Robin Moon has a bunch of awards under her arm as a nature and wildlife photographer, and returned this year as a Nature category judge for the Sony Alpha Awards 2020. We thought it’d be interesting to ask her about her own favorite shots.
We caught up with Robin over a video call to chat about three shots she selected, keen to see what tips she had to share as a shooter and a judge. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Moon: I took that one back in 2017 in Tonga. He probably started the love of wildlife for me. My husband’s a photographer as well, so we’ve been able to take some time to slow-travel around the world a bit. He’s a landscape person, so that’s where I went, to landscape.
But I was always a bit of an animal girl growing up, and as time went on, we were traveling to places like Iceland, and he wanted to shoot another volcano, and I’d see a paddock full of ponies along the road and be like ‘no, no, every two volcanoes or waterfalls we’re gonna stop for the ponies.’
I realized that I was working really hard to make nice landscape photos, but when I was shooting wildlife it was ‘bang bang bang bang bang.’ I’ve never been frightened of animals, so I guess I push the boundaries a bit more, and I realized that my creative brain was coming to the fore, and wildlife and animal photos were coming much more easily for me than landscapes.
New Atlas: I guess with landscape, you have to conjure up any emotional content in a shot, where with the animals it’s right there?
Absolutely. I find I’ve got to really pull out the emotion of a landscape, but I can just simply engage with the animals.
Barnacle Bill was an adolescent humpback whale in Tonga, he wasn’t the slightest bit frightened of us. You’re supposed to stay 50 meters (164 ft) away from humpbacks, but that doesn’t stop them from coming up to you and getting right in your face. If they’re in the mood, they’ll come up and tip-touch you and hang around with you as if they want to engage with you.
So this guy was coming closer and closer, I thought he was going to barrel right into us. But we stayed still, and right after this shot he turned around and spy-hopped right up in front of us, maybe 3 inches away. He knew exactly what he was doing in time and space, just having fun with us.
So that’s a pretty wide-angle shot there?
Yeah, I was using a 16-35. Other underwater shots, like last time I was chasing stingrays and seahorses, I was getting better results with a 24-70 lens. But with the whales, they’re so huge, and the 16-35 is perfect, it lets you get in a bit close to them.
I guess getting up close means you have less of that murky water in the way, you’ll get a clearer shot.
Yes, you do. And when you get really close up shots like that, the detail on their noses is incredible. He tried to touch us, and you don’t really want that, it’s more a thump than a touch. And they’ve got barnacles on them, big sharp edges on them. There’s some conjecture that they want to rub them off on you, that’s why they want to touch you. Sorry buddy, not at the expense of my camera housing!
So if you’re looking at somebody’s underwater shots in a contest, what are you looking for?
Last year, I was one of the judges with Nature, and it was an underwater shot that won, and it was a standout straight away. We had something like 900 entries last year in the Nature category, it’s quite a task to get through them.
Number one, it’s got to connect to me emotionally. There’s got to be a story straight off. I’ll place story over technique nearly all the time, and it gets me into some arguments with other judges. The winner’s technique was about 90 percent perfect, but the story was so strong that we forgave the little glitches in the photo.
So often, you’ll get the perfect moment, but you didn’t nail the focus, or you might’ve chosen a different shutter speed, but that photo’s still better than the other one, even if it’ll annoy you forever that there’s a more perfect one that’s less good.
It’s a crying shame when that happens. I usually shoot at a high-speed burst.
What’s your main axe?
For underwater I’ll use a an a7R II, and for above ground I’ll use an a7R IV. I won’t put the iV in the water, because I love it too much! So with Barnacle Bill, he was rolling around, and with that burst you get yourself a slight change in the angle, and it makes a completely different shot.
If I was to follow other experts, I should probably have a 400 ISO on these shots, but honestly I just stick it on auto ISO and I find that takes a lot of stress out of shooting. I address any noise issues afterwards.
Those Sony sensors are next-level with that stuff for sure. Almost ISO-independent.
Dynamic range is nuts. That’s a luxury for sure. And the animal AF is incredible, too. I shoot a lot of birds, and the small ones can be crazy hard to shoot. But once you get a lock on, it’s fabulous, you can pull out so many good photos.
