Archives For photography

Jewels of the Air

Carol Freeman —  June 17, 2013 — 4 Comments

Hummingbirds zip here and there so quickly that I’m not always sure if I see what I think I see. Often, I hear the low buzz of their wings before I actually see them. Zip, zip, zip, there they go. Can I focus in time? Is my shutter speed fast enough? These are just a few of the challenges of photographing these beautiful “jewels of the air.”

PHOTO: Hummingbird hovering near red salvia.

I found this hummingbird in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden, visiting a red salvia.
©Carol Freeman

If you see one of these gems, it is virtually guaranteed to be the ruby-throated hummingbird, the sole breeding hummingbird of the eastern United States. They winter in Central America, and spend the summers in North America. There are often breeding pairs here at the Chicago Botanic Garden. You can see them feeding if you know where to look.

PHOTO: Hummingbird on a branch.

This guy was zipping around McDonald Woods, but stopped for a few seconds so I could get this shot.
©Carol Freeman

I always check their favorite flowers: any color of trumpet-shaped flowers, red and orange flowers, and even flowering trees. I’ve seen them regularly in three places in the Garden.

One area is in and around the English Walled Garden. You can stand on the main sidewalk and watch them as they visit the flowers and then rest on one of the small trees. They will often visit the same patch of flowers over and over again and then go back to the same perch, giving you a perfect chance to snap a few photos. I use at least a 200mm lens and prefer my 300mm lens for best results. I set my camera to f8, 1/1000 of a second, for sharp shots with just a touch of wing blur. I use manual focus and take lots of photos. I’d say I get one good photo for every 15 or 20 I take! So keep at it! These are tricky birds to get in the air.

Another good place to find hummingbirds is around the Sensory and Enabling Gardens. It’s a large area, but walk around and look for the colorful flowers. There is a good chance a hummingbird will be nearby.

PHOTO: Hummingbird gathering nectar.

This hummingbird was busy sipping nectar from the flowers outside of the Bulb Garden.
©Carol Freeman

The third place where I often see them in late summer is in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden. There is a nice patch of bright red salvia near the little pond, which seems to be a favorite hangout for hummingbirds. You can just park yourself a few feet away from the flowers, wait 15 minutes or so, and most likely a hummingbird will stop by!

But be ready, as you just might have a close encounter with a hummingbird almost anywhere in the Garden. I’ve seen them by the Bulb Garden, the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, McDonald Woods, the Native Plant Garden, and even out in the Prairie! It’s always a thrill and a joy to see these amazing birds any day, and if I happen to get a photo, well that’s just the icing on the cake.

PHOTO: Hummingbird on salvia.

This gal was taking a short rest in the Enabling Garden.
©Carol Freeman


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Butterflies are beautiful, magical, and mysterious creatures.

PHOTO: Sara Longwing

Sara Longwing
©Carol Freeman

They have to be one of nature’s greatest achievements. Their transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly is truly mind-boggling when you really think about it. Seeing one is a joy. Seeing hundreds at one time is truly amazing! I had the pleasure of photographing butterflies at Butterflies & Blooms last summer. I had a wonderful time, and was just thrilled with the variety of butterflies and the quality of the plantings.

When photographing butterflies, I like to look for fresh specimens on pretty perches in a well-lighted area. Even though there are a lot of butterflies there, finding one you like sitting still on an attractive surface might take some time. One approach is to find a flower that you like and position yourself ahead of time. First, set up your camera. Then, make sure there is nothing distracting in the background, and wait. Usually within just a few minutes, a butterfly or two will land in the area. Another option is to look for the kind of butterfly you like already perched on a flower or leaf. Most newly hatched butterflies will stay still on flowers or foliage while they dry, giving you an excellent opportunity to photograph them.

PHOTO: Paper Kite Butterfly

Rice Paper Butterfly
©Carol Freeman

Since this is an indoor exhibit, the structure of the building and the people walking around can often complicate shots. My favorite lenses for photographing butterflies in this situation are my 105mm and 200mm macro lenses. They allow me to be a comfortable distance away from the butterflies, get excellent details, and also keep the background soft.

As with all wildlife, I always focus on the eyes. It is human nature to look at the eyes first. If they are in focus, then the whole photograph will have a more satisfying feel. If you are photographing the side of a butterfly, get parallel to the wings to keep your plane of focus aligned with entire length of the butterfly. That way you can get more of the wing details in focus without having to increase your depth of field (aperture) which would mean a slower shutter speed and possibly a soft photo. While there is plenty of light, the screen mesh does cut down the available light, and shaded areas cut the light even further. It will take some experimenting to find settings that work for you when balancing your shutter speed, ISO, and aperture to get sharp, interesting photos.

