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Best of the Tetons

Great Gray Owl

Snowfall and Wildlife

“Bad weather” photography can be challenging—yet can be very rewarding. I’m usually okay with winter bad weather photography as long as I can still feel my fingers and toes! Other photographer’s definition of bad weather may vary.

Shooting Data: NIKON D5, TAMRON 150-600mm at 600 mm, 1/640 Second at f/7.1, Manual Mode, 1/3 EV,  Auto ISO 4500

I’m guessing if you asked 30 photographers how to take successful photos in heavy snow, you would get roughly 30 different answers—and each one would be certain their way is the best. This page as a series of “starting points” I can offer if you venture out during a winter storm.

With few exceptions, a winter storm means the sky will be cloudy—and I’ll be dealing with only limited light. As always, I am left with having to balance shutter speed, aperture, and ISO values, but during a winter storm, it seems that all three are compromised. Critical sharpness is also compromised, but the success of the photos are often much more about the emotion of the shots than sharpness. I usually find that I can “live with” a little more high ISO grain for the same reason.

There are a lot of variables to consider on a snow day, but the two that jump to the top of the list are “distance to subject” and “intensity of the storm”. If the subject is 25 yards out, there could be a few hundred thousand flakes between you and the subject. Double the distance, and there could be twice as many flakes. If the flakes are large, you can be shooting through a wall of flakes that can completely obscure the subject and the distant landscape.

Tree Top Owl

Shooting Data: NIKON D5, TAMRON 150-600mm at 600 mm, 1/800 Second at f/10, Manual Mode, 1/3 EV,  Auto ISO 10000

During a relatively heavy snow squall, I think of three zones. First, there will be a wall of snow between the camera and the subject, an “in focus” zone along the focal plane, and another zone behind the subject. With a shallow depth of field, controlled mostly by the Aperture settings, much of the snow in front of and behind the subject will be out of focus. “Stopping down” will likely make more of the snow in front of, and behind the subject in focus. During the heavy snow periods, the overall picture will likely be lighter—even when staged against a dark background.

An Owl can sit on the same perch for a few minutes or even a few hours. They make good experimental subjects—allowing me to try out various settings.

Alternate Processing

Shooting Data: NIKON D5, TAMRON 150-600mm at 600 mm, 1/800 Second at f/10, Manual Mode, 1/3 EV,  Auto ISO 10000

There are a lot of options and settings available to a photographer at the time of capture. If the image was captured in a RAW format, there is an almost endless set of options for post processing it. You might notice the image above is the same as the one above it—just processed differently. For the most part, it’s simply a matter of adjusting a few sliders in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw or any of the other software designed for adjusting RAW files.

I prefer to shoot while on a tripod when I can. (Remember, I mentioned 30 photographers = 30 answers). Using a tripod for winter storm photography gives me a lot more options, and it allows me to be ready when the action begins. It is difficult to hand hold a telephoto lens on a subject for more than a minute or so at a time. The tripod helps me to be on a subject like an owl as it takes off, vs trying to find it in the scene if the camera is down. A tripod offers the ability to slow the shutter speed to settings well below what is normally possible when hand holding. Yes, it is possible to miss a shot while setting up a tripod, but on balance, I think I get more shots I like.

Watching GGO

Shooting Data: NIKON D5, TAMRON 150-600mm at 600 mm, 1/30 Second at f/6.3, Manual Mode, 1/3 EV, Auto ISO 280

This is a good example of why I like a tripod! It was captured at 1/30th of a second, F/6.3 and the resulting Auto ISO was only 280. At 600mm, it would be almost impossible to hand hold a body and lens and hope to end up with acceptable results at 1/30th of a second. The failure rate is still fairly high while on a tripod! At 600mm, my Tamron 150-500mm lens is wide open at F/6.3. The focal plane is fairly shallow, allowing flakes in front of and behind the face to blur out, while flakes in the focal plane are in relative focus. I tend to go with a shallow depth of field on most perched shots.

Shoot a Lot

Shooting Data: NIKON D5, TAMRON 150-600mm at 600 mm, 1/50 Second at f/6.3, Manual Mode, 1/3 EV, Auto ISO 400

On snow shots, I typically do a LOT of short bursts of three or four images at a time. A Nikon D5 can shoot at 12 frames per second, so it is easy to come home with a lot of images. It takes up disk space and fill cards quickly, but shooting lots of short bursts seems to give me a better chance of getting a good one. This image is a good example. If I only took a couple of shots, the odds are fairly high that a flake will be crossing the Owl’s eyes or beak. In a three shot burst, one of them might be a clean one. Similarly, when the snow flakes are large, the camera’s auto focus often grabs a flake in front of the bird’s face and not the bird or subject. I shoot a lot and keep the best ones. I won’t post it here, but the next shot in this sequence was the better one.

