The era of modern digital photography is indeed a boon for passionate wildlife and bird photographers just like me in terms of affordability and advancement of technology. In the last decade, there has been a steady rise of photographers who have been exploring wildlife photography with renewed interest. Social media forums like Flickr, Facebook, Instagram have also provided a platform for photographers to share their work. I couldn’t imagine scrolling through wildlife photographs a decade ago on a computer, now I can not only see some amazing moments captured in the wild by other photographers but even look through my own photographs!
Going back to my previous photographs, I ask myself, how better could I have clicked them. My experiences shooting in the wild and conversations with expert photographers have taught me important lessons that I consider imperative in improving at the art. Self-introspection lead me to write this article where I summarise my opinion on how one can improve their wildlife photography skills which I feel are the basics, yet often ignored in haste.
Here are some essential skills a newcomer in the field of wildlife and bird photography can learn and become the best with patience and perseverance-
- Know Your Light
Time is of the essence when it comes to wildlife photography. A wildlife or bird photographer should know the right moments to capture the perfect image. For instance, as a bird photographer, I always make sure to reach the location before sunrise, this helps me to position myself according to the direction of the sun. Another moment that bird and wildlife photography tour can make the best use of is the ‘magic hour’ when the golden light which is the softest is naturally available at dawn and dusk.
Look at the image of the Burrowing Owl from Brazil below to see what kind of effect golden light can create on the subjects captured.
Since these moments lasts for a very short duration, the photographer should take advantage of that. However, one can’t always be lucky to shoot during these hours and this is when modern technology plays a crucial role. If the technique of fill-flash is used correctly then you can add a small amount of light to the image to avoid shadows under the eyes and face of the subject to give it a natural look. Fill-Flash is also used when the sky is overcast to give an extra pop to the image. The use of Fill-Flash and Flash photography will be covered in a separate chapter.
- Be a Storyteller
What makes an image very interesting is adding a story to it. Instead of just clicking a beautiful bird I always try adding a story to it which gives the image a greater significance. Best photographers I believe are those who can elucidate their images with a great story as to what inspired them to click the picture through a great write up or an action in the image.
The key to capturing the best story through your image is patience. I have observed that many photographers get very impatient while waiting for the subject or the right moment to capture the subject and even after spotting the subject. Some photographers don’t like to wait at all if they get lucky, they just click few pictures and hurry to move to the next location. However, if the person really waits and captures the subject, they will get excellent results.
Impatience can be a huge roadblock for those who want to take their bird photography to the next level. Clicking rapidly will not give you good images, since taking the same kind of images will limit your creative abilities.
It is a common belief that thinking is not essential in wildlife and bird photography as compared to landscape and portrait photography but that is a myth. If you have the patience while clicking images the quality of your work will improve. In the sequence of pictures below you will see how I shot this bird and here is the story behind it-
We saw a pair of pearl kites in Costa Rica during one of my bird walks perched very high on a tree. We waited a few hours for the bird to come down when the light starts to die out. The wait was fruitful as the bird not only came down to the eye level but also performed a mating ritual for us to witness.
There are various suggestions and rules when it comes to composition and it is one of the most debatable topics in the world of wildlife photography. However, I choose to follow my heart when I compose my images. Since at the end of the day I should love the images I click!
Though there are many widely accepted rules to compose images but remember there is nothing called a perfect composition. It is not arithmetic but that is where your creative sensibilities come to play! Thus, I have laid down my own guidelines while composing and shooting images, to begin with, I don’t like to crop my images (albeit I am not perfect) and always compose my shots while on the field. Here are some of the simple rules I have made for myself-
- The simplicity of the shot
- Rule of thirds when applicable
- Follow lines
- Include more habitat and interesting elements
- Focus on my main target to be the most essential element in the image
- Always try to get a pleasing background
- Reduce negative space
- The angle of the shot
- Keep trying new angles
- Move a bit to recompose
4. Drop to Eye Level
As a thumb rule, I always try to get the same level as the animal or any subject that I am photographing. I have seen many photographers shooting birds standing while the bird is down low in the waters and which I feel is the worst thing to do while shooting wildlife and birds.
In some cases, while shooting small birds or animals you might have to shoot higher than your eye level due to the presence of grass. In other cases, always try to get to the eye level of the subject you are shooting. This is the best way to connect with the subject when it is looking straight at the camera. The image that you click is powerful when you shoot from the same height. See the pictures below to find out the impact created if the subjects are shot at the eye level.
- Know Your Gear
Most new and veteran wildlife photographers will swear on their technical prowess and awareness but strangely many can’t function without guidance when stuck in a situation. Since wildlife photography is the least controllable genre of photography which also makes it the toughest. If you lack the skill to learn and master the equipment you will not get a satisfactory output. This is what separates the boys from the men! (figuratively)
As it’s the case with other genres, knowing what your camera is capable of is one of the most important aspects of wildlife photography. At the same time, you must be aware of the limitations of your gear to avoid disappointment at the time of your shoot.
Here are the criteria you should always consider while shooting in the wild of course based on conditions-
- Minimum shutter speed at which you can obtain a sharp image with your camera
- Understand the in-camera or in-lens IS functionality
- Learn to quickly toggle between focus points
- Learn your camera’s limitations when it comes to ISO
- If using a continuous shutter, then know the buffer to avoid missing on important moments
- Master the basics of exposure
Remember that ‘special’ wildlife moments last for less than 10 seconds and it is imperative that you know your camera gear like the back of your hand to be prompt enough to freeze the moment or else you are out of the race.
