Extreme Close-Up

Learn how to use proper technique for sharp, tight photos at extreme focal lengths
This Article Features Photo Zoom

Looking for ways to get closer to your feathered, flying subjects? We’ll show you how a steady hand, a respectful distance, sophisticated techniques and lots of awesome technology combine for great wild bird photography.

1) Fast Glass And AF. Each fall, tens of thousands of migrating birds gather at the beautiful Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in southcentral New Mexico. With so many subjects, it’s the best possible place for wildlife photographers to add to their portfolios of birds in flight. Armed with a new Canon EOS-1D X and EF 400mm ƒ/2.8L II lens, Lepp was equipped with the fastest possible combination of camera and lens to freeze this snow goose in midair. An ultrasharp EF 2X III tele-extender multiplied the focal length to 800mm on the full-frame 1D X, which offers a 12 fps capture rate and the fastest autofocus so far. A gimbal head and Really Right Stuff tripod allowed quick and steady tracking and capture of the flying birds. 1⁄3000 sec. at ƒ/9.5, ISO 800.

2) The Camera Counts. It’s not always about long lenses; sometimes the capabilities of the camera make the shot. In Botswana’s Okavango Delta, this little bee-eater returned repeatedly to the same branch. As the bird landed, Lepp fired a short burst of images at 10 frames per second. The handheld Canon EOS-1D Mark IV was set to ƒ/8, 1⁄4000 sec., and ISO 1600 to maximize the possibility of capturing the peak action at maximum sharpness. The camera’s 1.3X crop factor coupled with the EF 500mm lens yielded 650mm of telephoto.

3) Close-Ups From A Distance. In a busy rookery, such as this one in St. Augustine, Florida, the courting and nesting birds are abundant and can be photographed at tantalizingly close range. Still, Lepp wanted to get even closer to the birds to capture their extraordinary plumage as design elements. A combination of an EF 500mm lens, an EF 2X tele-extender (1000mm) and a 25mm extension tube on a full-frame Canon EOS 5D Mark III offered both the close-up magnification Lepp wanted along with the needed working distance to keep from disturbing the subjects. This particularly striking little blue heron was nesting in the shade; to compensate for the slow shutter speed of 1⁄45 sec. at ƒ/11 needed for proper exposure at a reasonable ISO (1250), the camera/lens combination was mounted on a Gitzo Explorer tripod and Really Right Stuff ballhead. The square format is a result of compositing two vertical captures in a sort of mini-panorama that can be printed quite large.

4) Flash Matters. A rufous hummingbird perches on a skunk cabbage leaf amongst purple larkspur in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. By combining projected flash and ambient light, Lepp rendered the wings of the bird both sharp and blurred, while enhancing the color and sharp detail of the body and head. The effect captures the bird’s feisty personality and brings out the colors in the scene, giving a natural, outdoor look to the image. Canon EOS-1D Mark III with EF 500mm lens and EF 1.4X tele-extender (910mm with 1.3X crop factor) at 1⁄200 sec. and ƒ/11, ISO 800, Really Right Stuff tripod and ballhead, Better Beamer projected flash.

5) A Stable Approach. The petite and elusive malachite kingfisher is a prized subject for wildlife photographers in Africa. This busy little bird hangs out in reeds and feeds on miniscule fish and frogs, moving over ponds and streams in quick bursts. The most successful photographic approach is from the water, with lots of pixels (for cropping potential), long glass (for reach) and ISO (for shutter speed). An extra benefit of the extreme focal length is the very small depth of field which, when properly placed, renders the subject very sharp and the busy background beautifully out of focus. Lepp photographed this tiny gem from a Gitzo Explorer tripod mounted in a powerboat. Canon EOS-1D Mark IV with EF 500mm lens and EF 2X tele-extender (1300mm equivalent), 1⁄750 sec. at ƒ/8, ISO 1600.

6) Reaching Waaaaaaay Out. Tucked into its nest in a tall pine, a bald eagle chick at three weeks is so small it can’t be seen from the nearest vantage point, a cliff just above and about 200 feet away. Here, Lepp coupled a Canon EF 800mm lens and two EF 2X III tele-extenders to a Canon EOS 5D Mark III to attain a whopping 3200mm to reach inside the nest. When working at this focal length, the equivalent of a 160X telescope, the depth of field is negligible and precise focus can’t be obtained through the viewfinder or even with magnification of the 5D Mark III’s generously sized LCD screen. To position the focus, Lepp used a wireless accessory, the CamRanger, which transmitted the image and camera controls to his Apple iPad, offering a much larger viewing screen and hands-off firing.