Photo tip of the week: take better wildlife images
Wildlife photography is about revealing something to the viewer that they have never seen - behavior, a display ritual, habitat, even something as simple as the sheer size of a creature.
To do it succesfully involves capturing these moments and understanding your gear to ensure you show them as best you can. Do these two things, and you'll be well on your way to capturing exciting images. Let's get started.
Be patient and quiet
Wildlife photography is a waiting and watching game. Animals have their own schedule and if you quietly wait, you'll soon see that things have a way of unfolding in their own time. That bird that was just sitting quietly may suddenly start frantically bathing, or a sleeping lion may wake and start hunting for dinner.
Keep in mind that when shooting in the wild, animals are often skittish and nervous. Their senses are often heightened and more often than not they can easily see and hear us. The solution? Be quiet. Have your gear ready to go and avoid making too much noise with bags and clothing. I'll even take into account the nature of the packaging around my food - noisy wrapping or packets can scare away skittish wildlife at crucial moments.
Wildlife shooting is always unpredictable. Have a well-organised bag and know where everything is inside of it ahead of time. I always throw in a garbage bag or two into my camera bag because they have many uses and do not take up much space. You can easily cover everything with one, use it to add extra protection for your bag (even if it is waterproof), or use it to put things in in muddy conditions.
Know roughly how long your batteries will last and how many images your cards hold, and bring spares of both. Finally always consider how long you may be in the field and take adequate water and nutrition alongside your beloved camera gear.
If possible, take a range of lenses with you to cover a variety of focal lengths. A good starting point for your main lens is something with a focal length of 400mm or greater as it will help 'reach' distant wildlife. A zoom lens is easier to work with for a beginner than a prime lens, as it gives greater options for framing images. It is not often wildlife will be too close to you, but having the ability to zoom out when necessary is an asset.
I first began shooting wildlife with a Sigma 150-500mm f5-6.3 lens, as it was affordable and easy to use, however I now use a Canon 400mm f/2.8L prime lens. This lens is more challenging to shoot with because the wildlife must be just the right distance away, but by using a fixed lens I find the image quality is better and I can use it in much more varied light.
One option is to use extenders to get the extra distance if your budget is limited, but keep in mind you may lose a stop or two of light with these.
As well as a substantial zoom lens with a good focal distance, something shorter to cover mid distances and erratic action, such as a 70-200mm, can be useful. Finally a wide-angle lens such as a 16-35mm is great if you wish to include the habitat of your subject or get the opportunity to be up close. Because wildlife is most often active in the morning and evening, choosing a lens with a wide aperture will increase your chances of getting sharp shots at these times. A fast lens, such as an f/2.8, is fantastic for assisting in low light.
Things can happen very quickly shooting wildlife so learn your camera settings and capabilities before you go out. This includes knowing how to change your autofocus settings quickly so you don't miss a shot.
There are two major autofocus settings that most wildlife photographers use. On Canon cameras, these are AI-Servo and One Shot AF (on Nikon, they are called Continuous/AF-C and AF-S). If my subject is moving, I'll use AI-Servo, and if my subject is static, I'll use One Shot AF. I have moved these settings into a personal menu so I can find them and change them quickly and easily. On most Canon DSLRs using the Q button on the rear brings up a 'quick menu' of regularly changed settings, including autofocus.
A good way to practice using these is choose a subject that starts and stops erratically – a bird taking off and landing is a good example – and practice switching quickly through the two AF modes as the subject stops and starts.
The other important consideration is the size of your autofocus area. When shooting a subject that is relatively static, I like to focus on the eye where possible, as this is what we are naturally drawn to when looking at wildlife photos. Although almost all modern cameras will default to a zone AF system, you shouldn't rely on this AF setting choosing the eye to focus on.
Instead, use a single autofocus point (You can choose this in AF point selection on Canon or AF-Area in Nikon) as it will make hitting focus on the eye much more accurate and give you full control over the point of focus. On most Canon and Nikon DSLRs you'll find a wheel or 'joystick' type control on the back that can be used to move the focus point. Practice using this so it becomes second nature.
For moving subjects, Zone AF is a good starting point as it will give you a greater chance that one of the autofocus points will hit your moving subject and produce a sharp shot.
A good way to practice and become confident with using both autofocus types and autofocus areas is at home with your pets. It will help get you comfortable with shooting in all different ways and will improve your pet photography no end as a bonus.
With wildlife photography it is not always necessary to shoot in manual, and in fact it is often preferable to shoot in the semi automatic settings as your reaction time may be the difference between getting the shot or missing it entirely.
My advice is to shoot with a consideration for the result you would like to achieve. Aperture priority mode will allow you to control your depth of field while the camera decides your shutter speed. This is often a good choice for animal portraits when you wish to manipulate how the background looks, but don't need to compensate for movement of your subject.
Shutter priority mode is perfect for when animals are moving so you can pick an appropriate shutter speed and let the camera dictate the aperture. I usually start with 1/800s for fast action as a minimum, but increase that if shooting flying birds. With both of these settings you can either set ISO manually or put it on auto. At times, I'll shoot in manual but set the ISO to auto to do the final balance for me. Decide beforehand what is the maximum ISO you would be happy with.
Remember that you may not always be shooting in good light, so you need to become familiar with these functions instinctively if you're to succeed in wildlife photography.
Get your composition right
Choosing great subject matter is one thing, but it is just as important to compose your images in such a way that shows those subjects off at their best. Like with most genres of photography, the rule of thirds is a great place to start. If i'm using it, I try to divide the scene into thirds and place the eye of the animal roughly on one of the points where the lines intersect.
It's best to do this in camera, but always try to give yourself some space around your subject to play with later in post if you need it.
With wildlife photography we often find ourselves cropping anyway, but be careful not to crop too tightly, especially with birds, unless you are after a particular look or to show specific detail.
Finally to draw the viewer in, have your animal subject look into the image rather than out. One-shot AF mode can help here when your subject is stationary. It gives you the ability to focus on what you want, then, while keeping the shutter button partially pressed, recompose your image.
Time of day
Time of day affects how active or inactive a subject can be. Wildlife can often be sluggish during the day and sleep for hours, while some animals love dawn and dusk, and others the cover of darkness. If dawn and dusk is traditionally when the wildlife you are targeting like to feed and move about, make use of the beautiful light. If it is night time they favour, bump up that ISO.
Finally don't forget midday sun can often be harsh and hard to work with. Shadows can play havoc and colours can appear washed out.
Wildlife photography can be used to take the viewer on a journey. You have the opportunity to show someone something they have never seen before, so make the most of it and tell a story in your pictures.
Try to champion your subject and and reveal something about their habitat or behaviour in your images. But always be accurate in your depiction and honest in your editing - for example a yawn can make an animal look vicious when it is not.
Expand your horizons
Stretch for ideas and do not let anything limit your imagination. Challenge yourself continually because the results can be so rewarding. Look for different perspectives to make shots more interesting. Do not be afraid to move your feet. Sometimes it can make all the difference.
Don't lose heart if everything is then not exactly as you had imagined. Perhaps the beautiful weather has changed to rain or the animal you are chasing is nowhere to be seen. Adapt and work with what you've got. Tough situations may provide opportunity for something unique you may not have had otherwise.
Wildlife photography can be so expressive and does not have to have the boundaries people expect. Try new techniques, and experiment with your settings. Never stop learning or think you have seen and done it all. With wildlife photography there is always a surprise around the corner.