Capture Magic Moments in Nature Photography

Learn the mechanics of capturing expert wildlife shots.

Reader Contribution by Andrew Weidman
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by Andrew Weidman

One of the best parts of photography, especially wildlife photography, is the magic moments.  You know what I mean: Everything just falls in place in the most unexpected and beautiful way that you know, you just know, you just got something special. The setting, the lighting, and the subject come together to create something you couldn’t even have hoped for.

The photo above is one of those moments.

Late last fall, my wife and I decided to visit one of my favorite photography spots, a local wildlife reserve managed by the State Game Commission. We arrived just as the sun settled on the horizon, technically a little late to set up for great shots, but we chose to walk out to the lake point anyway. I’m glad we did; magic was waiting for us, and you miss every shot you don’t take.

What Are the Golden Hour and Blue Hour for Photographers?

Photographers like to talk about Golden Hour and Blue Hour, when the light takes on almost mythic qualities: soft, directionless, even, and glowing. That’s a lot of subjectivity and opinion going on there. Let’s start with what the heck they even are — and aren’t. First of all, they aren’t actually an hour long, although they could be, if you’re in the right place. I know, that’s clear as mud.

Golden hour is the period of time when the sun is low on the horizon, what hunters call long-shadow time, sunrise and just after, and sunset and just before. In the tropics, I’m told, Golden Hour is measured in minutes, or even seconds. In contrast, polar Golden Hours reportedly can last all day. Around here, it never lasts long enough.

Blue hour, by contrast, is when the sun has set, or yet to rise, but the sky is nevertheless lit with indirect fire. Hot reds and oranges fade into cooler, bluer tones. This is the “hour” of silhouettes. I say “hour” in quotes, because you better be ready to go when the fire hits the horizon, or you’ll miss the magic.

Discovering a Magic Scene in Nature

Back to the shot: As we walked in the path, we spotted some whitetail deer in the meadow beside us, a few hundred yards out, towards the west. At first, they were positioned below the crest of the hill, making OK shots, but nothing spectacular. Still, I fired off some shots. Digital space on a card is essentially free, compared to the old days of 12 to 24 shots of trash on non-reusable film at $3 a roll.

Fifty yards later, the lineup had changed incredibly. The deer were now on the crest of the hill, the sky had taken on a cadmium hue from the now-vanished sun, and one of the deer sported a magnificent 9-point rack. (Okay, so I counted the points later, on the computer screen. At the time, he looked like a 30-point buck!) Even better, he was attended by a lesser spike-buck, as though courting favor with the big boss.

My mind went into overdrive, checking exposure, dropping the exposure compensation by a couple steps, double checking the exposure against the sky, setting up the composition, panicking over the exposure, checking the focus, pressing a nearby fence post into tripod service, triple checking the exposure, double checking the focus — you get the idea. Magic happens for everyone at unpredictable times, but fortune favors the prepared, and you’re never completely prepared. All you can do is your best, and hope for the best.

Photo by Andrew Weidman

Technical Details for Camera Work

A little bit of technical jargon for the shot. (Don’t worry, this won’t be a habit. I’m not a real technical guy.) I was shooting a Canon 7D mk II with a100-400 lens at full extension (400mm), at f/7.1 and an exposure of 1/80th of a second, ISO.

I focused on the most important feature in the scene, the points of the big buck’s rack. That’s where everyone’s attention would go; the focus had to be sharp enough to cut. Everything else would be black silhouette, if I got it right.

Using the fence post as a prop was vital. A lens that long at shutter speeds that slow has to stay absolutely motionless. Even breathing and pulse can cause hand shake and destroy the focus. I hit the shutter button and took a moment to refocus. That’s when the magic really began. As I hit the shutter a second time, I noticed the flock of geese flying past in the frame, beyond the deer, far enough to be softly out of focus. All I could do was hold the button down for continuous shooting, a technique known affectionately as “Spraying and Praying.”

All told, I shot 15 frames in that burst. If one was good, that’s all that mattered. When the geese had passed and I could breathe again, my wife said, “Did you get it?” And all I could say was, “I hope so!” That quick, the geese, the deer, the light, and the magic were gone.

It felt like an eternity before I got a chance to get the photo series “out of the can” and on the computer for review and editing. There was plenty of trash, to be sure, but there was some recorded magic, too.

I think I got it.

What’s your magic moment with a camera? I’d love to hear about it, or even better see the shot.

Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Penn. Follow him on Instagram at Andrew Weidman Photography or on Facebook at Andrew Weidman.

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