A bull elk we encountered on our trip early one morning.
Every year my wife and I try and do at least one trip dedicated to photography. These can be short weekend trips, backpacking treks, or week long vacations. This year we decided to focus on some wildlife photography and I’ve always wanted to see the elk rut. Once a year the elk go from subdued flighty and hard to find, to gathering in large numbers, aggressive and out and about. Typically when people think of elk they think of Yellowstone, Montana or the Rocky Mountains. This is where I started looking as well, but the timing and expense made it less than ideal. Enter the little known but growing PA elk herd.
Before colonization of the US by Europeans, the Eastern Elk ranged from New York to Georgia in large numbers. Referred to by the Native Americans as wapitis, or literally translated “white rumps”, these elk were ubiquitous to the woods of PA. However unregulated hunting, cutting of forests and the influx of settlers decimated the eastern elk until it was driven to extinction in 1877. In 1913 the PA game commission decided to reintroduce a different species of elk into PA by importing them from Yellowstone. With very little scientific research, and no real plan, the initial 50 elk did not exactly thrive. They imported more elk over the next few decades with varying success, but farmers illegally killing elk kept them from becoming successful. It wasn’t until the early 90’s that the herd began to thrive. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation donated a substantial amount of money to reclaim strip mined lands and help fence in private lands to prevent crop damage and illegal kills. With the herd growing the game commission was able to hold a lottery style hunt, raising substantial funds to further the elk conservation effort. Today the elk herd is spread out over 800 square miles and numbers over 1000 elk. Between the lottery for hunting licenses and tourism income the elk conservation effort is currently thriving and the elk can be found all over northern PA, particularly in Elk County. A much more detailed history can be found over at the PA State Website.
The thriving PA elk herd is a site to behold. These majestic animals used to roam this area in large numbers, and thanks to conversation efforts they are starting to once again.
After learning of this elk herd and how close by it was, the trip planning began in earnest. If there is one thing I have learned in my journey in photography it is that planning is key to getting the shots you want. Knowing when and where to be at what times ensures you the best opportunity to get the shot you want. You may get lucky once in a blue moon and stumble into the perfect photographic opportunity, but you will find much more success with foreknowledge of when and where you should be. I typically spend a minimum of 10 hours of research on a location for each day I plan on being there. This includes reading other blog posts on the area, determining what equipment I will need to take, knowing the best locations to be, and when to be there. It also includes knowing more subtle details like that current phase of the moon (for photographing the stars in the area or knowing when the animals will be more active at night), which side of a hill to be on for the correct positioning of the sun, and exactly what time the sun will rise/set over a given hill of a certain elevation. In the future I will do a much more detailed post on trip planning in general, but for now I will say that properly planning the trip ahead of time ensures I can get the best shots I can on a given trip.
No amount of planning can beat actually being there and getting to know the area intimately. Professional photographers sometimes spend up to a year at a location to get the shots you see in National Geographic and similar publications. Unfortunately I can rarely spend more than a week at a location and with so much to see only nearby locations can be visited multiple times. For this reason, planning is even more important to make the most of the time I do have in an area.
Knowing where to be and at what time helps to ensure the best possible shot. The evening light is only ideal for about 30 minutes each night.
With the trip all planned out to hit in the middle of the fall rut, multiple hotspots and advice from other photographers given, and my equipment at the ready we embarked out to Benezette, PA where the Elk County Visitor Center and Winslow Hill viewing area are located. We arrived early evening Thursday night, hoping to beat the weekend day trip rush and get a lay of the land. We were getting there less than an hour before sunset so I didn’t have very high expectations on our elk viewing prospects for that night, but turns out we got there at just the right time. After scouting the Winslow Hill viewing area and joining the small group of people waiting to see elk we were pleasantly surprised to hear the bull elk bugling from nearly all directions. About 5 minutes after sunset a large bull elk emerged from the woods about 50 yards away from us. The light was too low at this point to get any portrait shots, but with the beautiful pink sky I switched to trying to position myself between the elk and the sky. With multiple hills and nearby cars and a few power lines this proved to be quite the task, but I was eventually rewarded with the shot below.
