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[Carl Olsen] on Wildlife Photography on a Budget

Carl Olsen Carl Olsen 175 posts

Susana asked me to write a little about my photography and how I approach it, so I’ll just plunge right in!

I live a little north of Vancouver on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, where I photograph wild birds and mammals almost exclusively. I find most of these creatures on a walk along a pebble/boulder shoreline on southern Georgia Strait (now called the Salish Sea).


I currently use my AF-S Nikkor 70-300mm lens exclusively. I did own a Sigma APO 150-500mm, but the electronics kept failing and I was unimpressed with the resolution, so I returned it.

The Nikkor 70-300mm is a very good lens for the money (less than $600) with excellent resolution throughout its range, though it does suffer from some violet/yellow chromatic aberration (noticeable as a fringe in high-contrast areas) which I can correct in Photoshop. With a maximum aperture of 5.6 at 300mm, the autofocus tends to hunt on dull days. 300mm is less than optimal for wildlife photography (600mm would be the ideal in most circumstances) but it’s all I can afford.

I don’t use a tripod, as I typically creep up on my objective, and the shoreline terrain is very rough. Fortunately the Vibration Reduction system on the Nikkor lens is excellent.

Shooting Mode

Nearly all my shots are taken in the D90’s Sports mode (the running man icon), at ISO 400. This combination more-or-less freezes a bird’s wings in flight. I use continuous shoot in the fast mode and the smaller single-point focus mode, though I plan to experiment with the various Auto-area modes, as this doesn’t work well with a rapidly approaching subject, such as an eagle. I’ve experimented with RAW but found it to be very noisy, so now I shoot in JPEG mode exclusively.

Bald Eagles

I see bald eagles nearly every day, though they’re usually (but not always) perched too high to make photographing them worthwhile. Occasionally, they stand on the rocks, but then they’re too wary for a close approach.

Two years ago I was lucky enough to find an eagle’s nest with a fairly good vantage point. I spent many hours here watching and waiting, and occasionally photographing both parents and their young (one chick last year, two the previous year). I even managed to capture the parents mating. Observing the nest daily, I came to appreciate how dedicated they are to each-other and their young. The most interesting shots are when the eagles are taking off or landing.


One of the problems with shooting bald eagles in bright sunlight is that the white head tends to wash out. On such days I now select (A)perture mode set to 7.1 and the + – to about -1.7. If you open the aperture more than 7.1 (i.e. 5.6), the camera may not be able to shoot fast enough to underexpose the image. Also when you shoot at extremely high speeds any minute deviation from the correct exposure time can have a significant effect.

Evening Visit

This shot was taken in Sports mode but the head is somewhat washed out. It would have been better had I slightly underexposed it as discussed above.

Great Blue Herons

The right foot of the heron I see most is twisted and paralyzed. This means that it can only walk (hop, actually) by flapping its wings. Unfortunate for the poor heron, but it does allow me to get some interesting shots. Typically I’ll see it standing on the shore or on a small rock just in the water. It sees me, but if I move in very slowly (I always wear drab clothes that blend in) it usually lets me approach to about 20 or 30 feet. I’m always ready to shoot it flapping its wings either to walk or to take off. Occasionally after lift-off it will fly just above the water right past me. My dream is to find a heron “rookery”. Maybe next spring.

Got it!

This shows my lame heron friend with a fish. Its wings are outstretched to maintain its balance, adding drama.


These truly amazing birds can be extremely frustrating to photograph. One moment they’re flitting from flower to flower, only to literally zoom away when you make an approach, the next moment they’re dive-bombing you. In short, photographing hummingbirds, particularly in a wild setting, usually requires extreme patience.

In the shot below I’d observed the bird’s habits and noticed that it occasionally fed at a particular currant bush. I hid (sort-of) behind an alder sapling with the sun at my back and waited, wondering if I was too exposed. Apparently not, for in a few minutes it came and fed at the bush not more than six feet away from me. I took about 50 shots in continuous shoot, of which four were sharp enough to withstand considerable cropping. The beautiful Anna’s hummingbird is quite rare along the BC coast (the rufous hummingbird is far more common), so I was very lucky that day.

Little Gem


My favourites, though I only see them occasionally. These are so-called North American river otters that live along the shoreline and catch fish in the sea. Otters are very wary unless they’re eating a fish, which is why most of my otter captures feature a fish. Of course the fish provide interest too, though they can be rather gory!

Dining Table

I’ve photographed otters by slowly approaching them (as above, which I waded out to, shoes, socks and all), but also by hiding behind a rock and hoping the otters will come to shore near me. This has worked out well too on a couple of occasions.

Wanna Fish?

A few months ago I discovered an otters’ den under an abandoned beach house. I managed to get a couple of close-ups of quite distressed otters, (I took them through a broken window) but I felt like I was invading their space, so I vowed not to return.

