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10 Tips for Better Wildlife Photos
With an upcoming newsletter about national parks and enjoying the great outdoors under way, Clare and I have been thinking about the ways in which we can celebrate our planet’s wonderful natural diversity. Activities like camping and kayaking came to mind, as well as visiting zoological societies or simply walking through a nearby park. As we were talking, it occurred to me that wildlife photography has elements of all these activities. So I decided I would share some of my tips and tricks for taking better wildlife photos.
FANCY CAMERAS ARE COOL, BUT NOT CRUCIAL
While having the latest “big gun” lenses and silky smooth, gimbal-head tripods can be helpful in getting certain images, they are not a requirement to get started in wildlife photography. Start small. Most point-and-shoot cameras and even many smart phones have a macro-mode that allow you to focus close up on small objects. Don’t forget, insects and creepy crawlies count as wildlife too. Photographing these little guys are an excellent way to start out because they force you to behave like a photographer. Getting down in the dirt with them, patiently waiting for them to face a certain way and working with a shallow depth of field all encourage using skills that are as important as knowing how aperture and shutter speed work. (Check out shortcourses.com for accessible information on camera use.)
PATIENCE TRUMPS ANY PIECE OF EQUIPMENT
I once spent three days, in shifts, laying on top of a patio cover with a blanket over me in a hot Southern California “Spring” so I could get a photo of hummingbirds in their nest, feeding their little ones. While I have to admit my fun light had gone out by the end of it all, it remains to be one of my favorite photographs. Taking these kinds of photos can be quite the process, but if you really want a certain image, persistence and patience are often the only way to get it.
Your bag may hold all the photo equipment you need to get an excellent shot, but if you don’t have a decent jacket or aren't willing to get your clothes dirty you may never get the image you want simply because you can’t lay down on the cold wet ground to get eye level with your subject! Hiking through back-country with “breathable” tennis shoes may not be such a great idea either if you need to cross streams or walk through a field of dew-soaked grass. Often, getting wildlife photos means getting out into the wild. Make sure your clothes will allow you to be comfortable during the long waits. If you can’t get to your subject or give up early because you are just too uncomfortable, you’ll lose the shot before you even push the shutter button.
RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH
That old boy scout motto “Be Prepared” once again comes to mind. What times of day are wildlife active? What trails are open in winter? Is the animal potentially dangerous? When will babies be present? Where does the animal like to hide? These questions and many more need to be answered before you head out. Taking some time to study a species in captivity can also be helpful since you can study behavior and formulate composition ideas.
RENT, DON’T BUY
You can have all the best gear in the world and still get a blurry mess if you don’t know how to use it. Once again if you are just starting out, I highly recommend shortcourses.com as an intro to using that shiny new SLR. That said, sometimes the right gear really can make the difference. There are always going to be animals who are skittish or simply too dangerous to risk getting close to. This is where long lenses come into play. You’ll notice that they also cost a kidney to purchase, $8,000 - $12,000. Unless you are a professional full-time wildlife or sports photographer, there is no real need to own one of these super telephoto lenses. Let someone else shoulder the enormous cost and rent these monsters only when you need them.
KNOW YOUR EQUIPMENT INSIDE AND OUT
You could easily spend days finding the wildlife you want to photograph and your opportunity to get the shot could be mere seconds. Whether you are shooting with an SLR-style camera or your smart phone, know how your camera works and what its quirks are. Some SLR’s have a mirror lockup option so you can keep the shutter from slapping back and making noise until you can muffle it with a piece of cloth. Some camera/lens combinations have better auto-focus than others. It may determine whether manual or auto focus will be a smarter choice. The ruggedness of the camera may play a major factor. My current cameras can handle rain and light weather but the first digital SLR I used was much more susceptible to the elements.
DON’T BE AFRAID OF “TRAINING WHEELS”
Photographing wildlife at zoos is not cheating or blasphemous, but you do have to keep a few things in mind. First, try to pick an organization whose efforts are focused on conservation and rescue. These institutions need the support and frankly are often smaller and more accommodating to photographers. Be aware of usage rights. The San Diego Zoo, at least the last time I was there, does not allow you to use photographs taken on the property commercially without having approval prior to your visit. A zoo is private property and it has every right to regulate images. As far as the “training wheels” go, a zoo or sanctuary is the perfect place to get started and practice. You can often get away with a shorter lens, easily find subjects and most importantly, practice composition and exposure for different types of coloring, body shapes, eyes and environments.
HIT THE GYM
Or trail or track or wherever, just make sure you are fit enough for long hikes, climbing trees or whatever situation you might find yourself in. Many types of wildlife won’t be seen from trails that are heavily trafficked. There is a good chance you will need to hike in farther than most day hikers to areas that are less traveled. While out in the bush, try to stay on the trail. I know from experience this isn’t always a possibility for wildlife photography, so be mindful of where you step. The last thing anyone wants to do while appreciating nature is ruining it.
TAKE IT SLOW
While you may want to put on some speed to get out of high traffic zones, once you are in an area more conducive to wildlife photography, slow down. You may be out trying to photograph moose, but don’t forget to look down as well. Snakes, reptiles, small mammals and the aforementioned bugs often get over-looked. Slowing down will also help you spot camouflaged critters more easily. Coming to a complete stop and finding a place to wait quietly will yield better results than staying on the move.
YOU ARE GOING TO MAKE MISTAKES. GET OVER IT
This is all part of the process, you will likely fail epically on your first forays. Rather than get frustrated, study your mistakes and learn from them. I’ve done plenty of stupid things in my career that has ruined shoots. Heck, I still do stupid things that make me miss the shot. It’s part of the business; all you can do is practice and learn from each experience.