Nikon 200-400mm f/4 — My Go-To Lens!

Pleasant Valley v. Lehighton

Out of the last 21 sports photographs I had published, 16 of them were captured with my 200-400mm f/4 zoom lens. This means that 76% of these published photos were taken by this lens.

I knew I wanted this lens over two years ago and even long beforehand. It was my dream lens and I saved for 3 1/2 years to be able to purchase it. The anticipation was almost too much to bear at times! I was sold on this lens by Lennie Rue III and his son, Len Rue, Jr. I read their book, How to Photograph Animals in the Wild. I read and reread this book, but I paid particular attention to all the photographs and with which lens they were captured. Overwhelmingly, a major majority were captured with the 200-400mm lens.

I also knew the 70-200mm f/2.8 was working at the time as my primary wildlife and sports photography lens, but it just didn’t have enough reach. The 1.4x extender helped, but it just hardly seemed to be enough. I convinced myself that I needed the 200-400mm lens. Then I started to save my pennies for it!

Now, after 1 1/2+ years of use, I can honestly and convincingly say that this was definitely a wise purchase for me. I use it on nearly every shoot and it is my go-to lens for both sports and wildlife photography.

I really like the zoom lens because I can compose different shots depending on how far away the subject is from me. This is particularly helpful in baseball. Let’s say that I am on the first-base side of the infield. From this location I can photograph the third baseman, the shortstop, the second baseman, the pitcher, the batter, and the catcher. This is nealry 2/3s of the team! Now these position players are not all at equal distances from my location, but with a simple twist of the zoom barrel, I can compose a pleasing composition on any of these six players.

Similarly, I find the zoom feature a great tool in wildlife photography. Patience is the key in wildlife photography. Staying still in one location is often helpful and the zoom lens gets put into a lot of use in this scenario.

I typically keep the 200-400m lens on my monopod or tripod. It can be handheld, which I do on occasion, but my preferred method is to mount it on a support. This makes using it a joy rather than a burden.

When I am shooting sports, I am almost always on my knees with this lens on a monopod. I rest my left hand on the barrel of the lens and can quickly zoom in or out depending on my need. I always remember: righty tighty to zoom in closer to my subject.

The lens is clear, too. The photographs it produces are excellent when printed or shown on a computer screen. It focuses very well, and it even has a memory position to store a select pre-focused location. With the touch of a button, the lens focuses to that memorized distance. This is great for plays at second base, for example. I can be shooting the batter and then quickly press the memory button and the lens is in focus for a play at second base. Sweet!

Yep, the 200-400mm f/4 Nikon lens is now my go-to lens for sports and wildlife photography. I am very glad to have it in my lens arsenal!

Amazing Encounter in Elk Country Pennsylvania

This week I had the privilege of being in the Elk Country of Pennsylvania with my good friend and fellow photographer, Dick McCreight, of Bluestem Photography. Dick is an amazing photographer and I always enjoy our photo times together as we learn and stretch one another. This week was a prime example of this collaborative learning experience.

We saw and photographed a lot of elk over the past four days. Circumstances beyond my control prevented me from joining Dick on the first day, so he had a nice head start on me. It is always difficult to hear about and see photographs that are captured in your absence! I was encouraged that Dick was seeing and photographing elk and I hoped it might continue. It did!

Dick had to leave a little earlier than me, so we said our goodbyes. There was still about an hour of useable daylight, so I headed back out to try my luck.

Light is a funny thing and unpredictable at that. One moment the light stinks and then the next it is absolutely gorgeous! This evening out on Winslow’s Hill was no exception. The day was mostly overcast but as the sun began to make its way to the horizon, some of the clouds parted, creating streaks of sunlight onto the scene I was photographing. It didn’t take long for me to get into the right position, and as you can see in these first two photos, the elk cooperated as well! The first photo is my favorite so far, but I still have more photos to sift through and edit. By the way, all these photos here are completely unedited and straight out of the camera. The light was so good!

I also need to thank Moose Peterson who through his book, “Captured,” and his magazine, “BT Journal,” is teaching me to see the light! Sorry for the bad pun; but since my family is tired of me trying to be funny, I thought I’d try it here! Anyway, I am learning from Moose about the different qualities of light and how to use light in my photographs. Thank you Moose, I think these photographs show that I am learning from you!

This particular evening was the third time I photographed elk in this same field. I guess they were getting used to me and realized that I was presenting no danger to them. I walked onto the field after spotting the elk, walked down the dirt road toward them and they readily accepted me. You can always tell a lot by the little behavioral signs an elk portrays. Ears, eyes, tails, and general body movement are like reading a book. Every detail is important so the photographer has to pay attention to all this!

My general procedure when photographing the elk of Pennsylvania is to approach slowly and very casually. Lennie Rue III and Len Rue, Jr. taught me to act as unconcerned about the elk as possible, almost like you don’t even care about them. This nonchalant attitude helps the elk realize that we are not hunters who are going to shoot them. Rather, we are photographers who are going to shoot them in a much different way and over and over again! I approach the elk, reading all their signs. Then, as I get closer, I only approach when their heads are down while they are eating. When they look up, I stop, look around and act as causal as possible. This approach and a great deal of patience helps me get closer to the elk.

