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Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive: Photography tips with veteran photographer Red Huber

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 7/24/2020 By Patrick Connolly, Orlando Sentinel
a bird sitting on a branch: A red-shouldered hawk launches off a dead branch and makes a nose dive toward an awaiting mate. A long lens, such as a 200-500mm, can help get tight shots of wildlife, even though they're far away. © Orlando Sentinel file/Orlando Sentinel/TNS A red-shouldered hawk launches off a dead branch and makes a nose dive toward an awaiting mate. A long lens, such as a 200-500mm, can help get tight shots of wildlife, even though they're far away.

Beneath the sweltering summer sun on a recent morning, a uniquely Floridian scene unfolded: an anhinga engaged in a little shouting match with a great blue heron.

Technically, the anhinga was there first, but when that great blue walked up and demanded the smaller bird’s spot, the snake bird wisely yielded — but only after exchanging a few insults in birdspeak.

a bird flying in the sky: Sometimes light and time of day can make all the difference, such as in this photo Huber took of a bald eagle in golden light against the backdrop of the moon. © Red Huber, Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS Sometimes light and time of day can make all the difference, such as in this photo Huber took of a bald eagle in golden light against the backdrop of the moon.

It was just one of many moments witnessed that muggy Central Florida morning along the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive.

The 11-mile drive, which opened to the public in May 2015, gives visitors the chance to view Florida’s flora and fauna from a good social distance while in the comfort of their own cars. A self-guided online audio tour also gives curious guests the chance to learn more about the history and ongoing water restoration efforts surrounding Lake Apopka.

a bird flying in the sky: Swallow-tailed kites are supposed to be good luck for those who spot them. The birds eat insects, frogs, lizards, snakes and small birds. © Patrick Connolly/Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS Swallow-tailed kites are supposed to be good luck for those who spot them. The birds eat insects, frogs, lizards, snakes and small birds.

One of the more popular activities while visiting the drive is photography. From simple camera phones to heavy-duty DSLRs with telephoto lenses, amateurs and pros alike take to the lake’s north shore for some great wildlife snaps.

In order to fine-tune my skills and help pass along helpful tips for budding photographers, I sought the assistance of veteran photojournalist Red Huber, who enjoyed a 46-year career with the Orlando Sentinel.

The photographer used to frequent Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive for “wildlife Wednesday” photo ops for the newspaper and still visits from time to time.

Here are his tips for aspiring wildlife photographers.

1. Learn about the wildlife you’re going to photograph.

The list of different birds that can be seen on the drive continues to grow (now at 362 species); other wildlife usually spotted include alligators, armadillos, bears, bobcats, coyotes, otters and raccoons. When heading out to photograph wildlife, Huber said it’s first important to understand what you’re looking for.

“You have to find out [the bird’s] traits, their behaviors and what they look like,” he said. “You can hear about them, but if you know what they look like and you’ve studied them, then you can identify them when they’re flying by.”

2. Find nice early morning light, or wait until close to sunset.

In addition to providing nicer light than noon’s harsher rays, mornings offer the chance to catch birds and other animals as they’re more active.

“[The light is] warmer, it’s not as contrasty. The sun’s not right over your head like at noon,” Huber said. “[At noon], you don’t have a lot of activity with a lot of animals because they’re trying to find a place where it’s cool.”

3. Think about camera and lens choice to achieve desired results.

Not everybody has access to giant telephoto lenses, but Huber said that camera and lens choice can aid photographers in getting the shots they want.

“You use what you have at the moment. With the iPhone, the cameras are incredible with what you can do with them now,” he said. “But with an iPhone, you don’t have as much reach as you do with a 200-400mm or a 200-500mm.”

He now goes out with a Nikon D810 and D500 paired with a 200-500mm f/5.6 lens and a Canon DSLR with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. However, the gear matters less than one might think.

“It doesn’t matter to me what camera you use out there,” Huber said. “I think it’s really cool because everyone’s trying to tell their story.”

4. Use the rule of thirds when framing your shot. Mind your composition.

The “rule of thirds” is a common composition tool in photography, dividing the frame into thirds from left to right and top to bottom. Generally, it’s more pleasing to the eye to put an animal on the right or left side of the frame than in the dead center.

Huber said that, generally, “tight is right.” However, sometimes he likes to provide more context in the frame.

“Sometimes I’ll get into a situation and I’ll back off with that long piece of glass, I’ll go with a 70-200mm,” he said. “I want a little real estate around me in case something happens to give it a sense of place.”

5. Keep a low profile while shooting, and move on after getting the shot.

While enjoying the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive, Huber pointed out that you’re visiting the wildlife’s home.

“You have to show respect to the animals you’re photographing. If 50 cars just went by, maybe two people in each car at the least, that’s 100 people already that are getting out and snapping. I think the animals can sense it,” he said. “It’s good to get your photos, get something that’s pretty decent and move on.”

6. Be ready for the unexpected.

There’s a reason the animals are called “wildlife.” They don’t pose for shots or stay still sometimes.

“Be prepared for the unexpected. I’ve been caught flat-footed many times,” Huber said.

7. Practice makes perfect.

The best way to get better at something is to keep doing it.

“Stuff happens so fast. If you do this enough, you get better at it,” Huber said.

8. Have a tripod or monopod to use with heavy equipment.

Though it’s generally easier to shoot from your vehicle (and perhaps better for not spooking wildlife), Huber said there are some spots to pull over and set up a tripod or monopod, which can help in support heavy lenses and gear.

His pro tip: Use a beanbag or a towel on your car’s window to help support big lenses.

9. Set the camera to ‘M’ for manual mode.

While modern cameras have smart, easy automatic settings, Huber said the best way to learn about shutter speed, aperture and ISO, is to set the camera to the “M” dial for manual mode.

“You’ve got autofocus, auto exposure. If you really want to better your photography, especially your wildlife photography, set your camera to manual mode,” he said. “If you learn the mechanics of photography ... you’re going to learn a skill set that a lot of people don’t have.”

10. Have fun and enjoy nature.

One of Huber’s most important tips is simply to have fun.

“You’ve got to have fun, no matter what you’re doing,” he said. “It gives people a sense of accomplishment to go out there, document it and then come back, look at the photos and say, ‘Look what I got,” from their trip out to nature.”

If you go: Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive is open 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday-Sunday and during federal holidays. Enter the drive at 2850 Lust Road in Apopka; all vehicles must exit by 5 p.m. Admission is free and the drive normally takes 1-3 hours depending upon traffic and how many stops visitors choose to make along the way. For more information, visit sjrwmd.com. Follow Huber on Instagram: @redhuber. For photographers looking for a forum to share photos, join the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive Facebook group.

Find me on Twitter @PConnPie, Instagram @PConnPie or send me an email: pconnolly@orlandosentinel.com.

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©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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