PHOTO: Hecale Longwing

Hecale Longwing
©Carol Freeman

To keep from getting in the way of other guests, I leave the tripod at home and handhold my camera. This means that I search for butterflies on flowers in the sun, so that I have a fast enough shutter speed for sharp photos. My most successful images come from observing the butterflies for a while and seeing what flowers seem to be the ones that get a lot of attention. There always seem to be a few plants that have more activity than others. If I’m lucky, one or two of those plants will have some nice light on them. Then I wait, enjoying the butterflies that land on me instead, eventually being graced by a few that choose to stop by and allow me to photograph them.

PHOTO: Detail of Owl Butterfly

Owl Butterfly
©Carol Freeman

PHOTO: Friar Butterfly

Friar Butterfly
©Carol Freeman


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Winter photography

Carol Freeman —  February 26, 2013 — 3 Comments

Brrrr, it’s cold outside!

OK, it’s winter. It’s cold. No flowers are blooming. So…is it time to take a break from photography? Heck no! It’s time to get out the warm clothes and get shots that you can get ONLY in winter.

First let’s talk about gear. With nature photography, one spends a lot of time standing still, so you can’t depend on moving around to keep you warm. To get those rare, really special shots, you have to take a LOT of shots…and that takes time. So, it’s important to be comfortable for many hours in the cold.

Suited up and keeping warm for winter photography. © Leif Otto.

Suited up and keeping warm for winter photography. © Leif Otto.

Let’s start at the top and work our way down. Some of these are obvious, some are not, but I’m surprised at how often I see nature photographers who are so anxious to get out of the cold that they miss many good shots.

Head: I like to wear a hat and cover my ears. On a really cold day, I’ll put my hood up as well. A scarf around my neck really helps keep the draft out.

Body: I make sure to have several thin layers. Thin layers work better to keep me warm and also allow for easier movement than one thick, heavy coat. Typically I’ll wear a t-shirt or long underwear, a turtleneck shirt with elastic cuffs, a fleece pullover, a vest, and a windproof coat.

Legs: I wear thick running tights and winter pants. When it’s really cold, I’ll pull out the snow pants to wear over these, too.

Feet: I wear thick wool socks and winter boots. I make sure my boots are loose enough to allow circulation, but not so loose that walking becomes a chore.

And finally…hands: Sadly, this is where I often get cold first. I like to have gloves that allow for easy maneuverability and control of my camera settings, but that are still warm enough for comfort. I wear glove liners and medium-weight gloves with wind blocking. I also put chemical-based, shake-and-heat hand-warmers into my gloves. This works for me for about an hour in sub-20 degree weather, and longer at warmer temperatures. I’ve talked to some photographers who say they like the mittens that flip open. Sometimes I will choose to sacrifice dexterity for warmth and put on thicker gloves. On those days, I may opt to have my camera on autofocus instead of on manual focus, which I prefer. There are some choices and compromises that you will have to make for comfort.

Magical, ephemeral, frost formations, only seen on the perfect winter morning. © Carol Freeman.

Magical, ephemeral, frost formations, only seen on the perfect winter morning. © Carol Freeman.

One of the most important things you can do to keep warm is to be vigilant about having as little skin exposed as possible by closing all the gaps. Make sure your socks cover the gap to your pants, and that your coat sleeves cover your wrists. I have a coat that has adjustable wrist openings so I can cinch them tight to my gloves.

Lovely, otherworldly landscapes appear when bubbles are frozen in ice.© Carol Freeman.

Lovely, otherworldly landscapes appear when bubbles are frozen in ice.© Carol Freeman.

Now, you are suited up and ready to go. So, now what? One amazing thing to photograph is early-morning frost. When freezing nights are cloudless and wind-free, you can often find beautiful frost gracing trees and grass the next morning. These formations are magical, and are only around for a short time until the sun melts them. Also, when the streams or lakes freeze up, often you can find leaves and bubbles suspended in the ice, creating lovely frozen compositions.

An unusual irruption of this cute little red breasted nuthatch this winter at the Garden! © Carol Freeman.

An unusual irruption of this cute little red breasted nuthatch this winter at the Garden! © Carol Freeman.

