With advances in digital equipment, wildlife photography has become increasingly accessible and popular. After being bitten by the wildlife photography bug, many people are looking for ways to improve their skills. There are many tips and online tutorials that cover camera settings and technical aspects of wildlife photography. However, camera settings are just part of honing your craft. Learning the art of wildlife photography involves a great deal more.
Learning Your Craft, Developing Your Art
Text and Photos: Diana Andersen, Animalinfo Publications
For wildlife lovers, an intimate connection occurs when you capture an animal in your viewfinder the first time. Looking through the lens brings you closer than your eyes can and allows you to spy on the life and habits of a subject that would otherwise remain unseen. Looking into the eyes of an animal from a distance changes it from an object to an individual. With digital photography, the instant gratification of being able to see that connection on the back of your camera is exciting. Torn between wanting to remain and take more photos, or head back to the computer to download that captured moment, you are addicted!
Components of Exceptional Wildlife Photography
What follows is often the costly process of upgrading cameras, purchasing longer lenses, accessories, camo gear and trolling the internet for information to help you perfect your skills. While we are all guilty of lusting after better equipment that will allow us to get closer and capture sharper images, good wildlife photography is about so much more.
Light, composition, timing and sensitivity towards your subject are all crucial to telling the story. The sharpest images can be ordinary if they fail to communicate anything more about the subject than recording their physical features. There is a difference between a photo of a beautiful animal and a beautiful photo of an animal!
Great wildlife photographers share that intimate connection they make through the lens with the person viewing the final image. Seeing a scene as the photographer saw it and eliciting an emotional response from the viewer is what good visual storytelling is all about. The art of wildlife photography is a journey that develops and evolves as your skill improves. Far too many photographers go straight to camera settings as a way of improving their photography. However, learning to ‘see’ is an essential skill more important than any other wildlife photography tips and involves developing an understanding of both the subject and techniques.
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6 Steps to Improving Your Photography
Setting Yourself up For Success
If patience is not one of your virtues, your journey into wildlife photography will likely be a short one. Unlike other genres of photography, wildlife photography is less predictable in terms of subject and location. It is often a case of patience and perseverance, but it isn’t totally out of your control. There are things you can do to set yourself up for success.
Many animals have behaviour routines that can help you predict their location. Knowing where they may be at a particular time of day increases your chances of getting good shots. Wearing appropriate clothing and approaching wildlife without causing alarm will contribute to the likelihood of success. Developing a basic understanding of animal behaviour will help you to anticipate the actions of your subject. Your activities should be ethical at all times and never interfere with the daily life of the animals you are trying to capture.
Read more wildlife photography tips… Ethical Wildlife Photography
Looking for the Light
Like all forms of photography, light is a crucial component of a successful wildlife photograph. Fortunately, animals are also more active in the early morning and late afternoon when the light’s angle and temperature are more appealing. Unless it is cloudy with diffused light, shadows can be harsh during the middle of the day, and colours in the environment are less saturated.
Determining the direction of the sun before arriving can make the difference between success and failure. Unless you are an experienced photographer, shooting into the light can be problematic. Approaching animals from the wrong angle can push them further into the light, so know where your light is coming from and make sure you are taking advantage of the best light and direction.
Read more wildlife photography tips and tutorials… Light and Wildlife Photography
When photographing humans, you are often on the same visual plane as your subject. However, many animals are much smaller than us, and of course, when it comes to birds, they are often flying or perched above us. This issue presents a range of problems for the photographer.
Shooting an animal that is on the ground from above brings the background very close to the subject. It can be challenging to isolate the hero of the shot from the visual clutter behind the animal. Shooting low has several benefits, one of which is to place the subject in its environment, which immediately tells us more about the animal and sets the scene for your story. It also compresses the foreground, resulting in the blurring of unwanted and often unattractive foreground elements and isolating the subject from the background.
Shooting low helps to make a personal connection with the animal. An eye to eye view will create a more intimate relationship between the subject and the viewer. If you’re shooting to illustrate a conservation issue, making an emotional connection between your animal and the person viewing the photograph will go a long way to getting your message across.
Capturing birds and animals in flight and understanding exposure to avoid silhouetting your subject will require you to master your camera skills. Recognising distractions in your viewfinder is also a skill you need to learn when you start taking photographs. You need to look at the whole scene, not just the animal so you can eliminate elements that will detract from the image.