Sorry, he’s not home.

Columbian Blacktailed Deer

It’s not unusual to see deer on the beach, where they use kelp as salt licks. Often a doe will have a couple of fawns with her. These deer spend much of their time foraging in gardens, so they’re quite acclimatized to people. In the shot below, the doe was just out of camera range. She looked a little anxious, but made no attempt to shoo the fawns away from me. I’ve found on several occasions (as here) that the deer seem to allow a closer approach when I talk quietly to them.

Anything he can do…

Turkey Vultures

These “winsome” birds can be approached quite closely, and don’t generally present any issues when shooting. Indeed, they’re very curious birds, and more than once I’ve had one circle no more than 20 feet overhead. Maybe it has something to do with my advanced age.

Eye of the Beholder

Ugly they may be, but they’re amazingly graceful when soaring in endless spirals overhead or even landing.

Look Out! Here I Come!

Diving Birds

These include goldeneye, buffleheads, scoters, three merganser species, harlequins, two species of grebe and cormorant, and common loons. During the day, the sun is directly in front of me when I face the water, so I generally wait for evening. This can make for interesting lighting, as in the shot below of a juvenile loon (note drab colours and the down under the wings). Waterfowl flap their wings every so often, lifting their body out of the water, so I waited for this loon to do so. That fact that it was almost facing me was an unexpected bonus. It’s times such as this that make up for all the boredom of waiting, the “just missed” shots" etc. which is the lot of any wildlife photographer.

Who’s the Handsome One?

Here’s an “Adult” version.

Loon – Smuggler Cove

Catching a water bird “rampant” like this makes the photo more interesting than if it’s just sitting on the water, yet it’s quite easy to do with a bit of patience.


I use Photoshop with Topaz Adjust, which is a Photoshop add-on. It costs about $50 and it’s worth every penny. If you get Topaz Fusion Express (free), you can use Adjust in Lightroom, Aperture and iPhoto.

Because I only have a 300mm telephoto lens, nearly all my shots are cropped. Before I do so though, I make all the other adjustments. That way, if you save the adjusted uncropped image, it’s available for a recrop if you want. Also, the results tend to be better if you sharpen, etc. on the uncropped image,

I usually isolate the subject for sharpening. After selecting it, I typically feather 3 pixels so there’s no obvious boundary line. Often I’ll tone-map to bring out under-exposed areas, and I’ll denoise and/or lessen the detail, but never enough to noticeably degrade the photo.

Keeping Up Appearances

This photo was extensively tone-mapped in the shadowed areas to bring out the details. I isolated the areas to receive this treatment first, so as to prevent the dreaded “halo effect”. Without tone-mapping this photo would have been a failure, as the shadowed areas were almost completely black. Despite the daunting name, it’s actually easy to do (and abuse) with a bit of practice.

I usually increase the contrast and colour slightly. I don’t use Adjust’s presets as they’re never quite what is needed for a particular photograph, and they’re usually far too extreme. When I’ve made all my changes, I save the image, then crop and save the cropped image, always selecting the highest quality JPEG setting. PNG is another good option because unlike JPEG the image doesn’t degrade with each new save (not “lossy”), but the files are considerably larger than JPEG. Also, if you save on JPEG’s highest quality setting, the loss is undetectable to the naked eye, even after several saves.

Hope you found this informative. Any and all questions are most welcome.


Strolch Strolch 2151 posts

Thank you very much for sharing this great tutorial, it was indeed helpful and informative.

Susana Weber Susana Weber 1441 posts

Carl, you and Gareth have set the bar very high indeed for our future tutorialists!! Thank you so much for such a complete description of your working methods and in-the-field practices! Very entertaining and informative.

Outstanding work!!


Carl Olsen Carl Olsen 175 posts

Thank you very much Meike and Susana!

Drew28 Drew28 73 posts

Thanks Carl very good tutorial really enjoyed it :)

Drew28 Drew28 73 posts

Thanks Carl very good tutorial really enjoyed it :)

Karen  Betts Karen Betts 3322 posts

OH this is just wonderful Carl I have learnt so much about wild life photgraphy from your Tutorial and also about your day as a photographer even wading in the water with shoes and socks still on. Thank you so much for taking the time to share this and procuce it for the D90 members.

Carl Olsen Carl Olsen 175 posts

Thank you Andrew and Karen. So glad you both appreciated it.

Kris Montgomery Kris Montgomery 261 posts

Excellent tutorial Carl, some very good tips there and it’s always nice to get an insight into how another photographer works. I love my Nikkor 70-300, but also find the chromatic aberration to be a problem at times. I’ve tried several recommended methods for removing it, all quite time consuming and not entirely successful. I wonder if sometime you could provide us with an explanation of how you deal with it?