- Safety first. Safety first. Safety first.
Yes, I said that three times. If you're going out to shoot wildlife, this should be your mantra, and not only because wildlife can be dangerous. Obviously, you need to be conscious of the potential threat to your wellbeing from your subjects, but there's much more to consider.
Weather can turn a beautiful setting into a hostile environment in a matter of minutes. Check weather forecasts and be prepared for changes, especially in the high country. Remember to watch where you're stepping and where the next step leads. Keep clear of high water, overhangs and cliff edges. If you're going to climb a tree, make sure it will support the weight.
If you're going to a remote location: Have reliable transportation, carry a cell phone and invest in a portable charging device for your electronics. Keep emergency rations in your backpack as well as a way to filter water. (Giardia is not your friend.) Carry a map of the area and study it before you head out. Don't go alone if you can avoid it, but if you do, make sure someone knows where you are and when to expect you back.
There are dozens more precautions I could mention, but the basic idea is to have outdoor skills and use them to avoid becoming a statistic.
- Know how to operate your equipment.
I've placed this tip second only to the one on safety for a very good reason: Consistently taking stunning wildlife photos doesn't happen to a photographer who is struggling to adjust a camera or lens. You need to know your gear inside and out before you head out to get wildlife shots or you're going to miss more great moments than you capture.
Know how to access and change every exposure setting from ISO to white balance quickly. Know how to change autofocus points. Know how - and when - to use the image stabilization on your lenses. Know how to set focus tracking. Know how to set up and adjust your tripod quickly. Know how to set exposure compensation, change shutter modes, switch to the LCD view, swap batteries - the list goes on and on.
It's equally as important to know how your gear performs. If you're using an inexpensive lens, know its limitations and how to work around them. Know the hyperfocal distance of your lenses and how each aperture setting affects your depth of field. Know when you can and can't count on your autofocus system.
Education and practice are the keys to being comfortable with your photo gear in the field. Your manual can provide much of the education.
- Practice in "tame" environments.
There will be a few readers that will be disgusted at the suggestion of shooting zoo animals, going to an ocean aquarium, local duck pond or even using a bird feeder. That's fine - let the purists do their thing. Meanwhile, for the novice wildlife photographer, there are some very good reasons to practice in these environments.
Let's start with the zoo. Taking marketable shots in an environment like this one means learning to avoid or mask the backgrounds or other items that give the shot away as a zoo shot. That's a great way to practice your skills and learn how to use your gear. Lighting is often going to be poor and you'll need to learn how to compensate for it. You're also going to need to be patient and wait for the subject to give you the right shot in the right location. Those are all skills you're going to need in the wild.
How about your own neighborhood? Unless you're living in a wasteland, chances are there are birds, small animals and perhaps even reptiles in your own back yard or close by. Just the act of finding those creatures around your location will help you train your eye. Once you've located them, you have all the challenges of the zoo without the advantage of captivity. That means you may have to "get your stalk on" or practice shooting at the greater focal lengths you'll often need in the field.
These environments are also great places to study the behavior of your subjects and learn what to expect, which can give you an advantage when it comes to capturing the perfect moment.
Don't hesitate to practice in locations that aren't really "wild". You're honing your skills. You might also surprise yourself with some "keeper" shots.
- Don't forget the rules of composition.
The difference between a good shot and a great image often comes down to composition. That statement is true for any type of photography, even one where wild animals are the focal point. While you're concentrating on your subject, pay attention to the framing of your shot as well as the other rules of composition. Don't just take great snapshots of wildlife; build great images of animals in their environment.
If you're not sure about the rules of composition or would like to learn more about them, there's a great photo community that can help you learn:
- Don't forget to enjoy yourself.
There's no point in having any hobby or creative career if you're not going to have fun doing it. One of the best things about wildlife photography is that it puts you in touch with nature and that's why many of us choose the genre. Here's something you may not realize if you're just getting started: Your attitude and mood will creep into your photos. If you're frustrated with the way things are going, or so wrapped up in technicalities that you're not having a good time, you're not going to get great results.
Don't make your photo outings all about photography. Take some time to step away for a moment and just enjoy nature. That moment may be all that's needed to reawaken your muse, refresh your senses and get back into the creative frame of mind that makes for great images.
This article isn't going to give you pointers on how to shoot great wildlife photos. There are plenty of those out there and I'll be giving you plenty more in other articles. This one, however, is going to give you some advice that's often overlooked, but among the most important for beginners. In fact, I'd place them at the top of any list of things that a first-time wildlife photographer or anyone considering giving it a try should learn. Ready? Let's get to it.
These five basic tips should make each wildlife photography outing more productive and help get you off on the right foot, whether you're planning to shoot for fun, profit or both. Yes, there's plenty of technical stuff to learn, but we'll cover that in another article. In the meantime, good luck and good shooting.
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