Wildlife Photography With Monique Dao

Planet Of Animals
Planet Of Animals

BY Mohammad Namjoo

Wildlife Photography With Monique Dao

Wildlife Photography With Monique Dao

Planetofanimals.net

1.Tell us a brief description about yourself.

I'm Vietnamese, born in Saigon, Vietnam. My family escaped a communist government and settled in sunny California, US, when I was 5. I'm a fine art photographer, with focus in nature, wildlife and portraits.

2.How did you get into wildlife photography?

I've always loved all things nature, so, naturally, when I picked up my first DSLR, I'd go out to naturesque places and photograph anything pretty I could find - flowers, butterflies, bugs, birds, landscape, etc. Between my love for nature and animals, it was only a matter of time before I shifted my photographic focus into wildlife photography.

3.What inspires you about wildlife photography?

Getting close to an animal and capturing the moment is a magical experience unlike any other. Like the time I sat there and had a staring contest with a Burrowing Owl. It was both an exciting and a surreal moment for me, wondering what he's thinking and what he's going to do. (The Owl won, of course.)

4.What kind of equipment do you use now, and what did you begin with?

My very first DSLR and lens were a Canon Rebel t4i and a Canon EF 70-300 f/4-5.6 IS. They served me well for a few months but, as my skills and experiences progressed, I became obsessed with speed and image quality. I needed something faster and sharper to keep up. So I upgraded all my bodies and lenses. I now shoot with two bodies: Canon 5D MK III & Canon 7D MK II - and my main wildlife lens is Canon EF 400 f/5.6L, occasionally combined with Canon 1.4x III converter.

1.Tell us a brief description about yourself.

I'm Vietnamese, born in Saigon, Vietnam. My family escaped a communist government and settled in sunny California, US, when I was 5. I'm a fine art photographer, with focus in nature, wildlife and portraits.

2.How did you get into wildlife photography?

I've always loved all things nature, so, naturally, when I picked up my first DSLR, I'd go out to naturesque places and photograph anything pretty I could find - flowers, butterflies, bugs, birds, landscape, etc. Between my love for nature and animals, it was only a matter of time before I shifted my photographic focus into wildlife photography.

3.What inspires you about wildlife photography?

Getting close to an animal and capturing the moment is a magical experience unlike any other. Like the time I sat there and had a staring contest with a Burrowing Owl. It was both an exciting and a surreal moment for me, wondering what he's thinking and what he's going to do. (The Owl won, of course.)

4.What kind of equipment do you use now, and what did you begin with?

My very first DSLR and lens were a Canon Rebel t4i and a Canon EF 70-300 f/4-5.6 IS. They served me well for a few months but, as my skills and experiences progressed, I became obsessed with speed and image quality. I needed something faster and sharper to keep up. So I upgraded all my bodies and lenses. I now shoot with two bodies: Canon 5D MK III & Canon 7D MK II - and my main wildlife lens is Canon EF 400 f/5.6L, occasionally combined with Canon 1.4x III converter.
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5. What are the challenges wildlife photographers face on a regular basis?

Harsh weather conditions, heavy gear, long hours, getting eaten by mosquitoes, getting scratched by branches, just to name a few! Also, trying to seek out our subjects and sometimes waiting around all day and never seeing them. There's a lot of research involved (incl. asking every photographer we know) to find out where and when a certain animal is going to be. And even that is never a sure thing. Taking chances is a huge part of wildlife photography. I remember the time I was traveling to Vancouver, Canada, with a few of my wildlife photographer friends. My friend had shared awesome shots of this really cute Northern Pygmy Owl (I've never seen one before). This owl was one of my main reasons for the trip. So he took us to the same spot where he had found the owl. It was cold, gloomy, rainy, and we stood around for about six hours. The owl never showed! I was pretty sad, so I cheered myself up by photographing all the cute dogs that were taking walks with their owners. 
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6. What are your thoughts on raw images vs images that have been edited?