On this particular evening, the elk readily accepted me. I literally had elk all around me at one point! They were busy eating a new crop of hay and they were feeding in every direction possible. Once in a while, they would look up to study me, but for the most part I was just like another tree to them.

Then something happened.

I was photographing this cow when it started looking intently in a direction beyond me. As you can see in this photograph, the elk is looking in my general direction but somewhere behind me. It took me a while to really notice this, but then, as if on cue, all the elk began to exhibit an uneasiness that I could not explain. It is always amazing to me how wild animals communicate with each other. This time, the warning sign of alert was communicated and every elk stopped eating and was staring in the same direction. Something of interest was happening behind me; but what?

I thought that maybe another elk was coming into the field out of the woods behind me because I observed this earlier in the morning. There was a loud clashing as an elk bumbled onto the scene and the elk in the field looked in her direction when they heard the sound. But this was different. The intent stares of the elk and their body language indicated to me that something was wrong.

I even spoke out loud to the cow I photographed in the above photo, asking, “What’s wrong?” Yeah, I do talk to the animals. They never talk back, but Lennie Rue III teaches that he learned a lot while growing up on a farm. One time he came up behind a horse and surprised it so much that it kicked him square in the chest with both hind feet! He learned an important lesson. Talking to animals in an almost monotone and comforting manner is often helpful, and so I practice this every time I am in the field with the Pennsylvania Elk. “Hi, there. Don’t worry; I’m not going to hurt you.” Call me crazy, but sometimes I even think they understand me!

Something was wrong behind me this evening and every elk in the field knew it and saw it before I did. So after, asking, “What’s wrong?” I turned around to see this:

A black bear!

Now I knew what the elk were so intently looking at and it was obviously cause for great alarm to them. Some of the cows are now on the brink of giving birth to their calves. Black bears in Pennsylvania pose a definite threat to these baby calves. The Pennsylvania Game Commission conducted several elk calf studies over the years. You can read more detailed information about these studies and their findings here: Richardson, Lori D. Pennsylvania Game News November 2007: 31-37.

This recent study revealed that bears are not as big a threat to Pennsylvania Elk as they are to the Rocky Mountain Elk. Some of this is due to the mere numbers of the elk out west compared to the relatively lower numbers here in the east. Whitetail fawns are much more at risk here in our state. Nevertheless, a cow elk will definitely pay attention when it sees a black bear.

So here was the subject which attracted all the attention of these elk. I was the last one to realize it!

Now, I’ve been in the wood and fields of Pennsylvania all my life, so I know full well that predicting the size of a bear is anything but an exact science. I’ve seen the bear check stations where hunters bring in their bears to be weighed and studied by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Seeing is not always believing because what oftentimes looks like a huge bear simply is not. This is particularly true when a bear is by itself with nothing which to compare. I will suffice it to say that this bear was no cub.

I also know enough about bear behavior that black bears pose very little threat to adult humans. Grizzly bears and Polar bears are much different! So, even though I was in the middle of this field and a bear appeared out of the woods on the field’s edge, I was not concerned. I started photographing the bear, overjoyed to be experiencing this amazing encounter in elk country!

But then something happened that caught my attention again!

The black bear started walking right toward me!

(To Be Continued…)

I’m Slowly Learning to See the Light

I am thoroughly enjoying Moose Peterson’s book, “Captured.” I enjoy wildlife photography and read all of Lennie Lee Rue III’s books, which I just love. His books really rock! They taught me a lot that I use and depend on every time I am out in the wild with my camera. So I guess I was rather slow to purchase a different photographer’s book on wildlife photography. Well, let me tell you, Moose’s book is equally as impressive. The best part of Moose’s book is how different it is from other photo books I’ve read in the past. Forget the nuts and bolts of f-stops and shutter speeds. The book takes a different and refreshing approach.

Moose shares wonderful narratives and helps the reader really think about the subject being photographed. He walks you along the paths he took to capture his amazing and breath-taking photographs. He does not hold your hand, telling you which f-stop is the best or even his favorite. No, this is not a book for those needing to have their photographic hand-held. Rather, Moose makes you think. He makes you think about your approach and goal in the photograph. He also challenges the reader to see the light (pun intended, I’m pretty sure).

Light of some kind is required for photography. After all, “photography” literally means “writing with light.” With out a light source we don’t got a photo! So we can agree on the importance light brings to the photo party. However, even after many years behind the viewfinder, I am not sure I’ve been looking at the light critically or inquisitively enough. We all were told about the Golden Hours and to aim to shoot just after dawn and just before dusk. Light often takes on a unique and special quality at these times.

