Deal 6: 365 days of training from the world’s best photographers
Wildlife photography is one of the most challenging yet rewarding forms of nature photography. The best wildlife images create a powerful emotional connection between the viewer and the animal, but success requires planning, timing, and technique. Here are a few tips for getting started:
Expect to burn through a lot of memory cards shooting wildlife. While you may occasionally be able to presage the decisive moment in a wildlife shot, more often than not it will
be difficult to know exactly when the body position, the facial expression, and the composition of the image in front of you will all come together as an animal is in motion. Continuous shooting, extra batteries and many, fast memory cards will improve your odds of getting an effective image. If I find that only one in a couple dozen of my landscape images are “good” by my own criteria, that ratio might be more like “one in a few hundred” shots for wildlife, the first time I photographed polar bears I shot two cards full of images in less than an hour, and netted three portfolio images.
Like human portraits, wildlife portraits gain life by making a connection between the viewer and the animal, and as with humans, the window to that connection is the eye. When the practical needs of nature photography (supertelephoto lenses, wide apertures) leave the photographer with a very narrow depth of field it is almost always essential that the eye, if nothing else, be in focus. Our brains are almost hardwired to notice faces and to look for the eyes, if the eyes aren’t sharp in the primary subject of your photograph, most times, just won’t work. Bonus tip: A tiny bit of fill light from a flash (maybe 1.5 or more stops down under the “correct” fill flash exposure) can help create effective catch light in the eye to enhance this effect.
With wildlife, particularly big game, learn a bit about your subject beforehand for the safety of
the animals, for your own safety, and for better photographs. Getting too close to many animals, particularly birds, to abandon their eggs or nest entirely. Your own safety is important too, in photographing polar bears from a Zodiac in Svalbard I knew that polar bears would not usually jump out into the water to attack, and working with a telephoto they mostly seemed uninterested in my presence. However, when one animal came to the shore and started bobbing it’s head up and down, I knew it was time to be out of there in a moment, this friendly looking gesture is the polar bears way of figuring out how far we are away. Spending time learning about your subject isn’t just about safety, either. The colorful puffins I photographed in the Westfjords of Iceland, I learned through research, are a lot more docile. While there were excellent shooting opportunities even in midday, near midnight (at dusk during that trip), it was easily possible to work within arm’s length of the birds, and I wouldn’t have known that without a little study beforehand.
Another lesson from human portraiture we can use in wildlife photography is the idea of composing based on facing and direction. In general photographs
of moving animals are best composed giving more room in front of the animal’s movement than in back. Similarly, when an animal is looking to one side or another in a photograph, providing room in the direction the animal is looking usually results in a more effective image. If you can show what the animal is looking at (particularly if that too is interesting), that can be even more effective.
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April 14, 2012 06:11 pm
Some big game photos
April 13, 2012 11:35 pm
I see that this is an older article, but it comes to me when I need it the most ...
A family of foxes has taken up an an old ground hog hole in my back area and they are out every day. I'm doing video on YouTube and taking stills, but I just can't get that one shot with the limited equipment I have and the fact that I do not want to disturbe the family of four kits.
I will gleen what I can from your article Joe and try to improve on what I already have done.
Thanks for the tips and I'll study your web site and look for more helpful hints and tips
Here's one of the best so far ...
April 13, 2012 09:23 pm
Hi guys I read all the remarks on wild life photography and have to agree that it is one of the more difficult subjects as often you have only one shot and that is it. And naturally all the other factors play a role. Pat I took the liberty of visiting your site. Your shots are excellent. Living in South Africa, and having traveled a fair amount I have the advantage of having access to a large variety of wild life. I am very much an amateur.
My link to facebook if any body should be interested to visit is.
April 13, 2012 07:11 pm
Great article with some really interesting tips. Do have a look at my site where I have put some of my own photography tutorials.
April 13, 2012 04:03 pm
Classical and superficialy advice.I bet anyone posed wildlife know these things(as amateur -not talking about the pro)
Some om my birds for Europe
April 13, 2012 02:05 pm
I spent a day in Centennial Park (Sydney) specifically to take photos of the birds around the ponds there to hone my nature skills. I must have taken about 300 pics in a couple of hours! The two I'm particularly happy with are:
April 13, 2012 12:53 pm
wow, a good article
I think the comment section did not work yesterday
I have taken few pictures of animals
April 13, 2012 11:54 am
Wow, lots of new comments today!
Casslou: Indeed: While not quite dragonflies, I just had the opportunity to try and work some baby hummingbirds with mama, and I definitely did some research on their behavior, and I'm glad I did.