- Choosing the Right Gear
You don’t need high-end gear and a long list of camera accessories to take outstanding wildlife photos. In fact, patience and perseverance will play just as important of a role – if not more – in the outcome.
I usually follow a checklist I created for each specific trip. This allows me to pack the essentials and leave behind everything else. Contrary to popular belief, overpacking can be much worse than under packing. It’s one of the most preventable of all mistakes made by photographers. The extra load will make you feel weighed down and uncomfortable and might even prevent you from fully enjoying the experience.
For instance, if I am going on a photography tour of birds, I try to take my longest lens and two camera bodies. If I am shooting landscapes, I leave the Tele lenses behind, as I personally don’t feel that they add any value to the trip.
- Enjoy the Moment
One of the prime reasons why I chose wildlife photography as a serious hobby when I was a kid was to get close to nature. As I delved deeper into photography, I realized that I stopped enjoying my natural surrounding and was only concerned with getting ‘perfect’ shots. I reflected while going through some of my old images, though they were good, I had missed capturing the moment with the lens of my eyes. That’s when I decided to spend some time with the subject after clicking the image.
That is what made me happy as a wildlife and bird photographer! Eventually, I started noticing that I was not only coming back with better images from my trips but also great memories that will last a lifetime. This is something I practice. Talking about my fraternity, our love for nature is not just linked with photography, it is what we translate that to in our minds as we perceive them. This is also when we realize how vital it is to conserve nature for our future generations to see.
- Do a Lot of Research Beforehand
Wildlife photography is heavily reliant on animal behavioral patterns. Research is key to understanding where and when you should go to photograph certain subjects. Planning your expeditions without this information can lead you to Alaska in the middle of the winter in search of bears. That wouldn’t offer you the chance to take many pictures.
Before I started taking groups to exotic tropical destinations on wildlife photography tours, I had to do a lot of research to find out where certain wildlife was inhabiting and what is the best time of the year to photograph them. Once I had this information, I then read through online material and publications to learn the different behaviors of those species. Based on that, I was able to determine the best gear to take on each trip. On top of this, photographers on Instagram was a great resource for information and creative inspiration.
These are some interesting sites where you can start your research with:
- American Society of Mammalogists
- Digital Photography Review
- Always Shoot in RAW
As a photographer, irrespective of your chosen genre, make it a habit to shoot in RAW mode. There is a lot of discussion on the Web about shooting in both RAW and JPEG simultaneously. But, at the end of the day, JPEG files are an unnecessary addition, as you’ll just end up working with the RAW files. This is because RAW files contain massive amounts of pixel information when compared to JPEG files.
Overall, the additional data you get from RAW files compared to other file types gives you more room to adjust in post processing. As you won’t be able to have much control over the scenes you’re shooting, it is important to be able to work with as much information as possible.
10. Use a low ISO
The ISO number of image sensors defines their sensitivity to light. Essentially, the higher the ISO number, the less light that’s required to properly expose an image. But as ISO increases, so does image noise. In order to avoid this visual distortion, it’s generally recommended to use the lowest ISO possible.
Some scenes, however, may require you to use a higher ISO in order to balance the exposure triangle. Knowing your gear’s limitations will allow you to do so without compromising the image too much. If you stay within a salvageable range, don’t be afraid of bumping up your ISO. After all, I would rather have a noisy image than a blurred one.
- Rely on Auto Focus
As a wildlife photographer, I find it crucial to use the camera’s built-in focus tracking mechanism. Most wild animals are always on the move, making it nearly impossible to focus your shots manually. This is where the camera’s autofocus tracking is critical for capturing a sharp image.
The autofocus mode is represented by AI Servo AF in Canon cameras and AF-C in Nikon cameras. While tracking a subject through your viewfinder, half-press the shutter button to start autofocus. The focus is tracked if the shutter button is half-pressed. Make sure to read your camera’s manual for a full understanding of how to use this setting.
- Carry a Tripod
No matter what I am out to shoot, I always carry my tripod. Tripods provide stability and, funny enough, freedom. I mostly shoot in rainforest environments, and it is in this kind of habitat where I find the use of a tripod to be invaluable.
On most dull mornings, I shoot using lower shutter speeds. As a result, the scope for error is much higher due to the risk of camera shake. Investing in a stable tripod and ball head is always recommended for those looking to enter the world of wildlife photography.
- Learn the Unwritten Rules
For beginners, one of the most challenging parts of wildlife photography is learning how to act and behave on the field. Things that might seem obvious don’t always work when facing wild animals. Here are a few general guidelines to remember on your journey to becoming a successful wildlife photographer:
Maintain your distance: Many people think that getting close to animals is a way of capturing jaw-dropping images. But, since you’re probably not trained to understand their behavior, this won’t end well. Trying to feed animals, regardless of how cute and innocent they look, can also end badly on both sides. The safest choice is to always keep a comfortable distance between you and your subject.
Put experiences over images: I have met a lot of clients who get really stressed about not getting the “perfect shot”. My answer to this is always the same: “There’s always next time.” It’s important to remember that witnessing certain wildlife scenes is a privilege that not many people have. Enjoy the moment instead of getting stressed about not nailing the composition.
Be Respectful: Animals should not be manipulated or handled in any way for the purposes of photography. Wildlife photography must not be pursued on occasions where animals could get exposed to threats like physical harm, predation, anxiety, or impairment of reproduction. If necessary, a trained expert should be enlisted for this.
It is important to be mindful of other photographers or animal lovers who are sharing the field with you.
Anticipate each movement: This is a skill that comes with a lot of practice. Being vigilant ensures that you do not miss that key moment you have been waiting for. In wildlife photography, certain moments happen very rarely and last for only a few seconds.
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