To create a successful wildlife photograph, you have to master a lot of variables. There is your exposure, of course, and the sometimes split-second decisions that must be made regarding shutter speed and aperture, and where precisely you want to focus - a critical issue with long lenses, which have very shallow depth-of-field.
These are issues that every photographer faces, of course, but with wildlife (and arguably with sports), all those decisions are complicated by having an independent, mobile, and often unpredictable, subject. Or half a dozen of them. Then, on top of everything else, you hope to capture a unique moment...and in good light. All in all, it's a tall order for mere mortals.
The reality is, almost every time I go out, I miss a lot of terrific pictures, either because I have failed to master those variables, or because my subjects just didn't want to be photographed that day. Yes, there are times when the work is exhilarating and all the elements come together. But there are also times when you can only beat yourself up for being slow, stupid - or simply unprepared.
Here's a list of what can, and often does, go wrong.
1. I slow down the shutter speed for a certain effect - and then forget to change it back, and miss an action shot.
2. The autofocus locks onto the background, leaving my foreground subject hopelessly blurry.
3. The focus point is set in the middle, capturing my subject's mid-section in perfect detail, but leaving his face out of focus.
4. An animal I have been tracking does nothing particularly interesting for an hour, and then leaps into mid-air. Am I ready? Only in my dreams...
Simply said, a wildlife photographer can simply never have quick-enough reflexes, or such a complete mastery of his/her equipment that they never miss a shot. And if anyone tells you different...they're lying. So if you've missed some winners along the way, don't despair - you're in good company.
Meanwhile, why have I illustrated this post with a shot of the Baja Bar Scene (e.g. a group of Royal Terns, all with great haircuts, getting to know each other)? Because I took about 40 shots of this scene, and this was the only one that really worked. Almost everything I mentioned in my list above happened here..and more. Good thing I didn't stop at 39!
Nikon D3 with 70-200mm lens.