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The Truly Awesome Nebraska Sandhill Cranes – A Day Trip Photo Adventure With Nikon and Fujifilm

Around 20 years ago I headed out west to photograph one of the most stunning scenes you can imagine: the Sandhill Crane migration.

For the month of March, these beautiful (but also kinda goofy-looking) birds fatten up in the corn fields along the Platte River before they head on out to their next destination.

Photographing them isn’t easy, and I remember taking my really crappy 70-300mm consumer zoom lens out to try to photograph them when I was first starting photography. Let’s just say it was that trip where I realized how important lenses are for wildlife photography! The lens didn’t allow enough light into the camera, it had iffy image quality, and the old 10D I was using could barely focus on a turtle crossing a road, let alone these birds in distant fields.

So here I am all these years later with much better equipment and a lot more experience, taking another dive into capturing images of the Sandhill Cranes that I actually like.

Fujifilm X-H2 and Fujifilm XF100-400 – Shot at 373mm – 1/3200 – f/5.6 – ISO 320

I brought along the Fujifilm X-H2 with the 100-400mm lens to compare against the Nikon Z9 and the 400mm f/4.5 with the TC 1.4 (thanks, John for letting me borrow this combination!).

Neither of these lens combinations are ideal for the Sandhill Cranes… so in some ways I’m back to where I was 20 years ago using equipment not quite suitable for the situation.

However… I knew this going in. For the cranes in fields, 600mm is very much a minimum focal length. The Fujifilm X-H2 with the 100-400 is a tantalizing combination, but one that let me down most of the day. Although it has a 600mm focal length in full-frame terms… the camera let me down slightly in image quality and focus ability. Although it could focus fine on birds in flight for the cranes in the sky (like the photo above), it struggled to focus on birds in any other situation.

Fujifilm X-H2 and Fujifilm XF100-400 – Shot at 400mm – 1/2500 – f/8 – ISO 800

The example above is with the Fujifilm X-H2 at 400mm (600mm full frame equivalent). The camera/lens combination struggled to focus on these birds, even when they are barely moving in this situation. The focus could recognize and find the bird’s faces with a green box around the head… but it was nearly impossible to get the camera to reliably lock focus using bird-focusing mode. I eventually had to go back to single-box autofocus to get most of my photos with the X-H2. (I need to say that heat haze also had a part here… the ground was very cold from the night before, and the temps were rising quickly into the mid-60’s at this point).

The Fujifilm’s zoom flexibility was useful to frame scenes like these next three photographs:

Fujifilm X-H2 and Fujifilm XF100-400 – Shot at 219mm – 1/4000 – f/5.6 – ISO 640
Fujifilm X-H2 and Fujifilm XF100-400 – Shot at 165mm – 1/2500 – f/5.6 – ISO 200
Fujifilm X-H2 and Fujifilm XF100-400 – Shot at 373mm – 1/4000 – f/8 – ISO 400

Even with the advantage of flexibility, I rarely used the X-H2. The Nikon Z9 with the 400mm f/4.5 was clearly superior in almost every way, with the Nikon continuing to focus in far more situations (using nothing but continuous autofocus and telling the camera to recognize birds), so I shot with the Z9 most of the day.

Nikon Z9 and Nikkor 400mm f/4.5 with 1.4TC – 1/5000 – f/6.3 – ISO 640

The Nikon Z9 with the 400mm f/5.6 is locked at either 400mm, or 560mm with the TC 1.4… which gives fantastic image quality at those focal lengths at the expense of flexibility.

This doesn’t allow me to get as “close” as the Fujifilm, but the quality was vastly superior on the Z9. That shouldn’t be surprising, or much of a knock against Fujifilm. The body/lens combination of the Z9 is close to $8,000 compared to $3,800 for the Fuji combination… so I’m not comparing apples to apples.

Nikon Z9 and Nikkor 400mm f/4.5 with 1.4TC – 1/3200 – f/7.1 – ISO 640
Nikon Z9 and Nikkor 400mm f/4.5 with 1.4TC – 1/3200 – f/7.1 – ISO 640
Nikon Z9 and Nikkor 400mm f/4.5 with 1.4TC – 1/3200 – f/7.1 – ISO 640
Nikon Z9 and Nikkor 400mm f/4.5 with 1.4TC – 1/1250 – f/8 – ISO 500

Shots like the above are fairly easy to get… but also pretty boring. I will say that the sharpness of the Nikon combination is pretty awesome. Here is a 100% crop of the above photograph:

Most of my photos from the day aren’t great, but I had a ton of fun regardless. I was mostly trying to find unique viewpoints and/or scenes where the cranes are doing something just a little different. Here is one of them hollering into the sky as other cranes keep watch:

Did you know the Cranes know Kung-Fu? it’s true! Just look at these next three:

Again… a boring shot of the birds, but a good example of the clarity and contrast of the 400mm f/4.5 with the 1.4 TC:

I didn’t have great skies for most of the day… but some minimal monochrome photos look kind of cool!

And it’s sometimes fun to slow down the shutter speed for more abstract compositions:

As the light started to get better, however… the scenes were more saturated with color and directional, beautiful light.

As much as possible in a flat area full of similar-looking cornfields, I’d try to find some unique ways to get some photos. The following photo took me probably 30 minutes to make. I was far enough away from the birds on the road that I could stay back and zoom in… and I just had to keep waiting for the right set of cranes to cross overhead:

Unless you’re in a blind, these birds ALWAYS know where you are and start running away. However, because I’m a ninja sometimes, I ducked into a ravine and the birds were kind of confused. All they could see was my camera and black hat peeking up from a ditch! Here they are on the lookout:

Time passed and I moved toward the spot I chose to photograph the sunset. I grabbed a couple shots near the Platte River as I waited for the sun to start setting.

This one is actually with the Fujifilm GFX

It’s amazing to start hearing the cranes’ goofy-sounding calls fill the sky. You can hear them from all directions start to fly back to the river for a night’s sleep, so capturing some shots of them coming to their resting spots is mandatory:

My chosen spot wasn’t the best to get the Sandhill Cranes during the sunset… but the light was so beautiful I had to shoot the things closer to me with the Fujifilm GFX 100s and 80mm f/1.7:

I know! These are ducks… not cranes. Ducks are pretty cool too!

The next morning was also beautiful. You can see the sun start to peek over the horizon… which is a sign to the Sandhill Cranes to take off and find food in the fields.

Is the next shot the best of the entire trip? Probably…

And finally, a few more GFX shots to end the morning and the Sandhill Crane journey:

This was a fun trip! Although “great” shots eluded me most of the day, it was still a blast to be out in nature witnessing a truly unique event!

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