Enjoy a Local Photo Walk – Part 1

Looking for a fun and safe way to spend time outdoors with your camera during the COVID-19 pandemic? How about finding a local spot for a short “nature walk?” 

We of course highly encourage and fully participate ourselves in our state and local public health and safety ordinances, so we only recommend this for areas where limited outdoor exercise at a safe distance from others is still permitted, like here in the Sacramento area. 

To stay as safe as possible and to keep others safe, we recommend finding a trail or local spot with plenty of space which isn’t too far from home. Avoid narrow trails where maintaining 6+ feet of personal space may prove difficult, and please don’t travel outside of your local area for recreational hiking or camping. Many popular outdoor destinations are relatively remote and their limited resources need to remain available to support local communities. I personally found a short, half-mile loop trail around a neighborhood drainage reservoir about 1.5 miles from my front door. 

One of the things I love the most about this type of photography exercise is that it brings you right back to the basics. Walking around this local pond reminded me of how useful it can be as a photographer to just stop and look around. No expectations, no pressure; just me, my camera, and my morning coffee. 

Before I began to shoot, I walked around the trail and observed the birds, the flowers, and the light. After my walk, I found a little patch of grass at the edge of the pond and sat with my coffee just being present in the moment and letting the scene capture my full attention.

It was early morning, and the sun had just peeked over the horizon. The air was quite crisp and there was a slight breeze as the sun continued to rise behind me. The light changed rapidly over the next hour, and it was interesting to observe how the changing light affected the scene. Egrets, geese, red-winged blackbirds, swallows, and even an Anna’s hummingbird showed up. As the golden light displaced the blue shadows, both the birds and the trees took on a different look with each passing moment.

When I was ready to begin shooting, I picked up my Nikon D850 equipped with the Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 lens (note: the camera modes I reference in this post are specific to Nikon but most other camera manufacturers offer analogous settings/options). I had a few photography goals in mind after having spent 20 minutes or so just observing. I really liked the golden-backlit cattails, the purple wildflowers nearby, and of course, the egrets that had been flying about all morning. 

I set up for bird photography by changing my camera mode to aperture priority (f/2.8 and ISO 800 to start), switching to autofocus-continuous (AF-C) mode, 3D autofocus tracking, and high-speed burst mode. It’s also worth noting that I always shoot with back-button focus enabled. Then, I took aim and fired away. For the next 40-45 minutes as I focused on the birds, I lost track of all of the other stuff going on in the world—namely the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ll tell you, it was very nice to both literally and figuratively take a big breath of fresh air.

I noticed almost right away that because of the nearby neighborhood, street, and jogging trail that I was ultimately going to have some “artifacts”— signs, paved surfaces, buildings—in many of my shots. I took it as an opportunity to try to minimize these distractions in-camera by keeping them out of my compositions, but also where necessary to practice post-production techniques for removing them from the image later if need be.

It was also great fun to practice targeting birds. When shooting birds I find that it’s difficult to select an autofocus mode that works well in all cases. I invariably end up switching between 3D and all-point (auto) autofocus tracking, and sometimes even switch to single-point or group mode and try my best to keep the autofocus selector on the bird’s head. Don’t be discouraged if autofocus tracking loses your subject in many of your images. Just keep at it. Also be mindful that when shooting birds, you should keep your shutter speed up over 1/1000 second so that motion of the bird or the lens doesn’t blur your image. I shot over 500 frames in the time that I was targeting the birds, but only came away with a few that I really liked.

In summary, a short excursion to a local trail might provide just the remedy to all this sheltering-in-place. You can give your body some much-needed exercise while also practicing your photography. Who knows, you might even walk away with a few shots you really love. Plus, as long as you stick to all your local health and safety ordinances, you can enjoy the experience without endangering yourself or others. 

Stay safe, and remember to keep feeding your passion!