Another treat is seeing the rare birds that come to the Garden only in winter. One fun winter visitor that has invaded the Garden this year is the cute, red-breasted nuthatch. They are bold little birds, and you can sometimes see them by the feeders in the Enabling Garden.

You can fight winter, or you can embrace the season, and photograph those rare moments only seen on the coldest of days…made all the more rewarding for the bit of extra effort it takes to get them.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Magic Tree

Carol Freeman —  November 7, 2012 — 1 Comment

The Magic Tree is the Holy Grail for photographers. It’s the sweet spot where all the wildlife seems to magically appear for minutes or sometimes hours at a time. If I’m lucky I will find it a few times each year. The trick is I never know when or where the Magic Tree will be. The Magic Tree doesn’t just reveal itself to everybody. You have to show it respect. You can’t just walk up to it and start firing off pictures – that breaks the magic, and all the birds will scatter.

Whenever I pull into the Garden, the first thing I do is roll down my windows and drive very slowly down the entry road. I’m looking and listening for any clue as to where I might find something interesting to photograph.

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Cedar Waxwing eating a berry. ©Carol Freeman

On this particular day I hear a few chirps and see the flash of a bird. I park in the first lot and quickly grab my gear and head for the place where I think I saw it.

As I get close, I hear Cedar Waxwings conversing. Wow, there are dozens of them, hopping from branch to branch grabbing ripe berries and gobbling them down whole. They move so fast that it’s hard to get a shot before they move on to the next branch or bend down for another berry— but it’s fun to watch! I take many shots, attempting to get one where the Waxwing has a berry in its beak. Timing is everything here. Too soon and all I see is the top of the bird’s head; too late and the berry is gone.

There are many young Waxwings who have not yet mastered the art of grabbing the berries, so many are dropped onto the ground. That’s good news for birds like the Hermit Thrush, which like to scavenge on the ground. The Waxwing’s loss is the Thrush’s gain. Seems like a good compromise – and there are plenty of berries to go around.

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Robin getting in on the action. ©Carol Freeman.

Joining the Waxwings are Robins. They, too, can grab berries and swallow them down whole. Along comes a couple of Cardinals. They love berries too, but it seems like they get more on their beaks than they eat. Even the squirrels are getting in on the action, climbing out on the thin branches to get the delicious fruit.

I stand here for over an hour. The birds begin to accept me like part of the landscape. I’m able to inch closer and closer to the birds without them minding me at all. This is what nature photography is all about for me: being accepted by the wildlife that I’m photographing.

I realize today I have found The Magic Tree. I thank the tree and all the critters for letting me in on such a wonderful experience. I am grateful that I have been allowed to share in the magic of The Magic Tree.

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Cardinal “Do I have something on my beak?” ©Carol Freeman.

All photos were shot with a Nikon D300s camera, Nikon 80-400mm lens, hand-held.

PHOTO: Fall cabbageFall is a great time of year to challenge yourself to compose images that include complementary color relationships. Wet surfaces make colors more vibrant. Stone and masonry take on rich tones and show more color variation than when they are dry. This photo by volunteer Bill Bishoff was taken during a light rain. Notice how the bricks appear with a vibrant rosy surface that otherwise would appear pale.

This image also takes advantage of complementary colors to make the subject pop. Complementary colors appear opposite one another on the color wheel— blue/orange, red/green, and purple/yellow. Together, complementary colors appear brighter. In this image, Bill includes two complementary pairs—purple/yellow and red/green.

PHOTO: Photographer Bill Bishoff, keeping his camera dry.It is important to make sure you and your equipment are protected from the rain. You don’t need anything more complicated than a plastic bag and a handkerchief. Poke a hole in one end of the plastic bag for your lens, and peek in the other side when you are ready to take a picture. The handkerchief helps to dry off any raindrops that fall on your lens. If you use a UV filter on the end of your lens, you can safely wipe it dry it without worry of scratching the lens. If any damage occurs, you need only replace the filter, not the lens. 

Keeping yourself dry is also a good idea. If you are caught without an umbrella, there are plenty of dry vantage points around the Garden. You could appreciate the vistas from the comfort of McGinley Pavilion, or enjoy the solitude of McDonald Woods from the woods shelter.

During fall, sunny days can become scarce, but an overcast or rainy day can also be a great photo opportunity.

Join us on the first Saturday of every month for a photo walk in the Garden. We’ll cover a different subject each month and take some photos together.