Almost everyone who owns a camera and has at least a passing interest in the great outdoors hopes to get that once-in-a-lifetime shot of a coyote, a deer, or some other elusive wild animal. And if you’re like most hobby photographers, then you’ve probably managed to miss more shots than you’ve actually captured.
That’s because it’s hard to photograph wildlife. Not only do most wild animals not want to be photographed, they don’t want to have anything to do with you. At all. That makes them particularly difficult subjects, which is why wildlife photography can be so rewarding. So how can you take your wildlife photography from the level of That-Spec-in-the-Distance-is-a-Deer to National-Geographic-has-Nothing-on-Me?
Start in your own backyard
I know, not everyone lives within walking distance of Yellowstone National Park or the Serengeti, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have wild (or at least wild-ish) subjects available in your general vicinity. You can practice your wildlife photography techniques on almost any sort of animal, from flying rats (otherwise known as pigeons) to feral cats to those killer seagulls that stalk French fry-eating tourists on Fisherman’s Warf. You already know where they live and where to find them – fill up a few memory cards with these animals first before you move out in search of larger game. Once you have a few really amazing shots of those man-eating seagulls, think of what you can do with elk, foxes and eagles.
Don’t you love it when someone tells you that you have to be patient? No one likes to sit around and wait. But if you want to take amazing shots of wildlife, you don’t have any other choice. Sure, you occasionally hear about that lucky guy who got surprised by a bear, snapped an awesome photo and lived to tell the tale. But great photographers of the National Geographic caliber wait for 99% of their amazing shots.
Patience will give you more than just a better chance at catching those animals at the precise moment where they’re actually doing something interesting. Patience will also help acclimate them to your presence. If you spend a whole day – or better yet, a whole week – in the same location, photographing the animals who regularly come and go, they may not lose caution entirely but they’re going to become less wary of you and more likely to relax and engage in natural behaviors.
Patience is good for your understanding of animals, too. While sitting there beside that pond with your camera, you might learn some things about the local animals that will contribute to better photos. You may discover, for example, that the same bobcat comes for a drink at roughly the same time every day. You may learn that certain birds are more active during some times of day than others. This kind of knowledge can help you anticipate what your subjects will do before they do it – resulting, of course, in better shots.
A wild animal is more than just a part of the landscape
When you’re not used to this type of photography, it’s easy to treat the animals you’re photographing as just another object to be photographed, like a flower, a waterfall or a beautiful rock formation. That’s the wrong approach, and can result in less-than-fantastic photographs. Instead of thinking of wildlife as being a part of a landscape, imagine that they are just four-legged people. Animals have personalities – any dog or cat lover can tell you that – and wild animals are no exception. Don’t just point your camera at them and take any old picture, instead try to take one that captures mood, emotion or character. This could be a deer on the alert, reacting to a noise that may or may not be a predator. It could be a squirrel with its face stuffed full of nuts. If you’re really lucky, it might be coyote pups wrestling or a kestrel nabbing a mouse. Let’s put it this way: A good wildlife photo is a deer in its environment; a great wildlife photo is a deer interacting with its environment.
Include the Environment
Tight shots are great, but if you only ever shoot close-ups of your wild subjects, you might eventually be accused of taking all your photos at the zoo. If you’re in a beautiful place such as Yellowstone or the Serengeti, take advantage of that scenic background and zoom out to show your subject in his or her environment. This helps give your viewer some context for the shot. A mountain goat, for example, is interesting enough up close, but to really understand mountain goats you have to see them perched on a ledge with nothing but the clouds behind them.
Long lenses and shallow depth of field
Most of the time (not all the time, but most of the time), you are probably going to be shooting your wild subjects with a long lens (say 500mm to 600mm) and a wide aperture. This means that getting the focus right is going to be crucial to the success of your image. As a general rule, the most important part of the animal to get tack-sharp is the eye. The eye is the first part of any living-subject image that the human eye will naturally fall upon. I don’t want to be all cliched by saying “it’s the window to the soul”, but it’s certainly the place where a lot of character resides, and where your viewer feels connected to your subject. Eye contact between the camera and the animal is ideal, but you can also get a very compelling shot of the animal in action without any eye contact – just so long as that eye is in focus.
Don’t forget that that long lens needs to be stabilized. You may be used to shooting with a much shorter lens, which means that you can hand-hold at much longer shutter speeds. You can’t get away with hand holding that super-long lens the way you can your standard lens. A very long lens often requires its own tripod or, at the very least, a stable surface such as a rock or a tree stump.
Keep your finger down
Remember as always that digital shots are free, and this wonderful truism of digital photography is perhaps no more wonderful than it is for the wildlife photographer. The more you shoot, the more great images you will capture. So above all, keep your finger on that button.