How I Got The Shot: Flying Lambs

4:00 AM, Badlands National Park.

The world is peaceful and silent, save for my iPhone alarm jolting us out of bed. Time to head out and see if my wife and I can track down some adorable bighorn lambs. We’d spotted them in the same place a couple days in a row (about a 45-minute drive from camp), and while we were able to secure a few good shots, I just didn’t feel like I had “the shot” yet.

I’m sure you’ve been there as well. You’ve captured a few good pics of a particular subject, but this nagging feeling keeps whispering in your ear that you need to keep trying.

That feeling was more like a yell than a whisper with these baby bighorns.

Still, the previous day produced more than a few keepers. However, early on the action was abruptly cut short by a family forcing a screeching child out of the car to “see the babies” (pro tip – don’t take a 3-year-old out at 4:45 AM). Not to mention the guy with the barking dog going berserk over the sheep. It honestly blows my mind how people can be utterly oblivious to how their hysterical dog is terrifying the wildlife. Ahh, nothing like Sunday in a national park…

Between the kid and the dog, I honestly don’t blame the entire herd for retreating into the canyon. I kind of felt like going with them if we’re being honest. The situation seemed to take on the quality of a lost cause, but luckily there was a curious little dude that couldn’t resist taking a peek over the ridge to see if the circus was still in town.

The second I saw his adorable little head break over the edge, I trained my hand-held 500PF on him, focused on the eye with the D6, and let loose. The biggest trick was the grass blowing in front of him, but thankfully I was able to get a couple shots that didn’t have vegetation blocking his eyes.

Peeking lamb. D6, 500PF, 1/500th, F/5.6, ISO 3200

The truth is, I really liked that shot and thought I was satisfied. But that little nagging feeling kept rearing its head every so often throughout the day, making me feel like I was still missing something.

As evening approached, we made our way back out to the Badlands to see if we could unearth a few more bighorns. I had my sights set on some big, beautiful, full-curl rams that we had spotted earlier. Sadly, when we found them, we discovered they had chosen a terrible location for a photoshoot – and there seemed little we could do to change their minds. We moved on.

Once again we came across some lambs – only this time they were far more active. As they played and bounced, I quickly realized what that nagging feeling was about – I wanted an action shot too!

Up until this point, the lambs had been more or less docile. Sure, there was the occasional moment of excitement when they would run and play a bit, but it was short and never prolonged. This group was rambunctious and would leap high into the air, mock fight (smashing their tiny heads together), run, sprint, you name it.

Sadly, a storm was moving in and the light was dismal – even by D6 standards. When the action did erupt, I just wasn’t able to muster the shutter speed required to freeze it.

BUT… now I knew what I was after! So, the 4:00 AM wake-up call was greeted with far more enthusiasm than you might expect considering the early hour.

This time, we went back to the largest group, hoping to see some action and weren’t disappointed. As the first light of sunrise struggled to break through the cloud cover, we spotted a large group of lambs – under the supervision of the watchful eyes of the ewes, of course. We pulled up, the truck creeping along incredibly slowly, finally stopping a comfortable 50 yards from the herd.

We very carefully opened our doors and stepped out. I grabbed the D6 and the 180-400. I’m not usually a “zoom guy” for long glass, but a few otherwise fantastic action shots were ruined the day before, thanks to some cropped ears and too much lens (the 500PF in this case). Plus, the zoom offered more versatility – and if I could keep it at or below 400mm, I also gained a stop of light over the 500 PF (F/4 instead of F/5.6). A welcome bonus in the dim morning light.

Since I’m field-testing the D6 at the moment, that was the camera of choice. I decided to use one of my custom Group AF areas (7×7) this time. The problem with leaping or running lambs is their head tends to go up and down very rapidly – and it’s challenging to pan both horizontally and vertically at the same time. This is especially true when they are filling most of the frame. So, the larger Group AF area allowed me to basically cover the entire area where I anticipated I’d want to place the head in the composition. Now, when the action starts, all I need to do is keep the head somewhere in the 7×7 square – easy enough.

