wildlife in Yellowstone.

Bozeman Camera and Repair

Headed to Yellowstone and dreaming about capturing a unique wildlife moment with your DSLR but you don't have a 500mm lens, or your camera's sensor is dirty? I found the perfect solution for myself in Bozeman, MT at Bozeman Camera and Repair.

The friendly staff at Bozeman Camera cleaned the sensor on my D600 (this is a task that I don't trust to just anyone) on the spot for an small additional "rush" fee and set me up with the newest version of the Nikon 500mm lens, a 1.4 teleconverter and a Wimberly tripod head, that fit on my Gitzo tripod, to try for what turned out to be the best week of my shooting career.

Bozeman Camera rents video equipment, Nikon and Canon camera bodies, select lenses, teleconverters and the proper tripod set-up for reasonable, competitive daily and weekly rates with no shipping required. Check out their rental program at:, and if you don't see a particular lens that you would like to try, just ask as they might have one available.

This was my first opportunity with the "big girl glass," and I could not sleep that first night when fears of dropping it because the lens wasn't securely attached to the tripod kept interrupting my zzz's.

What was amazing though, was how all of my years of being prepared for the unexpected had gotten me ready for shooting with any equipment because, from the first shot, I was good to go.

Ready For Images That Appear

I carry my camera on the front seat where it is easy to grab, but this was more difficult with the bigger lens because I had to make sure that the gear would not fly onto the floorboard, or that the camera mount was not being stressed.

Within a few minutes I had the camera on the console with the lens resting on my bean bag, which was placed on the passenger seat. As an extra bit of security, I hooked the seatbelt around the tripod arm.

My Gitzo tripod with the borrowed Wimberly head were ready to go on the seat behind me, with special care to make sure that the legs were locked tight.

The 500mm has a new vibration reduction system in it, but the set up is too heavy for me to handhold, which, in my opinion, is risky anyway when it comes to getting sharp shots. I rarely waste my time shooting without a tripod or some other stabilizing method, such as a bean bag.

My first shooting opportunity with this new set up was a Golden Eagle chowing down on a Golden Eye in Lamar Valley. I grabbed the bean bag and put it over my door frame, placed the camera on top of that, and began shooting.

I got the eagle in perfect focus flying off with the duck. Not bad for my first time out. But this would not have worked if not for a few tried and true settings and knowing how to quickly change ISO and focal points.

For shooting wildlife I keep my settings on aperture priority, which adjusts the light when the animal is moving in and out of shaded and sunny areas, the white balance on auto, which can be changed in Camera Raw if necessary, and ISO of around 1000 depending on the light, with ƒ8 or 9 for good focus on the animal and single point focus with the focal point set in the outer thirds of the fames for natural composition.

It is the single point focus and being able to quickly adjust its position that has saved me more often than not.

For years, while shooting with my slower lens and cameras that did not have as good a focus system as the D600, I worked on ways to make sure that the eye was always in focus, which is the most important aspect of any successful wildlife shot. I trained myself to follow the movement of the animal with the focal point over its eye.

Once in focus, I needed to make sure that the ISO was fast enough for the animal's movements and that my E/V settings were minus if the light was too bright, or plus a third or two-thirds if there was not enough light.

Having the eye in focus does no good if the animal turns out to be a silhouette or the highlights are blown out. Details and focus!

A Simple Bean Bag

So, the camera is ready, I am quick on the draw with some sort of stabilizing component such as a bean bag or a tripod (a bean bag is one of my most important tools because I can plop it over the hood of the car, put it on a rock or a guardrail much quicker than the time it takes to set up the tripod and make sure that it is secure so my equipment won't get damaged.)

Now I am ready to capture the most important wildlife sighting in my photography career - a moment that most people never see - which came late one dark, cloudy and foggy afternoon.

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Great pictures can materialize in any conditions at any times, and you need to be prepared for them. Photo by Deby Dixon.

Not sure why this moment could not have happened with the perfect evening sun shining on the event, but my habits and skills enabled me to get the photographs.

While driving through "Little America," which is the area between Tower and the Lamar Valley Canyon that is covered in large boulders, I rounded a curve and saw a bighorn lamb run across the road and up along a low ridge with a coyote following a ways behind.

I was in the road and had to quickly struggle to get my car in a position where it was possible to use the bean bag and get the lens past the rear view mirror. The ISO had to be cranked up to compensate for the low light and I had to change to the single point focus and adjust the focal point, all with very little time because this action would be over ten minutes later, with the lamb becoming a meal for many predators.

With quick thinking I managed to capture the end of the chase, the moment when the lamb stopped and turned to face down the coyote and what happened next. This scene would have been completely lost, except in memory if not for the 500mm and being prepared. You can read the entire story on my blog, Deby Dixon Photography

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