Four tips for better wildlife shots

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These last few months have been utterly horrendous across Australia regarding the bushfires, with an estimated one billion animals killed throughout our country.

It can be easy to get down and depressed about this, but the best thing we can do, as photographers, is to get out into both the affected and non-affected areas and photograph! You can not only document what wildlife are out there with your cameras, but by travelling around to our wild areas and spending some money, you are helping out the local economy.

Below are some wildlife photography tips and techniques to help you achieve better wildlife images.

1) Local knowledge

Juvenile Sea Lion

Here’s a hint to help save many hours and kilometres: study seasonal behaviours and pay attention to local advice.

If you want to find and photograph a male water dragon in full breeding colour, for example, wait for the warmer months – water dragons hibernate during winter. If you want to photograph a wallaby with a joey in her pouch, find out when the joeys are likely to be old enough to stick their heads out.

It also helps to link species with habitat when planning your photographic excursions. Southern leaf-tailed geckoes, for example, generally cling to the sides of trees in sub-tropical rainforests in northern NSW and south-east Queensland. They are well-camouflaged and hard to find, so improve your chances and make sure you are in the right location.

Other species, such as the Australian sea lion, are more widespread, but not all their sites are accessible. However, Seal Bay Conservation Park on Kangaroo Island, in South Australia, is a stronghold for these animals and access is not only allowed but encouraged. By booking a ranger-guided walk, you can get close up right on the beach. Thankfully, Seal Bay survived the fires and they are keen for business.

Red eyed green tree frogs

2) Eye to eye

The angle of a shot can make the difference between an average and a great photo. Photos always look so much better when your subject is closer to eye level. This may mean changing your position, especially when an animal is up in a tree. For example, try walking uphill and taking some shots from a more elevated position.

The same advice applies when photographing wildlife on the ground. Don’t shoot down – it just doesn’t look right. Crouch or lie down (a poncho or ground-cover sheet are handy items to carry with you and will save you getting dirty).  I photographed a pair of Green Tree Frogs in Lamington National Park while lying on the ground, resting on my elbows, with the frogs looking directly towards me – a much more appealing view than if I’d shot straight down onto their backs.

One occasion for which this rule doesn’t apply is when photographing birds in flight. Sometimes you simply have no option but to point your camera up. Still, you can achieve some great backlit shots with the bird against the sun.

White tern

3) Distractions

Remember to notice your background! Photographers can concentrate so hard on their intended subject that they may not ‘see’ the background until they download the image onto their computer. You may be able to Photoshop the background distractions out, but my philosophy has always been ‘aim to get it right in the camera’.

During a recent Lord Howe Island Photography trip, I managed to photograph White Terns flying amongst the Norfolk Island Pines. So many of the images had distracting branches in the background, whereas on a few occasions, I was able to get shots of the flying tern against the sky. This certainly makes for a much more pleasing image and also accentuated the bird, rather than it being ‘lost’ in the picture.

Australia is blessed with an amazing array of wildlife. With prior research and observation, you can set yourself up to be in the right place at the right time to grab some breathtaking photographs.

Lace monitor

4) Never compromise your subject's welfare

The reason I chose to photograph wildlife some 23 years ago, was to try and capture, in-camera, some of the incredible wildlife experiences I was experiencing out in nature. My love of wildlife, and the natural world in general, has been with me since I was a very young boy and I have always had the utmost respect for their welfare. 

Setting up near a bird’s nest, trying to get the shot of chicks being fed, can inadvertently attract Currawongs (these Australian birds will rip apart any chicks they find in nests). You may not have realised this and your actions were innocent, but it’s points like this you need to know.

Removing a twig or grasses in front of a bird’s nest to get a better shot may seem harmless, yet that twig or grass stems are what may hide the entrance of the nest from potential predators. 

Even picking up a frog and placing it into a more photogenic position seems totally innocuous, yet if you have lotion or insect repellent on your hands, you could inadvertently kill the frog.

Have empathy for your subjects. Please try and put yourself in the animal’s place and respect its ‘space’. Don’t get too close and don’t yell or be noisy. If the animal looks nervous and starts to move away, often that’s because it’s getting uncomfortable with your presence.

By being empathic with your subject, you will have a greater chance of the animal(s) hanging around and acting naturally. You are therefore rewarded by getting the shots you had hoped for. By observing wildlife behaviour beforehand, you will also be more attuned to how that individual may react at certain times.

In short, please strive to have minimal or no impact on the wildlife you are photographing and the environment they live in.

About the author: Michael Snedic is one of Australia's most experienced and published professional wildlife and nature photographers.  He is the owner and operator of WildNature Photo Expeditions and has been presenting photography workshops and tours across Australia and the world for the last 17 years. To view full details, please visit WildNature Photo Expeditions.

If you would like to learn more wildlife photography tips and techniques, you can download Michael’s newly-released Ebook ‘The Art of Wildlife Photography’ by clicking on the image below:

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