Photographing Wildlife in the Sunshine State (Story by Tamron)

Photographing Wildlife in the Sunshine State

Story Contributed by Tamron

Carolyn Hutchins’ very first camera was a hand-me-down Canon AE-1 from her parents, which she used in high school to learn the basics of photography. It wasn’t until 10 years or so after she’d graduated, however, that she started taking her picture-making more seriously. “I’m really into hiking, so I started packing my camera when I went on my nature walks,” she says. “Then I began volunteering with the Osceola County Camera Club, where I met and interacted with a bunch of experienced photographers. Surrounding myself with people who were much better photographers than I was, and being able to learn from them, was a great help in advancing my own skills.”

Today, Carolyn explores nature and wildlife, camera in hand, both near her home in central Florida and when she visits family in West Virginia. Her proximity to Florida’s Space Coast (where she photographs the launches she includes in her “Flying Machines” portfolio) and her job at Orlando’s Gatorland offer her an abundance of convenient photographic opportunities. 

Carolyn taps into two Tamron lenses for her wildlife work: the SP 35mm F/1.8 VC and the 18-400mm VC, which she recently acquired. “The 35 prime is what I use mostly for landscapes and when I need as much light as I can get, which the F/1.8 maximum aperture helps immensely with,” she says. “I also love how sharp that lens is.” 

As for the 18-400, Carolyn mainly appreciates the versatility of its focal-length range. “When you’re around captive wildlife, you don’t want to freak the animals out by putting a noisy camera right in their faces,” she explains. “And when you’re in the wild, you don’t want to jeopardize either the animals’ safety or your own. The 18-400 allows me to keep a comfortable distance from my subjects.” 

The Vibration Compensation feature on both lenses helps ensure sharp images, as Carolyn rarely brings along a tripod unless she’s doing landscape photos. “I tend to especially use the VC when I have the zoom pretty far out, like at 300mm or 350mm, because I’m terrible at balancing,” she says. “It helps me keep camera shake out of the picture so I get the sharpest photos possible.”

Gatorland has proven to be especially fertile photography ground for Carolyn, and she often brings her camera to work to see what creatures she can capture. “It’s important to have patience when staking out my subjects,” she says. “I have to approach them very slowly, or else I’ll scare them. I once sat in the same spot for almost half an hour watching one particular dragonfly.”

Her technique is often to simply act distracted. “If an animal sees you walking straight up to it, most of the time it won’t hang around,” she says. “But if you walk really slowly, maybe focusing on something else or looking at the ground by your feet like you dropped something, it will make you look less intimidating, and it will be less likely the animal will scurry away.” 

Carolyn’s approach to her wildlife photos: “I like to create images that make people think,” she says. “Images should tell a story. Often, that means showing the animal or bird actually doing something, whether that’s hunting, preening, feeding, building a nest, or even interacting with other wildlife.”

© Carolyn Hutchins
18-400mm at 250mm, F/6.3, 1/1600th sec., ISO 200
Carolyn often heads out to a wetlands preserve about an hour from her home to see what birds she can place in front of her lens. It’s there that she photographed this great blue heron while taking an early morning stroll near a popular feeding spot. “Like I mentioned earlier about the slow approach, that’s what usually works when you’re dealing with birds like these,” she says. “Many times, they’ll pick at their food first, so if you approach cautiously, you can get pretty close to them.”

© Carolyn Hutchins 
18-400mm at 65mm, F/7.1, 1/1600th sec., ISO 100
Many of her photo ventures take place at the Avian Reconditioning Center in Apopka, a rehabilitation and falconry venue for birds of prey. For her photo of a red-tailed hawk taken at the center, Carolyn sat low to the ground behind the bird’s trainer to get the photo of the bird landing. “This hawk is injured and was being trained by a falconer to return to flight,” she says. “You can see the falconer’s glove stretched out and waiting. It took a few practice shots with the tracking so I could keep everything focused just right.”

© Carolyn Hutchins
18-400mm at 350mm, F/6.3, 1/640th sec., ISO 200
The gators, of course, are some of Carolyn’s main photographic draws at Gatorland, and one of the first photos she took with her 18-400 was of an alligator emerging from the water right outside her office. “I had only had the lens for about a week and had taken it to work with me for some practice,” she says. “Early one morning, I spotted this gator. I was able to zoom in to 350mm and fill the frame, getting really tight on its eyes.”

