I’ve got Beaver fever! No, not Bieber Fever you shrieking tweens! I’m talking about those elusive creatures that only come out in the twilight. No, not sexy vampires either. Most days, the hour around sunset has been dominated by my documentation of Canada’s nickel coated rodent gift to engineering.
I’ve always enjoyed spending time in Whitemud Ravine in Southwest Edmonton. It’s just a hop and a skip from my home and provides an amazing respite from the daily urban grind. Often I find the trails less traveled and sounds of civilization more muted than nature hot spots like Jasper and Banff. But this fall the draw has been more focused thanks to the frequent sightings of six (by my best count) large rodents.
Beavers have moved in and they’ve provided ample opportunity and challenge for my photography. The opportunity is viewing is easy to get to; just a short walk and several vantage points. The challenge is they’re fairly skittish and only start to be active just as the sun is setting.
Opportunity: Beavers, beavers everywhere!
My new buddy Castor canadensis has decided to stake claim conveniently close to the environment of the only other species on the planet that actively alters its environment. I have to say that given the numbers (six by my count) and lack of opposable thumbs the beavers have definitely earned style points!
I’ve found my jaw slack viewing the wrath of their chewing. What was once densely covered tree and brush area has become clear cut in very short time. I haven’t made count of all the dams I’ve spotted, but there are many elevating the creek along the span between 23rd Avenue and Snow Valley. Trees well over a foot in diameter have been felled, blocking trails, others chomped close to breaking point create potential mayhem for heavy footed hikers.
Challenge: Camera, Lenses and the shrinking sun
*Note. The remainder of this post will be mostly technical so if you have no interest in ISO or F stops feel free to scroll to the bottom to check out the beaver photo gallery!
Having a consistently reliable spot is a great treat for curiosity and practicing photography. Most of my wildlife viewing moments have happened as chance encounters during a hike or at public feeding areas like Hawrelak Park so being able to go to one spot at one time and have a good chance of finding a furry model waiting for a closeup is fantastic. The tricky part is that one time.
Beavers only start to become active just before sunset. The high ISO capabilities of my Nikon 7000 and the focal range and maximum aperture of my lenses have been challenged.
With better light my Rokinon 500mm with 2x adapter would be ideal to focus on the slow moving targets, but at a maximum f8 I’m out of luck when they’re waking up at sunset.
Last spring I picked up a 2nd hand AF Nikkor 70-300mm 1:4-5.6 G lens through ebay and it’s provided me many lovely bird photos that I never would’ve been able to capture with the manual 500mm. For a little over a hundred dollars it’s a great option for the budget conscious shooter looking to get into a telephoto zoom. Despite noticeable chromatic aberration at the 300mm end that becomes increasingly noticeable as the ISO increases the lens served me well through the summer. Then came the beavers.
After initially being excited just to get a good look and a few exposures of the critters, the artsy fartsy part of me quickly became determined to get a better composition and getting that magic moment.
What makes a better composition?
There is a difference between taking a picture and making a picture. Most wildlife photographers will tell you that paying attention to a few key details will make a better composition.
- Viewing angle
- Subject acting naturally
Background: What’s behind your subject is actually more important than the subject itself. Whether it’s a tree branch that appears to be protruding from the head, a horizon line that cuts the animal in half or just a bunch of clutter that makes the shot too busy, very often changing your viewing angle will result in a much better shot. The photo on the left has a generally nice composition, but there is not enough contrast with the background. The shot on the right is in better light and framing the subject against a watery background helps make them pop.
Viewing angle: Being able to view your target at eye level makes a much more personal and intimate connection. This is tricky with a small animal that hangs out at the bottom of a ravine surrounded by cliffs and dense brush. There are only a few spots where you can get down to their level. These two photos are of the same beaver taken a few minutes apart. The shot on the left was taken overlooking the creek. I slowly made my way down to the shore to capture the shot on the right.
