Speed freaks: Capturing wildlife action (Part two)
This is the part two of a two part series on capturing wildlife action. You can check out part one here.
Turn up the volume
As we suggested in part one, sharpness alone is no longer enough to win plaudits when it comes to wildlife action now our cameras do so much of the work. A bird simply frozen in flight is perfectly fine, but todays’ audience is demanding more.
What is it about the aerial grace, acrobatic prowess or swooping menace of an individual species that’s attracting you to photograph it in the first place? Consider what more you can do to bring that out. Positioning in the frame, wing shape, location, light conditions, skyscape and weather – these are all things you can harness to add to the viewer’s experience of your subject moving through the space.
Framing (and editing) choices like these have a big effect on whether a modern wildlife action image is successful or not and none of these decisions as far as we know could be made by your camera at the time of going to press! Look at what else, other than pin-sharp perfection, you can bring to the table, to make a pleasing or arresting animal action image.
Imagine an exotic bird flying through the lush green canopy of a tropical forest. A tight-in shot that freezes its flight and showcases its bright colour against a wash of green background would be one way to go, but what if you pulled back and showed a large swathe of the forest with the bird, much smaller, like a small jewel, flying through a vast jungle wilderness. Two different possibilities from one photo opportunity that each communicate something quite different to the audience.
Plumes of dust, trails of water droplets, splashes of white water or flying mud, rolling eyes, flared nostrils, flexed muscles, teeth bared, expressions of terror or predatory aggression – aim to freeze these things as well as subject movement for greater impact in your shots.
Dare to be different. Most folk tend to shoot birds in flight against an azure blue sky. Confound expectations on occasion and photograph birds instead against intense grey storm-clouds or flat overcast skies (pale birds against a pale background can look wonderfully elegant and delicate).
Freeze animal action that’s moving towards you rather than across the frame. It’s extremely powerful when you pull it off as it feels as though it’s bursting out of the frame.
Add value to action images by putting extra time in, pushing yourself and waiting for that ultra-special bit of behaviour, not so routinely captured. Instead of just getting a bird in flight, next time set yourself the task of getting a bird in flight carrying its prey or some nesting material for additional visual interest. Instead of getting a bird simply soaring across the sky aim for lift-off and landing action; the latter can look stunning with wings at full stretch and feet extended ready to brake.
Try for more than just one bird and photograph aerial combat, courtship, or juveniles chasing a parent bird on the wing for example. If you put in enough time you’ll be rewarded eventually with something different and exciting.
Slow down to up the ante
If sharpness is now less of the prize it once was in action pictures why not abandon it altogether and go to the opposite extreme? Freezing motion stops time and allows us to stare in detail at the decisive moment, which is awesome, but it doesn’t really give us a feel for that rush of speed when an animal flashes by at full pelt.
This is where panning shots and motion blur have a powerful part to play as the antidote to the crisp, stop-motion action we’re all more used to seeing in nature photography.
Which is why, when the light’s going, or on dull days, when we can’t achieve the high shutter speeds we need for sharp action we don’t pack up and go home. We can still get excited about photographing animal action. We simply dial down our ISO and close the aperture to achieve shutter speeds of anywhere around 1/15sec to about 1/50sec and go on the hunt for something a bit different and creative.
Dramatically slowing your shutter speed and panning in parallel to, and at the same speed as, your subject allows you to differentiate a moving subject brilliantly from its background (which is rendered as a series of streaking colours) and creates a visually arresting sense of that subject’s movement at the same time.
The skill in pulling these shots off is to retain some sense of sharpness in the head or the eyes of your subject, although you’re perfectly free to push the limit and go for an image where very little or nothing at all is in your image is in sharp focus.
At its most extreme – with everything a frenetic blur and subject and setting abstracted - it can totally upend our view of the natural world with common birds and animals rendered as surreal streaks of colour. It’s your choice how edgy you want to be. The challenge is to produce something that appeals on an aesthetic level even if your subject’s not at first glance clear to your audience.
Portraying the natural world without clear definition and sharpness removes all the helpful direction posts for a viewer. It’s a bit unnerving - which is perhaps why these types of action shots often divide opinion.
But in a world craving fresh ways of expression for the all the wild wonders of nature in action we’re more than okay with that. ❂
About the authors: Ann & Steve Toon are a UK-based, husband and wife team of award-winning, professional photographers with a specialist interest in the wildlife and wild places of southern Africa where they spend several months each year photographing and running photographic safaris.
Their work is published in a wide range of magazines and national newspapers, both in the UK and abroad, and they are reprepresented by several leading photographic libraries. They've also written three books, two on wildlife photography and one on rhinos. You can see more of their work on their website at toonwildlife.com and follow their African adventures on on their 'Beat about the Bush' blog at toonphotoblog.com.