I continue to enjoy photography as much as I did when I last posted to this blog back in 2018. However, the way I go about doing my photography has changed dramatically in the last few years. On this post, I will summarize my learning over that time as someone pursuing photography while experiencing the world with a significant visual impairment.
I would estimate that 80-90% of my photos used to be taken with an iPhone. The biggest reason for choosing to shoot with an iPhone is the excellent support for accessibility features that continue to get better with each iteration of iOS. Also, “the best camera is the one you have with you,” and my iPhone is never too far away, ready to capture the moment, even when it’s just my pup Bruno taking a nap.
I still rely on my iPhone (now an iPhone 14 Pro) to take many of my photos, but the pandemic made me want more out of my photography. I’m happy to continue taking candid photos as well as landscapes that benefit from the wide lens of the iPhone, but one thing the iPhone lacks is reach (even with the 3X telephoto lens on my model).
I would look at the wildlife photographers, with their huge lenses, and wish I could do what they were doing. The pandemic gave me the push I needed to not just wish I could do that kind of photography, but to actually make it happen. As someone with a progressive visual impairment, I have always felt a sense of urgency when it comes to experiencing the world with my eyes while I can. It’s complicated. I’m not saying that my experience will be lesser if I completely lose my vision, but let’s be honest for a second, it will be different. And besides my worsening vision, there is the fact that entering my 50s, no aspect of my health is guaranteed – the pandemic was a reminder of that. I want to do more photography while I can still move about with good legs and a good back, not just a serviceable set of eyes.
With those complicated feelings in the background, I set out to take my photography to the next level over the last four years. In this post, I will discuss every aspect of what I’m doing, from the gear that I’m now using to the workflow I use for capturing and editing the photos I share on social media.
Before I get to the details, I want to take a minute to share my gratitude for my partner Cindy. Without her, none of this would be possible. Fortunately for me, she shares my passion for photography and the outdoors and we make a good team. She makes it easier for me to get to the places I want to photograph, and she’s also my spotter. Without her help there is little chance that I would be able to notice some of the wildlife that moves quickly and blends so well with the surroundings when you are out in our wonderful parks where we live. A supportive partner is key, and I’m so grateful to have that.
Ok, now on to the details…
The biggest change I’ve made is in my choice of gear. I still like my Nikon D3100. It’s great for flower photos and portraits, but it doesn’t have the reach or speed I need for any kind of wildlife photography. The reach is important for me for a variety of reasons. One, the Florida wildlife can be unforgiving, and I don’t want to be gator bait. Two, I can’t go to far off road if I want to be safe – I just can’t see tree roots and other obstacles. so it’s best that I stay on the trail or boardwalk if one is available and use the long reach of a telephoto lens to capture the wildlife from a safe distance
Although it was a big expense, the first thing I did during the pandemic was not take up gardening or learn how to make sourdough bread. No, I purchased my first full frame camera and a long telephoto lens. My current setup consists of:
- Sony A7 III camera body
- Sigma 100-400 f 5/6.3 DG DN Contemporary for E-mount (my “light” lens)
- Sigma 150-600 f 5/6.3 DG DN Sports for E-mount (my “not so light” lens)
- Sony 50mm f 1.8 – the “nifty fifty” budget lens (plastic fantastic) for the occasional photo of people. I’ve only used it once, but it was a good use: I took my daughter’s college graduation photos with this lens, and they turned out aight.
It was quite an investment to put together this kit, but I can say without any doubt that it was worth it!
The A7 III has a number of features that make it ideal for me:
- Amazing auto-focus: my old DSLR only had a few focus points, but the Sony A7III has almost 700! It also has face and eye detection, and the latter can be set to find eyes of animals. It’s not perfect, but for larger birds (which are easier for me to photograph anyway) it works well enough and I need all the help I can get when it comes to focusing.
- Burst rate of 10 fps (frames per second). This is important because I often don’t really “see” what I’m photographing. It’s challenging enough to capture a fast moving bird even if you have good eyesight, even more challenging when you can’t track it due to your visual impairment.
