Big Mammals

The stars of Yellowstone, Alaska, Africa, and India are the big mammals. Photographers from around the world head to these locations to capture these majestic icons. It’s difficult to appreciate great shots of these creatures until you try it on your own. If you watch any of the nature channels, you’ll see shows jam packed with gorgeous footage. If you thumb through major publications or books on large mammals, you’ll see stills that take your breath away. Both may leave you thinking, “That doesn’t look so hard.” But what you don’t see is all the footage that didn’t make the cut. You don’t see the hundreds of hours spent in the field to capture the few shots that make it into the book. You don’t get to see what each photographer had to endure on a daily basis dealing with clouds, rain, uncooperative subjects, etc. Good big mammal photography is difficult. Use the following tips to make it a bit easier for you.

Backgrounds: When I run my nature photo tours, I share two of my favorite lines: It’s All About the Light AND the Background is Equally as Important as the Subject. A bad and busy background doesn’t allow the main subject to pop off the page. On the other hand, a clean out of focus background allows the animal to appear three dimensional. Use long lenses at wide open apertures to throw the background as much out of focus as possible. If the background is distracting, wait for the animal to move to another location where it’s better. If the animal is too close to the background, it may not be possible to throw it out of focus. Again, wait for it to move. If it’s possible for you to move to a different location to improve the image, do so.

Look for Behavior: Shots of big mammals simply standing in a field are a dime a dozen - at this point, maybe even a nickel. This being said, capture the record shot, but then wait for action, behavior, or something different to occur. It may happen in five minutes or it may take five hours. This is where you decide how long to wait and how much it’s worth. The one guarantee is if you don’t invest the time, you won’t get the shot.

Always Be Ready: Know your camera like the back of your hand. Most great animal action happens fast - it’s not going to wait for you to refine adjustments. When the action occurs, it’s a one time deal. It’s not Hollywood where the director yells, Take Two. The more quickly and efficiently you can access the settings, the greater the chance you’ll capture the peak moment.

Timing: During the rut and when babies are born are the two most popular times most big mammals are photographed. The mating season works well as the males are active rounding up harems, fighting, and they are in their best coat. The potential to get a lot of behavior and action shots exists. When babies are born, it’s more about the interaction between the mom and young. In addition, the cuteness factor of newborns is in high demand.

Add Variety: Many photographers go for frame filling shots that show the entire animal. While these are great to capture, editors often request photos of animals in their environment. Don’t limit what you photograph just because the frame filler has impact. Additionally, try to frame every big mammal you encounter both vertically and horizontally. Do this for both the frame filler and the environmental photo. So instead of walking away with just one image, the frame filler, you now have multiple scenarios of the same subject.

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    The comments & photos are good, but…
    These days, just about everybody uses electronics, most of which is digital. The problem is, unless all the “thinking” the camera normally does is turned off or otherwise overwritten temporarily, the “best” shots are often missed.
    —- It’s about to happen. — You get ready. —- You press the button, and ……. OOPS. Gotta’ think! Shutter releases, and the shot was missed!
    How about an article on ways to reduce the thinking, not just by the high-end cameras, but also by those cheap point-and-shoots?

    Howdy Russ, Well I am not much of a wild life photographer but the photo of the white fuzzy critter has peaked my interest. Looks to me like it is landing with the intent to leap again. Please enlighten me as to what is in process? Thanks

    Robert – thanks for the idea. I’ll see what I can come up with regarding your topic. I just submitted my latest group of new tips so it won’t be for awhile but I added it to my list so keep checking in the next few months! As a teaser, I always try to stay one step ahead of what the animal may do. Knowing the animal’s behavior and being able to predict what it may do frees one up from over thinking!

    George – the mountain goat kid is leaping from one rock to another. The pose that I caught was one where it’s in the launch position ready to go to the next rock. Hope this helps.

    Russ, always enjoy your tips. Thanks. I just came home from Yellowstone and am beginning to appreciate the time that must be devoted. I’m not sure I have what it takes.

    Thanks Kevin – please don’t get discouraged. Let each winning shot you get motivate you to get more and more and more. Don’t doubt yourself! There are times I’ve gone to Yellowstone and come back with very few keepers. Other years, I’ve come back with winners! PERSISTENCE!!!!!!!!!

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