Wildlife photography is a doorway into a world of exotic animals and outdoor adventure, but it takes some effort to get there. When you learn the technical skills of photography—not only the capabilities of your equipment but also the photographic elements of composition and lighting—you’ll be on the way to capturing the best wildlife shots that you can. And while you may not be embarking on a life of jet-setting photography just yet, here are some guidelines and pointers that will help you on your way.
1 Study composition techniques. When photographing wildlife, the subject’s space, eye level and image orientation are very important. Most photographers take pictures while standing because it’s a natural position. However, most wildlife subjects are smaller or shorter than humans, so you look down on your subject. This angle makes it difficult for the viewer to relate to the animal. Get down at eye level with your subject to create strong images that put the viewer in direct eye contact with the animal.
Watch the space around an animal, as well. If the animal is positioned closely to the side of the frame and is staring off the edge, then the picture may have an unbalanced feel. Allow "looking space"—enough room for the creature to breathe in an image.
Animals will come in all shapes and sizes, so let their structure dictate horizontal or vertical composition. When birds, for instance, have long feathers for a tail, a horizontal shot may cut the tail off, giving the image an unnatural "clipped" perception. A vertical shot that includes the entire animal would be more appropriate.
2 Check your backgrounds. Animals slither, perch, sit or stand right where it’s most inconvenient—with that stick in front of them or where a washed out sky or bright leaves will destroy an otherwise great image. Check your background when you set up, and make sure it’s clean, simple and allows the viewer to focus on the animal.
Sometimes you need to move to get the animal against a more attractive background. If your background is lousy, no matter what your subject, the image will be lousy. Don’t rely on Photoshop; move and make it right to begin with.
3 Become knowledgeable about your subject and learn patience.
There are all kinds of ways to gather information about wildlife. Internet searches, biologists and rangers at wildlife refuges, other wildlife photographers, libraries and bookstores are all potential sources.
Keep in mind that wild animals seldom do what you want, when you want. So you need to develop patience to capture those special moments. For example, following butterflies and moths with your camera can be frustrating. You’ll get many partial butterfly images as they take wing just as you press the trigger. Patience! Approach your subject slowly and stay at or below eye level. Use a telephoto macro lens for greater working distance when photographing small animals, and fill-flash for greater depth of field.
4 Know your equipment. After sitting in your blind for hours, a peregrine falcon flies by and you have only seconds to frame and shoot. It’s a great photo opportunity, but do you have the right lens to capture the image? Does your memory card have space?
Be prepared. Wildlife action lasts only seconds. That’s not the time to check your manual for camera settings or to dig through your camera bag for the right lens or a memory card. Read your equipment manuals, become familiar with all your equipment and know where it is in your camera bag before you get into that blind. Pack your camera bag the same way every time and know where each piece of equipment is located.
5 Pay attention to the environment, even in portraits. Pay attention to the environment, even in portraits. Most people want frame fillers of wild animals. But images that show the animal’s environment are often more stunning and give the animala sense of place. You can use shorter lenses and immerse yourself in wildlife photography without the need for those expensive super-telephoto lenses when you start out.
A portrait of an injured, captive bald eagle doesn’t tell you much about the eagle. An image of a wild bald eagle at home in its Alaskan temperate rain forest tells the viewer much more about the animal and gives it a sense of place.
6 Understand the color quality of light. The light at sunrise or sunset warms up a subject's color and tends to light it evenly. An added benefit is that these hours are also active times for wildlife.
Unfortunately, the appearances of wildlife aren’t always in early-morning or late-afternoon light. When this happens, you hope for soft, overcast light. An overcast sky acts like a giant diffuser, evening out harsh glare. Metering exposure in this light is easier, too. There are no overly bright or overly dark areas to cause problems as long as you keep the sky out of the picture.
This light may come off as bluish, though. If so, a warming filter or a little fill-flash helps correct the color. A flash with -1 to -2 dialed in produces a well-exposed subject and a daylight-looking background. You can also adjust the white balance on your digital camera for overcast conditions.
Fill-flash also adds sparkle, or catch-light, to the eye of your subject. Without light reflection in the eye, an animal looks lifeless.
7 Work to capture animal behavior. As you learn more about wildlife and become more familiar with your equipment, expand your photographic abilities to include animal behavior.
A dynamic image is almost always more interesting than a static image. Try capturing birds taking off or landing. Birds in National Wildlife Refuges are acclimated to cars on the auto tour routes. Look for birds that perch along the roads; they often return to the same roost.
A mother with her young is another great behavior subject. Practice with subjects like these at local zoos and wild animal parks. You can also check with local wildlife rescue facilities to see if they offer photo sessions.
8 Develop the right ethical approach; you‚’ll become a better wildlife photographer.
Too often, we become so excited with the wildlife photo opportunity in front of us, we forget about the welfare of the subject. Never put a wild animal of any kind in a position where its existence is threatened, especially when photographing baby animals or birds at their nests.
Never freeze or refrigerate an insect, reptile or small animal to make it more "manageable." You could permanently harm the subject, and all you get is a picture of a frozen animal.
9 Understand the direction of light. Light has directional characteristics a wildlife photographer can utilize. From an exposure standpoint, frontal lighting illuminates an animal’s face evenly and completely.
If an animal is facing you, side lighting lights one side of the animal’s face while the other side is in dark shadow—a potential exposure problem even with fill-flash. Unfortunately, frontal light can be flat, while side lighting creates depth, so there are always trade-offs.
Back lighting falls on your subject from behind it. You’re shooting into the sun, so exposure can be tricky, and you need to watch for lens flare, but the resulting image, usually silhouetted or with rim light, is often striking. For exposure, meter the sky away from the sun, lock in your exposure reading, recompose on the subject and shoot.
10 Now go out and have some fun! Rules are meant to be broken, and while there’s no magic formula for creating stunning images, if you keep these basic suggestions in mind, you’ll be able to develop your photographic skills and have a great time doing it.
Besides, the wildlife might enjoy watching you as much as you enjoy watching them. They might even employ some of your camouflage techniques to study you in secret.