Wildlife photography has taken me to many places around the world, both exotic and familiar. In the realm of the familiar, I have one vivid memory from last year, from back in my home town Ottawa. I remember lying in the snow and holding my D500, just waiting for a Common Goldeneye to be in exactly the right position. Usually, it doesn’t happen.
Months later, I went a bit more exotic and took an unforgettable trip to Arizona where I was amazed not only by the birds, but by the beautiful desert landscapes.
My latest adventure is a bit different and over eight thousand kilometers away in Brazil. I’ve been here since February, doing something a bit more long-term. Since arriving, I desperately wanted to explore Brazil’s wild forests with my wife and get some amazing bird and wildlife shots.
As luck would have it, I’ve been delayed by the Brazilian bureaucracy of exchanging my foreign driver’s license, which is taking far longer than expected. Yes, new places always have new challenges. I’ve moved around enough to know that. Still, being suddenly unable to drive has been frustrating, and trying to solve it has been exhausting.
But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that birds are everywhere. Could I get some bird photographs in the city of São Paulo instead?
Going after birds in the city has its challenges, and São Paulo is certainly one of the more challenging cities. For instance, it is pretty much never safe to bring expensive gear around town. That’s quite different from most places in Canada and Australia, where you can hang a big hunk of glass from your neck and be relatively safe. In Arizona, I remember just falling asleep at noon on a desolate mountain surrounded by my gear, bathed by the warm sun. Yeah, that’s not happening here.
Rising to the Challenge
How could I solve the dilemma of carrying expensive gear? What about bringing that antique Tamron 55BB 500mm f/8 mirror lens instead? This lens does not approach the quality of modern glass, but it also doesn’t attract as much attention (or cost as much if it were to get stolen).
I knew I would have to get extra close to the birds to produce something decent. If you want to improve your image quality, get closer! The Tamron does have a high reproduction ratio of 1:3, so could I use that to get some unusually close portraits?
To make it even more challenging, São Paulo is the largest metropolitan area in the world outside of Asia with hardly any green spaces. On the other hand, the few green parks that do exist are oases for birds struggling against the onslaught of humanity.
My gear restrictions demanded unusual thinking. What about that wonky donut bokeh effect of a mirror lens? Time to pay extra attention to my backgrounds to make sure those donuts didn’t get out of control. Challenging indeed. But over time, I found myself adapting to, and maybe even befriending my eclectic and quirky manual-focus mirror lens.
So now I’m sitting in the warm grass, waiting for a Rufous Hornero to be in exactly the right position. Usually, it doesn’t happen; some things never change. But in the past five months, I’ve seen sixty-four species I’d never seen before. And I’ve seen all of them in city whose greater metropolitan area has a population more than half of Canada’s.
This has brought my total life list to 630 species of birds, and I’ve photographed almost all of them. Although most of the photos still need improving, a few of those shots mark moments of serene peace that I will remember forever.
And I’ve learned something else. Everyone always says that gear isn’t the most important thing in photography, but these past few months really drove that home. If you’ve read some of my other articles, you know I usually shoot with more capable gear, but I’ve been truly surprised at the performance of some of the “lesser” lenses I’ve recently used when they’re pushed to their limits.
So, although I still believe gear is important in the right circumstances – and I will admit I’ve certainly missed shots when using my manual focus relic – I do want to encourage everyone to get out shooting regardless of what your gear is!
As bird photographers know, some species are shy, and others have certain colors that really need the right kind of light to do them justice. Just like new adventures and places, new species come with big challenges for me as a photographer, and I am delighted I could share my latest challenge of shooting birds in the middle of São Paulo, Brazil. And recently, I got a bit of hopeful news about my driver’s license, so if all goes well, you’ll soon be reading about another quest to find even more birds!