GET MORE WOW FROM YOUR WILDLIFE PHOTOS
We all enjoying seeing the glory and majesty of nature in TV documentaries or glossy magazines but, very often amateur photographers walk away with dull images of their animal encounters. The reason for this, like most things photography related, is a complete lack of forethought and planning.
The often unpredictable behaviour of wild animals means they end up running the show. We rarely get do-overs and so timing and game plans become even more critical. That's on top of other elements like lighting, background and composition.
With most of us living in bustling urban environments of towns and cities, whenever we head into the countryside or a woodland park and see a critter, we turn into snap-happy children.
We've all been there at one point or another. Walking along a pathway and spotting a duck, sat on the water of a nearby lake. "OMG - WILDLIFE!!" A dozen or so shots later we review the images on the LCD screen, all excited that we saw something and photographed it. After zooming in to make sure everything is nice and sharp, we can move along to our next animal. Mission accomplished!
Of course, the reality is that we took 15 snapshots of a bird, doing absolutely nothing other than letting out the occasional quack, whilst staring at the moron behind the camera, frantically hitting the shutter release like it was going out of fashion. The resulting images are boring. They won't captivate a viewer's attention for more than a fleeting moment. This is the most common mistake for amateur wildlife photographers and consciously curbing your excitement when initially encountering a creature is the first thing you need to do. Exposure issues, blur and other such problems are more likely occur if you just raise the camera to your eye and start shooting without thinking about what you're doing.
Ideally, when you head out specifically to do wildlife photography, you'll have a particular subject matter in mind. That could be deer, birds, rodents, insects, etc.. All completely different from one another yet we can apply the same checklist to all, to give ourselves the best chance of capturing better images.
Firstly we need to know a bit about our subject matter. Where it dwells and of course when it's active. If there are local nature parks it's worth checking out what wildlife they have. Joining a wildlife photography forum is also a good idea, as often photographers will detail sightings which may increase your success of finding them too. Animals, like deer, are more active at dawn and dusk, whereas most birds are on the go throughout the day. Bear in mind that many birds are migratory and may not be present come Winter months. If reptiles are your thing, then you'll have better success in the early mornings whilst they bask in the sunlight to warm their bodies.
Most wild animals are naturally skittish of would-be predators and so wary of humans. However, if they reside in parks where people are frequent visitors, they do become more comfortable. For example I have tracked deer in open woodland and had to be very quiet and couldn't get closer than 20 meters or so most of the time. Conversely, I visited a nature reserve and got within 5 meters of deer. At another park, it is possible to hand feed wild Chickadees and Nuthatch. These opportunities aren't that common though, so it's always sensible to approach your subject so as not to alert or alarm them to your presence.
Once you have caught a glimpse of an animal you want to photograph, it's a good idea to observe any patterns of behaviour. For example, I recently spent a lot of time photographing Ruby Throat Hummingbirds at a local park. I observed their pattern of behaviour and their favourite feeding spots and perches. Armed with information, I set about picking the best flowers to pre-focus my lens on, taking into account such factors as background and sunlight. In short, I needed an isolated flower with a non-distracting backdrop behind it, which was also situated out of the shade of any trees or other plant life. This allowed me to capture vastly more aesthetically pleasing images and achieve a fast shutter speed to freeze the wings of the bird. It also meant the feathers revealed their beautiful colours, being hit by the high contrast light.
The process was a long one. I stood in the same spot for a few hours, with the birds visiting several times. On each occassion I was able to fire off around a dozen shots, as the bird worked its way around the flower. This gave me the greatest chance of getting the shot I wanted, or at least the biggest selection of images to choose from. With the speed these little creatures move at, it is rather pot luck with regard to their head and body position, let alone their wings, so a good amount of images is definitely recommended.
This technique can be applied to just about anything. If you know where your subject is likely going to be, it will make the task of photographing them much easier and also more aesthetically pleasing. As you'll most likely be using natural light, you can position yourself favourably in relation to the Sun or that offers a more attractive backdrop. Of course there is nothing stopping you using flash to illuminate your subject if need be. However this will often need to be set-up ahead of time and preferably a TTL based system that the power can be controlled remotely upon. Surprisingly, flash doesn't seem to bother animals that much. Sound is usually the main source of alarm, so if your camera has a silent mode, it's worthwhile utilizing it for easily startled animals. Also remember to turn off the recycle time beeps on the flash too.
Obviously there are times when you come across and animal doing something amazing and you have to seize the moment. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that at all and it is encourage. You may see an eagle grabbing a fish out of a pond, or a fox chasing a rabbit. Here you don't have the luxury of planning your shot. However, what you can capture is the action and document the animal doing what it does. This is in stark contrast to a duck sat on a lake doing nothing. In essense, if you have the time to get a better shot, then do so.
When photographing more nervous animals, like deer, the more you can blend into your surroundings, the greater your chances of remaining unseen and number of successful images captured. Leave your brightly coloured T-shirt at home and wear suitable attire that won't alert your subject to your presence and will also protect you from the elements and surrounding environment. You can purchase military surplus NBC/Camoflage suits for under £20 on eBay. These keep you dry and more discreet. While it may be a warm sunny day, kneeling down in shorts may prove painful if you do so in stinging nettles, poison ivy or an ants nest. I can attest to this, as I would be crouched on my knees in the park photographing the hummingbirds. It was extremely uncomfortable, as the pathways were covered in wood chips, which would become imbedded in them. Fortunately my tripod bag is padded and I elected to place my knees on that. Also, woodlands tend to be quite moist under the shade of a canopy, which is ideal conditions for mosquitos and consequently getting bitten. In one day at the park, I got bitten on my legs in excess of 40 times, which was not only annoying but distracting too.
