Creating a beautiful image of an elusive creature, whether it’s a bird, whale, coyote, or other wild animal, is an exciting challenge for all nature photographers. Wildlife photography requires preparation and practice, since unlike the controlled environments common in zoos and farms, wildlife is fleeting and unpredictable.
Since most opportunities last for just a few short seconds, there is little room for error when the subject finally appears. Equipped with these proven tips and techniques below, though, you can relieve yourself of bad experiences through photos you are proud to call your own.
1) Choose the Right Shutter
People often ask, “what is the correct shutter speed?” The surprising truth is that there is no single right or wrong answer. Ultimately, the ‘correct’ setting depends on how fast your subject is moving and what you are trying to achieve.
You can choose to either freeze a subject or reveal its motion. Automatic options like “sports mode” are unpredictable at best, typically serving up an array of blurry images.
Instead of leaving this critical decision to the camera, set it yourself. To freeze most wildlife, you will need to be around 1/500 or 1/1000. If the animal is largely stationary, 1/250 will be sufficient.
2) Don’t Fear the ISO
Once you have selected the proper shutter speed and aperture, your exposure may still be too dark. If so, the solution would be to raise your ISO: a very effective method of perfecting the exposure.
Despite this, I talk to countless photography students who are afraid to adjust it. They fear the digital noise that occurs with extremely high ISOs.
The truth is, cameras on the market today can be used at extraordinarily high ISOs, creating just a fraction of the noise that previous models exhibited. Couple this with a bit of noise reduction available in most image editing programs and you have a non-issue.
3) Simplify the Focus
Like all moving subjects, using the center autofocus option along with the AI Servo mode will provide the best results. The outer points are difficult to adjust quickly and are not as sensitive as the middle point.
Keep your active focus area on the bird with your shutter button held halfway down. This enables the AI Servo mode to track the subject and automatically adjust the focus.
It works for subjects passing left to right as well as those heading directly towards you. Rather than using “One Shot” mode, select the continuous high speed burst option to capture more frames per second.
4) Find the Right Background
A good background can make all the difference. If the area behind your focal point is bright and distracting, the main subject will be lost.
To use something darker, however, will allow this same subject to really pop out of the frame. This is not overly technical, rather one of those techniques that helps photographers develop their eye. The actual background doesn’t have to be black.
In fact, heavy shade is the perfect way to get started. The trick is to find a subject in bright sun while the area behind it lies in shadow. By exposing for the main subject, everything else becomes darker.
5) Get Down
Walking up to an animal in the wild usually causes it to flee in fear. By crawling, you become far less threatening. Working from this bug’s eye perspective, the photo also gives more revealing portrayal of their habitat.
To add more impact, use a wide aperture like f/2.8. This will turn foreground elements such as grass and flowers into soft washes of color.
6) Always Be Ready
To improve your chances of success, take your camera out as soon as you arrive at your location. The sounds of velcro and zippers can startle a subject so this is best done ahead of time.
Turn the camera on and set the exposure based on the existing light. Should a photo opportunity arise, you you will bow be able to catch it rather than hurriedly digging through your bag.
To keep a low profile, it’s preferable to turn the auto focus chirp off. The same is true with all audible notifications on your phone.
Luck is the result of a lot of hard work and preparation.
By using the internet as a research tool, you can greatly increase your chances of success. For example, as part of my preparation to photograph Harbor Seals, I researched the tidal charts off the coast of Long Island.
At low tide the water recedes to reveal large off shore rocks. These boulders are ideal for the seals to rest and warm up on. Combine this knowledge with up-to-the-minute tweets of local wildlife sightings and in suddenly becomes much easier to be in the right place at the right time.
8) Time of Day
Wildlife is typically more active early and late in the day. Apps like the Photo Ephemeris tool provide you with the ability to track sunrise and sunset times. It actually illustrates the precise direction of the sun in relation to your location.
They also work with the moon, allowing you to pinpoint when it will be full and where it will rise. With this information, you can predict when animals are likely to be more visible.
All it takes is one bear to transform a quiet mountain road into gridlock. These “bear jams” are most likely to occur mid-day when the majority of families are exploring the park. If you’re not careful, it’s possible to get stuck in this traffic for several hours.
For a more natural wildlife experience, try heading out very early in the morning when the animals are more active. With less of a crowd to frighten them, your photo opportunities become more abundant.
9) Remain Present
I see a number of photographers who prepare well, do their research and get in the right place at the right time only to miss the shot.
They get distracted and take their eye away from the viewfinder while the subject proceeds to do something amazing.
This is most often the product of fixating on the LCD screen. While it’s helpful to immediately see your results, be sure to watch the scene in front of you. By remaining present you’ll be ready to capture the decisive moment.
10) Practice Near Home
Extensive travel is not a prerequisite for creating great photographs. You will often find wonderful and willing subjects right outside your front door, or just a short car ride away. Maybe it’s your own backyard garden, a flower bed, or a bird feeder.
Identifying this home base is an important piece of your photography puzzle. It’s a no-pressure zone where you can take your time, explore creative techniques and test new equipment.
By frequenting the same place you will start to observe the subtle changes of nature, as well as the weekly improvements in your overall photography skills.
Above all, wildlife photography takes time and persistence: stay determined, work hard and remain patient. The best photos come to those who wait.