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Learning the Birds and the Bees

In Rick Lieder's world, that means finding wildlife photo opps anywhere they pop up.

By Jenn Gidman
Images by Rick Lieder

If you're looking for Rick Lieder, you can usually find him at a neighborhood lake or out in his backyard, camera in hand to photograph a robin's nest, a flock of geese, or the fireflies that have become his photographic bread and butter. "My latest children's book, Among a Thousand Fireflies, just came out in March," he says. "And I worked on a PBS Nova special with National Geographic earlier this year called Creatures of Light, which was basically about bioluminescent creatures like fireflies. I was excited that a good portion of my work was shown in that special." (Check out the segment featuring Rick's firefly imagery starting at 18:45 in the YouTube video.)

What's always by his side as he wanders the natural world: his arsenal of Tamron lenses. "I of course love using Tamron's Macro lenses, like the 180mm or 90mm VC models," he says. "I also use the 25-75mm and the 150-600mm VC lens, which I absolutely love. I'm hoping to start shooting soon with the new version of that lens, the G2."

One example of his right-in-the-backyard photography: his work with bees. "I keep bees in my yard, with a hive of about 40,000 to 50,000 of them," he says. "Once it gets light enough for them to see and navigate, they're out and about, so that's when I go out, too, since I need all the light I can get to photograph them. And unlike many other kinds of photography, the sunnier the better: That's how I'm able to get blue sky and other color in the background. Without that, I'll get gray skies, which doesn't make for as dramatic or colorful a picture."

Rick used the Tamron 180mm Di Macro lens for the bee shot shown here. "That lens gives me a bigger working distance, and a narrower field of view, which means I can be a little more picky with what I'm including in the background," he says. "To me, the background is the most important part of the image in many ways. And so I try to set up my background first—setting the stage, so to speak, like a little theater—and then wait to see what happens in front of that background. What you see in the bokeh here are water droplets that the sun was refracting through. All that light is what adds the emotion and drama to that picture."

As for the protective gear he wears when he's photographing his flying friends: There is none. "I don't wear any of that stuff, like a mask or gloves," he says. "It would be so difficult to use the camera if I did that. They're moving so fast as it is—I don't need anything else hampering my response time. They're basically harmless, unless you start swatting at them and they get defensive. To them, you're nothing more than a giant obstacle, like a tree or a rock, that's in their way as they try to move from point A to point B."

© Rick Lieder
180mm, F/7.1, 1/3200th sec., ISO 320

Around the end of March, Rick enjoys going out to capture mallard ducks at a nearby lake, but Canadian geese often end up in the mix, too. "I'm able to sit by the lake in the late afternoon, when the light is warm, and watch them come in for the evening," he says. "The more you understand their habits—and I've become pretty good at it, since I've photographed them so often—the better chance you have of being able to figure out where they're headed and where they're going to land, maximizing your chance to capture a visually compelling image."

Photographing the geese with his 150-600mm VC lens about a half-hour before sunset in this image allowed Rick to capture a warm glow on the trees in the background, as well as the last of the day's blue skies. "This was over a lake that got frozen over, so the geese were coming in and landing on the lake," he says. "They just kept circling over and I'd pan with them until they landed. Because the light was starting to fade, I was shooting pretty much wide open at F/6.3."

© Rick Lieder
150-600 at 600mm, F/6.3, 1/1000th sec., ISO 640

One of the more challenging photos Rick recently took was of a red-eyed tree frog at a local zoo. "It was a large terrarium with very little light, and I had to photograph through glass," he says. "You have to be really careful in those cases to minimize reflections, so my camera was right up against the glass."

What made Rick's photographic expedition to the zoo easier, however: the fact that he had the Tamron 16-300mm VC lens by his side. "Having that zoom with that range gave me a lot of options no matter where I was in the zoo," he explains. "In this case I was in the amphibian house when I came across this little guy. One of the best things about 16-300 is you can get really close, thanks to its handy macro capability."

Lighting was the next difficulty to overcome. "It's very dark in some of these terrariums," he says. "And the frog itself was actually not very bright, so he would've just blended in if the background was too dark. So I spent as much time as I could composing the image to make sure he stood out from the background."

To capture the frog posing for its portrait, Rick had to quickly nail the right perspective. "The frogs do hop around, but they sometimes stay in one spot for a while, and that's when you have to get to work," he says. "That wasn't the only issue, though, in terms of time. When you're at the zoo, you're jostling with other people for space and spectating time, so you can't spend a lot of time hogging up the view. The 16-300, which I used for this image, allowed me to work quickly, and the Vibration Compensation helped immensely, as I couldn't exactly set up a tripod right in front of the terrarium with all of those people around." He was able to compose the image in a way that creates the emotional connection he tries to achieve in all of his animal and insect photos.

© Rick Lieder
16-300mm at 117mm, F/5.6, 1/15th sec., ISO 400

Rick has been working on a book on sandhill cranes that's coming out in 2019, and while he's out photographing them, he often runs into many other different kinds of wildlife—and doesn't pass up the chance to photograph them, too. "That's how I came across this grackle bird perched on a dead branch," he says. "It was all puffed up, and you can see the beautiful irisdescent blue on its head, back, and beak if you catch it in the right light."

He photographed this particular grackle with the 150-600, allowing him to zoom in and out until he found the sweet spot for his photo. "I was thinking hard about the composition of this as I was setting everything up," he says. "I had the line of the branch, a somewhat interesting background with those out-of-focus branches—and the light looks so nice on the feathers. Taken all together, the whole image just looks neat."

© Rick Lieder
150-600mm, F/8, 1/400th sec., ISO 640

Rick's fascination with robins—he documented a robin family in his own backyard last spring, from the laying of the eggs to the baby birds fledging—led friends of his to call him up one day with some good news: There was a nest at their place, and he was welcome to come photograph it. "The nest was in an outside light fixture on the porch, under the eaves," he says. "I brought a ladder with me and was able to get just close enough to take some pictures. The babies were pretty big by this point, about a week after fledging. And there was this one here, with its beak wide open, crying for food from its mother."

One of the issues he had as he tried to photograph the nest with his Tamron 90mm VC Macro lens was the lack of light and trying to compose a decent shot from such an odd position. "I couldn't have a tripod up there—I was precariously perched on a ladder!—but I still wanted to see what I could do with the image." To minimize a mediocre background, he tried to get up as high as he could so he could shoot down slightly and capture all of the details in the nest instead.

But it was the color contrast between the nest and the inside of the bird's mouth that really drew Rick into the scene. "Everything was earth-toned, and the light was kind of cool on everything—but then I had that really saturated bright-yellow mouth," he says. "That was what I wanted to focus on to make the picture pop. And that was pretty much the color I saw with my naked eye. When I do my post-processing, I try not to oversaturate my pictures; I simply want to accentuate them. You can tell here from the twigs in the nest that the color stayed true to life."

Ultimately, Rick only photographed the nest once or twice before he descended the ladder: one, because it was difficult finagling his equipment, and two, because he didn't want to disturb the birds. "I definitely didn't want to interrupt the mother coming back to her babies," he says. "And anyone doing this type of photography should be real careful to do the same so that you don't stress the birds out. If your picture doesn't work out, it doesn’t work out—get what you can get and then leave them be."

© Rick Lieder
90mm, F/5.6, 1/40th sec., ISO 800

To see more of Rick Lieder's work, go to www.bugdreams.com or http://cloudboxer.com.