While it is absolutely true that photography is not all about the gear, equipment certainly plays a much bigger part when shooting wildlife, than any other. Super telephoto lenses certainly help deliver the best results. The longer the focal length, the further the working distance and smaller the chance of disturbing the animals. While we'd all love to be packing the latest razor-sharp 400mm f/2.8 or 600mm f/4, those professional lenses come at a huge premium and are heavy to carry. On long excursions, humping heavy great big lenses around will make you hot and tired. Of course you can carry everything in a backpack but, you then run the risk of missing photographic opportunities because the camera is stowed.
Still, there are much more pocket friendly alternatives that still offer acceptable image quality and features, with 70-300mm f/4-5.6 being a good starting point. Obviously these are much slower apertures than the professional lenses and often need stopping down to f/8 and beyond for optimum optical performance but, provided you have a good amount of light or a static subject, you can still achieve great results. In dimmer conditions, full frame cameras will give you an advantage in the ISO department, when you need to raise the shutter speed to freeze action. Where possible, use the camera on a tripod, monopod or bean bag to avoid blur and assist in focusing. Some tripods can detach the leg and centre column to form a monopod, which not only stabilizes the camera but also serves as a walking stick. This helps a great deal when walking up steep hillsides.
Having stood in the same spot for over 4 hours at a time, I can assure you that patience is often a prerequisite for wildlife photography. It is worthwhile bringing a blanket to lie on or a small collapsible chair, especially if you are tripod mounting the camera. The less you move, the better your chances of success. However you also need to remain comfortable so you can concentrate on capturing that decisive moment. Before you start shooting, take the time to check your camera settings properly. Everything from your white balance, metering mode, focus mode, AF area mode, shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Review test shots on the LCD screen ensuring exposures look good. Be aware that colour temperature at both ends of the day can change dramatically in a short space of time, as can light levels that will affect your exposures. What worked fine 30 minutes ago, may result in under or overexposure as the Sun continues to rise or set. You may also need to revise your position as the Sun traverses the sky.
Along with remaining comfortable, it's important to stay properly hydrated and fed. I'd arrive at the park just after 9am and set up the camera whilst waiting for the hummingbirds and other critters to show up. Sometimes I wouldn't get home until gone 5.30pm. The weather was extremely hot. Tempertures were 40c+ with the humidty and I would be stood under a scorching hot Sun too. I'd pack a small lunch and also take a few bottles of water with me to drink throughout the day. It meant carrying another small bag but, the fact I wasn't thirsty or hungry was a very small price to pay.
For action shots, avoid framing too tightly. Always allow enough room for your subject to move into. Modern DSLRs have very high resolutions, granting us more latitude when cropping in post. By cropping later, rather than in-camera, you are unlikely to lose a wing tip as a bird takes flight, which is another common feature of beginner wildife action photos.
Just because the lens zooms to 300mm, doesn't mean you need to use it at that focal length. Again, if you can frame your shot ahead of time, like I did with the hummingbirds on a particular flower, you can avoid this problem. It was incredibly tempting to shift my camera and focus directly on the birds as they darted from flower to flower. I also found it frustrating when the bird would come within the minimum focusing distance of the lens. However, by planning my shot, resisting temptation and concentrating on capturing the image I had envisaged in my minds eye, I was rewarded with some beautiful photographs. Far better than if I had just tracked the birds continuously, paying no heed to background or Sun direction.
Placing the camera in high speed burst is also another good idea for action shots of animals. The odds of you capturing the perfect photograph from a single exposure are quite low, so a little bit of "spraying and praying" does factor into the equation. While there is often some negativity and a degree of condemnation for the "spray and pray" mentality, this really only applies to photographers who aren't thinking about what they are doing and merely clicking away in the hopes that something magical is going to appear on their LCD screen. When you are fully aware of what you are doing and trying to capture action, then take all the shots you want. There is nothing amateur about this and the top-of-the-line professional cameras FPS (Frames Per Second) counts stand testament to that fact!
You can always "cheat" a bit too when it comes to certain animals to facilitate the photograph. For example, there is nothing stopping you deploying a bit of seed on a favourably located branch to attract the birds. Indeed, during the harsh winter months small birds will greatly benefit from a readily available meal. Avoid unnatural/processed food sources like bread which provide little in the way of nourishment and could potentially harm them. Don't place getting the shot above the welfare of the creatures.
It is also extremely important that you respect the animals you are photographing. Just because something may look cute or magestic, doesn't mean it isn't dangerous. I have witnessed some very foolhardy antics recently, when a kayak full of tourists decided to paddle to within a few meters of a huge moose. A bull weighing well over 1200 lbs. That is dicing with death for sure!
Lastly, aim to bring out their "personality" or document the animals being animals. How they interact with each other and the world around them, including ourselves if we are fortunate enough. Show the nurturing side, the territorial aggression or the graceful movements. If you combine that with atmospheric lighting and a captivating backdrop, you'll have yourself some beautiful wildlife images. There is certainly a lot to remember but with practise, planning and being observant, you can very quickly raise the bar on your wildlife photography. Good luck and happy shooting!