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As a wildlife photographer, often it can seem challenging enough just to find your subjects out in the field, let alone get close enough to take that perfect image. However, to develop as a photographer, constantly challenging yourself is a key ingredient to learning and growing, helping you to tell stories in a more meaningful and creative way through your images.
In this article, I will give you a few ideas to explore when you next head out on a nature photography shoot, to keep you challenged and growing as a photographer.
Restricting yourself is often a great way to encourage creativity. Working with constraints can help you to think outside the box and explore ideas or ways of working that you might have missed in other cases. As photographers, having a boatload of lenses at our disposal means we have options to capture the world in a multitude of ways. Yet still, within this, we often become restricted within our view, choosing to consistently work with convention rather than explore creative options.
For example, if you are going to work with birds you will likely select your long telephoto, whereas, for insects or flowers, the obvious choice is a macro lens. However, if you decide to restrict yourself to a certain lens or focal length you have to use that in order to explore and create a photograph. That means that sometimes you’ll have to work in a new way, choose a different composition, or go for a different type of image than you would normally attempt.
For example, taking a macro lens out for a full day of shooting you might feel restricted. But the 100mm focal length (common for most macro lenses) is actually highly adaptable for working with a variety of subjects from landscapes to tiny insects, or even people and street images. Prime lenses further enhance this restriction, forcing you to zoom with your feet.
However, after a number of days solely focused on each lens in your bag, you’ll have a much greater appreciation for the wide variety of subjects and images it can produce. Thus helping you to be more creative with your choices in the future.
For most wildlife photographers, the long telephoto is our safe haven. We know that when using a 300mm, 500mm or 600mm lens we can frame up our subjects and get wonderful clean portrait images. Allowing us to concentrate on our subjects and not necessarily needing to worry about the other elements in the landscape.
The thing is that, although telephotos are fantastic for filling the frame and showing close details of distant creatures, they don’t give an impression of scale. Images show with a long lens almost seem less immersive than shots taken with shorter focal lengths.
Of course, one of the biggest problems is that shooting wildlife with a wide lens is often a lot harder, (depending on the subject) than your traditional long lens wildlife photography. But this is a great learning curve. Yes, the complexities of predicting animal behavior, working out positioning for remote cameras and triggering them at the perfect time without always being able to look through the viewfinder is difficult. But the struggles will certainly push you to be a better wildlife photographer in the long run.
Try working with a wireless remote in the garden to get started. A simple bird feeder or setup for urban mammals is a great way to hone your skills, to add another string to your photographic bow.
Often, I hear wildlife photographers talking about always getting the image tack sharp. But in reality, how much in nature ever freezes dead still? Adding motion to your images is a great way to explore and develop your shooting style, adding drama to images and also helping the wildlife you’re recording to come alive in your frames.
When working in the field it can be tempting to always have that 1/1000 of a second shutter speed dialed in. Learning how and when to slow your shutter to display movement is a great skill, but it takes practice to get it right.
Often I find that for large moving creatures, such as deer, a shutter speed of 1/15th of a second allows enough movement into the frame to make great panning shots. In contrast, birds with their fast-moving nature mean that often 1/100th or 1/60th easily provides enough movement within the frame for lovely streaking effects.
Of course, in addition to panning with slow shutter speeds, keeping your camera dead steady and allowing the creatures to move is another effective technique for creating unique and captivating images of nature’s patterns and movements.
Another way to challenge yourself as a nature photographer is to set yourself a theme to work on. This could be a practical theme like birds in flight, animal portraits, or in the landscape images. Another option is exploring a certain location or place with a geographical theme or even delving a little deeper to explore emotions or feelings as a base for a set of images.
The reason for shooting around a theme is to train yourself how to showcase and express your ideas through images more effectively. As a photographer, you are a visual storyteller. So being able to draw from inspirations, ideas, and emotions and express them photographically helps you to tell better and more powerful stories through your images.
Aim to develop a couple of small bodies of work, maybe three sets of three images, each with a different focus as a training exercise. It’s a great way to focus on areas where you’re less confident and give yourself a mini-assignment to develop and shoot to keep you focused on improving your work.
A final way to challenge yourself is to go out on a shoot and pretend that you only have 36 images or a single roll of film. This is to force yourself to be more critical and picky with your images, choosing the perfect moment to get a shot rather than just taking a number to be sure one will be okay.
Shooting with a limit slows you down and makes you consider things more intently, thinking through your exposure, composition, and technique before shooting. The idea is that you only shoot one frame per subject, aiming to get it perfect on every image.
You can do this even more strictly by getting hold of an old school 1gb or 2GB memory card, the modern equivalent of a single roll of film. You can pick them up cheap on eBay and they are great training aids.
Of course, if you want even more of a challenge why not try shooting an actual roll of film. With each frame literally costing you money, you will soon focus your shooting in order to make sure you nail it out on location. It’s good fun and a really great learning tool!
So there you have it, a quick rundown of five ways to challenge yourself as a nature or wildlife photographer to help develop your photography.
By focusing on specific challenges and setting yourself goals and tasks, you’ll certainly see your photography improve. As well, you will have more confidence going for those creative images when you’re on your next shoot.