How to Shoot Cranes (Photographically)

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By Paul A. Johnsgard

For many decades I have tried to photograph sandhill cranes flying in front of the moon, but during the era of relatively slow color films, this proved to be impossible—the light was never great enough to produce an image worth saving. Digital cameras now often have ISO speeds of 1000 or more, rapid autofocus lenses and rapid-burst exposures, making it feasible to obtain fine moon/crane images.

In general, when photographing the moon, a lens of about 400 mm is nearly ideal for a typical single-lens reflex camera. The full moon (or sun) covers only about 1 degree of the sky, but with a lens of that length on a typical digital camera, its horizontal field of view (about 5 degrees) allows for getting a decent-sized moon image, but also enough sky to have a sporting chance of capturing several cranes in the same image.

Cranes usually return to their roosts near sundown, but on cloudy days they usually return well before sundown, and when there is a full moon and clear skies, they may not return until well after sunset. The ideal day for photographing cranes at sundown is one when, after a cloudy afternoon, the sun finally emerges about a half-hour before sunset. This situation often produces wonderful photographic opportunities for sunset photos, both for the likelihood of having birds landing and the presence of alpenglow produced by sunlight striking the undersides of clouds.

Photographing cranes against the moon is far more difficult than getting photos of them silhouetted against the setting sun, but here are some useful guidelines. For sunset and moonset photos one should use a blind on the south side of the river, with a window facing westerly, and for sunrise and moonrise photos a blind on the north side of the river, with a window facing eastwardly. The best dates for getting moonrise photos are during the first and second evenings before the full moon and during the first and second mornings after the full moon (March 27 in 2013) for moon-set images. On those dates, the moon will be about 15–25 degrees above the horizon at sunrise or sunset, and thus be located low enough to catch the atmospheric dust that produces a golden to orange moon-tint but high enough to avoid most shoreline vegetation.

In addition to a blind, one needs a sturdy tripod, a high ISO setting and the camera lens focused on the moon. Every few minutes the lens will need a slight position adjustment, owing to the Earth’s rotation. I set my camera to a high enough ISO setting (1000 or higher) to allow for an exposure of 1/500th second or less and a lens aperture of f/8 to f/12 to obtain adequate depth-of-field. Then, all one needs to do is wait for birds to approach the moon. As soon as cranes appear in the viewfinder, take as many exposures as possible while they are visible. Don’t try to pan with them, as the moon will likely be blurred. Good luck! Shooting cranes this way is more exciting and much more sporting than with a shotgun!

Sun and moon rising and setting times can be found for any town in Nebraska at www.outdoornebraska.org/sunrise_sunset.asp.

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