Sunset can be a rewarding time. This massive bull came out too late for any detailed shots, but the pink sky and the soft light made for a perfect backdrop in this silhouette.
The rest of this trip will be continued in part 2, stay tuned!
A few of the most common things I hear when posting my pictures or talking about my photography is one of two things. The first is usually along the lines of, wow those pictures are great, you must have a really good camera. The fact is that I started taking pictures with a $60 point and shoot, and my current camera was a used 2 year old discount model that cost me <$300. This ties into the second question I get a lot, which is what camera should I buy if I want to get into photography? If you ask that question to 100 different people you will probably get told 100 different answers. The answer I think is the most useful in the end is to get the camera you will take pictures with. Sure you can get a $5000 camera that weights 12 lbs and is capable of taking any picture you could possibly imagine, but if you don’t know how to use it, if you are scared it will break and don’t take it, or if you think it is too heavy and leave it behind, then what good is it? Buy the camera you will actually use!
That’s great you say, but it doesn’t help me pick out which one I should get from the hundreds of options before me. In order to narrow down what camera you will use the most, and therefore which one you should actually buy, you should ask yourself a few basic questions first. What exactly do you plan one taking pictures of? Do you want something to take with you everywhere or for specific outings? Will you focus on photos or videos? Is this going to be a passing hobby you do once a month or something you want to get out and do every day? And of course the thing on peoples’ minds the most, what is your budget? In order to figure out what camera best suits your needs it is first best to understand what your options are and how they differ.
A camera system is made up of a few important parts. The camera itself is essentially a sensor, an auto-focus module, a viewfinder, and a shutter. These are the things you are paying for when you buy a camera and we will take a look at each one of these briefly, but much more in depth in later posts if you are interested. However when picking your camera I would say the camera itself is not the most important part. Yep you heard that right the most important part of buying a camera for photography is not the camera. The biggest difference between shooting pictures on your cell phone and shooting that award winning once in a lifetime shot is the glass you purchase. You can have the most expensive camera on the market, but if you put a terrible lens on it you will get an ok photo at best. The most important part of buying a camera is to see what lens system you are buying into. Thankfully with our modern consumer society and tough competition every major brand has a full lineup of capable lenses that can build a great system. Canon and Nikon have the most diverse and numerous lenses, with canon having just recently passed the 110 million lenses produced mark. However in recent years Sony and Olympus have really stepped up their game and started making better quality and a wider variety of lenses as well.
Additionally, with the modern capabilities of mass production even the basic kit lenses that come with introductory cameras are high quality and capable of producing excellent images, so don’t feel like you need to go out and buy a $1000 lens right off the bat. It will be more important to learn the basics of photography before investing significant money into a system. I mention all of this as it is something to keep in mind when deciding on a system. If you start buying a camera from Nikon and then buy a few lenses then decide to buy the newest Sony camera, well now all your lenses are useless with your new camera. This is one of the reasons you see such aggressive brand loyalty in photographers. They’ve sometimes spent $10,000+ on lenses for one brand and they will defend that investment with everything they’ve got since switching isn’t really a viable option at that point. If you run across what I call brand Nazi’s don’t pay them much mind, every camera system on the market is capable of producing award winning photographs, it is the person behind the camera that matters the most, not what brand you shoot with.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way we will take a look at cameras themselves. Currently there are three categories of cameras that I would recommend for aspiring photographers. The first and most economic option are large sensor bridge cameras. These cameras, such as the Sony RX10 III offer larger sensors than point and shoot cameras, full manual control and a very large zoom range. These are great for people just starting out as they don’t require the purchase of any lenses; they are a highly capable sensor and are generally smaller than DSLR’s. The downside is that the sensor is smaller than that of a DSLR and thus the image quality is slightly lower and the lens is not interchangeable so it cannot be upgraded or swapped out for more specific purposes. If you are looking for a good all around travel camera without having to invest heavily into lenses then I would look no further.