I'm a big believer in creating art with my photography. To me, RAW images are like raw food ingredients you've gathered to prepare and cook a meal. There's no one set way to make it. You can go American, Italian, or Chinese. The RAW files you've captured in your camera provide so much data for you to process and produce the most beautiful images possible.

7. What are the techniques you use?

I shoot manual 99% of the time. It gives me full control of the exposure applicable to each situation. For Aperture, I always shoot wide open, which is f/5.6 for my prime lens, because I love to blur out the background bringing all focus into my subject. For Shutter Speed, I know what SS my non-Image Stabilizing lens can handle - which is around 1/1250 or faster - so I rarely go lower than that. It is helpful to use high shutter speeds for wildlife, because you'll just never know when that bird sitting there on the branch for the last half hour is gonna take off! In terms of ISO, the 1% of the time I use "Auto" ISO to test a shot to see where the lighting currently is, and then I adjust accordingly. Auto ISO helps when you are trying to track a bird going from bright areas to dark areas. It can get tricky so you'll just have to use your own judgment.
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8. What is your favorite animal if you had to choose one?

I practically love all animals. They are all beautiful and unique in their own way. But if I had to pick, I would say the Cheetah. They're the fastest land animal that can run up to 75MPH. They are gorgeous wildcats that are also fierce and will protect their coalition to the death.

9. How do you plan your shoots?

Wildlife is really hard to "plan" for. There are just too many factors involved - the weather, the lighting, the crowds, and most importantly, are the animals where we think they are? But knowing your subject and having general knowledge of the area will help. For instance, if you're trying to photograph birds, you'll have to know that many of them are most active in the early morning and late afternoon. For example, if you like Hummingbirds, hanging out near red and tubular shaped flowers will more than likely give you plenty of shooting opportunities. Or simply hang by the water to see many different types of birds at once because, hey, birds gotta drink, too!

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10. What is your favorite image? Can you explain the background story behind it?

One of my all-time favorite images I've captured is the one with the Burrowing Owl chasing away a Squirrel to protect her babies nearby. I had spent several hours just hanging out near a super adorable Burrowing Owl family (within safe distance for both, of course) watching them fly and hop around and playing with one another. Then in the corner of my eye, I saw a Squirrel slowly creeping up. Maybe he was just passing by and meant no harm, but to Mother Owl, she took it as either danger or food. She immediately lifted up in the air and chased little Squirrel away from the kids. No worries. Squirrel escaped successfully and no one was hurt in the end. But it all happened so fast and I was so lucky to have captured this moment on my camera. After looking at my screen, I screamed in excitement! This image has made it into the 2016 Orange County Arts Fair. 
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11. Do you have any tips to inspire junior wildlife photographers?

When I first took up wildlife photography, I went out almost every weekend (and sometimes during the week after work) to go shoot. So my advice for aspiring wildlife photographers is to go out with your camera and shoot a lot. You can't learn something just by reading about it in books or online. Too much information can lead to confusion. You have to go out, practice, and experience everything it has to offer. 
 Try different camera settings to find what works and what doesn't. Sure, half your images may be blurry, but only through trial and error will you learn and improve. 
 Challenge yourself by venturing out to unknown territories. Do research to see what types of wildlife there is in those areas. Look up places like botanical gardens, nature preserves, wildlife sanctuaries, canyons, hiking trails, your local parks, and sometimes the least likely places. I have spotted White-tailed Kites and Red-shouldered Hawks in the middle of a busy road! I have gotten great shots of birds in the Target parking lot! eBird.org is a great source for where to find what types of birds. 
 
Join local wildlife groups on Facebook to not only make friends with other great wildlife photographers but also learn what they've spotted recently! I've made so many amazing friends with common interests through these groups as well as meeting them in person while out photographing. 
 
But please understand and adhere to safe and ethical practices of wildlife photography. Don't ever approach wildlife to disturb or harm them in any way, just to get a shot. Whether you are intentional or not, never put either them or yourself in danger. Respect all wildlife and keep a safe distance for both sides. 
 
And just HAVE FUN, really!