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Wildlife Photography: Steps For Success

Combine a subject that's displaying interesting behavior with great light and a pleasant background for fantastic wildlife images

Wildlife photography is one of the most difficult areas of photography one can enter. There’s a myriad of factors that have to fall into place to create a fantastic wildlife image. Take a minute to ponder all that must occur to get the shot and see if I cover them all below—think about it before you read on and make a mental list.

Find The Critter

This may sound rudimentary, but number one on the list is you must encounter the animal you want to photograph. There are no guarantees if you go to Glacier National Park that you’ll see moose, or if you go to Yellowstone you’ll see bison, or if you go to Rocky Mountain National Park you’ll see elk, or if you go to the California coast you’ll see sea lions, etc.  If I had a dollar for each time I drove the Lamar Valley and got skunked, I’d be rich. I’ve also driven the Hayden Valley Road in Yellowstone and the only wildlife I saw was a moth. I walked the trails of Rocky Mountain National Park and the closet I got to making images of elk was to get out my macro lens to photograph its scat. One day may be banner, while another at the exact same location at the exact time with the exact same weather conditions provides nothing. 

Where’s The Light

On some days, the light will be amazing at both sunrise and sunset yet nothing shows up. On cloudy, gray, dull light days, you may encounter a plethora of subjects. To get the two to coincide takes a lot of time in the field, a lot of driving to the location, a lot of hiking to get to the subjects and more. To have great light and an animal encounter occur simultaneously doesn’t always happen despite what the public thinks.

Oh, That Background

You head into the field and the sunrise is crystal clear. The light is golden and the subject you want to capture stands before your eyes. Perfection if it wasn’t for that ugly and distracting background. “Of all places for that majestic ______  to stand.”  Just 20 feet to its right or left is gorgeous. “Please move, Please move”—you will it to happen, but the area it chose to linger is perfect for him but not for you.

Hold Your Head Up

Serendipity occurs. The animal shows up, the sunset light is perfect and the background of out-of-focus fall color behind the subject is the absolute best. It’s sunset and the only thought running through the animal’s head is to consume as much grass as possible before it gets dark so it will have the strength to protect himself in case there’s an encounter with a predator at night. The animal continues to graze. “PLEASE pick your head up. PLEASE PICK your head up. PLEASE PICK YOUR HEAD UP!” are the thoughts that grow more emphatic in your head as the light gets better and better. It finally lifts its head—the only problem is the sun just dropped below the tallest peak and the animal is now in shadow.

Trust Me, I’m Kind

“All I want to do is make a gorgeous portrait of you so it appears on the cover of a famous magazine. You are somewhat close to me, the light is killer, the background has zero distractions and your pose is regal, so PLEASE don’t move.” You take three steps closer, slowly lifting your tripod as to not scare the critter. He stays—YES! You make a shot, but because the subject is still far, it will be too much of a crop to have the quality for a cover image. You continue to proceed toward the animal using your three-step strategy because it has worked so far. You look through the viewfinder and you see its ears twitch, so you remain still a bit longer. It calms down—you take three more steps. “All I need to do is make 10 more three-step increments and I’ll get the subject big enough for magazine-cover quality.” Slowly I proceed—six more increments and I start to feel my heart beat harder.  Two more increments—the ears twitch again, so I pause. One more and it’s mine. Then out of nowhere comes that tourist with his iPhone who runs up to me to get his photo, and the animal takes off.

Those Darn Camera Settings

The dawn light was gorgeous and the silhouette of the tree and animal was amazing. I stopped the lens down to ƒ/13 to cover the depth of field and I lowered my ISO to 100 to make a noiseless scenic file. It’s going to be a great shot. Everyone in the group high fived each other in celebration of how great of a shot it was. The light crests the horizon and close to the vehicle is a regal male lion in gorgeous light with no flies on its face in front of an out-of-focus background and it’s walking toward us—YES,  YES,  YES. The sound of shutters fills the safari vehicle as all participants wind up making scores of images.

Suddenly, the lion sees a young antelope bedded down and immediately takes off after it. With every shutter click, everyone in the vehicle fantasizes about the wall on which they will hang the 20-by-30 print of the running lion. The antelope gets away, but OMG—the photos of that chase in early light in low grass. I gotta see what they look like. A simultaneous “OH NO” is heard from the photographers. “I never opened the aperture or raised my ISO and every photo of the chase shows motion blur!” Always check your settings every time the photo op changes. If you just made a scenic, be sure to switch to your wildlife settings and vice versa.

With all the above stated, it’s easy to see how difficult it is to bag an amazing wildlife photograph. Be persistent, never give up, and persevere as it will come, and when it does, all the above disappears….. until you try again.

Visit www.russburdenphotography.com for information about his nature photo safaris to Tanzania.

Photography is what motivates me to move through life in a positive way. Photography is ͞All About The Light͟ and it’s the first thing I seek out before I press the shutter. Optimally, I pursue great subjects in great light, but if there’s an ordinary subject in great light, I still press the shutter. I love to share the photographic knowledge I’ve accumulated and I hope my enthusiasm is contagious so I can motivate others to feel the same way I do about my photography.