Read more wildlife photography tips and tutorials… The Art of Wildlife Photography
The Principles of Visual Communication
If you speak to any designer worth their salt, they can tell you how shape, colour, line and composition communicate ideas and emotion. On the other hand, photographers often refer to composition rules that you need to learn to produce a good photograph, like the ‘rule of thirds’. While photos that conform to these rules will generally be pleasing to the eye, they may not communicate the meaning that you hoped.
For instance, the ‘rule of thirds’ principle makes a pleasing composition that is comfortable for the viewer, but what if you were doing a story on the loss of habitat or some other threat facing wildlife. A pleasant image that is easy on the eye may not be the emotion to want your photograph to convey. Light, shadow, colour and shape and how they interact with the borders of your image can impact the message your image sends. It is as important as the subject itself and should be considered the alphabet for visual communicators.
At this point, you are probably saying to yourself, but I only want to learn how to take a better shot of an animal! That’s perfectly fine, and record shots are a valid form of wildlife photography. However, there are always aspects of your photos that can improve through framing your shots better. Light and shadow used to focus and direct the viewer’s attention, and your subject’s position within the frame can all make a difference to your image’s success. Colour and combinations of colour can also contribute to the success or failure of a photograph.
Read more wildlife photography tips and tutorials… Wildlife Photography: The Art of Storytelling
Thinking Outside the Box
There is no shortage of wildlife photographers, including bird, macro and underwater photographers. Many will have excellent equipment and many hours of photography under their belt. You only need to look through the entries into any international wildlife photography awards to see how high the standard is. Standing out in such a saturated genre is easier said than done, but if you look at the winning shots, that is often precisely what they have achieved.
Try to think outside the box, strive continually to improve your work from a technical standpoint and a creative one. Try to get up close and personal to your subject to show the beauty in detail. Zoom your lens out and expand your view to include the habitat. Show your audience something that it hasn’t seen before.
Mastering Post Production
Image processing is an area that is often controversial, and many nature photography competitions allow only minimal editing. While getting the focus and exposure of an image right ‘in camera’ is always desirable, the subject’s nature can often mean that areas need some work.
Maintaining a high enough shutter speed for a moving target can often result in high ISO and electronic noise. There are many noise reduction programs and plugins that can reduce noise and improve your image. There are also programs, plugins and photoshop actions that can help you sharpen your photos and often, a combination of the two is necessary.
Many images can also benefit from adjustments in tone, colour, and contrast. Any changes should subtle and appear natural, designed to enhance the image without altering the scene or subject too dramatically.
The exception to the rule is fine art imagery, where all post-processing is at the discretion of the artist/photographer. The success or failure of these changes is totally dependent on the creativity and talent of the photographer. Unless there is a category for creative imagery, most wildlife photography awards do not allow this post-production level.
Camera settings are a complex topic that people expect to be easy to address. The general rules are using the fastest shutter speed, continuous focusing mode instead of single-shot focusing, and the lowest ISO you can manage. The problem is that your subject’s ideal settings may not be possible or produce a good result with the camera equipment you have available. With many camera and lens combinations, fast shutter speed may result in a very high ISO and a great deal of electronic noise resulting in a grainy and unappealing image.
It is more important to learn to work within your equipment’s limits to get the most out of what you have available. Focus on learning to make adjustments to your settings quickly and understanding the effect of focal length on an image. Mastering single point focus, back button focus and panning with moving subjects will help you improve your photos. Understanding exposure and learning to use your histogram and highlight alerts to manage your highlights and blacks ‘in camera’ will go a long way to helping you master your wildlife photography.
The old saying of ‘Practice makes perfect’ could not be more accurate when learning your craft and developing your skills. Wildlife photography tips and courses will help but going into the field and shooting as often as possible is essential. Regardless of whether you aspire to be a professional award-winning wildlife photographer or just want to enjoy your photography, the journey into your wildlife photography obsession can be tremendously satisfying and spreads awareness of the beauty of our wildlife.
Follow our wildlife photography tips and tutorials to learn more.
Without question, bird flight photography requires skill and luck, but it also requires thought, preparation and an artistic eye to take it to the next level. It’s more than just settings!
Learn how wildlife photographers use visual imagery for storytelling. Learn to elevate your wildlife images to the next level.
Learn the art of wildlife photography. How do you step up from snapshots to images that engage the audience and elicit an emotional response?
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