Wildlife photography is something I have been passionate about for the past five years or so. Whether or not you take images on a smart phone, or whether you have the latest and greatest photographic gear, taking photographs allows you to capture moments in time and to capture memories and emotions that can be enjoyed for a lifetime. Furthermore, the principles of photography remain much the same irrespective of your gear, or experience with photography.
Whether photographically inclined or not, I am often asked to explain what I believe to be the basics or fundamentals of wildlife photography. Despite the fact that I am by no means an expert on all things photography related, I like to make use of the following 10 tips, which have assisted me in taking my photography from strength to strength.
1. Be Present in the Moment, and ENJOY IT!
I am guilty of forgetting this myself on occasion. Sometimes I am all too focused on capturing the perfect moment that I forget to just enjoy the sighting. It is easy to become frustrated with the scene, the setting, the light, and all other conditions that are for the most part, beyond our control. If you have been shooting on the wrong setting by accident, or forgotten to change settings back to normal from the evening before and you land up missing the shot… so what? It can be frustrating but don’t let that ruin your experience. Sometimes the best thing to do is simply to put your camera down, observe, and enjoy!
2. Understand your Gear
Knowing your equipment, and being familiar with its buttons, functions and settings will go a long way in preventing a huge amount of frustration out in the field. Spend time learning your camera and understand its capabilities. Practice taking an array of different images in different settings, at home, in the garden, in the park etc. YouTube videos may also come in handy if you are like me and want to avoid trawling through a photographic manual. Understanding how your camera works, is half the battle won already.
3. Know your Subject and Anticipate Movement
Unless you are a professional photographer who has spent years photographing wild animals, this is something that will not come naturally to most people. This is where you will be reliant on your guide and tracker who are constantly monitoring animal behaviour, predicting certain movements and anticipating certain actions, that will allow you to capture something unique. Whilst enjoying the sighting, listen to their advice on when to be prepared for the next shot.
4. Take Advantage of Digital Photography
The ability to capture a series of images at a time, means that you can go through and select the best ones afterwards. Unlike film photography, there is no need to be careful and selective about the images you take, so take as many as you feel necessary and worry about choosing the right ones later. You are more likely to capture “the one” in a series of images than if you are taking one image only.
5. Understand the Principles of Photography but be prepared to Bend/Break the “Rules”
It is easy when it comes to photography to want to adhere to the basic photographic principles. Knowing and understanding these principles is key, but challenge yourself to be out of the ordinary in the search to capture an extraordinary image. Be willing to try new techniques and to experiment with different camera settings. The results may be very surprising! For example, a slow shutter speed and a panning action of the camera creates a sense of movement. This technique can be difficult to get right but entirely worth the effort. 1/0.8 at f /2.8, ISO 100.
6. Use the Life You Have Available
You will hear photographers going on about the importance of light. Yes, don’t get me wrong, light is key, and we all want to capture images during the golden hours of dawn and dusk; but what happens on a cloudy day? Poor light does not mean you should be packing your gear away. This goes back to knowing and understanding your gear and its capabilities in challenging light conditions. Don’t be afraid to continue shooting in poor light or as the light disappears! Make the necessary adjustments and be on the lookout for unique opportunities such as silhouettes.
7. Shoot Close & Wide
The misconception about wildlife photography is that the bigger and longer the lens, the better. This is in fact not true. In my opinion, a lens that allows you to capture a wider image, in which you capture not only your subject but also the surrounding environment in which your subject is in, whilst also allowing you to zoom in and capture a close portrait image, is best. Be mindful of the fact that you may fall into the proverbial ‘trap’ of capturing only close up portrait images, which often fails to tell the story of your subject in their natural habitat. Shoot close, but also pull back and capture the entire scene. You may find the results far more dramatic in terms of its story-telling capabilities.
8. Angle, Angle, Angle
Angle is perhaps one of the most important concepts of photography. In theory, you should always aim in as far as possible, to capture your image on the same level as your subject, and preferably at eye level. Shooting images from a level above your subjects results in a loss of emotional connection, and a feeling that you are larger and more dominant than your subject. Where possible, try to shoot from either an angle lower than your subject, or at the same level. You will find that this creates powerful, emotion-filled images and the sense that you are equal with your subject. In this case, the lower the better! Below the Nanga female leopard lay down on the bank of the Manyalethi river in South Africa, allowing us to position the vehicle in the river and get eye-level shots.
9. Patience is Everything!
In the case of wildlife photography, patience is far more of a necessity, than it is a virtue. There is nothing more rewarding than having waited some time for an animal to get up on the move, or for a bird to fly off its perch, and to capture that moment. You need to be prepared that this may take some time. At the end of the day, the animals that we are out photographing everyday are entirely wild creatures. Although we can predict and anticipate their movements to a certain degree, we are ultimately here to capture them in their environment, and that means we are on their time. The patience to wait, may result in an image that you will remember forever!
10. Find Your Own Style!
There are many talented wildlife photographers out there, but the difference between someone who takes good images, and someone who takes exceptional images, is the ability to form your own style. Take a look at professional wildlife photographers. One thing you will begin to notice, is that each individual, although they are capturing similar subjects, do so in a very unique manner. They have identified with a particular style of photography, and this is what sets them apart from others. Find what you enjoy the most, and work on creating your own style instead of being influenced by the style of others.
At the end of the day, photography can be rather technical, but don’t let the technical aspect stop you from having fun, and enjoying yourself out there!
Contributed by Alistair Smith