1/20th second

Shooting Data: NIKON D5, TAMRON 150-600mm at 600 mm, 1/20 Second at f/10, Manual Mode, -1/3 EV, Auto ISO 180

At 1/20th of a second, I was pushing the limits of the camera, lens, and ambient conditions. It is difficult to hold the equipment still, and in this case, wind was blowing the snow, but it was also blowing the bird on the top of the tree. Owls can stay perfectly still for a long time, but that doesn’t do me much good if the entire tree is moving. Large mammals seldom sway in the wind, nor do many of them move fast on snowy days, so it might be possible to pull off a keeper with an extremely slow shutter speed.

1/500th second

Shooting Data: NIKON D5, TAMRON 150-600mm at 600 mm, 1/500 Second at f/6.3, Manual Mode, -1/3 EV, Auto ISO 1800

This is essentially the same shot, but this time at 1/500th second. I didn’t mention it earlier, but even on a tripod, wind can shake a photographer and their gear. Hand holding at slow speeds with heavy winds might not be impossible, but the success ratio plummets considerably. In those cases, a faster shutter speed can help!

Head Spinning

Shooting Data: NIKON D5, TAMRON 150-600mm at 600 mm, 1/40 Second at f/10, Manual Mode, -1/3 EV, Auto ISO 360

At slow shutter speeds, I always expect oddball shots like this one. Any movement at 1/40th second will cause motion blur. Even if I had been shooting at a very fast speed, the odds are very low that the shot would have been a keeper. They typically blink their eyes when turning their head like this.

In Flight

Shooting Data: NIKON D5, TAMRON 150-600mm at 600 mm, 1/60 Second at f/6.3, Manual Mode, -1/3 EV, Auto ISO 220

Okay…here’s a hazard of shooting at slow speeds! I was doing a few streaking snow shots, as seen in the images above, when the Owl spotted, or heard, a vole and flew from the tree top. I didn’t have time to spin the shutter speed dial from 1/60th second to 1/640th second or faster.  I’d prefer to be at 1/1250th second or above for flight shots.  Often, they will “lighten the load” (crap) just before flying, and if I am paying attention, I can dial the shutter speed up quickly—but not this time.

Shooting Data: NIKON D5, TAMRON 150-600mm F5-6.3 VC USD A011N at 600 mm, 1/80 Second at f/10, Manual Mode, -1/3 EV, Auto ISO 720

At 1/80th second, I know I can usually get a photo with a recognizable amount of wind blown snow, yet have a reasonable chance of holding my gear still if I am using a tripod. Of course, that doesn’t stop me from trying a bunch of other settings, but 1/80th second is still a good “go to” setting. Admittedly, you won’t always have the luxury of so many experimental shots as I did with this owl.

Great Gray Owl

Shooting Data: NIKON D5, TAMRON 150-600mm at 550 mm, 1/1250 Second at f/9, Manual Mode, 0 EV, Auto ISO 500

If helps to put a dark background behind a subject when trying to capture snowfall. I chose this photo to help illustrate the issue. If the sky had been white, like the upper left corner, you might never know it was snowing when I took the photo.

Owl in Flight

Shooting Data: NIKON D5, TAMRON 150-600mm at 320 mm, 1/800 Second at f/6.3, Manual Mode, 1 1/3 EV, Auto ISO 2500

If this capture had been against a darker background, many more flakes would have been visible. While the Owl was against the white sky, I adjusted the EV to +1.3. I typically do a test shot while it is perched, then check the image and the histogram to make sure the image is neither terribly underexposed or overexposed. For the flight shots, I change the shutter speed to 1/1000 to 1/1250 second and switch to Continuous Focus mode. This happens to be a good scenario for “Back Button Focus”.

Other Wildlife

Moose October 2010

Shooting Data: NIKON D300, 70.0-200.0 mm f/2.8 at 140 mm, 1/40 Second at f/7.1, Aperture priority Mode, 1 EV,  ISO 400

Photographing other wildlife isn’t much different than the Owls I used in the previous examples. For the long exposures, it helps if the animal doesn’t move.

Red Fox

Shooting Data: NIKON D800, Nikon 200.0-400.0 mm f/4.0 at 400 mm, 1/1250 Second at f/6.3, Manual Mode, 1/3 EV, Auto ISO 360

If the animal is on the move, a faster shutter speed helps freeze its movements, but of course you can also go for artistic motion blur shots.

Mountain Goat

Shooting Data: NIKON D810, Tamron 150.0-600.0 mm f/5.0-6.3 at 550 mm, 1/160 Second at f/6.3, Manual Mode, -2/3 EV, Auto ISO 720

It’s not always easy to find a Mountain Goat on a ridge like this, but when it happens with snow falling, the image can be memorable. Typically, they standy still for long periods, allowing you to try different shutter speeds and settings.

Beaver

Shooting Data: NIKON D810, Tamron 150.0-600.0 mm f/5.0-6.3 at 460 mm, 1/320 Second at f/6.3, Manual Mode, -1/3 EV,  Auto ISO 2500

Fair weather photographers seldom get shots like the ones on this page. When it’s snowing, I like to be out looking for opportunities many people miss. March is usually a good month as the days are usually warm enough, there’s usually a fair amount of snow still around, and storms pass through quickly. The image above was taken in early November as the Beaver families gather food for the upcoming Winter. I included all wildlife on this page, but actually the landscape photos work the same way. Better yet, landscape subjects stay still!

