The Decisive Wildlife Moment

How to catch that instant when the whole photograph comes together with universal impact

1. 1/250 sec., ƒ/16, ISO 200; flashes set in manual mode at 1/16 power (this creates an effective “shutter speed” of 1/10000 sec.). Nikon D300, Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8, 3X Nikon SB-800 AF Speedlights, rig set in a Phototrap

The concept of the decisive moment applies to most photographic endeavors. If narrowly interpreted for wildlife photography, however, it becomes clear that the moment in question is often a very familiar one. Predator and prey, birth and death—wildlife photographers are in the business of retelling these timeless tales. Is there nothing new under the sun for the wildlife photographer? Are the perpetual dramas of the natural world still worth recounting? The shot that goes beyond to reach even the most jaded of audiences is one that possesses universal impact.

Universal impact in wildlife photography means that an image has the power to transcend demographics and generate a unanimous reaction in viewers. For instance, a bird photograph that’s awe-inspiring not only to ornithologists, but to other photographers, non-photographers, the young, the old and, in particular, any demographic that would otherwise find nothing interesting about a picture of a bird, is an image with universal impact.

What knowledge must the modern wildlife photographer possess in order to capture decisive moments and generate a reaction in as large an audience as possible? And what elements, if accounted for beforehand (or recognized after the fact), will result in an image that has greater value than the sum of its parts?

Identify Key Elements
1 Whenever shooting in wetlands, seeing the various frog species hopping around in the shallows always tempted me to try and capture that common, yet decisive moment. The thought of wading around in the swamp, shoulder-deep, in order to produce the eye-level point of view and then hoping my reflexes were up to the task of tripping the shutter at the instant of the jump, led me to try and find a better way. This image represents my first try at tripwire photography. I brought the green frog home (temporarily) and placed him in my artificial swamp, complete with duckweed and other native vegetation. The Phototrap was used to trip my camera at the instant that the frog felt the need to hop. After the short visit, the frog was returned to its home. Although I have some more exotic species of frogs in midair leaping poses, this one is by far the most published, perhaps due to the everyday nature of the species.

2. 1/3200 sec., ƒ/4, ISO 400; camera was tripod-mounted and the photographer was inside a blind. Nikon D3, AF-S Nikkor 300mm ƒ/2.8G VR

2 In order to elevate the image beyond what already exists on the market, other critical elements need to be accounted for, particularly when the decisive moment is a familiar one. Having explored a number of North American hot spots for photographing osprey catching fish, I eventually concluded that I needed access to a unique blind situated on the southern tip of a small pond in Finland. The most impressive osprey images that I had seen originated from this location. Here, we have a photographic location dedicated entirely to capturing a well-defined decisive moment: the osprey catching a fish. Having arranged to visit in late August during the peak daily dive frequency, I ended up with a number of images to choose from. But I believe the unanimous reaction to this image is a matter of the checklist of elements that I decided were crucial beforehand: clear eye contact with both the predator and prey—check; the osprey should be looking in the direction of the photographer—check; the splash doesn’t distract or obscure the subjects—check.

3. The first exposure (long, ambient) was triggered manually to expose for the dusk sky; the second exposure (flash), 1/250 sec., ƒ/11, ISO 200, was triggered by Phototrap; flashes set in manual mode at 1/16 power (creating an effective “shutter speed” of 1/10000 sec.). Nikon D300, Nikkor 14-24mm ƒ/2.8 at 24mm, 4X Nikon SB-800 AF Speedlights, Phototrap

3 After having successfully photographed wild eastern screech owls in flight at night, I thought I would tackle the same sort of shot, but with another tiny owl, the northern saw-whet. This time I had bigger aspirations. I wanted to do a double exposure to avoid the black backgrounds that plague night photography. I also wanted to capture the moment as the cavity-nesting owl flew out of its tree cavity. Finding an owl proved to be more difficult than it had been in the screech scenario. With the specific vision still planted firmly in my mind, I took the necessary steps to try and make the image happen with a captive subject. I managed to find a professional and experienced animal handler who happened to own a very healthy-looking saw-whet specimen. The compromise of using the captive subject allowed me to introduce a number of elements that elevate the shot: the wide lens to include the habitat and the option to choose my own, photogenic tree cavity. As for the ethical criteria that I held myself to, I decided not to take a tree that could potentially serve as a nest for a wild tree-nesting bird, so I found one that had already fallen over.

