Keeping Your Distance & Claiming Your Space

Insights for timing your photo trips and using telephoto lenses with tele-extenders to create intimate wildlife portraits while remaining at a respectful distance
Family Portrait. From a distance of more than 200 feet, Lepp photographed this bald eagle family at 1400mm. A Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens coupled with two Canon tele-extenders, one at 2x and a second at 1.4x, captured plenty of information with exceptional sharpness. Less than three weeks after hatching, the eaglets are fuzzy, alert and always ready to eat. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, 1/250 sec., ƒ/16, ISO 3200.

Extra Reach

As we write this column, it’s peak nesting season for raptors. For the fifth consecutive year, I’m following the progress, from hatching to fledging, of a bald eagle nest located about an hour from my home. The nest is positioned high in an old ponderosa pine, more than 200 feet from the nearest vantage point—a cliff’s edge—so getting close is not an option. That’s a good thing, because it is extremely important to keep a respectful distance from raptor nests. But as I share the stills and videos of previous years with those who attend my seminars on wild bird photography, the audience is amazed at the extreme close-ups I’ve captured, not only of the adult eagles but also their tiny hatchlings. (See my 10-minute 4K video at vimeo.com/224854624.)

To get a good-quality capture, I use a camera body with a rapid capture rate and superior performance at higher ISOs. For Canon shooters such as me that’s the EOS 5D Mark IV and/or the EOS-1D X Mark II.At times, I’ve used an 800mm lens, but most often it’s my Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM telephoto. But that alone is not enough reach to get the image I want. The ultimate solution is to use tele-extenders, also known as tele-converters or multipliers. They come in magnifications of 1.4x, 1.7x and 2x. So, for example, when I stack my 500mm, a 1.4x and a 2x tele-extender on my full-frame camera, I’m working with a whopping 1400mm. This reach can be further increased by using a camera body with a cropped sensor that has the effect of further restricting the angle of view by 1.5x or 1.6x.

I find that many photographers are wary of tele-extenders and rightly believe that they cause degradation of images. As with all “extreme” photographic endeavors, equipment and technique make all the difference. My recommendation from years of experience is to purchase a tele-extender from the same manufacturer as the lens, because they are pretty much matched to give the best results. Then you’ll need to take a few precautions when using tele-extenders with long lenses.

First, keep in mind that you are magnifying every movement and vibration with long lenses and exacerbating this effect by adding the tele-extenders. A tripod is not optional, and it needs to be sturdy with a good head. A fast shutter speed is usually mandatory to mitigate subject movement, and stopping down an f-stop or two on the prime lens will improve sharpness—but that will mean higher ISOs, because you will be losing one stop of light with a 1.4x and two stops with a 2x tele-extender. If the subject is stationary, you should use a cable release to eliminate any camera movement and activate live view on the LCD, as this locks up the mirror and minimizes internal vibrations. A wireless camera remote control such as the CamRanger (camranger.com) enables touchless viewing, setting control and capture from a tablet or smartphone. Also keep in mind that depth of field is minimal at long focal lengths, so your focus needs to be spot-on the subject.

As mentioned above, you can stack two tele-extenders together to multiply the reach. With my Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM and Canon’s 2x and 1.4x tele-extenders, I can achieve a surprisingly sharp 1400mm, but the initial ƒ/4 aperture is effectively reduced to ƒ/11. The two tele-extenders do not fit together without help. I place a Canon 12mm extension tube between the two extenders, and they then mate. It makes no difference which extender goes on the lens first. You can imagine how precise your focus must be at 1400mm, and your long-lens technique has to be perfect.

That said, it’s important to reiterate that tele-extenders will render excellent results only on optics that are of exceptional quality. If the optic meets professional standards, the slight loss of sharpness attributable to a tele-extender will not be noticeable. But if your optic is marginal to start with, the results will be disappointing. Generally speaking, consumer-level zoom lenses are not good candidates for tele-extenders. Do some tests, being careful to follow all the long-lens techniques I’ve mentioned to see what’s possible with your lens/tele-extender combination.

Full Throated. Among reeds in a small pond in a quiet city park, Lepp was delighted to discover a colony of nesting yellow-headed blackbirds. This beautiful male’s complex calls communicated his territorial claim. One thousand millimeters of focal length (Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens and a 2x tele-extender) allowed Lepp to photograph while maintaining a non-intrusive distance from the birds. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, 1/750 sec., ƒ/16, ISO 800.

