A bald eagle skims the surface of its own reflection as it hunts for fish along the coast of Alaska. An Atlantic Coast black skimmer gingerly plucks its offspring in its maw to carry it to a safer place. A Rufous hummingbird gleams iridescent as it sips at nectar in a field of blush rose. These are images from Tom Vezo’s latest award-winning book, Wings of Spring: Courtship, Nesting and Fledging, a collection of intimate photographs of the lives, behavior and beauty of these birds.
Passion, patience and persistence. For this master of bird photography, these are the true credos of a wildlife photographer. Recently, Outdoor Photographer talked to Vezo about his tips and techniques for success.
1 Do your research. Know your subjects’ dietary habits—how, what and where they eat and drink. Find out which fruit-bearing foliage they frequent or where they hunt. Learn their migratory patterns, nesting habitats, when they molt into breeding plumage and their mating behaviors.
Vezo suggests the web as an excellent source of information. Also, regional nature guidebooks or bird encyclopedias are a good starting point. When visiting an area, talk to rangers, researchers or bird watchers to get up-to-date information on the good spots.
2 Know your location. Find out what awaits you before you even start photographing. "What do the backgrounds look like?" says Vezo. "For me, the backgrounds are as important as the subjects. If they’re too confusing or bright, I usually won’t shoot in the area. I’ll look where the light is coming from. For most of my photography, I like to keep the light behind me."
A little planning will allow for the best lighting of colors and feather patterns. But there’s more to prepare for than photography. Vezo stresses the need to be conscious of the difficulties, the terrain and the weather that one may encounter.
3 Lens choice. For effective bird photography, Vezo recommends a lens with a bare minimum 400mm focal length and with the fastest ƒ-stop you can afford. His standard lens is a Canon 600mm ƒ/4 lens planted securely on a Gitzo carbon-fiber tripod with a Wimberley tripod head, and even then, he sometimes adds a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter for added reach.
4 Accessories. A compartmented vest makes for easy-to-reach gear, and Vezo feels it’s much more convenient than a backpack. His 8x Steiner binoculars are a constant companion, saving him many a long walk. Vezo uses a Visual Echoes Flash X-tender to throw his flash’s light farther and stronger. A beanbag always comes in handy to steady a lens if shooting from an awkward place.
Recently, Vezo has started to experiment with the Phototrapper, an infrared beam system that trips his camera and flash units when the subject passes through, allowing him to photograph birds and bats in midflight. And don’t forget the sunscreen and bug spray!
5 Learn to be patient. Vezo shoots shot after shot of the same subject, working patiently to ensure he gets the best possible photos of his animated subjects. "Some of the slightest variations in the photo can make a difference between a good one or a great one," he says.
"I was in Canada waiting four hours for a great gray owl to come in and feed its chick. When the adult came in to feed, I shot nine rolls of film in 20 minutes. The action was so fast, I felt every turn of the birds‚’ heads was important to capture. I also knew that without some kind of eye contact in my photo, there was no worthwhile image to keep, so I shot in bursts of threes and fours whenever I saw part of its eye in my viewfinder. Then a big branch fell off a tree in back of me and they both looked straight at the camera—I fired away nonstop until they looked away."
6 Practice. Vezo suggests practicing until composition becomes an instinct. "I learned by reading and by trial and error," he says. Photograph animals in places where they aren’t shy of humans; try zoos, parks and backyards. Once you’re comfortable, move on to bird photography tours and workshops. Familiarize yourself with your equipment and the animals there, and hone your skills, until you’re finally ready to...
7 Go one step beyond the tour. Vezo leaves the nest himself, migrating with the birds. He may start in February or March in Central or South America—last year, he visited Costa Rica and its quetzal, hummers, flycatchers and toucans. Then he often moves to the coastal areas of North America where the birds congregate after their long migration over water. South Texas and Point Pelee, Ontario, Canada, are good for warblers, orioles, tanagers and others that drop down on the first available land to rest and feed. Vezo also travels to nesting territories, which can range from anywhere in the United States to as far north as Canada and Alaska.
8 Use caution in the environment. When photographing in a nesting area, use extreme care. Says Vezo, "I almost always set up my L.L. Rue blind for this type of photography, depending on the species I’m shooting. If birds detect your form or any movement, including your eyes, they will take longer to return, or worse, not return at all. No photo is worth the failure of a nest, and it will ruin your chances for photographs as well."
Vezo limits his movements and tries to be as quiet as possible. "I sometimes take the time to set up my blind away from the nest, moving it closer, day by day, so the birds get used to the structure, until I’m within shooting range."
9 Persistence. To get the shot you want, take the time to repeat the shots you’re not sure of. Return to a promising location and stay with your subjects if the photography is good.
Vezo once spent 11 hours in a blind in the southern Texas heat, using a fan with a water sprayer to cool himself. "You have to seize the moment," he says. "The shooting that day was extremely good, and I felt I had to take advantage of every hour because I knew that the situation might change. Nature never deals the same cards.
"Every investment of time gives you a better chance of getting what you want. After my Birds of Prey in the American West book was published, I put up a nest box about a quarter of a mile from my home in the desert, hoping a pair of western screech owls would nest there, and they did. That’s how I captured the photo of the owl with a banded gecko in its mouth as it was ready to feed its young."
Recalls Vezo, "Just about every night I’d hike down to the nest site and wait for the male to come in with food. Like clockwork, he’d fly in within a minute or two of the same time every night. By being persistent, I was able to photograph him with snakes, mice and giant desert centipedes as well."
10 First and foremost, be passionate! This is the basis of Vezo’s work. He travels the world in pursuit of his photography and has forfeited time, money and comfort in exchange for these shots. That passion shows in every image!
To see more of Tom Vezo's photography and for information about his books Wings of Spring: Courtship, Nesting and Fledging, Birds of Prey in the American West and Wings in the Wild, visit www.TomVezo.com. Vezo will lead a photo tour to Botswana in early December 2007. Contact [email protected] for information.