- 24 megapixels. This is key because I often have to shoot a little wider than I would like to in order to make sure I don’t cut off an essential element of the wildlife and its surrounding environment. With more megapixels and a full frame sensor, I can do some serious cropping and still retain pretty good image quality. I already did this quite a bit with the iPhone, but with the full frame camera I have even more leeway in what I can do in post processing to “make the image.”
Not long after I purchased the new camera, Sony released a new model, the A7IV and guess what? – that camera has a screen reader! How helpful would that be! I could sell my current camera and upgrade (which is a pain because you lose so much money). It would be nice if Sony would just add the screen reader functionality with a firmware update for the older camera. Not holding my breath on that one (and there may be technical reasons why it’s not possible).
If anyone from Sony is reading this, please reach out – I have some suggestions for how to make the experience better for people with low vision, starting with adding an option for changing the colors and the thickness of some of the visual indicators. If I can spend less time making out what my camera is trying to tell me, that’s more time I can spend shooting.
As for the lens, the 100-400 Sigma lens was a definite improvement over my older setup, but once I experienced the clear photos I was getting from my new camera and lens combo, I was hooked! I needed more! That brings me to my latest toy – the beast! I’ve nicknamed my Sigma 150-600 that because it weights almost five pounds. Walking around with it for a few hours provides all the exercise I need on the weekends. I balance it all on an iFootage Cobra carbon fiber monopod. I use a monopod because it allows me to be fairly agile with the big lens. I carry everything on a PGYTECH OneMo Camera Backpack 25L. I like that it came with a separate shoulder bag I can use when I just want to take the 100-400mm lens for a lighter set up.
I just added a Wimberley MH-100 mono gimbal head to my kit to make it easier to pan up when I want to shoot birds that are perched high on the trees, or follow a bird in flight (that last one is a real stretch for me, but a man can dream).
As for settings, during pandemic I finally mustered the courage to take the camera out of the automatic modes. Inspired by a webinar from Matt Kloskowski I found through a Facebook link (glad I clicked on that one), I shoot in manual – ok, manual -ish. Let me explain:
- Aperture is set to the lowest F number my lens will allow when it is at its maximum reach of 600mm. I never change this setting because long telephoto lenses like the one I use need all the light they can get.
- ISO – this is set to auto so that I don’t have to worry about it as I go through changing light conditions while out in the field. I let the camera do its thing when it comes to this setting.
- Shutter speed – this is the one setting I play with. I typically follow the rule of using a shutter speed that is at least the length of the lens (1/800 for my lens for most slow moving birds such as herons and egrets).
It’s manual-ish because I’m only really controlling one variable, leaving one set at the same value most of the time, and letting the camera handle the third one that makes the exposure triangle. Exposure is the area where I have lots of room for growth.
For the focusing, I shoot continuous (don’t think I’ve ever changed this setting since I got the camera), with the drive mode set to burst high to take multiple shots each time I press the shutter. My focus mode is often expand flexible spot and I have the focus point indicator set just above center because I have a hard time seeing it out in the field. I used to do back button focus (where you focus with one button and take the photo with another) but I now keep things simple by using the shutter button for both focusing and taking the photo.
Another great tip from Matt Kloskowski (a fellow Tampanian by the way) – get low! How low? As low as you can go.
You get beautiful bokeh (the dreamy, out of focus background) by increasing the distance between your subject and the background. Combined with the long telephoto lens, this will obliterate the background so that it can’t be made out and distract from your subject. If you can’t get low due to bad knees, here’s a trick: use a tripod camping chair. I do this a lot, especially if the ground is sketchy (I’ve gotten bitten by random bugs a few times, no fun). Another trick I’ll often use is to hold the camera low and use my LCD screen flipped up so that I’m looking down on it while I hold the camera in place with the monopod. It works if it’s not too sunny out, especially when shooting shore birds like sandpipers and plovers. The LCD screen on the A7 III is actually pretty good in terms of brightness and I find that sometimes it helps me to use the LCD screen to find the object I want to capture. I’ll move the screen around a bit until I see a change in light on the LCD – not sure how to explain it well, but it works for me.