Although the light was low, I still dialed in 1/1600th of a second. Not as fast as I’d like, but it seemed like a good compromise between ISO and shutter speed.

We started our approach, slow and steady. As we closed in on the main group, a NASCAR wannabe came racing by in his pickup (I really wish these sheep wouldn’t always hang out right next to the road). As the truck rattled and clanked by, the babies took to the canyon.

Seems like we’d been cheated again.

However, just before we started back to the truck, we spotted a couple “leftovers” hanging out with their moms. These two seemed quite fearless and were soon play-fighting, chasing, and butting heads – and they couldn’t have cared less about the two gawking spectators with long lenses pointed their direction.

At one point during a mock-fight, the little guy you see in the image below bounced at least six feet off the ground! When something is that high in the air, it usually has feathers and a beak!

Lamb-in-flight. D6, 180-400 @ 370mm, 1/1600th, F/4, ISO 5600

While I try to avoid too much chimping in the field, I have to admit, I did indulge this time. I just couldn’t resist taking a moment to check that image. If you think I had a stupid grin on my face afterward, I’d say that’s a fair assessment.

After this little performance, things settled down. There was a bit of running here and there that I happily captured as the opportunities presented themselves, but I figured there’s no way I’m topping or even matching that “lamb-in-flight” shot.

Wrong!

About 45 minutes after the image above was captured, the bighorn family started to make its way through the meadow. We advanced alongside as they went, maintaining a distance that seemed to make them comfortable. However, at this point, they were all but ignoring us.

I was kneeling down shooting some portraits – in this case, using my Pv button set to Single Point so I could let go of the button and jump back to Group if the action started. As I shot, I noticed that one of the ewes was leisurely trotting towards another part of the herd farther back in the field. The lambs weren’t paying attention – at first. However, the second they realized mom had wandered off, they decided the appropriate course of action was to sprint after her.

In the shot below, I was back to using standard-issue Group AF (moved a little left of center) and thanks to increasing light levels, 1/2500th and F/4.5. As the little guy sprinted past, I captured about 20 images – trying my best to keep on his neck and head. Most of the shots were pretty cool, but this one of him leaping over the purple flower was the obvious pick. That 14FPS gives you a LOT of choices in an action scenario!

Leaping over the flower. D6, 180-400 @ 400mm, 1/2500th, F/4.5, ISO 3200

While I’m sure I’ll come back again for more sometime down the road, for now that little nagging feeling seems to have taken a day off. 🙂

PS – If you enjoyed this post, I think you’ll REALLY like my e-books and video workshops! Thousands of pages and hours of videos filled with tips, tricks, and techniques – all my best content! Check ’em out – click here (hey, it’s free to look).

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This entry was posted in How I Got The Shot, Nikon Gear, Opinions, Photo Trips, Techniques, Using Your Gear, Wildlife.

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Rick Cohen
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Rick Cohen

Were you using Auto ISO? And did you have VR turned off because of the fast shutter speed?

Robert Kaplan
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Great story Steve. Love How I Got the Shot series. I used to have Group AF my default and assigned the Pv button to single point. I recently reversed it and made single the default. Not sure yet but think I prefer it. Curious why you have Grp as default. Personal preference or a specific reason?

Eric den Ouden
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Eric den Ouden

I like your storytelling and love the peaking little guy (or girl).That just has a good feel to it and is pretty cool. Keep these stories coming….

Jason Vicks
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Jason Vicks

Amazing as always! I can not wait to see you review and thoughts on the D6, I’m especially interested in the break down of the cross type AF and curious if it truly is the most advanced AF. Also wish you could get your hands on the upcoming Z7s hoping it’s as good as the D850 because I need have a second body so my wife and can both shoot birds! Currently we just have a D500 (fantastic) and D800 (which is why we desperately need an udgrade), just would be nice to both shoot on a reliable camera with… Read more »

Ralph F Smith
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Ralph F Smith

Are you hand holding the 180-400? Is it thousands of $ better than the 200-500 f5.6: 1 stop, sharpness? Looking forward to the d6 review and 180-400 if in the future. Thanks

Tom Jones
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Tom Jones

Thanks Steve. I felt I was right beside you and Rose. Just wish I had some shots of my own to show for it. Good article.