They’re getting easier and easier to use, too, and while the camera nerd in me feels like you’re not a photographer if you can’t shoot manual, at the end of the day, if more people can capture emotion and capture something amazing, it’s got to be for the better.
Yeah! There’s lots of talk about getting off auto, but if I’m in a situation where I get very excited about something, if I see a moment, often I’ll just put the camera on auto and fire off a few shots. Then I can relax, I’ve got something there I can work with and I can think about what else I want to do, knowing I haven’t missed the moment. Sometimes you just don’t have time, it’s not like a whale’s going to wait and pose for you.
So the mode you’re shooting in, that’s saved in the metadata of a shot, right? Do you you guys as contest judges give people a penalty if you find out they shot in auto?
Not really! If it’s done the job, it’s done the job! I never really look at the metadata. People sometimes put that stuff in manually, and it doesn’t match what I see.
I got him in Melbourne Zoo, I can’t tell a lie! I was there to shoot the snow leopards, but I saw they had a huge aviary of endangered Australian birds. It’s really hard to capture these birds in the wild, the red and black cockatoo is an endangered species. So I chased him round the aviary for a couple of hours.
So what’s that behind him?
That was his perch, and I added in the clouds.
How much do you know about these animals when you’re going in to shoot them? Are you doing research?
I spent all last summer as a locum in my other life up north in Grafton. I chased so many birds up there every week, I just know. The cockatoos are generally way above you in the sky or sitting up high in a tree. So the luxury of having them sit right in front of you, with a clear shot and no interference, it’s very exciting. I fell in love with him.
He’s beautiful, I’ve never seen one like that before. Probably not much help to our competition folk though, they’re not allowed to replace backgrounds!
Right! That’s not a competition photo, but I just love it.
Do you have any wisdom to share on bird shooting in general?
I don’t think I’m really a bird expert. I’m competent, but there’s some crazy good bird shooters out there. It seems to be just patience. Lying in wait, learning their habits, where they’ll be, what they’ll be doing. Knowing that this particular bee-eater is going to be across the creek at 8am, looking for the bugs.
So you sit and be patient, and take time, and watch them move around you rather than hiking around searching for them. Being still.
Sometimes you see them, and you walk over and find a spot, and they see you and take off. But in 15 minutes, they can’t help themselves, and they’ll come back and check you out. You’ve got to be ready for them.
Good depth of field is very difficult to capture with birds. A lot of good bird shots go through, and sometimes it’s OK in the context of the picture to have some blurry drop-off in the depth of field, but if it interrupts the story and takes my eye away from what’s important, it annoys me and I don’t give it the big tick.
You’re always shooting at such high zoom on these shots, it’s hard to stop down enough to get the right depth of field without slowing the shutter down and losing your crisp action.
Yeah, it’s pretty tough. You feel like you want to hand hold the camera, but a 600-mm lens is so heavy, you really need a tripod or a monopod to settle it down.
What have you got in your lens bag?
I’m addicted to the GM lenses. My favorite lens at the moment is the 100-400, it’s a cracking lens, it’s so versatile. At the closer end, the 100-mm end, I can virtually shoot macro in the garden, and then the 400 … it doesn’t skip a beat. And the shots are so sharp! That with the 7R IV, and I can crop in to 25 percent of the picture and get a great shot out of it. That’s my favorite setup.
My other favorite lens is the 240-70 2.8 GMB. I can’t take a bad photo with that, it’s pretty versatile as well. I’ve done a lot of whale shots with that, above water, because it’s so fast and so clear.
Ten million wedding photographers can’t be wrong!
That stems from an old childhood dream. I was always a horsey girl when I was a child, I had them growing up. So there was two things I really wanted to do: I wanted to see the Palio di Siena horse race, and I wanted to go see the Camargue horses in Provence, in France.
These are wild horses, not tame at all. They’re friendly, but they’re not owned by anybody and they’re not broken in. They run freely on leased land by the guardians, and they have access to the salt marshes on the edge of the Mediterranean.
