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Wildlife Photography Tips: Take Better Wildlife Photos
This post describes some basic tips to improve the quality of wildlife photography. Anyone interested in capturing more compelling images of animals will find it useful in furthering the development of their skills.
Why photograph wildlife?
Nature has been one of the primary subjects of photography for over 115 years. The natural beauty that surrounds us in the form of landscapes, plants, and wildlife is a compelling subject to capture in still images.
But more than that, the experience of taking photography of wildlife is one of the most thrilling forms of the craft. There is something deeply compelling—almost primeval—about sharing a wooded glen with wild animals, gaining their trust, and documenting their beauty and behavior.
Wildlife is not the easiest subject to capture. It often requires larger, telephoto lenses, or if your interests lie in the tiny, macro lenses that allow for magnification and close focusing. Wildlife is most active at dawn and dusk—time when light is not always cooperative. Fast telephoto lenses are an option if you have a nice line of credit available, but they’re not always necessary. Today’s manufacturers have some more affordable, slower telephotos that can be used to capture great wildlife images.
In this article, I will share with you some of the tips I have collected over the past several years in capturing beautiful wildlife with my camera.
Time to Invest in a New Camera?
If you are truly interested in wildlife photography, you will need a digital SLR camera. Most of the point-and-shoot models simply don’t have the reach you will need to safely photograph wild animals, and ultimately lack quality when it comes to taking a half decent photograph.
Popular Digital SLR Cameras
A great starter camera that comes with a 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Lens. If you’re just looking to get started with Digital Photography, this is a nice starting point and won’t require a huge investment up front.
Essentially the same package you get with the Nikon D60, only from Canon. If you’re a Canon person, you may prefer this setup.
Another fine choice for starting photographers (includes the stock 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Lens).The additional $100 buys you several notable improvements from the XTi, plus an extra 2MP for slightly higher image resolution.
The D90 made quite an entrance into the marketplace of Digital SLRs after it was announced that it included a High Definition (720p), smooth (24fps) video capture feature. It’s a Digital Camera, and Video Camera that performs incredibly well for its price tag. No lens included.
This isn’t the camera you buy unless you’re really taking Photography seriously (and you’ve probably been doing it professionally for a while if you’re even considering purchasing). Oh, and it has HD video up to 1080p, though there are some setbacks. More research is suggested if you’re looking into getting this. Lens sold separately.
Getting Close & Keeping Steady
Animals are inherently more sensitive to the shape and form of an upright human being than they are to vehicles. You can attribute this to the thousands of years we’ve spent hunting them for food. The fear that animals have for humans is well deserved. Many wildlife photographers use expensive and complicated blinds to hide their presence from animals. In the right circumstances though, you already have a working blind—your vehicle.
Some more cautious animals will flee at the sight of a vehicle. Kestrels, for instance, flee at the sight of a car as much as they do a human being. But many species feel much more comfortable around them than they do people, especially in national parks where vehicles are a common sight, such as Rocky Mountain National Park or Yellowstone. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been able to get remarkably close to elk in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Unfortunately too often, a tourist with a point-and-shoot camera comes along and steps out of their vehicle and approaches the animals. The elk shy away or bolt into the trees, and my shoot is over.
Stabilizing your camera inside a car isn’t often easy. You can set up some tripods so that you can shoot from the driver or passenger seat, but some wildlife photographers find the tripod too constrictive, especially when photographing animals on the move.
In those situations, your window is your friend. Roll up your window to the level at which you want to set your lens. Buy some cheap pipe insulation with a slit down one side at any hardware store. Slip this over the edge of the glass of your window and you can comfortably rest your lens on the edge. I have seen photographers use bean bags for the same purpose.
Remember the rule of thumb to eliminate camera shake: you should be shooting at a shutter speed at or above the effective focal length of your lens. That means if you shoot like I do with a 70-300mm lens on an Olympus body with a 2x sensor crop factor, you need a shutter speed of at least 1/600th of a second to help ensure that your image will be as sharp as it can be.
Tripods and the window edge trick can help lower this shutter speed, as well as cameras or lenses with image stabilization. The kind of blur we’re talking about isn’t always obvious when you check an image with your LCD. With this rule of thumb, you help reduce the chances of being disappointed with what you thought were great shots in the field, but turned out to be blurry or soft when loaded onto your computer. Don’t be afraid to increase your ISO to get the shutter speeds you need. When shooting fast-moving animals such as birds in flight, you may want a shutter speed as high as 1/1000th of a second to freeze your subject. And of course, proper technique in stabilizing your camera can go a long way.
