6 Tips For Wildlife Photography
Written by: steve
By Steve Russell
If you enjoy nature photography or have always wanted to try your hand at it, here are a few tips that will help you enjoy your experiences and capture better images. There have been many books published on nature photography and this short article isn’t intended to cover all the hows and whys but to give you things to think about and consider when you go out to capture images of the natural world. Nature photography is a broad category and this article is limited to wildlife (animals, birds, reptiles, etc.). Flowers, insects, mushrooms and other members of the small world will be discussed in a later article on macro-photography.
Go where the subjects live
It’s possible to find lots of wildlife in your own yard and neighborhood. Birds are probably the most common but the deer are so plentiful in my neighborhood and cause so much damage that some people call them rats of the forest. If I wanted to photograph deer there are a number of reasons I wouldn’t do so in my back yard. The first is that it would be almost impossible to capture an image that didn’t have either man-made objects in the background or horticulture plants. If you just want an image of a deer that’s fine, but if you want an image that you could sell or enter in a photography contest it’s best to go to their natural environment. Furthermore, there are many animals and birds that you won’t find in an urban or suburban environment.
Egrets and herons are extremely common where I live. However, this image of the Great Egret in breeding plumage engaging in mating ritual would probably not be found outside of a rookery where the birds were nesting and raising their young.
Learn the behavior patterns for each subject you want to photograph
Animals are creatures of habit. Frequently they will do the same thing over and over. If a small bird, like a mockingbird for example, has a nest of young chicks, the parent bird will take a circuitous route back to the nest each time it brings food to the young. It will almost always have a favorite perch it will sit on every time it comes back to the nest. If you watch and study animals, birds and reptiles enough you will learn that one particular behavior can be a signal to another behavior that you may want to photograph. Nature photography is not about taking a shot and quickly moving on to find another subject. Sometimes it takes hours to get the “perfect” shot.
This Little Green Heron was catching insects as they flew past. Catching this image with the dragonfly in the birds beak was a combination of recognizing what the bird’s behavior indicated, a little good luck on my part and bad luck on the dragonfly’s part.
Be patient and let the subjects come to you
If you’re very quiet and very still, the subjects will come very close to you. You may see a group of shore birds along a stretch of beach and you want to photograph them. The problem is that as soon as you start to approach them they either fly or run away. Fortunately, birds know where the best feeding spots are located. If you find a good spot, set up your tripod, get your camera ready and remain still, chances are the birds will return and you can then get the shot you were hoping for.
You can ask or tell human subjects to pose, smile, turn this way or that way but with wildlife you have to be patient and let them move until they are in the position you want. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. I wanted to take a photo of these two Great Blue Heron chicks but I really didn’t want an image of the rear end of the one on the left. I waited for 15 or 20 minutes before the chick stepped down into the nest and laid down, still facing away. That’s when I gave up and moved on.
Love your subject more than your camera and your clothes
Sometimes, if you want the best nature shots you have to get down and dirty. Many photographers have a bad habit of taking all their shots from the same level – standing straight up with their tripod fully extended. For the shore birds mentioned above, you’re going to get the best shots by taking your camera off the tripod and laying down on the sand or in the mud. Yes, your camera might get a little dirty and your clothes surely will, but you’ll also get a much better shot. If you’re careful, any dirt on the camera will be superficial and easily wiped off.
This shot of a Burrowing Owl fits both this tip and the one above about patience. It probably took me over an hour to get this shot. I started out with the tripod set so the center of the camera was approximately 2 feet off the ground and I sat down behind the camera/tripod. At the beginning I was about 60 or 70 feet from the owl’s burrow. I’d take a few shots wait a minute or two and then slide forward a few feet and repeat the process. By the time I was close enough to get this shot the owl was comfortable with me being close by and didn’t fly away or scurry down into its burrow every time I moved.
Take lots and lots of shots
Memory is cheap. Capturing that “one” image is priceless. I frequently shoot on continuous mode to give myself a better chance. The shot of the Little Green Heron with the dragonfly was captured shooting on continuous mode. I had no idea that the bird was going to capture a dragonfly, but I knew the bird was feeding and I was looking for a shot, like this one, that showed what activity the bird was engaged in.
I was once told to keep in mind that if you see a great shot through your viewfinder, you just missed a great shot. Shooting in continuous mode helps you get the shot you want without seeing it through the viewfinder.
I was shooting this alligator and fired off a burst of 5 or 6 shots. Just as I started shooting the alligator opened his mouth. I like to think he was smiling for the camera.
Walk softly and carry a big lens
With apologies to Theodore Roosevelt, it’s unlikely you’ll capture a really good nature shot with an 18-135mm kit lens. Every image used in this article was captured using a 500mm lens. There are a lot of reasons that a long lens makes sense. It isn’t easy to get close to wildlife. It’s possible with time and patience, but a long lens makes it easier. When I took the photo of the burrowing owl I was only about 12 to 15 feet away. Not only was I using a 500mm lens but also a 1.4X extender. A Burrowing Owl is approximately 9 inches long. That’s roughly the size of a Cardinal. Most birds are very small and difficult to approach so the longer the lens the better chance of capturing the image you want.
However, there are times when a long lens is too much. In this case way too much. This image of a male Anhinga might have been better with a 24-105mm or the 18-135mm kit lens mentioned above. Still, I like the head shot and I was able to capture many full body images of Anhingas while I was shooting.
Following all these tips won’t guarantee you’ll capture the image you’ve always wanted but following them will give you a better chance.
Photo Credits: All by Steve Russell
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