Pat: With regard to the puffin shots, the eyes are dark, and catch lights (using flash) could, in theory help pull the eye in for sure. I was unwilling to use flash in the closer puffin shots here out of concern for disturbing the birds at close range. No photograph is worth seriously impacting an animal for,
Marco: Indeed, these really are only "the start" of the journey, these are definitely aimed as introductory tips. That having been said, I like to remember that I'm still learning too, and I always will be. It's always a mistake to think you've figured everything out.
Ratkellar: Yep, focus with quickly moving animals is tricky, this is one of those rare cases where spending up on equipment does help! But even with the best AF systems, you're not going to get every frame of a quickly and randomly moving subject dead-spot-on, even with the help of the better AF systems and perfect (but human) technique. That's why quantity really does matter, too.
April 13, 2012 08:31 am
Good article. Particularly with reference to eyes.These fellows were watching me as much as I was watching them.
Both in my backyard in Hervey Bay Queensland Australia.
April 13, 2012 06:32 am
Fast focus is the difficult part for me since wildlife do not know they are supposed to be posing. Depending on thespeciies, mid-day can be as target-rich as dawn & dusk. Patience is good if you have a specific beast or gametrail in mind, but serendipity and occasional sprints can help.
April 13, 2012 04:00 am
One other thing is that when you are learning, the keeper rate is lower than stated in this article. In January I made a two day trip to Florida with all of the typical costs involved (fuel, hotels, meals, etc). I took about 2000 shots in four sessions (arrival afternoon, sunrise and set the next day, and sunrise on departure day) and the last session was heavy overcast. With those expenses in mind, I took a lot of shots that I would normally pass up since the lighting was not great in all of them so my keeper rate was REALLY LOW but if you don't experiment how will you know? I have about 80 I kept with maybe 15 portfolio quality shots from the trip. Not much but worth every minute in the field. I saw great behaviors that I had not seen before but shot failed due to low light, great first catches like peregrine falcon but harsh light, etc. It was a great learning trip but not much output so how do you value such? I know I will be better prepared in the future so I try to think of it as education and memories rather than dollars per keeper. I guess the point is don't be discouraged if you throw away a lot of shots while learning as long as you actually learn something.
April 13, 2012 03:46 am
I have focused 95% on wildlife and to differentiate, I have really gotten into action shots. I have literally thousands of Eagle on a Perch shots from the early days and now focus on the Eagle Attacking the Water for Fish shots, etc. Everything in this article is spot on correct but is only the beginning of the journey. The only thing I can add is that the further you go, the more expensive the equipment. I started out with an entry level Canon XSi that was great for stills like perch shots, but totally frustrated me on action shots and "decisive moment" shots. Not enough burst rate and too slow writing to the card. Also was limited to ISO 400 or less. The only real solution was a Canon 7D to solve the problems. Really early on I did invest in the Canon EF 100-400mm and I consider that the minimum investment for a lens today. I have also recently invested in a Manfrotto Carbon Fiber/Magnesium tripod and a gimbal type head. This has lead to a whole new learning curve since the techniques are different than hand held, but hope to improve over time. What I am finding is that with the tripod, I must blind up and us much more camouflage to be effective which is all new learning for me. However, I truly hope to continue to advance my skills and output in the long run. Good luck to all who pursue this really challenging branch of photography. Just don't be too hard on yourself if you are working with less than optimal equipment. For me it is not just the photos I get, but the whole outdoor experience. The photos I get are a great reminder of a really good day in the wilds. Nothing beats being a first hand witness to two bull elk locking horns in combat even if the photos are a little noisy due to fog that morning.
April 13, 2012 03:38 am
Hi and thanks for the tips, they are great. However I think your two images of puffins are not as I would have expected. The eye is dark and therefore not sharp and there is also a halo around some of it. Very dark images. I am not a pro, just a hobbyest and really enjoy my photography. Hope I am not 'out of order' here but they are my thoughts.
April 13, 2012 01:37 am
This is the best shot of eyes I've ever captured. If you look close, you can even see our safari vehicle reflected on the eyeballs! (not sure if that's a bad or good thing, just interesting).
[eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/beamjack/6866444613/' title='Cheetah Portrait' url='http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7194/6866444613_2412d6285b.jpg']
April 13, 2012 01:06 am
Interesting article! Understand your subject is excellent advice. I had trouble getting a good shot of dragonflies as they moved so quickly and frequently. After a lot of frustration, I discovered they are very territorial and often come back to the same spot. Helped me get this shot http://www.flickr.com/photos/67596901@N03/6153003226/in/photostream
April 13, 2012 12:21 am
I often have the opportunity to photograph brown pelicans in flight. These birds usually fly in a pattern of plunging into the water at a certain spot then coming back to a point some distance away where they make their swooping turns. Here are some examples:
Getting the eye in focus is of course make or break for the shot. Next is getting a good wing formation.