I Want To Be Alone

Summer will be well underway when you read this, and the movement of vacationers and photographers into photo-worthy locations is at full press. The sheer volume of nature-loving humans is an increasing threat to wildlife, to the landscape and to our own need for quiet locations to enjoy wilderness. Experiencing nature is one of the main reasons most of us engage in photography. Yes, it can be a social experience when we photograph as a group, but gridlock at every wildlife sighting raises my blood pressure, while being “one” with nature makes me so happy.

Overuse of photographic locations is especially apparent to those of us who undertook outdoor photography decades ago. When I return to these once-isolated areas now, I see overflowing parking lots where there were none, dozens of photographers lined up at sunrise, tripod legs intertwined, dodging phone-photographers with selfie sticks. In their attempts to control the chaos, resource managers impose one restriction after another—especially on serious photographers. It’s not what I signed up for.

How many are too many? Back in my military days, we had a grim standard. When too many Marines gathered in one location, the one in charge would yell, “Spread out! One grenade will get you all!” When I find myself wanting to yell that warning to a throng of photographers, I know there are too many, and I need to get out of there.

In this new era I still seek—and find—the solace of the natural experience, but not in the same ways I did in the past. You can, too.

Find New Subjects. Yes, elk and wolves and bears are great and exciting subjects, but what about deer and pronghorn antelope, birds in city parks and remote refuges, and small mammals that don’t have antlers but are still fun to photograph? Prairie dogs, ground squirrels and chipmunks can be amusing and are available far from the madding crowd. I can photograph coyotes, mule deer, grey squirrels, pine squirrels, Belding’s ground squirrels, California ground squirrels, golden mantled ground squirrels, chipmunks, badgers, yellow-bellied marmots (rock chucks), rabbits and hares, all within a few minutes of home. Some folks think of these critters as varmints, and Kathy calls them even worse names when they mess with her garden, but I think of them as photo subjects. In the spring and summer, that same garden hosts honeybees, bumble bees, butterflies and other creeping and crawling photo options, not to mention the flowers they’re on.

Find New Locations. National and state parks and monuments are established in spectacular locations for a reason, but the high traffic they now generate really complicates serious photography, especially in prime seasons and on holidays. There are other places (probably closer to home) that can offer beautiful landscapes with some creative work at sunrise, during moody weather and for late-night star trails. Over Memorial Day weekend in our community, the roads were jammed with folks headed up to mountain resorts or the river, but I visited two ponds in city parks. At the first I found a few folks feeding the ducks and fishing for elusive fish (the only kind stocked in these city ponds). I ignored the domesticated ducks looking for handouts and hiked around the perimeter of the pond where some new cattails were making a stand, and to my surprise and delight I discovered a colony of nesting yellow-headed blackbirds.While red-winged blackbirds are common here, yellow-headed are decidedly uncommon, but both are beautiful and worthy of hours of stalking and rendering pixels. The second small pond had few human visitors, a small patch of cattails and a group of nesting red-winged blackbirds, and as I was watching them an osprey circled above and dove into the pond, smacking the water not 20 feet from me, and extracted one of those elusive fish. I missed the shot, but it was still a great experience.

Choose Better Times. Memorial Day is not the right time to visit places that are popular due to their extraordinary beauty, and neither are other summer and fall holidays. If at all possible, avoid the weekends and perfect weather. Stormy days can be spectacular and maybe even lonely. I used to go to Yosemite in the winter just before a storm was predicted so I’d be there when it happened. Fresh snow, hardly anyone around and sometimes the roads were even closed behind me. Alone at last. The same goes for Yellowstone just before the roads are closed for the winter and right as they are opened in the spring. Be prepared for bad weather and crummy road conditions, but open vistas and few people.

It’s really important that we all refuse to be a part of crowds that encroach on wildlife in their own habitats. We need to be aware of what our presence means to our coveted subjects and make every effort to protect their spaces. Although I frequently visit the aforementioned bald eagle nest at a state park near my home, I do my work there on weekdays, beginning at sunrise and ending by noon. On weekends the park is much busier, and my photo setup draws so many people and their dogs that it starts to become an issue for the eagles. I don’t want to be a part of that.

Small Photo Tours. Experiencing new and different locations off the beaten path with a small group of like-minded photographers and ethical, knowledgeable instructors can be a tremendously rewarding experience. For excellent insights about selecting well, see our colleague Melissa Groo’s column “How To Choose A Wildlife Photography Workshop.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.

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