Bill
Guest

Great shots Steve. Come on out to Dubois Wyoming sometime. Rams in November, Lambs in June and better yet no crowds.

Bob G
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Bob G

Thanks for a very interesting article. You give everyone a flavor of what it’s like to go out there and get a great wildlife photo.

Sue
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Sue

Thank you Steve, I love your newsletters and tutorials, they teach me so much. I am an old lady with a (Nikon D500) camera and passionate about wildlife photography. Your photographs are amazing.

Debby Keiran
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Debby Keiran

Thank you for taking the time to write this. I really enjoy learning from your adventures!

Chris Masada
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Chris Masada

Thanks, Steve. Thoroughly enjoyed your backstory and amazing (as always) images. A much needed respite from the doldrums of this COVID summer.

Teresa Kopec
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Teresa Kopec

Awesome story

Sharon Evans
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Sharon Evans

Always enjoy the “how I got the shot” stories and beautiful photos!

Eric
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Eric

Great post, Steve! And with your typically fantastic images, to boot. I have to admire the perseverance you and your wife showed in the face of some of the more unfortunate challenges a wildlife photographer faces on public lands. With a subject – or herd of subjects, in this case – that are more tolerant of humans, your repeated visits to get better shots was well-rewarded. The lesson I took from this posting was to try, try again. Now, about that Pv button being a toggle between single-point and group focus…I’ll have to see if I can set that up… Read more »

Ken Miracle
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Ken Miracle

Really Cool now I know one of the places you were testing the D6

Jerry
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Jerry

Steve, Jerry from Florida here. You are a world class photographer. Love your work, and always look forward to the next ‘episode’.

Tell Rose I said ‘Hi’, and remind her when we were in Costa Rica, and I got her to laugh when I mentioned her riding the bike back and forth so you could prove a point!

Marcus Slade
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Marcus Slade

Great story and images, Steve. Am amazed at how clean these images are at comparatively higher ISO. In fact, the “lamb in flight” shot at 5600, apart from just being a remarkable shot in of itself, would appear to be at a much lower ISO. Jasper National Park, Alberta, is another great location for Big Horn Sheep. The new D6, eh? Will it find a place in your bag?

Jose A. Justiniano
Guest

Nice shots

William G.
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William G.

Great photos and the info behind them. I almost feel like I was there to enjoy this, with you. Thank You, for inspiring us to learn this craft and to apply it in the field.

LARS of LONG BEACH, CA
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LARS of LONG BEACH, CA

MANY THANKS, STEVE! AS USUAL I CONTINUE TO ENJOY YOUR “HOW TO SEGMENTS” ALONG WITH YOUR GREAT SENSE-OF-HUMOR! YOU REALLY MOTIVATE THIS “ANTIQUATED” PHOTOGRAPHER.

Brooke Rines
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Brooke Rines

Steve, these are fantastic!!!!! Thank you for sharing!

Vernon Rogers
Guest

Love the photos! Good to see you trying out the D6, with more finances I would too. Though I have a Z 6 and really enjoy it, I don’t think it will ever completely replace my beloved DSLR’s, the D500 and D850. I have been an SLR man since 1959, so I am so much at home with them, and the size and weight are big helps in keeping steady. For the most part, mirrorless lenses don’t save much if any weight. It is very easy to see how comfortably mirrorless and DSLR can live together. I have some of… Read more »

Frank Harrah
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Frank Harrah

Fun pictures. Thanks for sharing them. The trip sounds like it was a neat experience.

Ziga T
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Ziga T

Thank you-must’ve been a wonderful experience

Prasad Palaniyandi
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Prasad Palaniyandi

Awesome as usual. Hope we expect D6 review soon….:)

Gary Erbeck
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Gary Erbeck

Great story to go with some great shots…and rocking that D6! Incredible ISO performance!