The second category is mirrorless cameras. These are the modern version of DSLR’s, sporting the same sensor size as a DSLR, but forgoing the mirror/prism used for a viewfinder in favor of an electronic viewfinder that uses the sensor. The advantage of mirrorless cameras is that they are smaller and lighter than your standard DSLR, and can focus more accurately since they focus directly on the sensor instead of a separate auto focus module. Additionally since there is no mirror/prism to get in the way the lenses can sit closer to the sensor itself cutting down on the size of the lenses needed to produce the same field of view. This further cuts down on the size of your system by having a smaller camera as well as smaller lenses. These cameras will be larger than bridge cameras in general but give you full control over what lenses you buy and use. The downside of mirror less camera systems is that they use an electronic viewfinder which reads directly from the sensor. This means that instead of viewing the scene directly you are viewing it as the camera sees it on a small display inside the viewfinder. Modern technology has advanced these screens to be very similar to what we see in real life, but for fast moving scenes or scenes with a large range of light they are still lagging behind. The autofocus system of focusing directly on the camera is also much slower than having a dedicated autofocus module, though technology is slowly closing that gap. Additionally they drain the battery since they have to actively light the viewfinder instead of passively collecting light. However these concerns are minor for the size and weight savings you can achieve. It should be noted that only Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, and Fuji have really invested heavily into these systems with the Sony A7 series, the Olympus micro 4/3’s, the Panasonic Lumix series, and the Fuji X series. Nikon and Canon have promised to develop this technology further but currently they are focused on their lenses and DSLR systems.
The final and most traditional choice is a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera. When you think of a “professional” camera this is probably the camera you picture. These cameras have a mirror or prism in front of the sensor to direct light partially to your viewfinder and partially to your autofocus module. You see directly through the viewfinder what you are capturing and the dedicated autofocus module provides fast and accurate lens focusing. When you go to take a picture the mirror/prism flips up out of the way and the light goes directly to the sensor, exposing your picture. Like mirrorless cameras these systems have large sensors of two variants, either APS-C or Full Frame. We won’t go over the details of those for now, but for a starter camera you will want to get an APS-C sensor which is what all introductory models are. Since you have a dedicated AF module and view the scene directly with available light the camera only uses power to focus the lens and take the picture. This means you generally get very long battery life as compared to other systems. It is not uncommon to get 1000+ pictures out of one charge. Since these are the most popular and well established systems they are also the cheapest to get in introductory models. If you buy the previous year’s model it is not uncommon to be able to get the camera with two lenses for under $600.
So which of these systems should you buy? Well if you are just getting into photography and not sure it is something you will do regularly, or if you just want a good all around camera without too much fuss then go for the bridge cameras. They are capable, reliable and easy to use. If you know you like photography and want to get into it more regularly or take your current skills to the next level then go for either a mirrorless or DSLR. DSLR’s are more well established and better for people with larger hands, while mirrorless are good for people who want a more discrete system or something more compact for on the go.
As for specific models I will recommend a few that I know are reliable from each category as well as a link (click on camera name) to a review. In the DSLR category I will recommend two starter cameras, one from Nikon and one from Canon. From Nikon the D7100 is probably the best introductory camera on the market. It offers impressive specs and performance and a reasonable price. If you are looking for something cheaper, the previous model, the D7000 is also a good option. On the canon side of things their T lineup is also great. I personally shoot with a T3i, but the latest model is the T6s which offers some much more impressive specs. Again if you are looking for a cheaper option look for deals on older models such as the T5i.
On the mirror less side there are a number of options, a few of which are the Fuji X-T10 , the Olympus E-M10 II, the Sony A6300, or the Panasonic GX80. All of these are capable with minor differences, and you really can’t go wrong with any of them for a starter camera.
Finally we get to the bridge cameras, which are almost too numerous to count. I have not personally shot with any of these, so I will not give you my uninformed review. I will instead direct you over to tech radar that reviewed many of these cameras and picked out their top 10 for 2016 here: http://www.techradar.com/us/news/photography-video-capture/cameras/best-bridge-camera-1259503.
Well that concludes this rather long post. I hope you are one step closer to picking out the camera of your dreams and going out to take pictures. Just remember, pick the camera you will take with you!