I didn’t actually plan to go on a photography trip this morning. I’m just one day away from a long flight to Europe and I needed to relax. But my wife – rightly concerned about me not exercising enough – eventually convinced me that today was a great day for packing some food, getting into short pants, and driving to the Audubon Canyon Ranch near Bolinas Lagoon.
Hold on, I thought before leaving, wasn’t John James Audubon this great 19th-century ornothologist famous for his groundbreaking book The Birds of America?
My wife had been to Audubon Canyon Ranch just a few weeks ago. When she told me about the birds preserve, which is home to one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s most significant Great Egret and Great Blue Heron nesting sites, I got really excited about the opportunity of taking some great bird shots.
After getting to the Audubon Canyon Ranch and climbing a steep hill to the bird observation platform, I was woefully dismayed with what I saw: the birds were at least 200 yards away from the platform and even with binoculars you could barely see anything of them. Let alone with the 70–200 lens that I carried around my shoulder and which is too short for birds photography anyway.
So, no bird photos today.
The hike, however, was great. If you ever get to Bolinas Lagoon and you are not impressed enough with the breathtaking views (or you’re locals like we are), then stop at the Audubon Canyon Ranch and try one of its trails. You will be rewarded with paths that are lined with redwoods, small creeks, and a lot of wildlife. And don’t miss the buckeye trees that are full with moss hanging down their branches which always reminds me of fairy tales.
After getting back to the ranch, we made a quick detour to what the Audubon volunteer guides called “The Monday-Tuesday-Pond”. These two ponds are covered with cattails and they’re also the homes of maybe several dozens different species of insects.
At this point, the photo bug caught me again. How about taking a closeup shot of that red dragonfly over there that is quietly sitting on the tip of a leaf sticking out of the water?
I’d never taken shots of dragonflies before, so it took me some time to figure out which different compositions I had on my hands. You’d want to open the aperture wide enough to get a nice and creamy bokeh and you’d also not want to go too wide in order to have all parts of the dragonfly in focus. Even if the dragonfly doesn’t move and you’ve got everything right, there’s still plenty of reasons why you might miss the shot. And one of them is: you forgot your tripod – like I did today. Which means, you’ll have to shoot handheld and even with the extra stops the Canon Image Stabilization system is giving you, you’ll never get the picture perfectly sharp.
Here is what most likely will get you a sharp exposure:
- A target that’s not moving. In case you’re out on a trip and you’d want to take a photo of a flower – bring something to fixate the stem of that plant. Or ask someone to hold it for you. Windy environments make blurry shots.
- A sturdy tripod. This is one of your most essential pieces of gear and I advise you to get a good one. Or even a great one. Gitzo tripods are great, but expensive. Somewhat more affordable are Manfrotto tripods. And don’t get a cheap one. If you don’t trust me on this one, watch this video: Extreme Cheapo Tripod Test (DigitalRev)
- A remote shutter release. Using this piece of equipment will keep you from producing camera shake when pressing the camera’s shutter. I’ve got an inexpensive cable release that didn’t cost more than $20. It’s worked from day one and I never leave home without it.
- Some experience with manual focusing. Even the best automatic focusing system won’t get you a perfect sharpness when you’re at 200 millimeters on your zoom lens and your subject is a dragonfly. If you want to invest more time in a shot that might turn out to be perfect, learn about focus stacking. The Wikipedia article explains really well what that’s all about and it also has some nice pictures that show how focus stacking will get you a greater depth of field.
Oh, and again: don’t ever leave your tripod at home. I will take mine even on my trip to Europe tomorrow. It travels well as checked-in luggage and it’ll help me to get sharp pictures at my next destination, which is Budapest in Hungary.