Light can change in an instance. Just this evening I took my son, James, to his baseball practice and was sitting in the truck playing with the menus on the LCD screen on my camera. I like to do this every now and then to familiarize myself with my camera. After all, there is nothing worse than messing with trying to find a particular setting in the heat of the moment when the photo action is fast and furious. It is much better to be fully prepared and so spending some down time with my camera is time well-spent. Anyway, I was playing with my camera when I noticed the light of the late day bouncing off the tips of some of the cumulus clouds. I was not in a good place to take a photograph due to electrical wires and some parking lights being in my way, but I couldn’t help but notice the way the light was just dancing off the tips of the clouds. It was beautiful. And here’s the thing–I doubt I would ever even notice this if I wasn’t interested in photography. How much do we miss by not looking or paying attention in this life?

Light has several qualities that we need to think about as photographers. Quantity, direction, and quality are the top three from what I was taught. The amount of light, or quantity, is critical because without enough light there can be no photograph. On the other hand, too much light, like at high noon, can be extremely difficult to deal with in photography. Quantity of light will dictate a lot about proper exposure. Less light requires us to open up our f-stop, while bright light requires us to stop down. This is pretty easy so far.

Direction of light is also important. Most of us were taught to place the sun behind us or over one of our shoulders when photographing a subject. This is typically sound advice but it is no always possible. For example, I sometimes photograph baseball games where I have to shoot directly into the sun as it sets due to how the field is set up. This is tough, if not impossible. However, sometimes shooting into the sun can create some stunning photographs like for silhouettes to mention just one. Back-lighting can also create amazing effects in a photograph. So, yeah, the direction of light is pretty important, too.

Quality of light is one of the most overlooked and perhaps the least understood of these three. We all see the difference in the sun’s light between morning and high noon and then dusk. But have you ever stood at the same place for any length of time and witnessed how the quality of light changes over time. Add some clouds and things change. Different seasons make some obvious changes, too. Yes, some of these changes are in the first two categories of quantity and direction of light, but watch carefully for the quality of light. This is so subtle at times. In fact, it is hard to describe or talk about, but when you see it you know it. The quality of light can make or break a photograph. I remember shooting a baseball game recently where the sun was just gorgeous. I vaguely noticed it at the time, but when I got back home and started processing my photos the quality of light revealed itself in an entire sequence of photographs. It was beautiful!

Now the key is to notice these lighting subtleties before we photograph a subject. See the light! It sounds so simple and yet it can be so elusive!

Later this evening I was driving in my truck and noticed how the setting sunlight was just kissing the very tippy tops of some of distant clouds. I was not in a good position to photograph these clouds, but I saw the light and the light was just gorgeous! I’m slowly learning to see the light!

I am almost embarrassed to post this photo I took earlier this evening of the cumulus clouds, but it fits with my topic of seeing the light. The direction of light was coming from right to left into the cloud. The quantity of light was pretty bright but the humidity and haze in the air helped to defuse it a touch. The quality of light wasn’t bad. It created some very nice contrast in the cloud formations, which really made them stand out.

See the light. You and your photographs will be the better for it!

What a Blue Sky!

I was driving up onto the top of Winslow Hill looking for elk as is my typical routine. This time the elk were not close by, but I spotted a sizable herd on the side of the Saddle. There was only one option in my mind–drive to the bottom of Dewey Road past the Gilbert Farm, park my truck in the lot, and hike up to photograph these magnificent creatures!

So that’s exactly what I did. I even remember thinking to myself, “should I come in above them or from below?” Then it hit me. The sky was a brilliant blue and the words of Lennie Lee Rue III came crashing into my head: “Whenever possible, try to “skyline” an animal. Photographs of an animal standing on the top of a hill against a bright blue sky have tremendous impact.” (How to Photograph Animals in the Wild, Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III and Len Rue, Jr., p. 128-129)

I made this decision quickly and found myself making my way steadily in the direction of where I knew the elk herd was located. Before long I saw the body of a bull elk with his antlers protruding into the bright blue sky! I was in the right location and just needed to be sure not to frighten the elk. I knew there were plenty of other elk just over the ridge, but this one had my full attention!

I believe this photograph is one example of Lennie Lee Rue III’s rule #5 from his “Tips on Wildlife Photography.” Thank you, Dr. Rue, for your inspiration and for teaching me this wonderful photographic rule.

What do you think of this photograph?

Eat Up!

Female cows are getting ready for the upcoming rut, too. This results in a tremendous amount of eating!

Last week we saw a cow feeding right alongside the road. She was content to keep eating even as we slowed down and brought our truck to a stop. Remembering how Lennie Rue talks about using your vehicle as a blind, we stayed in our truck. The cow was on my driver’s side, so all I had to do was roll my window down and start shooting. My  son, James, rolled his window down and slowly sat up on top of the window opening and shot over the roof of the truck. And all the while, the cow just kept on eating. These two photographs show in detail the eating process and the content of what she was eating, too!

Cows and bulls both are getting ready for the rut. They will expend a lot of energy during the breeding season so they need to eat up now! They are eating and will be ready for the rut. Will you be ready to photograph them?