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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Wildlife Photography

In his new book, wildlife photographer and Tech Tips guru George Lepp shares lessons learned in a lifetime of photography

This Article Features Photo Zoom

When it comes to photographic effort versus actual results, my success ratios with dolphins are pretty low. Penguins are even harder to capture when they’re in the water. The problem is the same in each case: They disappear beneath the surface, then leap out without warning in a fast arch, then disappear again. How can you be ready?

As with all wildlife photography, it helps to know your subject or to have a guide who knows your subject. An experienced captain will be watching the pressure wave that the bow of the boat makes as it cuts through the water. Dolphins often move into that wave and seem to fly in front of the boat. They look like they’re having fun, but I don’t really know if that’s what it’s all about.

If a large pod of leaping dolphins crosses in front of your boat, you have a brief chance to capture their form, their behavior, their spirit and their beautiful environment, all at once. It’s magical.

Two things keep me coming back for more zebra shots. First, their amazing stripes just say, "Look at me!" And, better yet, no two animals have the same pattern. Second, they tend to line up in a row, juxtaposing those flashy designs in combinations that range from aesthetic to chaotic. And a row of anything shouts “panorama” to me.

The idea of creating a multiple-image composite panorama of moving animals can be a little daunting. Add to that the complexity of the zebra’s patterned pelage, and you might think matching all those seams would be impossible. Although zebras are often very animated, with the youngsters tearing about and the males picking at each other in some kind of conflict, when the group comes to a waterhole or great feeding location, differences are set aside; everyone shares in the bounty and, best of all, they position themselves attractively in a manner designed to protect the entire group from danger.

Before you work on zebras in Africa, you’ll want to practice your panorama capture techniques so you can move quickly. Overlapping each photograph in the sequence by 50% will give you plenty of information for compositing the images, and those complicated stripes are actually an advantage because they provide an abundance of specific details to assist you in matching the seams. Still, a panorama of moving animals will defy most automated compositing software; you’ll most likely need to assemble your panorama manually in Photoshop. And there’s more you can do with zebra images, of course.

Close-up portraits and the interactions of big males, mares and foals, and adolescents all offer the usual appeal, enhanced and energized by those incredible patterns.

Their easy-going personalities make king penguins cooperative subjects for wildlife photographers, and the photographic opportunities of the Salisbury Plain are seemingly endless. Time is limited by the schedule of the ship that brought you, but it’s hard to know where to start. It would be easy to walk among the penguins, but it’s much safer for the birds if you work around the outer edges of the colonies and let them come to you. I’ve spent a lovely afternoon lying in penguin poop, photographing curious king penguins with a 17mm lens. And I’ve used the same lens to take in the entire colony in all its dramatic scale. All the while, brooding, hunting, feeding, nurturing and courtship behaviors are happening all around you. You can’t get it all, but you want to.

George Lepp is an internationally acclaimed nature photographer. In addition to writing the Tech Tips column in each issue of OP, he’s a Canon Explorer of Light. He and his wife Kathryn Vincent Lepp, a writer and an editor, have published two prior books and dozens of articles on outdoor and nature photography. The Lepps live in Colorado. You can see more of George’s work and find out about seminars, books and prints at www.georgelepp.com.

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