20 Top Action/Wildlife Tips

Be ready to shoot the fast action of wildlife and adventure sports
20 Top Action/Wildlife Tips Sports-action and wildlife photography are connected because of their mutual reliance on spur-of-the-moment, lightning-fast activity. The photographic techniques required for each are similar as is the mindset of those who specialize in either endeavor. The pros who spend their lives seeking out the best in wildlife or sports photography have valuable insight into how they're able to capture their images—and how you can, too.

1. Use Water Reflections
I waited for the sun to get low enough to provide warm lighting on the butte while the river was in shadow, but the reflection of the sky in the calm water kept it bright enough to silhouette the kayaker. Without using a split-neutral-density filter, I overexposed the butte slightly to bring out more detail in the shadowed area. Using the rule of thirds, I placed the kayaker in the bottom third of the image to balance the composition.

—James Kay
2. Simple Stabilization
When shooting telephoto lenses, I often use the lens or camera strap as a device to help stabilize the camera. I wrap the strap over my right shooting shoulder and push the camera forward against the strap while holding the camera to my eye. This creates tension and makes it much easier to hold steady a longer lens. I regularly shoot action images in this manner with my 200-400mm and 500mm Nikon lenses. This simple system keeps me free to move fast if I have to and my camera reasonably stable, too.

—Daniel J. Cox
3. Be Part Of The Sport
Just as important as photographic skills is mastery of the vertical arts one wishes to photograph. This includes the ability to previsualize the image so that safe and proper rigging can be put in place in advance to get you in position. Rigging often requires more time and effort than actual shooting—miscalculate and you may find yourself literally "hanging around," watching as the best light and action occur just out of reach. Action sports photography is a performing art. At its highest level, it requires exquisite communication between all the participants in order to succeed. At the end of the day, ask yourself, did we all collaborate, listen, imagine, brainstorm and explore together as best we could in order to create the most powerful image possible? In the long run, that's what will set you apart and keep you motivated.

—Chris Noble
4. Eye To Eye
The most effective wildlife shots are made from the subject's level. Images made from a standing height lack the intimacy of a ground-level image so be prepared to get down onto your knees or belly when necessary. Whenever you're close to wildlife, move slowly—tai chi-like. Don't worry about being seen; the animal will know you're there, but slow, deliberate movements are always less threatening.

—Joe McDonald
5. Be Radical
If you're shooting digitally, don't be conservative! For fast action sequences, fire as fast as your motordrive will allow while keeping an eye on your buffer so you don't run out of memory during the best action. Birds in flight, animals sparring or fighting, dolphins breaking a bow wave and other action occurs faster than you can respond, so it's best to start snapping as soon as the activity begins. Activities that have a peak, however, like a mountain goat jumping from one rock to another, are best shot by anticipation and not by random fast-firing.

—Joe McDonald
6. High-End Shooting
I do a lot of aerial photography from helicopters and I'm frequently asked what shutter speed to use and how to avoid vibrations. First, you need to find a helicopter that has the blades perfectly tracked or balanced; this can make the difference between a ride like a Cadillac and a motocross bike. Take the bare essentials in the air with you; don't clutter your floor space with unnecessary gear. When in the air and shooting, seat yourself comfortably in the center of the seat cushion for maximum comfort and vibration absorption. If you sit on the edge of the seat or touch the frame of the seat or aircraft, the vibration goes straight to you and your camera. Hold the camera as if you're drinking a glass of champagne, delicately and relaxed, again avoiding transmitting the bumps and vibration to the camera. Take your time to explain the angle to the pilot, be patient and relax. A helicopter is the best tool for photography—it goes up and down, hovers, flies backward and gives you perspectives most people would never see. It's a blast!

—Onne van der Wal
7. Make Big Air Look Even Bigger
I used a Nikon 24mm wide-angle lens to accentuate the height off the ground of the snowboarder in this image. By keeping my angle low and having only the sky behind the snowboarder, the feeling of height was exaggerated. I also wanted to include the sun as an element in the image. The 24mm lens kept the sun at a small diameter so it wouldn't overwhelm the image. The sun then provided great backlighting to illuminate the snowboarder's contrail.

—James Kay
8. Stick With It
Be patient and wait for the decisive moment. Too often, there's a tendency to get some shots and to feel like "you've got it" when, in reality, you've just scratched the surface. I usually stay with a subject until all possibilities are exhausted—time and again, I've captured my best images after the average shooter would have packed up and left. Why? Perhaps it's simply because wildlife grows accustomed to you, and the longer you linger, the more likely you'll have your subject relax and exhibit interesting behavior.

—Joe McDonald
9. Heads Up
Animal action happens fast so always be prepared to shoot, with everything setup in advance. If you use a D-SLR, avoid looking at the LCD screen until after the action is over and keep shooting until the buffer begs for forgiveness—then shoot some more. Any slight exposure worries always can be corrected at the RAW stage.