April 12, 2012 09:14 am
I don't get to shoot wildlife often enough, these are some great tips that I will keep in mind.
Here are some Bald Eagle shots form last fall:
April 12, 2012 08:50 am
Cool tips, I've tried a little wildlife photography...enough to get an idea of just how difficult it may be.
This is one of a series of five, I was completely unprepared to shoot the action that followed.
April 12, 2012 06:47 am
Here's a composite of mine that kinda looks real. :) I photographed the bear at the zoo.
April 12, 2012 06:22 am
Knowledge of animals is especially important with dangerous game:
This was a quick shot then get away quickly as this big boy was in musth (high hormones and very dangerous state)
March 30, 2010 06:22 pm
There are very Nice techniques and beautiful arrangements of Locations along with very neat and clean photograpy every person in the Family can see and enjoy from easily. also it is the best dedication to Almighty God whose creation are very superb and fantastic
" Wish Almighty Allah ( God ) bless all of us and save, protect from all kind of Diseasses and natural disasters and sins whatever those are major or minor forever ! "
with best wishes and regards !
June 11, 2009 03:40 am
Thank you for the tips. I recently got involved in this type of photography after my husband treated me to a one day experience with a professional wildlife photographer, and I have now got the bug. I am very much an amateur by your standards, but I enjoy it very much and in the short time I have been taking this type of photos, I have seen some improvement. A hobby for life for me!
May 2, 2009 03:40 am
Great article on wildlife photography. Excellent photographs. Thanks for sharing your expertise!
May 1, 2009 07:57 pm
Gerry, I think the main you need for the big game and other wildlife is patience and perseverance. Try setting your camera up on known paths, and use a remote trigger (they are quite cheap) from a good hiding place. Once you've got this set up, just keep trying until you get the good shot.
Peter, if you want to use manual, then you'll need a light meter to calculate the exposure correctly. Otherwise, use AV mode, and see what shutter speed you should use for your selected aperture, then set them manually. Also, if your camera supports auto bracketing, use that to get 3 photos at different exposures.
Any way, good luck to you both!
May 1, 2009 01:35 pm
Thanks for the tips Will
I take it these are the essentials..
You're right, originality will be a pain,
Something tells me I'm going to have to work around perspective more than anything now,
to try for more original shots.. hmm..
May 1, 2009 12:21 pm
You're right that working in low light is a real challenge, that polar bear image was a real example of that, taken in dark overcast at what would have been sunset, from a zodiac filled with a bunch of other excitable photographers. I'll see about putting together a follow-up article on the subject, but my answer comes down to really making some tradeoffs. Learn how far you can push your camera ISO and still get a great result, and how much farther you can push it and still get a good but not great result. (In the case of the polar bear, an old camera, ISO 400). I tend to work wide open or near as I can in those conditions, I think that particular image was taken with just a 300L/4 at f/4. Even with those advantages I needed image stabilization to keep the 300 still ... and even then I only managed about 60-70% still enough.
At any rate, a longer article would talk about those things in more detail and probably bring in some comments about flash.
Peter--i'm kinda surprised you were getting overexposed images, I wonder if that was the nature of the scene (e.g., .was it naturally a "low key" scene?) or whether your meter was getting fooled, and if so by what? If you want to drop me an image or two at joedecker (at) gmail (dot) com I can try and give you a guess, but it's hard to know without being there.
Thanks to everyone for the kind words!
May 1, 2009 02:02 am
Nice article, I'd totally agree that the connection with the eye playing a big part in a great wildlife shot.
Here's some I've managed to take as a learning amateur (they're from Dublin zoo so not sure if that counts as WILDlife!!) :
April 30, 2009 10:12 pm
Will, your photos ara amazing, and the interview was very informative... thanks.
April 30, 2009 09:06 pm
Nice tips. I give away some more good wildlife photography tips in this interview: http://news.deviantart.com/article/77144/
April 30, 2009 12:43 pm
Those photos are beautiful.
April 30, 2009 12:35 pm
I agree with Gerry.... I tried shooting outdoors mid to late morning and my frames were over exposed to say the least. I tried adjusting my settings, as I shoot EVERYTHING in manual, but still got lighting or noise issues. I usally shoot with a 300mm, and still had less than optimal results...I think DPS usually has some great advice, so anything that you folks can share would be most appreciated...
April 30, 2009 04:01 am
Nice article. I am a novice photographer at best, but I think there is a 5th point that needs discussing. For most parts of the year, with the exception of maybe extreme cold temperature conditions in the winter, wildlife (especially big game) appears only at the fleeting moments of light near the end of the day and in the first few minutes of light at dawn. That makes it hard to get good photos without exceptional equipment. Some tips on how to best deal with that would be appreciated.
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