Subject acting naturally:This is a big deal and can be the most challenging to get. We’re all familiar with photos of animals looking directly into the camera. It’s because the animal has become aware that a clumsy biped has entered it’s environment. This isn’t natural. Waiting for the animal to get used to you and go back about it’s business will result in a nicer, more natural photograph (generally what you’re looking for in a nature photo!).
There are of course exceptions. Consider these two pictures captured less than a minute apart. I actually prefer the shot with the beaver staring at me. The body position is more dynamic and interesting to look at.
Using video to get a still
Getting an action shot can be tricky at the best of times. Learning to anticipate the moment gets easier the more you observe a subject. While beavers are generally slow moving when compared to a lot of animals one of their key action moments, the tail slap, is difficult to anticipate and capture. The slap itself is a warning to family members that something dangerous is afoot. After spending enough time with them I’m convinced that they also used it as a practical joke. The beaver waits for the photographer to focus attention on one of their buddies then sneak up and “whack”, scare the bejeezus out of you.
At any rate it can be a tricky moment to anticipate. I have dozens of shots featuring the before and after, but never quite got the money shot. Enter the video. Most DSLR cameras come equipped with video mode. My Nikon D7000 can shoot at 1920 x 1080 at 24 fps. While this resolution is limiting for making a large format print, It’s big enough to make a picture for the web or to use as artistic reference.
A good rule of thumb to get good looking video on a DSLR is reducing your shutter speed to between 1/30 and 1/90. This allows motion blur to enter the equation resulting in a more natural looking sequence. If your primary purpose for capturing the video is to obtain crisp still frames, increasing the shutter speed will help, but beware of the trade off; the resulting video will feel choppy and abrupt. For more information about shooting video with a DSLR check out this article I wrote for Studio Post.
These HD video frame captures are my best results so far of capturing the warning tail slap in action.
Just as light was at it’s dimmest, switching the shutter speed at 1/30 and the ISO at h2 I was able to capture Bigfoot like images of emerging from the creek and making their way to thin out the trees in Whitemud Ravine. The combination of low light and distance sent me on a search to determine if I could find a better lens or camera to capture my prey.
My first round of research focused on HD camcorders. I know there are affordable options that feature “night vision”. A quick bit of learning revealed that Sony does the best job of it, but the range is a deal breaker. The cameras use an Infrared light to illuminate a scene that will only register 10 – 20 feet. Experience in daylight tells me that I’m lucky to get that close to the beavers when they’re safe in the water. One option would be to set up a blind and leave the camera overnight, but I’m not willing or fiscally able to take that risk. That left me to explore lens options.
Anyone familiar with high end lenses knows that the costs increases at an exponential rate that my pay grade can’t justify. High end telephoto lenses come in at anywhere from $5000 – $10,000 (and higher). Yikes! Also, for the type of shooting I do I really want the flexibility of a zoom lens. Considerable research narrowed my search to three options that I deemed affordable.
- Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR ($445 – $540)
- Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D VR ($1,450 – $1,600
- Sigma 50-500mm 4.5-6.3 OS HSM ($1,750 – $2,100)
Starting with the notion of you get what you pay for, I focused on the two more expensive options. While they’re, by all accounts, really solid options I found several reviews that noted increasing softness at ranges above 200mm. In fact, more than a couple reviews suggested the 70-300 was a better alternative when balancing price and quality.
A local electronics store had the lens on sale for $445 so I had to take a look. Like most good camera stores I was able to ‘test’ the lens for seven days with the ability to return it no questions asked. Because I already had the older version of the lens I was able to do a good comparison. The difference between the AF-S VR and AF version is huge.
With the AF lens I have to pay pretty strict attention to shutter speed. A general rule is the shutter speed should match the focal length (300mm = 1/300 second) especially when working handheld. As you can imagine this is a great limitation as the sun sets. With the Active VR option I’ve been able to make crisp images at as low as 1/60th. After the first day I had already decided it was a keeper.
Next up, I intend to explore using a tele-converter and working with a flash, but this post is getting pretty long already so I’ll stop for now. In the meantime I hope you enjoy the images I’ve made and feel free to comment or ask me any questions.