Any photographer knows that there is a world of difference between snapping a slew of spontaneous selfies on a smartphone and laying in wait for the perfect wildlife shot.
Surprisingly though, the same amount of knowledge, skill, planning and timing goes into getting an intimate look at the wildlife you see in National Geographic magazine as does your amateur shots.
Let’s say you are an amateur photographer; one knows all about camera settings. You take some pretty good shots but you feel that they all come just shy of the ‘Wow! Amazing!’ mark... and you really want to get there.
If so, this article is meant for you.
On the other hand, you might have just bought a DSLR camera and taken a photography class to learn all about it... but intuition tells you there is more to quality photography than setting a few dials, pointing and shooting.
Photography workshops can teach you all about the technical aspects of your camera and how to use it, but it is that unique blend of technique, talent and timing that invariably scoops photography competition prizes, isn’t it?
Whether you aspire to become one of the world’s greatest wildlife photographers or you just want to capture the best shots possible for your personal satisfaction...
Your Superprof now endeavours to arm you with some of the best tips and tricks to land you that one-in-a-million shot.
Composing Your Shot
As a photographer, you surely know that there are two types of shot: the heat of the moment and the one you set up for, wait for the right light for, wait for your subject to adopt the perfect pose for...
Both types require the same amount of preparation. Sure, one might squeeze off a lucky shot once in a while but to consistently capture quality images takes a bit of behind-the-lens savvy.
One of the most subjective aspects of photography is composition.
In composing your shot, you control what your scene, background, focus and perspective should be to achieve the desired outcome.
Are you just getting started with wildlife photography?
Many beginner photographers believe that centring the focal point is paramount to capturing a money shot but experts agree that balancing provides a much more aesthetically pleasing image.
For instance, you might plan your shot so that the animal takes up the lower-left corner of the frame while the upper right corner of your viewfinder is filled with greenery; a tree or shrub.
That would leave the opposing corners to capture the fullness of the sky and the ground, creating an exquisite balance of complementary elements.
Colour should be another consideration to achieving optimal balance.
For instance, if you’re on a quest to capture a tawny gazelle in Serengeti National Park, you should plan your trip to coincide with their rainy season, when green abounds and water is plentiful.
Capturing your gazelle in the dry season might make for rather bland pictures without much contrast between your subject and its environment.
On that note...
Look for a Plain Background
Not everybody is keen to stomp around an African national reserve to capture magnificent beasts in their environment.
Besides, we have some pretty stunning landscapes and a diverse assortment of photogenic animals available for capture on film, too. The trick is getting them to stand out.
If you are photographing birds, for example, both the animal’s size and plumage should factor into how you photograph them.
For instance, photographing carrion crows and blackbirds – two types of feathered friends whose plumage easily contrasts, is vastly different than capturing the shimmering colours of the much smaller starling.
The more striking photographs of smaller animals usually depict them against a blurred background; an effect achieved by setting your camera to a shallow depth of field.
Another way you could create amazing shots of small creatures would be for you to change your perspective – in other words, reposition yourself and your camera such that there are no more background elements to distract the viewers’ focus from your subject.
For instance, instead of aiming your camera towards the ground to photograph a garden lizard sunning himself, you might try crouching so that your subject is at eye level or, more specifically, at camera level.
That might be a bit difficult to do without startling Mr Lizard; that is why many wildlife photographers use camera traps to capture their most skittish subjects.
In fact, some nature photographers consider them essential kit when they plan their photography trips!
Aim for Crisp
Aperture priority mode is the favoured setting of most wildlife and landscape photographers because it gives the artist more control over shutter speed as well as giving the best possible exposure.
This factor becomes especially important when your subject runs, flies or jumps; you want crisp, sharp images of the action rather than blurs.
The way to produce pictures that appear as though the animal would leap right off the paper (or screen) is to adjust your aperture and ISO values:
- 1/50 to 1/320: you can photograph anything!
- 1/400 to 1/800: this range is ideal for animals walking
- 1/1000 to 1/1250: this range is perfect for running animals
- 1/1600 to 1/2500: this range of settings will capture flying birds faithfully
- 1/3200: really fast, small birds in flight
Naturally, these values are just a guideline; you would have to play around with your camera in the environment you intend to work to discover the best settings for your particular brand of artistry and subject matter.
Here again, taking a photography workshop would be a good idea, especially if you’ve just treated yourself to a new camera.
These days, even simple point and shoot cameras incorporate a range of settings.
If you’re into wildlife photography for the fun and discovery of it, taking pictures of various subjects in any light or setting is a fun way to get good at taking pictures with new your kit.
However, if you’re in a bit of a hurry – you’re gearing up for a photography competition or don’t care to read the manual, photography tutorials can save you a lot of time and deleted pictures.
If photography competitions are your intent, you may measure your kit against what the pros recommend as the best wildlife photography equipment.
Managing the Light
Some photographers don’t mind shooting in artificial light – using fill flash or spotlighting while others plan their shoots to take advantage of natural light.
Sunrises and sunsets, when the sun is at a particularly low angle, can give your images a unique, golden hue that would be hard to achieve under any other conditions.
Especially in the morning, when the dew sparkles on the ground like so many scattered jewels and the light filters through the trees, you may capture some particularly evocative images that would resonate with your audience.
The goal of every photographer wishing to stand out is to create a mood that the viewer can relate to or, better yet, wish to lose himself in.
Action shots have proved very successful but can be hard to capture. By contrast, the soft, golden light of the sun’s early rays is a surefire formula for impactful, evocative images.
Besides, plenty of animals are active during that time: bats and cats, rabbits and ferrets and all manner of insects: what a great opportunity to work on your macro photography!
Going hand in hand with this tip is the next one...
Know Your Quarry
Seldom does it happen that a wildlife photographer just lucks into a great shot; more likely is the fact that s/he studied his/her subject in-depth.
What does it eat? When? What sort of habitat does it live in? What are its rituals for mating, feeding and establishing territory? When are the young born, spawned or hatched? What of behaviour can one expect from such an animal?
That last question is especially relevant to your safety; the last thing you want is for your photography session to come to an abrupt end because you have to run for your life with an angry animal at your heels!
Admittedly, there is a certain charm in just setting out to photograph what you can but, if you are serious about your craft, you owe it to yourself, your audience and, most importantly to your subject matter to learn everything you can about them.
Every animal exhibits particular behaviours. For instance, some goats fall over when they are startled. And did you know that cows all face either north or south when they eat?
Besides the cachet to be had should you capture wildlife doing something remarkable, your work will reflect your depth of subject knowledge, your skill at capturing your subject’s remarkable feats and your passion for the art of wildlife photography.
Obviously, this list is far from absolute; in fact, you may know of more tips and tricks for getting the best picture. If so, won’t you share a few in the comments section?
Still, we wish you the very best in your quest to capture the perfect image and hope we’ve provided you with a bit of information you didn’t know or hadn’t considered.
Now read about the most amazing places for wildlife photography.