Photo outing in the autumn – birds, butterflies and scenery

Fall is a very special time for most of us. It can be warm, it can be soft, in can be cool and wet but it is still beautiful. The abundance of colours and hues are either soothing or exciting. Their shades of yellow and red mixed with the muted green is something wonderful.

I am very much attracted to being out in the woods in the autumn. I love its smell especially after a rainfall and I never can get over the beauty of its colour palette. Yes, I am not too excited what comes after fall. I have never been too much of a winter person, although it has its own treasury of beauty. Autumn is the time when we can observe south bound bird migration, sometimes hundreds or thousands of birds congregating in a  small area awaiting for helping winds to depart. Then later in the fall we are still grateful for the odd remaining birds or butterflies surprising us with their presence.Then of course the magic of scenery that we encounter in the fall.

As an avid outdoors person and photographer I can never get enough of being out on a trail in the fall. I try to strike a balance between family and nature. However, all my aches and pains disappear as soon as I am heading out. As a photographer I pre-visualize what I possibly shall encounter and choose my gear for the day accordingly. In most cases  I take a long telephoto prime or zoom lens with me. I choose the zoom when lighting conditions allow for using a slower lens without cranking the ISO value too high. When light levels are lover I take a 500mm f4 prime lens out for wildlife, I pack my 1.4x teleconverter as well to reach the smaller birds. Also, if I am after a specific bird only then the prime lens has priority, given its faster AF capability and top shelf optical quality.

I usually go on a trail with my selected long lens. That way I can cast my sight ahead and spot bird activity before I get too close to it. Birds have excellent eye sight and can get spooked easily, this is especially true for the late migrants. Then I pack either a wide angle prime lens, like the Nikkor 20mm f1.8 lens, or a 24-70mm f2.8 zoom. This range is excellent for fall landscapes in general and they do not require too much space in my bag. My other favourite lens in the fall is the 105mm Micro Nikkor VR. The short telephoto macro range is excellent for many things, from a late fall caterpillar to a small cluster of colourful branches. I sometimes even discipline myself to go out only with the Micro Nikkor and concentrate on a smaller segment of image possibilities. It pays off when you slow down and pay attention to every small detail. On other occasions, instead of the Micro Nikkor, I take the 70-210mm f4 Nikkor zoom with me as my “macro” lens. It has a decent magnification range for small vignettes of nature, leaves or even for the late monarch that is still around. The zoom feature gives more freedom to frame images with different perspective. It is a matter of balance what lenses we take, depending on the prime subject matter that we intend to photograph.

As I mentioned I have my long lens on my camera, the rest is either carried in my ThinkTank belt system or in the ThinkTank Glass Limo backpack. When I opt for some of my shorter lenses I carry my long lens in the GlassLimo. It is an excellent backpack, fast to operate, very-very comfortable and a clever design for the trail. I carry some snacks and an extra bottle of water in the side pockets of the backpack, I can access those without dismounting the bag. If I am after fall landscapes I usually attach my smaller tripod to the side of the backpack, my Benro C2580T tripod with a ball head is so light that I do not feel its presence at all. It balances well on the side of the GlassLimo and easy to access within seconds. I suggest it to all nature photographers to work with a light backpack and belt pouch system. Between the two gear and supplies are carried effortlessly and lens change can be done on short notice.

As of clothes my best advice is to dress in easily removable layers and carry a light waterproof outer layer. The other day I was out photographing in cool and drizzly conditions for about two hours. Then the clouds parted and the temperature suddenly was 2-3º C warmer. I took my light rain jacket off together with the west that I was wearing over my flannel shirt and was back to a good comfort zone again. The extra clothes were folded into the backpack. Occasions like this is the reason I always like to take the GlassLimo on a trail, it is good not only for the long lens but for using it as a mobile storage room for clothes, food and everything else.

There are some rules that one should follow when photographing in the fall. Some are simple safety precautions others are practical photography considerations. From a safety point of view watch out for the surface you walk on. When the trail is wet leaves and the fallen pine needles can be very slippery, especially on sloping ground. The good news in late fall is that the horde of mosquitos are gone. However, use that bug repellent spray if you go into the woods. Ticks can be very aggressive in the fall. I have encountered three ticks trying to get a bite out of me the other day within two hours on a trail in the woods. These creatures can carry lyme disease and it is better to be safe than sorry. Spraying some bug repellent with DEET on the legs of your trousers and shoes along with your arms, neck and ears is a good insurance against these pests. 

From a photographic point of view it is the direction of the light that you need to consider. There is not too much point walking against the low morning sunshine and miss the opportunity to observe the shrubs and branches to find those little birds. Although backlit sceneries may offer good and colourful opportunities for some vignettes like a cluster of blazing red maple leaves. If my entry point to a trail is from the “wrong” direction then I usually walk it quietly but swiftly, looking to the side and listening to birds chirping. Then, when I arrive to a good return point I start walking back slowly. Now the the sun is not in my eyes and it illuminates the undergrowth for better observation. Now I have a much better chance to find my subjects. This technique applies particularly for bird photography, especially for little songbirds that are agile, easy to spook and easy to miss.

As you walk slowly you should stop at places in the shade or beside a tree trunk and blend into the surroundings. Those birds that you heard chirping when you walked the other way will soon start giving themselves away, they’ll relax a bit and resume their feeding activities. I often stay put for ten or fifteen minutes in a spot where I have some cover and jut listen. When I see some activity in the branches I start getting ready, I lift my camera slowly and pre-focus on a spot where the birds are likely to appear.

Wa as nature photographers should have a basic understanding about our intended subject matter. If it is birds in the fall then it is the usual time of migration of various species. What habitat do they prefer, where are the spots that they usually rest at? It pays off to know what direction to approach certain spots, to know the direction of the sun in relation to a particular p[lace. If it is scenery you want to photograph then timing of the day and, again, the direction where the light comes from. What is the state of vegetation, what flowers or plants will be in a location? The more you know in advance the higher your success rate will be. 

You always have to know your camera settings for the upcoming shot. Like it happens that you took a few images with some exposure compensation earlier, or used a particularly low or high ISO setting for a specific shot ten minutes ago. Well, set your camera back to your usual mode required for the surrounding. Do not waste that opportunity to photograph a hard to get kinglet by under or over exposing it by several stops. Make sure you set your camera’s meter back to the desired mode if you used something different before. Also, you may want to set the AF mode to single or continuous mode in advance, depending on which is preferable. If you follow a fast leaving hawk while your camera was set to Single AF you blew the opportunity. On the other hand it is often better to use Single AF for small birds that settle for a second or two in a spot. So, be conscious about your present camera setting. Change it to the best configuration that you anticipate for the expected scenario.

Well, there is a lot more to discuss but the above thoughts are some pointers for fall outings in general. I’ll have a couple of workshops planned about practical photography considerations for the various seasons. Would you like to reserve a place please send me a note and I’ll let you know about schedule and details.

Best regards to all nature enthusiasts, Antal

Note: migration captions refer to SW Ontario – Lake Erie lakeshore