© Carolyn Hutchins
18-400mm at 300mm, F/6.3, 1/1000th sec., ISO 200
For Luther, a 14-foot-long American crocodile that’s the resident “alpha male,” Carolyn had more of a heads-up on when to capture him. “The American croc is an endangered species in Florida,” she explains. “We’re lucky to have two of them at Gatorland. Luther sits in this same place outside of my office almost every afternoon, like clockwork, usually with a female or two. On this particular day he was in the water sitting just right so I could capture his reflection.”

Each year, staff members at Gatorland collect alligator eggs scattered around the property, letting them incubate until they hatch in August and September. “The keepers are really amazing—they watch these eggs and keep them at the right temperature until they’re ready to break open,” she says. “Then, once they hatch, we put them in their own pens so they’re protected and won’t be picked off in the wild by birds. Eventually they’re old enough to go out and hang out by the big lake on their own.”

© Carolyn Hutchins
35mm, F/1.8, 1/640th sec., ISO 800
On the day Carolyn photographed this particular hatchling peering out from inside its half-broken shell, she happened to have her camera at work and was hanging out with some of the zookeepers. “This turned out to be my absolute favorite of all the baby photos I captured,” she says. “They hatch very quickly: In the very next frame, this baby’s entire head was out of the shell. One of the reasons I switched to the 35mm lens for this photo was that I didn’t want to shine a big light down on this newborn. With the 35mm, I was able to dial back all the way to the maximum F/1.8 aperture to let more light in.”

© Carolyn Hutchins
18-400mm at 122mm, F/7.1, 1/1250th sec., ISO 200
With captive wildlife, Carolyn often prefers to zoom in tight to help eliminate background distractions such as buildings, fences, and parked cars, which can change the feel of the final image. “Be prepared to move around and approach each situation independently so you can figure out which elements to get rid of,” she says. Eliminating such distractions was necessary for Carolyn in her picture of one of the rehab center’s great horned owls, though these particular distractions were located on the owl itself.

“Besides zooming in tight, I also converted the photo, which I shot in RAW, to a high-key black-and-white image in Photoshop,” she says. “I feel like that helped enhance its features and also to camouflage the glove it’s sitting on and the ID band around its feet, which you can see if you look closely. Plus, by converting to black and white, I could best capture the contrast of its stripes and patterns, as well as accent the owl’s eyes more—they’re so beautiful and piercing. That’s why I prefer to shoot in RAW, as it allows for more control like this in post-production.”

Seeking out a clean background that showcases the animal’s natural environment also helps eliminate pesky distractions. “Birds look great with the sky behind them, while alligators look great in swamps,” Carolyn explains. “I like having a natural-looking background, so I tend to stay away from anything that would have straight lines or bright colors, like fences or barriers. I basically try to get low and get the sky in the background, or get high and shoot down. That usually eliminates much of the extraneous.”

© Carolyn Hutchins
18-400mm at 80mm, F/7.1, 1/1000th sec., ISO 160
The sharpness and detail offered by the 18-400 is a big part of what’s made Carolyn a fan of this lens. It was on full display in her photo of this crested caracara, one of her favorite birds at the rehab center. “They look so prehistoric,” she says. “This bird I photographed has the biggest personality—it loves to play with its trainer’s cellphone whenever it hears the phone’s noises. One of the things I was trying to show here were the details in its feathers and face. When birds have very colorful feathers or eye-catching patterns, it’s awesome to focus in on all of those different visual elements.”

© Carolyn Hutchins
18-400mm at 145mm, F/5.6, 1/200th sec., ISO 400
That same detail was also clear in her photo of a Florida panther, down to each tiny hair follicle. “We have two main big-cat species in Florida: bobcats and Florida panthers, which are an extremely endangered species,” Carolyn explains. “The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimate there are only about 200 left living in the wild.” 

Carolyn snapped a photo of this panther, one of two resident panthers at Gatorland, through a solid plane of plexiglass. “That can make reflections really tough to get around,” she says, though she managed to do so in this case. “Many times the panthers will lounge on the deck, but I didn’t want the deck in the background, so I caught the panther on the ground here, which looked more natural to me.”

For those interested in trying their own hand at wildlife photography, Carolyn offers one main piece of advice. “Keep shooting, and check out all of the locales around you for possibilities,” she says. “I visit a lot of parks, forests, and conservation areas. And I strongly believe in visiting the same places more than once, at different times of the day and year, and in different weather conditions. Be respectful, and pay particular attention to things like migration patterns, nesting areas, and feeding locations to get a grasp on your subjects’ habits. Plus, don’t forget to talk to people. Forest and park rangers can be extremely helpful in giving you tips about the local wildlife that will enhance your photography.”

To see more of Carolyn Hutchins’ work, check out her website


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