Michelle Valberg is the founder of Valberg Imaging, Ottawa, a Canadian Nikon Ambassador, and an award-winning Canadian photographer. Renowned for her soulful portraiture, majestic wildlife, and stunning landscapes, Michelle recently published her third book, Arctic Kaleidoscope: The People, Wildlife and Ever-Changing Landscape. This article first appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of PhotoNews Canada.
The snow moved across the earth, swirling like a tempest around me. The wind was lashing at 40 kilometers an hour, making the already frigid -20C temperature feel more like -30C. I had my sight set on a snowy owl perched nobly on a fence post. He turned his intense yellow glare towards me. The swirling snow made focusing almost impossible. I had on my field scope and adapter (digiscoping) so bringing him into focus was difficult, especially with manual focus at 1200mm. I had been out there for nearly three hours, but I was determined to get that image I had always wanted – a snowy owl amidst falling snow – and I wasn’t going to leave without getting the shot. My patience paid off. After firing off as many images as I could of the owl staring at me and turning his head in every direction, a small movement far off in the field caught his eye… he opened his magnificent wings and swooped in for the kill. I followed him and got the flight shot in falling snow.
It could have been an Arctic scene - it certainly felt like it - but I was just five minutes from my home in Ottawa. As a result of an eruption of snowy owls around Ottawa this year (which rarely happens), photographing them has become my obsession. They were so close to my home, I could go out at different times of the day and in a variety of weather conditions – it was ideal. Once I found the owls, all I had to do was find the time to spend with them!
That is the great thing about wildlife photography. You don’t have to travel to the Arctic, Africa or any other exotic location to get great wildlife images. Whether you are in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, at the Toronto spit, or in your own backyard or at the cottage, wildlife can be found. I enjoy focusing on the smaller creatures like birds, coyotes, foxes and even squirrels - they are just as much fun to photograph as the big game. Turning your lens toward these rather accessible creatures can help you sharpen your wildlife photography skills. After all, small game is not necessarily easy to photograph! In an era when we are inundated with digital images from all around the world, I think that too many people tend to look past their own environment – even in your own backyard, there are places that can offer ample opportunities to capture native Canadian wildlife at its best.
Choosing the right equipment is crucial for wildlife photography. Many of my friends think I am crazy, but I frequently carry two cameras - a Nikon D4 and a Nikon D800E. I like to have a long and short lens option for each camera. When photographing animals, my favorite go-to lens is the Nikkor 200-400mm because of its versatility - and most of the time I can hand-hold it. Cameras like the Nikon D4, the new DF or D610 have such great ISO capabilities; you can use a higher ISO and not get much noise, which allows you to set a faster shutter speed than you could with earlier models. This can be especially helpful if you don’t have a tripod and you have to hand-hold that long lens. I also love to shoot with a 600mm lens which keeps me at a respectful and safe distance from the larger and more carnivorous critters, like polar bears. Last year in Wapusk National Park, we spotted a mother polar bear with two cubs close to their den. She was feeding the cubs when we found them, so our guide kept us at a respectful distance. I wanted more than 600mm so I put on a 2x extender. After an hour of shooting this beautiful scene, Momma bear decided she was curious and began to approach us. Never did I imagine that I would have too much lens. They came within 100 feet and she filled the frame. It became difficult to get the cubs in the same shot, so I quickly switched to my second camera and the 200-400mm lens. Having two cameras in this situation made all the difference. You never know when you might want that lens option and timing doesn’t allow you to do a lens change. Carrying two cameras can be challenging and hard on your neck, but in most cases, it is well worth the effort.
When shooting around urban or rural environments, being mobile and agile can be helpful. Whether I am out for a walk in the forest or enjoying a day kayaking at the lake, I like to take an 80-400mm Nikkor zoom lens, which is a little easier to carry and handle than the 600mm telephoto. I also make sure that I have loads of memory cards and spare batteries. In freezing conditions, I keep my batteries close to my body to extend their power. In cold winter conditions, it is always a good idea to keep a lens cloth on hand - I keep a few in different pockets to take care of tearing eyes and fogging lenses.
Using your senses with wildlife photography is critical. Being aware of movement, smell or listening for sounds like the tone of frogs deep burrupping, birds caw-caw-cawing or how the wind shifts can help you find the animal you are looking for - or a surprise visitor to the scene. Last winter on Amherst Island I was with renowned Canadian bird guide Bruce DiLabio, and we were searching for owls. Bruce had spotted a doglike figure loping, tongue out, across the landscape. “Michelle,” he said, “I think that’s a coyote.” I jumped out of the vehicle with my camera and 200-400mm lens in hand and I was able to grab a few quick shots of a magnificent coyote fleeing from farmers and dogs chasing him away from their sheep. He was unexpected and a wonderful surprise to photograph. My lesson - be in the moment and follow your instinct.
By noticing the small things in the environment, becoming familiar with and watching animal behavior and doing research to determine where they can be found, even an urban nature trail can provide countless photo opportunities. Whether you get up early to capture a blue heron feeding at sunrise, go out to photograph horses in the snow, or capture a bird in flight at sundown, nature and wildlife provides us with many wonderful photographic experiences. Not only does the interaction with nature produce magnificent images, it is good for the soul.
Header photo - (C) Michelle Valberg - Polar Bears in Wapusk National Park, Manitoba. Nikon D4, 600mm lens, 1/3200 second at f/11, ISO 400.