Roger Brendhagen has mastered the art of capturing wildlife and birds with backlight. It takes a lot of planning, experience, and patience to nail these shots. And while this is not about the gear, it helps to know the camera and how to dial in the optimal settings for each shot.
Roger was kind enough to share his process, gear, and techniques with DIYP readers. He will also share some of his favorite images and tell the story behind his most cherished shot.
Tell us a little about how you plan a wildlife image with a backlit subject.
I try to capture the animals’ “personality”, and I like to use a low perspective and good rim-light. I think that describes my style pretty much.
I’m lucky to have the possibility to choose my assignments. That means I can go to places and photograph species that are endangered. In my articles, lectures and pictures I talk about and show the consequences of climate change and other human factors that have had a huge impact on nature and animals. My images can bring various species closer to people, generate curiosity and spread the awareness about them.
How would you describe the role of patience and experience for nailing the images?
The keywords are, planning, planning and planning!
My most cherished moment is when I finally captured an image I had in my head for more than ten years. There are only about 150 arctic foxes in the Norwegian mountains, and there is a full moon in these regions only once a month. My dream was to capture an arctic fox in front of the full moon. After a long wait and countless attempts, I succeeded a couple years ago! That was fantastic! September 19th at 19.52 o’clock is the date and time I will always remember.
Inside my head there are many pictures. Some of them I have taken – and others have not yet “come out”. After ten years of waiting I got my reward. The picture I was dreaming about was the Arctic fox under the full moon, or “in it” if you like.
I haven’t been around the mountains in Dovre for every full moon, and there have been many hit & miss trips in the ten years I’ve tried. Some of the times the weather forecast reported nice conditions and a clear sky. After 400 kilometers in the car I often reached the mountains shrouded in low clouds and a foggy weather. However, most of the time the conditions have been great – but then the Arctic foxes were missing.
Please share a bit about the technical side? How do you calculate the exposure? Do you expose for the highlights or the animal? How do you decide on aperture? On which part of the animal are you focusing on? Head? Eyes?
I prefer to use low angles and perspective. I try to exploit the possibilities of low light conditions. One of the major techniques you should master is the art of patience, and I employ a good measure of it. My binoculars are an essential part of my kit. I use them to scout the environment, observe the animals’ behaviour, and plan my shots.
I work in manual mode. That means that I set the shutter speed, aperture, iso and white-balance manually. I use spot metering, and in 80 % of my photography I use just one focus point – and it is very likely I hit the eye of the animal. In low light I use the group-focus system, that helps me a lot in bad light conditions.
When I use rim light, I often underexpose the image. I start out with an aperture between f/8 and f/11, but that again depends on the size of the animal or bird.
I like to have all of the fur sharp and feather sharp, so it’s important to think about the depth of field. Which shutter speed and ISO I go for depend on the movement of the animal and light conditions.
Since I like to have a low perspective, I let my tripod stay in the car for four reasons:
- The photo bag is heavy enough as it is.
- The low perspective is mentioned.
- If I had to stand on a mountain plateau with a tripod, I’m visible to other mountain hikers and there is a chance they will pay me a visit.
- The main reason is that the animals will not see me when I go low. That’s why camouflage is my best friend, in addition to a 600mm and 800mm lens! I use a camouflage called “Jervenduken”, a Norwegian brand which is waterproof, windproof and has good insulation.
I like to play a lot. I’m willing to experiment with new techniques and equipment to take my photography to another level.
What gear do you use for these sorts of scenes? How much do you actually pack when you go out? How do you even dress?
I have almost everything that Nikon has produced! But my main lenses are the 600mm. When I´m going on a photo expedition I bring along
- three Nikon D6 cameras, along with the
- 14-24/2.8, 24-70/2,8, 70-200/2,8, 200-400/4, 600/4 and the 800/5,6. And of course the
- 60/2,8, 105/2,8 and the 200/4 for macro photography. In addition, I use:
- LeoPhoto Tripod
- Benro Gimbal
- NISI Filters
- 2 Backpacks: a LowePro and a ClickElite Volt
- Other items: First Aid-kit, warm clothes, knife, map, note book ++
What’s the wildest shot you’ve ever taken?
Without a doubt, it’s the arctic fox under the full moon. Inside my head, I always have some images that I try to “get out”. And this image is one of them. It took me almost ten years to finally succeed.
Which are your favorite parts in Norway to shoot wildlife?
I have traveled around the world a lot, and the more I travel the more I am drawn home to the beauty of the Nordic countries and the mountains of Norway, especially the mountains in Dovre. This is where I found and photographed the Arctic fox which holds a special place in my heart.
The beautiful countryside that I live in is full of photographic possibilities with forestry, wildlife, mountains, rivers and valleys which all have contributed to inspire and nurture the photographer in me.
Roger Brendhagen is a Norwegian nature and wildlife photographer who has been a Nikon ambassador for thirteen years. His images have been published in various magazines, and with around 300 travel days each year, he has visited most of the globe. Roger is also an experienced macro photographer. You can follow him and see more of his images on Instagram and Facebook. All images are shared with permission.