Most photographer recommend that you use at least a 300mm (35mm equivalent) telephoto for wildlife photography (if you need to learn more about different kinds of lenses, this article can help) . Any less and you will have difficulty filling the frame with your subject. But no matter how much reach your longest lens gives you, you’ll always be left wanting more. Teleconverters can be used, at the cost of sharpness and f-stops, but for bird photography involving small subjects, they may be your best option.
Practice Your Skills
Before spending a fortune on a photography expedition to Africa, hone your skills in your own backyard. My area of Colorado is rife with red-winged blackbirds in the spring. They can be found around nearly any body of water, and the males are claiming and protecting territory from nearly every tree branch or cattail. Their focus on competitors and attracting a mate means that their guard is down more than it would be at other times, and the cattails they often frequent are conveniently located at eye level.
I have found that red-winged blackbirds are an excellent “practice subject” to work on my skills of approach, framing, and general technical work (exposure, focus, and the general fiddling of knobs and buttons). They are common enough that if you blow an approach by moving too quickly or loudly, another will most likely present itself shortly. But they are not so easy to catch. Dark subjects against light backgrounds can be a technical challenge, and learning to expose the blacks of their feathers along with that red patch can really hone your skills.
Blackbirds may not be common in your area, but most likely, some form of wildlife frequents the parks and fields in your area. Find a good “practice subject” and work on your basics, so that when you go after bigger, more impressive animals, you will have a solid foundation in the basic techniques and you will stand a better chance of capturing a great image.
Know Your Subject
Get to know your subject’s behavior. Read books and talk with hunters or experts on the species. Your local university may have researchers who special in the animal you’re trying to capture. Politely ask them for tips via email—often they will be more than happy to share their expertise, provided you’re respectful of the animals.
Some knowledge you will only gain through experience. I’ve spent most of the winter travelling to Rocky Mountain National Park on a weekly basis. Of particular interest in this park are the herds of wild elk. A large bachelor herd is my favorite subject, but finding them in time for the good light was not easy at first. Over time, and through trial and error, I began to understand how weather affected which altitudes the animals could be found at. Colder weather or snow would push them down into lower elevations where it they were easier to find and photograph. Also, I learned which park entrances they were most likely to be near at the time of day I was photographing them. Other photographers in your area may be able to share this information, but I think if you can spare the time, it’s more fulfilling to learn their behavior on your own.
Speaking of parks, the local rangers and park staff are an excellent resource for learning the activities and whereabouts of great subjects. I often swing into the pay station later in the morning to chat with the rangers about how things have been inside the park. As amateur photographers, we’re not able to spend all of our time out there, but the rangers do, and they excellent resources at your disposal.
Starting out, I was content to capture any animal in focus, properly exposed, and decently composed. I didn’t care so much what they were doing in the image, so long as I got them in the shot and they weren’t just a speck in the distance. As you develop your other skills, however, you will find that the most compelling and successful images are one that capture an animal in action. It’s common sense, but often, we forget in the excitement of just being near the animal that that closeness is not easily conveyed through still photography.
Capturing action requires more patience than just getting the animals in the frame. It’s nearly impossible to approach an animal without impacting its behavior somewhat. They will often be rattled or cautious in your presence. It takes time for the animal to settle back into its routine, to forget that you’re watching.
Increase your chances of capturing hunting or feeding behavior by photographing at dawn and dusk. The golden hour is great not just for light but for locating wildlife as well. Many animals are nocturnal or at the least crepuscular, so they are on the move at these times. Being out half an hour before sunrise or an hour before sunset will help ensure that you find your subjects when they’re doing something more interesting than chewing their cud.
One last tip for capturing action with birds of prey was recently shared with me by wildlife photographer Vic Schendel. In his years of wildlife photography, he’s discovered that raptors often defecate shortly before taking flight. When you have the bird in your frame, and you see this happen, starting firing off shots, because you are likely to catch a much more impressive image of the bird taking flight than if you had taken a shot while it rested on a tree branch or telephone wire.