Hanging with Goats - Part II
After my previous post last month about hiking up Quandary Peak to photograph mountain goats in the winter, I had quite a few questions and requests about the goats, including requests to see more photographs. So here are a few more thoughts about how to capture stunning photos of mountain goats.
When I photograph an animal that lives in a unique destination, like high above treeline in the alpine tundra of the Rocky Mountains, I focus on taking three types of photos: portraits, interactions and environmental.
For mountain goats, I do this with just one camera body and one lens. The hike is long and rises into high elevations. Carrying a lot of heavy gear just weighs you down and slows you down (or I may need to work on getting in better shape or hiring a sherpa).
If the day is sunny, and expected to stay nice, I bring my Nikon D800 with the Nikon 70-300mm lens. This body allows me to get large files to produce large prints because of its 36 mp resolution. The camera is also quite a bit lighter (2 lb 3 oz) than my other camera bodies. I do not feel, however, that this camera is good in low light. Its amazing resolution provides wonderful detail in the photos but processing is slow to save all those pixels. This makes it a great camera for slower moving animals, like mountain goats that mostly just stand and eat and sleep.
If the weather will get cloudy or start snowing, I will revert to my more typical wildlife camera bodies - the Nikon D4s and D3s, which have faster frames per second rates and better high ISO capabilities for lower light but are a bit heavier.
For hiking the 70-300mm lens is ideal. It is compact, durable and light weight at only 26.3 oz. Although I do not encourage moving in too close to the mountain goats - those horns look way too sharp for me to test the theory that they would hurt - mountain goats don't move very fast nor do they go very far. If anything, the goats may move towards you if you are quiet and still. This lens gives you an ideal range for an animal that tends to not venture too far from you.
1. Portraits: These are the intimate, close-up shots of the animals. The photo should capture a mood, an emotion or the beauty of the animal, just like a portrait would of a person. The best settings are wide open apertures (f4-f7.1 range) to really soften the distant background and provide enough depth in the face to get detail in the eye, nose and mouth. Using your light meter, adjust the shutter speed to allow enough light into the camera for the current conditions. Aperture priority or manual mode works in this situation. And don't forget to check the histogram to make sure you don't blow out the detail in that white coat.
2. Interactions: Mountain goats are beautiful animals with big, furry, white coats, but when it comes to interactions they don't do a whole lot. The winter and spring are probably their two most mellow seasons when they are purely surviving the seasons of cold and snow. This means they will move around to find food, paw at the ground to release lichens and minerals from below the snow, and create shallow depressions in the snow and dirt to use as beds for naps. On occassion you may see a bossy and possessive goat tell another through a little false charge that the feeding area is taken. In the summer, the best interactions come from mother and lamb and between lambs. The lambs, born between mid-May and mid-June, are adorable little balls of white fluffy fur. They make the cutest little cries when seeking out mom and play pretty hard for short periods of time with other lambs. Fall can also be a good season for interaction during the rut season, which lasts November through December. Although not as obvious as the elk bugle or the bighorn ram head butting, the male goats will still make efforts to fend off other male goats that could lead to some interesting interaction shots. A fast shutter speed is priority in this situation to stop the action, so shooting in manual mode or shutter priority would be important. My preference is manual mode to keep the aperture open (f4 to f8) to get nice depth of field while obtaining a fast shutter speed to stop the action. Adjusting the ISO levels can help attain these two settings.
3. Environmental: Lately these have been my favorite photos to capture. This style of photo is a combination of landscape and wildlife, and I think one of the hardest photos to effectively capture. Although it may seem like an easy opportunity to compose the shot with the animal as your focual point and then a scenic background, it really is much more involved. The best environmental shots can almost be a landscape photo on its own; the wildlife in the photo brings life to the scene. And the
rules guidelines for photographing wildlife still apply - avoid butt shots, tack sharp eyes, looking at the camera, etc. Since I love the feeling when I stand on top of a peak and seeing the vast sea of peaks surrounding me, adding a mountain goat to that scene completely evokes the majestic scenery of the Rocky Mountains. Add in some beautiful skies at sunset and you have a pretty sweet shot. Since this is primarily a landscape shot, you will want a large depth of field so stop down the aperture to f11 to f16 to get the detail in the background. I completely shoot in manual mode in this situation because I typically am working on evoking a particular sense of the light and scene. I also play around with the settings and see which I like later in post-processing. Shooting with the 70-300mm lens at 300mm will compress the scene a bit and bring those distant mountains in a little closer. Shooting that shot at f7.1 or f8 may soften those distant backgrounds to give a sense of place while keeping it vague to bring focus to your animal.
As we head into spring and summer, the roads to the high country in Colorado will be opening up access to the alpine tundra of Rocky Mountain National Park, Mt Evans and Pikes Peak. As I always do this time of year, I am counting down the days to when I can spend ALL my days in the high country with the wildlife in the high alpine tundra surrounded by mountain peaks and colorful wildflowers.