Richard Kevern
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Richard Kevern

Excellent results Steve. Thank you for telling us your story regarding this particular expedition !

Chaz Harrison
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Chaz Harrison

Great shots and article, most entertaining, thanks. I have only recently started using my 500PF (over here in England we have been stuck in lockdown for three months) and have got my best ever birds in flight shots.

Dennis Mann
Guest

Excellent images, we have been photographing bighorns in the BLNP for 45 years. In June we photographed 17 different lambs around the Pinnacles. Can’t wait until November to photograph the rams during the rut. I am a retired Game Warden so wildlife has been my focus for a 35 year career in enforcement and management! Hunting with a camera has been my passion since I turned 18 but don’t forget that hunters pay the majority of the cost for wildlife management in the United States, The North American Model for Conservation is a model that the world should follow to… Read more »

Teri Lapetino
Guest

Nice shots! Will you keep the D6?

William H Davis
Guest
William H Davis

Great story and incredible photos, as always. It’s nice to know that someone of your ability and knowledge goes through the same stuff us lowly amateurs go through, the highs and lows of a shoot. I have learned so much from you and your eBooks. I’m not near a professional level, nor do I really want to be but my wildlife photography has improved by leaps and bounds since discovering your videos and eBooks. Even my wife compliments me on some of my shots now. It doesn’t get better than that. Thanks for all you do!

Ray Gawlak
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Ray Gawlak

Faboulous photos, Steve! Patience is not only a virtue in your line of photography but also a requirement. I heard recently that a ram went over a cliff because he missed the “ewe” turn. Sorry, this is a sort of obsession with me.

John Sheldon
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John Sheldon

I enjoyed reading that. Thanks for posting.

Andrew Camden-Smith
Guest
Andrew Camden-Smith

As always an entertaining and inspiring article!

David Pine
Guest
David Pine

Now I want to find flying lambs! Great work!

Sharon Avila
Guest

Fabulous shots as always Steve! Thank you for sharing your experience.

John Terpstra
Guest
John Terpstra

Always love reading your stuff. Always learn something.
What is the best time of year for shooting the young lambs?

Jerol Monroe
Guest
Jerol Monroe

I fear when “they” outlaw dogs in the National Parks, next will be tripods, followed by photographers. Eventually, only the Park Rangers will be allowed. Loved your story, determination, and the shots, especially the Peeking Lamb. Thanks for sharing this!

Bill
Guest
Bill

Great story, fantastic images!!

Robert Rogers
Guest
Robert Rogers

Thanks for sharing the wonderful story and great shots Steve.

Peter Oosthuizen
Guest
Peter Oosthuizen

Great story and images Steve. Thanks. Quite interesting that dogs are allowed in National Parks where there is game – here in SA it would be a toss up between shooting the dog or the owner 🙂 Hyena bait !!

Patrick
Guest
Patrick

Good stuff Steve thanks for sharing

Sean R Tomlinson
Guest
Sean R Tomlinson

That was fun, neat story Steve. Will you review my dream lens, the 180-400, formally?

Marco
Guest
Marco

Great Story and photos…I see a D6 Review coming soon!

John Nesser
Guest

Great shots Steve! Thanks for sharing.

Noel Franz
Guest
Noel Franz

Enjoyed the read, great shots and will use some referenced tips next time I’m out on the road with that same nagging feeling

Greg Vaughn
Guest

Wonderful! I just returned from the Badlands and wonder if we were there at the same time. Similar to the barking dog, some guy at Sage Creek Campground brought his Beagle out to look at the prairie dogs. Not a smart move.

Dan
Guest

Great post Steve. Your story really highlights the patience that is required for this. Makes me feel better about the ‘zero keeper’ days I’ve had recently. LOVE the Lamb in Flight.

Yannick LE BOULICAUT
Guest

the “behind the scene” anecdotes are Always interesting to read, thanks Steve!