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.
Visit www.russburdenphotography.com for information about his nature photography tours.