December Bighorns

Shooting Data: NIKON D810, Tamron 150.0-600.0 mm f/5.0-6.3 at 400 mm, 1/800 Second at f/7.1, Manual Mode, 0 EV,  Auto ISO 360

Equipment and Other Considerations

These images were all captured with a Nikon DSLR and a telephoto lens.  I prefer my Nikon D5 for the snow shots (I used a D4 in earlier years) because handles high ISO much better than either my Nikon D500 and Nikon D810. When using Auto ISO on a D5, I don’t think much about the ISO jumping well above ISO 1250. The other two bodies do fairly well, however. The D5 can capture images up to 12/14 frames per second, too! Inside Grand Teton National Park, regulations require at least 25 yards of space between a photographer and any sort of wildlife, and 100 yards for Bears and Wolves. For most wildlife captures, a fairly long telephoto lens is required. Luckily, options for the telephotos are much easier on the pocketbook over the last few years. Check out Sigma’s and Tamron’s 150-600mm lens lineup, along with Nikon’s 200-500mm lens.

All three of my bodies including D5, D500, and D810 include a Group Focus mode. (My earlier D4, D800, and D300 bodies didn’t have Group Focus). While I still like to use Single Servo / Single Point for many of my static subjects, I switch quickly to Continuous Focus if it appears there will be action, and occasionally use Back Button Focus. I’ve found that Group Focus works very well on snow days, but your choices and results my vary. Group Focus seems to more often stay on the subject without locking onto snow flakes in front of it. Group Focus is worth trying if you have it! I still use 9 point Dynamic Focus when not in Group Focus on my D5 (this requires a firmware update).

I recently, made a post about my Tamron 150-600mm G2 lens. Feedback from the post suggests using Vibration Reduction (VR/VC/IS) only when shooting at speeds below 1/500th second, and to get the most out of Vibration Reduction, shutter speeds should be much slower. Additional sources (including lens manuals) say to turn Vibration Reduction OFF when shooting from a tripod.

During periods of snow, I have to constantly remind myself to check the front of the lens. I always use my Lens Hood, which helps, but on windy days, flakes can find their way to the lens. On cold winter days, the last thing I want to do is try to blow the snow off with my breath. It will fog the glass in an instant and it takes a long time to disappear. I usually have a dry lens cloth in my coat pocket. The rule of thumb for winter photography is, “You can go from warm to cold with no problems, but not the other way around”. Glass and sensors will fog up if you have been in the cold for a long time and then return to a warm vehicle or building.

If you study the Shooting Data on the photos, you might notice that almost all of them were taken with a Nikon camera in Manual Mode, but with Auto ISO. This works great on Nikon cameras, allowing the user to adjust EV values as they might in other modes. From what I understand, only a few of Canon’s top end bodies work the same way.

Teton Photo Excursions

If you are planning a trip to Jackson Hole and would be interested in a One-On-One Photography trip into the Tetons, check out Teton Photo Excursions.

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Comments (10)

  1. Dave Obrien

    Very nice job,Mike! The ability to compare shots and see the variations in the settings and their effect was quite beneficial.

  2. Lowell Schechter

    Mike, fantastic images of the animals , especially the owl,in the snowy weather. Bad weather should not deter you from venturing out in bad weather as long as your equipment is protected .

  3. Nancy

    I look forward to viewing your work! We live in NJ but travel out West every chance we get.

  4. Thanks for the tips and lesson on snowfall photography. I hope to use them this fall and who know’s, with the weather the way it is, maybe even this spring.

    Those are some awesome shots of the Great Grey! I keep missing them but I’m going to keep to try to find them.

  5. Kathleen

    Beautiful shots, and helpful info. Thanks!

  6. This is a wonderfully written article, Mike!

    I especially like the Mountain Goat and Bighorn ram images ……….. I hadn’t known that these species could be found in the Tetons.

  7. Hi Tom, Bighorns and Mountain Goats are much harder to see in the summer. They move uphill. Probably fine since they look pretty shaggy for a while.

  8. As usual Mike, great stuff here. Thanks for sharing not only your photos but your knowledge as well.

  9. The Bighorn image looks like the rut, what with all of the rams chasing the one ewe. That sure makes me think that she is in heat……which would mean October or November.
    I’ve seen rutting Bighorns in Yellowstone, and of course I see Bighorns in Yellowstone all year ’round. But I have never been fortunate enough to see them in the Tetons. Great find – I think that is a pretty rare sighting, and you sure did make the most of it with a spectacular behavioral image!

  10. Tom, the few Bighorns in GTNP are supposedly on the north face of Mt. Moran, but not many people would ever be there to see them. If you come to JH, Bighorns are visible almost daily from Thanksgiving thru March on the National Elk Refuge.

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