Growing up in Timmins, Ontario, Nathan Beaulne had ample opportunities to explore wildlife. “It’s in northern Ontario, so you’re pretty remote,” he says. “It’s pretty much stuck in the middle of the bush.” For the last fifteen years he’s been living in the more populated Barrie, Ontario, but Barrie is still located so that with a short drive, Beaulne can observe a wide range of Canada’s diverse birdlife.
Beaulne’s journey is one of those photography stories mere mortals love to hear. Almost three years ago he and his wife picked up a point-and-shoot camera. With no formal training and not much immediate inspiration around their house, they decided to take up hiking. This led to photos of birds. A few months later, they found a local trail with birds so tame they approached humans. “We sort of bonded a connection with the camera and birds,” he explains. “A couple of months later we got an SLR and never looked back.”
Without spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on formal educations in photography for he and his wife, Beaulne has become more than competent in understanding the workings of his cameras, related gear, and the habits of animals he’s interested in photographing. “All of the pros are so willing to give you free information online through their blogs, different forums and places like that. Scott Bourne is probably my number one source of information.”
Beaulne and his wife Kelly have proven to be a formidable team, and are disseminating a lot of their own educational and photographically-inspirational content. With Beaulne himself more into the photography and Kelly more interested in the writing, their blog, Petals, Wings and Things, is a growing resource of wildlife photography and anecdotes of locations, shoots, and identified species.
Crediting photography with helping open up his world, the couple now see things differently. “After getting into photography you start to be aware of everything that’s going around you,” Beaulne says. “I was really shocked at the amount species of birds, but also of wildlife, that’s just right there, even right in the city.”
Beaulne points to patience being critical to the art of wildlife photography. “You spend a lot of time in the field trying to get a particular bird,” he says. “You might spend eight hours and come up with nothing. It’s something you have to accept. There’s going to be a lot of days like that where you’re going to come up empty-handed, but the more time you spend out there, the more things you learn about the craft. With birds, the main reason it keeps on driving me is you just never really know what’s going to pop up. There’s always the anticipation. You don’t know what bird’s going to show up, what kind of opportunities are going to present themselves.”
Kelly and Beaulne also photograph insects, which are in ample evidence in their blog. Insects present different challenges than birds. “With birds, what I find works a lot better is you tend to hunker down a lot more. You pick a spot where you can control the background and the lighting—get it all set to go and wait for the birds to come to you,” he says. “With insects there’s more trekking around. I tend to try to get really close to the butterflies and dragonflies. I find they’re not as skittish as most birds, so you get right up on top of them. That’s more of the challenge: getting really close to them so you can get good detail on them.”
To compensate for the associated behavior of each type of animal, Beaulne has developed his own strategy with the gear he carries. “I carry two bodies now,” he says. “My main camera with the long telephoto lens is the one that’s tripod-mounted. That’s mainly what I shoot the birds with. If I see a dragonfly or butterfly, I work closer towards it. I’ll still use the telephoto to shoot it, but once I get within the range of the minimum focusing distance, I’ll switch to a second body that usually has a macro lens on it.” He reports the majority of his insect shots are accomplished with the macro lens.
The main body Beaulne uses is a Canon EOS 50D with a 100-400mm telephoto zoom lens. This is mounted on a tripod via the Induro GHB2 Gimbal head. The head has been performing well for the couple as they stalk wildlife in the field under a variety of conditions. “I tried out a friend’s, and really, really enjoyed it,” Beaulne says. “It’s remarkable. I tried just a standard ball head, before. I found it to be cumbersome with the big lens, trying to move around on it. You had to be really on top of things to make sure it didn’t drop, slide, or fall down. But with the gimbal head, it’s almost like a dream come true.”
Precipitation doesn’t seem to be a factor, either. “I was out in the rain a week and a half ago,” he recalls. “I went out to do some scouting for a birding thing we were doing, and it ended up being a blizzard. I was out there in the snow for four hours. The head held up great.”
Currently involved in a 365 Project, the couple are shooting at least one photo every day for a year. Beaulne puts in the time every day, although some days he doesn’t get an acceptable image of a bird, his first passion. Crediting his geographic location with being in a great migration route, he often has plenty of birds and butterflies to choose from when shooting until the winter sets in. When the nearby lake freezes over, Beaulne is left with local birds and some winter migrants which stay in the Barrie area during winter. “It’s definitely more challenging during the winter,” he says.
Dedication is critical to winter wildlife photography, as uncomfortable as it sounds. Beaulne has been known to lie on a frozen dock for three hours for shots or trudging through four feet of snow to reach a location. The love of birding helps drive the desire to document their sightings with cameras. For Beaulne, they go hand in hand. “I can’t see myself birding without a camera, or photographing much without looking at birds,” he says. He believes he spends approximately half his time on photography and half his time learning about bird species.
The love of both wildlife and photography has literally changed Beaulne’s life. Five months ago he left his corporate job and turned to what was becoming increasingly more important in his life. “It got harder and harder to go into work and sit at a desk when I just wanted to be outside doing something else. We’re definitely struggling a little bit right now but I’m a lot happier in my life,” he says. “This is where we’re trying to take the photography.”
It takes a brave and dedicated individual to make such a move in today’s economic climate. For Beaulne and his wife, the risk and photography are worth it.
Written by Ron Egatz