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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Luck Favors The Prepared

When you’re ready for anything, good photographs tend to come together

Labels: How-ToColumnTech Tips

An iconic African baobab tree provides an anchor for the spinning Earth in this composite of 320 consecutive 30-second exposures. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm lens at ƒ/4, ISO 400, composite created in Photoshop using Lighter Color Blend mode

We've just returned from a three-week digital photo safari in Botswana and Zambia with a wonderful group of advanced nature photographers. As always, when dedicated photographers interact, a number of great questions and ideas came up while we pursued and processed our wildlife and landscape images in the subject-rich Okavango Delta and Victoria Falls areas. Here are some of the best tips gleaned from the trip; you can use them for extended photo shoots anywhere.

Be Ready
A photo safari is fast paced and intense. Throughout the day, you'll be changing your camera settings to suit the lighting and action. That means you'll probably finish the day with your camera at maximum sensitivity in after-sunset conditions. With recently released high-end DSLRs, expanded ISO capabilities are critical factors in achieving sharp low-light images of wildlife with long lenses. And if you spent the night photographing the Milky Way, the 3200 ISO you used in the dark isn't likely to be the right choice in the warm light of morning. You don't want to waste your first captures with erroneous settings, and you don't want to miss that first great lion yawn of the day while you set up your camera.

Here's a basic checklist that you can use to keep your camera ready to capture varying subjects under the different lighting conditions you'll encounter each day.

Check batteries. As you prepare your equipment for the day, check your batteries. We hope you actually removed them and recharged them overnight. If so, don't forget to put them back in, because it's a real bummer when you're ready to take that first shot and discover you left your batteries back at camp. Even worse, you shoot Nikon and everyone else in your vehicle has only Canon batteries, so no loaners!

Check capture media. Along the same lines, be sure you've inserted and formatted capture media in your camera because you probably removed your card to download the previous day's images, and it might still be sitting in your card reader. It's really important to set your camera's custom function to not fire without a card. Otherwise, you're left with only sweet memories of all those could-have-been captures.

Preset for prevailing conditions. Preset ƒ-stops, shutter speeds and ISO for the conditions you anticipate first thing in the morning. From that base, it's easy to make adjustments for particular situations, such as flying birds or backlit subjects.

Bring your accessories. Consider your experience from the day before, and all the subjects you hope to capture today, and bring along all the accessories you might possibly need to do the job right. A cable release, filter or loupe to check the LCD will be of no use if left back at camp.

Composition Matters
As the trip progressed, the group became more aware of the compositional requirements for good wildlife photography. It's hard not to photograph everything that moves the first time you're surrounded by exotic wild animals. After a few days of critiques from the leaders and the chore of editing thousands of unusable images, you become more selective. Our group began to edit images in advance of capture, recognizing an impossible photographic situation before expending effort and pixels on a fruitless quest. What were they looking for?

The ideal wildlife image portrays an alert, fearless, healthy animal engaged in natural behavior with the lighting optimizing its personality, features and surroundings. So you want that beautiful male antelope with the well-formed horns posed ears forward, eyes visible (preferably with a highlight), looking into the light, and possibly even looking into the camera. Be sure he's standing erect and the legs are positioned so that all are completely visible; if the legs are obscured by deep grass, include the area of grass where the legs would be if visible. Natural, interactive behavior between species, or between parents and offspring, or among youngsters, always adds interest and a storytelling aspect to wildlife photographs. And if the behavior occurs in the context of a visually stimulating environment such as crossing water, all the better.

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