Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2021

© Dr John Stewart

Great blue heron, Vancouver.

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Backyard photo safari

A neurologist shares his tips on capturing great wildlife shots at a park near you

I’m not a professional photographer, but I do have a penchant for stalking and shooting animals and birds. I lived in Kenya for two years and the abundance of colourful birds and exotic animals sparked my interest in photography with a telephoto lens.

But can you really go on a photo safari here in Canada? Obviously, it isn’t quite as easy. But your own backyard or a city park, especially one with a river or lake, can make great hunting grounds. The trick is to keep your eyes open for interesting shots.

Practice invisibility

My strategy when I spot my prey is to start taking pictures from a distance using the maximum zoom on my camera so that I won’t spook the animal. Then I slowly advance and keep on taking pictures. Thanks to digital, it’s easy to delete the ones that don’t work out. Just keep moving closer. Start thinking about the best angle to take the picture, the light on the animal, avoiding distracting clutter in the background. Try to fill the frame as much as you can with the prey. If the animal gets skittish — stop. Wait and start again slowly.

Lure them to you

Another strategy is to lure your prey into the lens. In the backyard, this can be done with feeders and bird baths. If you decide to go that route, bear in mind that you should set up some attractive natural perches for your birds.

I did something similar in an impromptu manner for my image of the grey jay on the skis. Once, when cross-country skiing in Quebec, I saw a few jays perched on skis outside a cabin and thought that would be a great shot.

While skiing in Cypress Park in West Vancouver, I learned where the jays liked to hang out. On a sunny day, I stuck my skis in front of some snow clad trees for a nice background, held out my hand with breadcrumbs in it and started shooting with the other one. I knew the jays would perch on the skis, and that was right where I wanted them.

Grizzly bear, Grouse Mountain, North Vancouver.

Drive-by shooting

Getting photos of bigger critters is often best done from your car. In the Rockies, you will come across bears and mountain sheep by the side of the road. This is also a good way to capture shots of moose.

The best strategy is not to get out of the car but rather to drive as slowly and as close as you can. Then turn off the engine to stop vibrations from blurring your pictures (or disturbing the animals) and start shooting. Another ploy, if you can manage it, is to return in the evening or early morning, hoping to catch them in the same area, in good light.

I wrestle with the issue of taking pictures of captive animals and birds. Essentially I think it’s too easy and almost cheating. But that’s just me. If you get images this way that please you, go right ahead. I got some good shots of one of the grizzlies in the large enclosure in Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver. I would certainly not have been that close to a grizzly in the wild!

Common green frog, Bark Lake, Quebec.

Wait for it

When you’re shooting the most common critters, it’s most important to look for unusual moments. I photographed a very ordinary grey squirrel in my backyard in downtown Montreal. He was sitting on the fence looking very pleased with himself having stolen a cookie. This added an amusing touch to an otherwise unexotic critter.

Even less interesting, you might think, would be a photo of a seagull. Trouble is, they’re so darn common that we’ve stopped noticing that they really are quite beautiful. But even a very nicely composed and focussed photograph won’t do — no one wants a plain picture of a gull. So wait for something to happen. I caught one doing something totally unusual — eating a starfish.

The impressive great blue heron is certainly worthy of attention. They are usually quite skittish but I was lucky one morning on Vancouver’s Stanley Park seawall to come across a very laidback specimen. I took many “formal portraits,” but my favourite is the much less dignified “irresistible scratch.” I just waited for the moment.

When out hiking, keep your eyes open. A chipmunk on a rock was very hesitant at first, but was obviously as curious about me as I was of him. He kept coming back for more portraits until I had taken 20 or 30.

On the same hike I took a shot of a squirrel in a tree; this was a total failure due to all the clutter of the tree branches. It was a good lesson for me — keep pictures as clutter-free as possible.

Housefly and oxeye daisy, Bark Lake, Quebec.

Digital demands

Even if you have an old and much-loved film camera that “takes fabulous pictures,” it has to be retired. There is so much more flexibility and ease in using a digital camera.

The choice is bewildering and models change frequently, but the good news is that these cameras keep getting better and the prices keep dropping.

If you want to shoot critters (and the same principles apply to candid shots of people) you need a camera that goes beyond the basics, and far beyond the camera in your cell phone!

In the realm of the small digital “point-and-shoot” cameras, your first criteria is to get as much optical zoom as possible.

Most cameras come with 3x zoom, meaning that you can make the object in your viewfinder three times bigger. But for wildlife shots, you need more, so spend a little extra and get 6x zoom. A few cameras offer as much as 10x zoom, which is better yet if this is what you’ll mostly be using it for.

You’ll need to make sure your camera has built-in vibration reduction. The more zoom you use, the more the slightest tremor in your hands (exacerbated by your excitement at seeing that black bear!) will blur your shot. Vibration reduction minimizes this.

Finally, you need as much resolution as possible. What this means is that the image you capture should have as much detail as possible. The standard point-and-shoot camera will have 3 megapixels (MP). More MPs mean a sharper image so get one with 6MPs, 8 or greater. The cost goes up, of course, but not by much. Some of the pictures here are taken with just a 3.2-MP camera, and the others with an 8.8-MP one. Of course, you need to use the highest resolution setting on your camera to get really detailed shots.

All point-and-shoots have a “macro” lens setting, also called close-up photography. This allows you to take pictures like the one of the fly on a flower.

Beyond the standard point-and-shoot camera, the other level is the digital single-lens reflex camera (dSLR). Although this is the gold standard, you run into the problem of having to buy and cart around a bunch of expensive and heavy lenses. They cost $600 to $2000, and upward, depending on the amount of megapixels and the type of lenses you buy. I confess to not owning one, though that is about to change.

So is there anything between the point-and-shoot and DSLR? Yes! The genre of camera that I think is the best of the lot is what is called the “ultra zoom” or “big zoom compact.” These are significantly bulkier than the point-and-shoots, but have lots of zoom (some up to 18x), lots of megapixels (up to 10), and have vibration-reduction systems. Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, Fuji and others are all making excellent cameras of this sort. The price range is $300 to $600.

Dr John Stewart is a neurologist with a practice in North Vancouver. He became interested in wildlife photography when he worked in Kenya for two years. He is a member of a photo club, and has explored digital image processing in classes. This summer, he’ll travel with the Vancouver Choir to sing in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic.

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