4. 1/1000 sec., ƒ/4, ISO 2000, handheld. Nikon D700, AF-S Nikkor 500mm ƒ/4D IF-ED

4 There already are many good images of great grey owls in flight out there, particularly since the invasion of 2004-2005, when unprecedented numbers of great grey visited southeastern Canada and the northeastern U.S. With this is mind, I knew an action image of this species might be distinguished from the masses if I could include a strong atmospheric element such as big, fluffy snowflakes. The owl was about two hours from my home and I only heard about the snowstorm approaching the area at midnight. I arrived in the area at 3 a.m. and checked into a hotel. Then I was out at 7 a.m., just in time to catch a brief snow squall. Being able to freeze the snowflakes and avoid the white streaks that often plague low-light snowfall images was critical. Afterward, it became clear that another important element that drew attention to the image was the owl’s funny legs, exposed here in all their glory.

5. 1/800 sec., ƒ/2.8, ISO 2000, handheld. Nikon D3, AF-S Nikkor 300mm ƒ/2.8G VR

Know Your Equipment
5 I’m a huge fan of the incoming pose for owl photography. Both eyes should be clearly visible; I believe the stare of these remarkable creatures is at the root of the mythology surrounding them. This shot depended as much on the user’s understanding of the camera’s autofocus system as it did on the blisteringly fast autofocus system itself. On the Nikon system, I like to turn the “lock-on” function to “off.” This is critical for incoming subjects since the lock-on feature essentially dampens the sensitivity of the system, so that when panning with a left-to-right subject, the autofocus doesn’t tend to lock on to other objects that may pass in front of or behind the target. Some action shooters like to only employ the center focus point. I like to use the nine-point dynamic cluster of sensors to account for my transient ability to hold the owl’s face perfectly at center.

6. 1/8000 sec., ƒ/5.6, ISO 1000, tripod-mounted. Nikon D700, AF-S Nikkor 500mm ƒ/4D IF-ED

6 While acquiring a variety of documentary images of the greater roadrunner for a natural-history piece, I decided that I’d like to have a lead image that communicated the crafty nature of this creature and its inclination to avoid flying at all costs. For universal impact, I knew everything else had to line up, too, including perfect lighting, suggestion of desert habitat and perfect timing for that decisive moment. I also knew that the jump would be fleeting and that tracking the subject throughout would be fruitless. My all-flash-lit Phototrap setups told me that the critical speed for freezing most subjects when I didn’t have the luxury of panning is the flash duration at 1/16 power (1⁄10000 sec.) in manual mode. The high ISO performance of the D700’s sensor would allow me to achieve 1⁄8000 sec. in natural light. Ensuring that the takeoff and landing perch were both in the same plane of focus, my assistant baited a particularly friendly Arizona roadrunner up onto the rock and across to the snag using mealworms. This technique of prefocusing on the eye of a subject and firing a burst has become part of my repertoire ever since.

7. 1/250 sec., ƒ/16, ISO 200; flashes set in manual mode at 1/32 power (creating an effective “shutter speed” of 1/20000 sec.). Nikon D300, AF Micro-Nikkor 60mm ƒ/2.8, 4X Nikon SB-800 AF Speedlights, Phototrap

Know Your Subject
7 The success of the bumblebee image was dependent on an understanding of what such an insect would do when introduced to a studio environment. Naturally, minimizing the stress on the subject was a high priority. Once the studio arrangement was in place, I briefly captured a bumblebee from the garden. Often, the bee wasn’t even aware that it had been captured, since it was still preoccupied with the flower it was pollinating. The flower was placed inside a custom-made, Plexiglas® container that had only one exit. This exit is pointed in the general direction of the patio door, which was left open. I was certain that once the bee realized that it had been captured, it would fly out of the enclosure, through my setting, tripping the camera on its way with the help of the Phototrap and head straight for the open door. The result tells the story of a bee pollinating flowers, highlighting the decisive moment before landing on one of the daisies. I even managed to benefit from a few stray bits of falling pollen.

To see more of Scott Linstead’s photography, visit


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