—Andy Rouse
10. Wait For The Light
I scout locations at midday when scenes are evenly lit. Often before shooting, I wait several hours for the sun to sink in the sky and throw some areas into dark shadow. That lighting enhances the dramatic look of an image—in one image, I created vivid contrast with a rock climber appearing to be hanging above a deep abyss. That kind of stark contrast between light rock and dark-shadowed area makes for a much more dramatic scene than the one you see at noon.

—James Kay

11. Protect Your Gear
Keeping my camera absolutely dry is a must. When I'm shooting white-water rafting, kayaking and canoeing, I want to have the freedom to move my gear around into perilous situations, and a waterproof, protective bag gives me the confidence to look for special compositions. The Quickdraw Waterproof Camera Bag by Voyageur Gear and the Lowepro DryZone are the best things since sliced bread; the bags are tough and well designed. When you aren't worried about the safety of your camera and lens, you'll concentrate on getting better shots.

—Rick Sheremeta
12. Position Is Everything
When you're shooting a sport with a predictable sequence of motion or activity, think about where the critical action is going to be and then place yourself in a spot to catch it. In the surf, the athletes will catch the wave in one spot, then usually do a turn before trying to pull into the tube. Get yourself into position and wait for the moment to come to you.

—Les Walker
13. Soft Light
Quite frequently, cloudy-bright light offers the best shooting conditions for photographing mammals. Soft light diffused by a light veil of clouds makes ideal portrait lighting and permits you to shoot all day when necessary. In sunny conditions, consider using a flash for fill to help eliminate contrast.

—Joe McDonald
14. Safety First
Safety must be everyone's top priority. A dropped lens or camera, even a battery or film canister, high on a cliff, can easily injure or kill someone below. A loose rock or a sharp edge the rope runs over is equally dangerous. What I've learned the hard way during 30 years of chasing ephemeral moments of beauty around the globe is that in the end, the measure of success isn't whether you get the shot. There's always tomorrow for that. The measure of success is the quality of the experience for everyone involved.

—Chris Noble
15. Sparkle
An on-camera flash or your camera's pop-up flash at a low-output setting will put a little catchlight in the subject's eyes without creating an obtrusive, harsh look. That slight catchlight makes a big impact on the final image.

16. Get Dirty
I always prefer to shoot from a low angle, preferably below the subject's eyeline. It makes the subject look more impressive, prevents the eyes from having shadows and often makes the subject less intimidated by you. Being "lowdown" does nothing for your back, however, and can be a little difficult when photographing ants, but generally it gives better and more natural results.

—Andy Rouse
17. Blurred Animal Action Shots
I first search for locations with animal activities; naturally, this increases the odds of getting a photograph of animals in motion. For the blurred look, especially, high color and brightness contrasts are important to isolate the blurred subject from the background. I prepare the camera well in advance—mount a telephoto lens, use an exposure time of 1/8 to 1/2 sec., switch on autofocus, etc. Then I wait and look for the moment. When I see something in motion, I try to follow the subject while it's running or flying. I always start shooting some blurred images before subjects are at the perfect distance to be sure I don't miss the shot.

—Frank Krahmer
18. Stay Set Up
I can't count the number of times in the past when I've come upon a great subject while hiking along a mountain trail and missed it because I wasn't ready to shoot quickly. To better my chances, I keep my camera slung over my shoulder so that I can point and shoot in an instant. I set my camera to shutter priority with a minimum shutter speed of 1/125 and preferably 1/500 sec. I keep my lens set on autofocus and set my metering for spot or center-weighted to ensure that my main subject will be properly exposed. When I'm using a vertical camera grip, I always turn off its controls—I can't begin to tell you the number of times I've missed a good shot because the shutter speed had been slowed dramatically as a result of the main dial rubbing against my leg as I walked.

—Rick Sheremeta
19. Keep Organized
I'm doing a lot of digital shooting now. I keep a flash card wallet in my vest, with the unused cards placed with the manufacturer's name and logo facing up. Once the card is filled and removed from my Nikon D2h, I turn the card over so I know it has been shot. With fast-moving wildlife, you don't want to be fumbling with your cards trying to find the blank one! For the safety of my digital files while in the field, I save all my images directly to an 80-gig external mini-drive, not the drive on my computer. I back up the files to a second external drive and then finally make the third backup to the drive on my computer. Backing up files to external drives is a fail-safe method to never losing your pictures due to a computer malfunction.

—Daniel J. Cox
20. Prefocus
Advanced cameras feature a focus lock (usually a button on the camera back), a perfect tool for being sure your shots are sharp. Often, you can predict where wildlife or action will unfold in a moment although it's not there yet. Lock the focus on the point where you think everything will happen and wait. You'll be locked in and tack-sharp.


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