This was a morning shoot, an overcast morning. The salt marsh water is only about two inches deep. We were shooting them standing up, but I really wanted to get the reflections right. Being so shallow, the water just doesn’t move much, it’s just crazy good.
So I had to crouch down low. That was shot with the 24-70 I think, I wanted them as close to me as possible to get the best reflections. They were thundering towards me. I was in a group of people, you’ve just got to stand your ground. They know you’re there, they’re not going to go over top of you unless you do something stupid. So I was kneeling in boggy water.
Worth it! Quick shutter speed there? What was your thinking?
Yes, I don’t have the metadata with me, but from the look of the water I’m probably shooting at about 1/1,000 of a second. I like to freeze water. I did experiment with some slower stuff, but I don’t really like that, I like crispy sharp photos. The birds, sometimes I’ll shoot as high as 1/8,000 of a second.
This was reasonably low light and soft light on a cloudy morning, so I couldn’t go much faster than 1/1,000.
It’s captured their K-Pop hairstyles perfectly. Why black and white?
I put it in a B&W contest last year. It lends itself to black and white because the horses are white, but once they’ve run for us a couple of times they get quite muddy. I think I just liked the luminosity of the light in the background, as well. It helped to highlight them.
Isn’t it wonderful we can make these choices afterwards now?
Yeah. I don’t do a lot of black and white, I’m more a color girl, and more a warm color girl at that. I keep telling myself I should branch out to other color palettes, but I keep getting pulled back to warm.
You’ve got to make what turns you on. You can appreciate other people’s stuff, but you’ve got to be true to your own tastes.
So what are your overall tips to people wanting to improve their photography and maybe pick up an award or two?
For me, there’s got to be a story in the photo rather than a pretty bird with beautiful bokeh, sitting on a branch. Not necessarily action, but some sort of emotion in the moment that’s got to capture me and make me want to stay.
And then, it’s a matter of has this person backed up this great moment with good technique? I’ll go into battle with the other judges for a photo that makes me keep coming back and saying ‘hooley dooley, what a moment!’
Can you manufacture story? How much of a story can you create?
I’m aware that sometimes people will create the story, they’ll sit in a bird hide for five hours, and then the tour director will throw out a whole lot of meat so the birds come out and grab it. That actually doesn’t bother me much. It’s really, really tough to get stuff in the wild.
But it’s really just whether you make something that makes me want to stay there, something beautiful, some expression on the animal, a bit of action. It doesn’t have to be moving action, it can just be a kookaburra eyeing off his dinner, but I’ve got to get that sense that he’s looking voraciously at it, something like that.
And a nice, pleasing palette. The overall picture just has to feel like it’s a beautiful moment. Something that makes me stay in the photo.
Very difficult to achieve. But I guess that’s why we have competitions – and so many of them. We see competitions all over the place lately.
Yeah. The other thing I notice when I’m judging is I see so many great photos, and you look at the camera they’re using, maybe they’ve got something like an a7R IV, and they’ve got all these pixels, and they’ll have a huge, wide photo with a little subject in the middle.
Sometimes I’ll think ‘you’ve got all the pixels you need to crop right in, and then the photos’ dynamics will just jump right out.’ That’s probably the single biggest sin I see, people thinking that if they leave all the negative space around, it’ll add to the story. For me, more often than not, it doesn’t add to the story. It’s quite a skill, you have to know how to crop your shots.
You’re recomposing, really.
Yeah. But if you’ve got a beautiful subject surrounded by negative space, dead space, it’s a wasted picture.
Any composition tips?
Getting down low is always interesting, particularly if there’s a reflective surface. I’m a muddy grub, really, if I need to get in the water, I just get in and deal with it later.
I really like that there’s such a broad range of people putting stuff in. There’s some cracking beginner photos, and I really enjoy seeing that. The beginners are really just enjoying their craft. Photography is not a sport just for really good or experienced people. If you’re getting pleasure out of the photos you’re taking, then the sport is working for you.
I like seeing people getting out there with enthusiasm, even if the skill level and technique hasn’t caught up yet. Get out in the wilderness and enjoy the space!
Much more of Robin Moon’s work can be seen at her Format website.
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