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Nature Watch: How to Snap Great Photos in Winter

Winter is a great time to hone your photography skills. Low sunlight tends to warm your pictures. Cold air is especially clear. Really, really cold air often contains ice crystals that make light diffract, bringing even more brilliant colors to the images you capture.

Birds are a good subject to start with because they congregate around food sources or open water where they’re easy to find. They are focused on survival so, if you remain quiet and wait, they will provide you with great images. Here are some tips for you to try:

Start in your own yard or neighborhood where you have time to watch how the light hits trees and where birds habitually feed or sun themselves during the day. That’s how I got the shot of the sharp-shinned hawk that leads this column. The tree stands by my son’s school in Somers, and I knew it was a perfect spot for a hawk to warm itself in the early morning sun. And sure enough, one showed up.

In winter, birds puff up their feathers in the sunlight to allow them to warm the air next to their body. The crisp clean light of the morning lets you capture incredible details. On the hawk, you can see each tawny feather on the breast. In the photo of the tree sparrow, to the side, you can see the incredible overlays of feathers that allow the bird to survive cold winter nights on a tree limb.

A lot of people tell me they have bought an expensive camera and they have yet to move the dial from auto aperture settings.  Don’t be scared to experiment. There are great books and websites explaining light and exposure settings. What I do at a site is take a few test photos in auto mode and look at what the camera is choosing for F-stop and aperture speed. From there, I decide if a want to make changes.

For motion shots, I might switch the camera to manual while retaining the automatic light and exposure settings the camera chose. I’ll then use my multi-image-shot option. All I have to do is hold down the shutter button and the camera keeps on taking shots.

To get the great motion shot, try to learn the cues birds give. Once you know what to look for, you can be ready to capture it. A good way to practice is on waterfowl. Every town has one pond or lake where you will find them. Pick a close-in bird and wait till it finishes bathing or preening. Most often, it will then rise up and open its wings to shake water off. That’s how I got the shot of the scaup at Rye Playland. Keep the frame open wide so you don’t accidentally crop the wings.

Courting ducks perform wonderfully for the camera. The male northern shovelers you see in the photos at the side are competing for a female’s attention. So is the redhead, caught performing its odd backward (and apparently sexy) head-throw. Once you notice the cues, aim the camera’s central autofocus point on the bird’s head or neck, keep your finger on the shutter button, stay with the bird while looking through the viewfinder and be patient.  The second the action starts, press the shutter and get as many shots as you want. With digital imagery, you have the luxury of quickly deciding which to keep and which to delete later in the day.

The next trick to getting great shots is to know the wind direction. Birds prefer to take off and land into the wind, so knowing which way the wind is blowing will allow you to get more shots of birds coming in head-on like these snow geese I photographed at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge just a short drive south in Queens, N.Y.

Also important, to catch the most detail in your shot, is to keep the sun to your back, behind the camera. That, plus the light diffracting in the icy air, gave me the bright shot of the bald eagle over the Hudson River. Once you get more experienced and want to be creative, go for silhouettes and other more artistic work.

You can get wonderful photographs, whether you are shooting with a smartphone or a $5,000 camera. All the major companies offer great selections and various price points. I use a Cannon D7 because it is amazingly fast. Also, it crops the image, which has the effect of bringing the subject closer. I use a 100mm to 300mm Cannon EF lens, which is fast on focus and does not need a tripod, so I can catch the bird or animal in motion.  Once again, the web has thousands of non-partisan reviews of equipment so I’ll leave this topic for another time.

In this mild winter, seize the day and get out and enjoy all that nature has to offer with your camera on your shoulder. You’ll be surprised at what you can capture. For me, I hope images of the diversity of wildlife that exists in our area inspire people to protect and respect it.

John Hannan is director of development for Audubon Connecticut and can be reached at jhannan@audubon.org.

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