Any kind of photography I do, whether with an iPhone or a traditional camera, is only made possible by digital media. A typical outing for me involves taking around 500 photos. Of those, i may choose 4-5 that are in focus and where I did not completely swing and miss with the composition and cut something off. It’s a numbers game for me. Now imagine going to the local CVS and trying to develop 500 photos at a time. That would be an even more expensive hobby and likely not possible for me to sustain. With digital, pixels are somewhat free (cost of the camera and lenses aside). I can take as many shots as I need and play the numbers game like a really bad hitter in baseball if you go by average number of keepers.
The first step in my process is to move the photos from my camera to a mobile device with a better screen where I can pinch and zoom to check focus. It used to be an iPhone, but these days it’s also an iPad Air.
I will perform most of my basic edits in the stock Photos app: cropping, strengthening, highlights/shadows, etc. At this point, I’ll mark the five or so photos I want to work some more on (the “keepers”) as favorites. I will transfer those to my computer over Airdrop.
On the computer, the only thing I do on each photo is run it through Topaz Denoise AI to remove some of the noise (grain). That software is like magic! Another Matt Kloskowski recommendation that panned out really well.
The last step is to share the photo on Facebook and Vero (no more Instagram for me – it’s too much like Tik Tok now). And that’s how 500 photos become 5 or 6. It’s not pretty, and it takes time, but I really enjoy the entire process (ok, maybe not the file management part – I’m now constantly playing a game with my iPhone and iPad to clear up space for more photos).
The gear, the settings, that’s only part of what goes into taking decent wildlife photos. The other part involves research. I spend a lot of time on the eBird app checking out what other birders have spotted in the area. I also follow a number of groups on Facebook for specific areas (Friends of Fort De Soto) or types of wildlife (mostly local birding groups). That helps me narrow down where I go on a given outing in hopes of increasing my chances of capturing a bird on my life list. If you’re curious, they are:
- Barred owl – my nemesis…lol..I’ve spent more hours on this one than any other. The closest I’ve gotten is hearing the call a few times but with no luck in finding the actual birds in the woods.
- Belted kingfisher – this one will be tough. It’s a really small and fast bird that feeds by taking quick dives into the water.
- Merlin (a small falcon) – I found the kestrel, I’m pretty confident I will find this one too at Fort De Soto.
- Cooper’s hawk – each time I’ve thought I had this bird it turned out to be a different type of hawk (broad shouldered or red shouldered).
- Red tailed hawk – I see lots of red shouldered ones, but not this one)
One bird that’s missing from the list now: the bald eagle! I found a nest and finally got to see one in the wild, not at a zoo or rescue. The nest is on a cell phone tower that is well out of reach so the photos I got are a little blurry, possibly due to the heat coming off the water.
The other app I use is Merlin (like the falcon). It has really nice descriptions of each species along with all of their calls. Merlin also has an excellent AI-based feature that allows you to upload a photo and get an ID almost immediately with 90% accuracy. This helps me provide better descriptions when I share the photo online.
While out in the field, I will also use the app’s audio recognition feature to identify potential subjects. With many birds, such as owls, you are more likely to hear them before you see them (especially in my case). I can’t recommend these two free apps enough. They are an essential part of my kit, just like my camera and lenses.
In the end, you really have to like what you’re doing if you choose to do wildlife photography, because it takes a lot of patience. There’s lots of waiting involved.
Then just when you’re getting ready to go home, a bird you’ve never seen before shows up and you almost miss the shot. It’s a lot like fishing, and just as expensive.
But the waiting also makes wildlife photography such a great activity for mental health. When taking the photos, you can’t rush. You have to not only settle in and wait until you get the bird (or other wildlife) to show its best side, but when you take the photo, you have to slow your breath and really focus so that you don’t introduce unnecessary shake that can result in a blurry photo. You have to be present and forget about everything that’s worrying you in that moment. That, along with the fact that it gets you out in nature where you can enjoy some sunlight and fresh air, makes it a great activity for addressing stress.
I think that covers everything I want to share in this post. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions (@eyeonaxs on Twitter).
Update: I just found out I can share my entire Vero gallery outside the app. I have also reached out to the Vero team to inquire about alternative text and how we can make that app more accessible. I have been using the comments to identify each bird as I post, but alternative text (along with the comments) is the ideal solution. I’ll update this post based on what I hear back from them.