You Don't Need a Big Lens


I often carry my 600mm lens on the photo walks I lead at Cape May Point SP, NJ. This invariably leads some to ask if they need big, heavy, expensive gear to photograph wildlife. The good news is no, so long as they select subjects appropriate for their equipment.

Fortunately, there are such subjects: butterflies, damselflies, and dragonflies, among others.

My first digital camera was a 5 megapixel point-and-shoot which, in July 2002, I took into central Mexico where I photographed a Dingy Purplewing, Four-spotted Sailor, Montezuma Cattleheart, and Walker's Metalmark. Later that month, I participated in a July butterfly count in Mission, TX, where I shot a Gray Cracker and Malachite with the same camera.

The trick to creating good images of such subjects is to get close and to have your subject parallel to your camera's sensor plane. 

Today, a very good point-and-shot camera can be purchased for under $500.00, and are of much better quality than those of a decade ago. In other words, for relatively little money (at least in terms of photography) you too can buy the equipment needed to become a wildlife photographer. Obviously, you will still need to learn how best to use your equipment, but that's part of the fun of being a wildlife photographer.

Finally, not all of the images surrounding this brief article where shot with point-and-shot cameras, but all of the could have been.



Digital photography has returned to us complete control over our images. However, many of us ignore this option by shooting in JPEG mode. When we shoot JPEGs, our images are processed in our cameras by algorithms which do not know our photographic purposes or the circumstances under which we created our images. Also, after processing, these algorithms permanently deletes 7/8 of the data recorded by our cameras! Should our exposure, composition, focus, etc., not be precise, this will almost certainly preclude us from making quality image adjustments. However, if we shoot in RAW, we will always have the full, original image data with which to work. Thus, as processing software improves, and we become more skilled at using the software, we can reprocess our images with all the data our cameras captured. True, RAW processing involves a learning curve, but there are books explaining how to do this, including one in PDF format I wrote entitled An Introductory eGuide to Post Capture Digital Workflow (Or What the Heck Do I Do Now that I've Clicked the Shutter?!?) available on this website.

The following is an example of why I shoot RAW: A few years back, I bought a new lens and immediately went outside to test it. Unfortunately, I used a camera that was set to an exposure compensation of plus 5/3 stops! The resulting image was severely overexposed. However, because I shoot in RAW I was able to save this image, and Kevin Karlson selected it as one of my images for his coffee table photo book Visions. The before (left) and after (right; I also cropped this version) images are shown below. As always, the choice is yours. So, until next time, Shoot It! as often as you can.




One of the more intersting reports of this Autumn was of an Elegant Tern at Sandy Hook NRA. I was fortunate enough to see and photograph this bird, as well as a number of other tern species, there and elsewhere on the New Jersey coast.

 While the Elegant Tern most closely resembles our Royal and Caspian Terns, it was associating itself with Common, Forster's, and Black Terns as well as Black Skimmers.

A look at the images immediately above and below this note should help identifying these species at this time of year. The birds in the left image of the first row and the last image in the third row are Black Skimmers. These are unique terns in North America in that their lower mandibles are noticeably longer than their upper mandibles. As such, these birds are rarely misidentified.

A bit more difficult to separate are the Royal (third from the left image in the first row and the right image in the bottom row) and Caspian Terns (left image in the second and fourth rows). At this time of year, the Royal Tern has a prominent receding "hair" line giving it a white forehead that extends back behind its eyes. The Caspian Tern, on the other hand, always has black from the back of its head to the top of its bill. True, at this time of year, there are often some white feathers mixed in with the black ones, but they are relatively small in number. 

The issue many of us eastern birders where concerned with was how difficult it would be to separate the Elegant Tern from the Royal Tern. However, this turned out to be rather easy as the black on the back of the head of Royal does not extend down the back of its head while it does on the Elegant Tern. There is even less of an issue separating the Elegant from the Caspian as the latter has an essentially solid black cap.

The most difficult tern species to separate are Common (right image in the first row and next to the right image in the third row) and Forster's Terns (next to the right image in the second row and left image of the third row). However, at this time of year, they are relatively easier to tell apart. The Forster's Tern, at this time of year, has two black ear patches. Note that the back of the Forster's Tern's head is white. The Common Tern, on the other hand, has black ear patches that are connected with black behind its head. As such, only its forehead is white.

The last species present with New Jersey's first Elegant Tern was the Black Tern (next to the left image in the first and third rows). This is a small tern and is smudged with black on its head and upper surface.

There were three species that reasonably could have been seen but were not present: the Gull-billed, Least, and Sandwich Terns. The Gull-billed Tern (next to the left image in the last row) has a stubby (for a tern) all black bill. The Least is our smallest tern, has a yellow (sometimes yellowish) bill, and always has a white triangle above its bill. The Sandwich Tern is about the length of the Royal Tern, but has shorter legs. It also has a black bill tipped with yellow (mustard on this ham sandwich).

I hope this short note helps you identify the species of tern that occur in New Jersey.


Histogram: What Is It and Why Is It Important? 

 The following is from the Second Edition of the "Why Do It This Way" section of CD book on digital workflow, due out later this month. See the EGuide tab on this website for more info:


ISO: Perhaps the Biggest Difference Between Film and Digital

In many ways, digital photography is merely a variation of film photography, but there are some big differences and ISO is one of them. ISO is the digital equivalent of film speed. When I shot film, I rarely used an ISO faster than 200 and never faster than 400. With today's digital cameras, I rarely use an ISO below 500, regularly use 800-3200, and occasionally use 6400. True, I use high quality gear (Canon 7D and 1D Mark IV), but even moderately priced point-and-shoot cameras can produce quite good images when used properly. (However, part of what you are buying when you purchase more expensive photo equipment is higher quality sensors and faster autofocusing lenses.)

This ability to use quality, high ISOs has allowed shooting subjects that were not realistic with film. For example, I have photographed Bald Eagles forcing Ospreys to give up and then catch their fish, Northern Harriers as they cruise by the hawk watch, Cooper's Hawks patrolling the dunes, Purple Martins hawking insects, and Yellow-shafted Flickers and Palm Warblers during their morning flights.

You need a high ISO to capture such images because they require very fast shutter speeds, at least 1/2500 of a second, and preferably faster. High ISOs also reduce out of focus images because your shutter is open for a very brief time. Not all of my shots are keepers, but at the price of pixels who cares. 

Mike Hannisian