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Ready for their closeup

Steve Shaluta
Vibration-reduction technology in telephoto lenses allowed nature photographer Steve Shaluta to obtain a tack-sharp, hand-held image of a killdeer guarding its nest. Shaluta says technology has revolutionized nature photography and made it easy enough that even average photographers can obtain high-quality photos.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Taking pictures of animals and birds has never been easier.

So says Steve Shaluta, a St. Albans photographer who believes the advent of digital photography has transformed what used to be a prohibitively expensive, difficult-to-learn pastime into something almost anyone can afford to do.

"Everything is easier today," said Shaluta, who began shooting wildlife photos 30 years ago when most cameras used 35mm film.

"When I got started, the films those cameras used were really 'slow' - you couldn't use them in low light unless you had big, 'fast' lenses that cost thousands of dollars. To use those cameras and lenses effectively, you had to carry around a big ol' tripod."

Digital camera gear was expensive when it came out in the early 2000s, but prices dropped quickly as technology improved and manufacturing became less expensive. Shaluta said that today, amateur photographers can put together a nature-shooting rig for less than $1,000 that produces photos every bit as good and sharp as a 1990s-era rig that would have cost $5,000 or more.

"There are so many advantages to modern digital photo equipment," he added. "The cameras are much more light-sensitive, which means you can get perfectly exposed photos in low-light conditions. Lenses are smaller, lighter in weight, and lots of them have a 'vibration reduction' feature that allows them to be handheld instead of attached to a tripod.

"The biggest advantages, though, are that digital cameras allow you instant feedback on the pictures you take, and they allow you to shoot as much as you like without the expense of having film processed."

Film photographers always had to be conscious of how many photos they were shooting.

"You'd go out and shoot three, four, maybe five rolls of film in a day," Shaluta said. "That's only 100 to 170 shots. Now, with a digital camera, you're limited only by the size of your camera's memory card. Even a medium-capacity digital memory card can hold 5,000 images or more, and it can be reused again and again."

In much the same way that some audiophiles prefer analog sound to digital, some modern photographers have started to dabble with film again. Shaluta, however, remains a steadfast convert to digital technology.

"I love it. I would never go back. Digital photography is the greatest thing ever," he said.

Both formats have been good to him. Since the mid-1980s, Shaluta has had literally thousands of his wildlife and nature photos published in Wonderful West Virginia, Outdoor Photography, Blue Ridge Country and Field & Stream magazines, among many others. His photos have also appeared in dozens of calendars and books and in too many advertisements to count.

Given his accomplishments, one might presume he uses high-end, high-dollar cameras and lenses. He doesn't.

"I use 'pro-sumer' level cameras, ones that have some professional features but are priced for the consumer market," he said. "My current camera bodies cost about $1,100. The highest-end bodies in [the manufacturer's] line cost $6,000. If I drop one of my bodies into the water, I could go out and buy four more for what I would have put into one top-end body."

For nature photography, Shaluta uses only digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, for several reasons: They allow him to shoot in dimmer light, they allow him to change lenses, they give him more control over shutter speeds and aperture settings, and their larger sensors allow him to blow pictures up to larger sizes without degrading their quality.

"Almost any DSLR body from a major manufacturer will give you the ability to make publication-worthy pictures," he said. "You don't have to spend $1,000 or $2,000. Most manufacturers offer models in the $300-$400 range."

Shaluta doesn't use point-and-shoot cameras for wildlife photography.

"They just don't have enough ability to shoot from a distance," he said. "You might think you're taking a picture of a deer, but what you end up with is a dot in a field. If you try to get close enough to make a decent picture with a point-and-shoot, you end up spooking the animal."

Lenses for DSLRs have become less expensive, too, as manufacturers discovered ways to make them from metal and plastic instead of metal and glass.

"The great thing about today's digital photography is that you no longer need to buy huge, expensive lenses that gather more light. Camera bodies have become so light-sensitive that you can use inexpensive lenses that gather less light and still get the same results," Shaluta said.

"Another bonus is what the manufacturers call 'crop factor.' Lenses on most digital cameras crop an image in a way that makes it look as if it were shot by a lens that's about one and a half times 'longer.' So a 200mm lens effectively becomes a 300mm lens, and a 400mm becomes a 600mm."

Such lenses make it easier to photograph birds and animals because they allow the photographer to stand farther from the subject and zoom in to obtain frame-filling images.

Getting the correct exposure has always been a challenge. Film photographers had to wait until their film was processed before they learned whether they had exposed their images properly.

"Digital photographers get instant feedback," Shaluta said. "All they have to do is look at the camera's display screen and they instantly know whether the shot is overexposed or underexposed. With a digital camera, there's no excuse for bad exposure."

Modern flashguns, also called "speedlights," have also removed a lot of guesswork. Photographers used to have to be good judges of distance and perform several quick mental calculations in order to adjust their flashes' output. Modern flashes, with "through-the-lens" capability, adjust their output automatically.

"Today's flashes make bird photography a lot easier," Shaluta said. "They bring out the birds' true colors in the photos, and they add a little highlight in the eye that makes the bird look really alive."

Though modern cameras seem almost magical in their capabilities, they cannot create magic. To do that, Shaluta believes photographers must do two things: Practice a lot and shoot a lot.

"The more you shoot, the more you learn how your camera responds to different lighting situations. It also teaches you ways to hold the camera steadier, especially with [telephoto] lenses," he said.

"The best places to practice are at zoos or wildlife centers, especially if there's an aviary. You tend to learn a lot in a hurry when you're photographing tiny birds from 20 to 40 feet away. You learn to focus fast, and you learn where your camera's controls are by touch."

West Virginia's state parks, he added, are great places to learn to photograph deer.

"There are lots of deer, and they're used to having people around. And you don't need to dress in camouflage or set up a blind. Your car makes a great blind. Learn to sit in the car and shoot out the window. Don't get out. Most animals don't see cars as threats, and you can usually shoot from them without spooking the critters."

Shaluta said that with today's technology, more people are succeeding at wildlife photography than ever before.

"It has actually cut into my freelance business," he said. "Now that so many people can make quality wildlife photos, the demand for images from professional wildlife photographers isn't as great as it was. Digital photography has made that possible. Digital technology might be costing me money, but I still love it."

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.


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