Learning how to manually change exposure settings.
Becoming adept at manual focusing.
Being comfortable shooting in burst mode.
Understanding how to switch focus points.
Knowing the minimum shutter speed you can use with your specific lens and camera combination.
Understanding how much leeway you have with shutter speed with camera or lens stabilization engaged.
Knowing the highest ISO you can use while still getting images that have an acceptable amount of noise.
Along with landscape photography, wildlife photography has seen increased interest over the years by beginner, amateur, and intermediate photographers. More feature-packed gear has made wildlife photography a much more accessible endeavor, yet, having better gear doesn’t always equate to taking better photos. Have a look at any wildlife photography forum and you’ll see lots of good photos, some so-so photos, and plenty of photos that just don’t do justice to the subject.
If you want your photos to be in the good category and not the others, follow the steps in this quick guide so you’re sure to have the knowledge to be prepared for your next wildlife photography outing.
Step 1: Get to Know Your Gear
This seems like a common sense step, yet many budding photographers simply skip it. Sure, it’s much more fun to be outdoors taking photos of wildlife, but if you don’t take the time to get intimately familiar with your gear, your chances of getting a great shot are vastly reduced. A good, thorough reading of your camera’s owner’s manual and several hours spent practicing with your gear is essential before you head out on your first wildlife photography adventure.
Of the utmost importance is:
This is just a short list; there are many, many other gear-related skills to master. But those listed above are some of the most essential. The kicker is that since wildlife photography is often a game of seconds, you need to be able to make these adjustments without moving your eye from the viewfinder. Doing so will take a lot of practice, so why not start off on the right foot and become as familiar as you can with the gear you use?
But the learning doesn’t stop there - just because you know how to use your gear doesn’t mean there isn’t more to learn. Photography is a lifelong pursuit, and committing yourself to always learning new techniques will keep you on top of your game.
Step 2: Develop an Understanding of Light
Light is one of the most essential components of a good photo, so learning how to use light to your advantage is another critical step in maximizing your ability to create eye-catching photos.
There is much discussion about Golden Hour - the first and last hours of light each day - and how it’s the best lighting under which to create photos. The reason Golden Hour is so good from a lighting perspective is because the light is warm and soft, and since the sun is so low on the horizon, long shadows are cast across the scene which gives the image improved depth.
Granted, shooting at Golden Hour isn’t always possible, and even if you manage to be shooting at Golden Hour, there will be times when your position isn’t ideal, such as shooting directly into the sun. But understanding light will help you resolve issues such as these. For example, though shooting at mid-day on a clear day is less than ideal due to the harshness of the light, shooting at mid-day on an overcast day can get you some excellent photos. The cloud cover acts like a giant softbox, diffusing the light in all directions. This results in images with very soft (if any) shadows that are extremely pleasing to the eye.
Another example of understanding light is having the ability to use it to your advantage, even when you are out of position. For example, if you’re shooting toward the sun, you can still create dynamic images by creating a silhouette shot. Obviously, this requires the knowledge suggested in step one, as you will need to understand your gear and the appropriate settings to get a good silhouette shot.
The point is that due to the importance of lighting, you need to have the knowledge and skills that will help you maximize light to your advantage, even if the lighting situation is less than perfect.
Step 3: Learn to Compose Close-Ups
Too many wildlife photographers stand back, use a giant telephoto lens, and compose images that show wildlife and the surrounding environment, like the image above. This is an excellent image, and environmental shots certainly have their place in wildlife photography as they tell a larger story about how the animal interacts with its surroundings. But there is something to be said about wildlife closeups as well.
Composing a closeup image takes a different skill set altogether. You can use a long lens and zoom in on an animal’s face, for example, or, if it’s safe to do so, you can use a wide-angle or standard focal length lens, get closer to the animal, and compose a similar shot. Regardless of how you approach it, creating a closeup image of wildlife gives you an opportunity to tell a more intimate story about the animal. You can highlight the texture of its skin, fur, or feathers, focus on battle scars, and incorporate the animal’s eyes into the shot in a more purposeful manner. The result is often a shot that wows viewers and engages them in the photo more deeply. Doing so helps push your creativity as well and helps you grow as a photographer.
Step 4: Learn to Get Low (or High)
Like lighting, the point of view from which you shoot is a critical element that can determine the success or failure of your photo. This is especially true in wildlife photography because getting your viewer on the same eye level as the animal you’re photographing makes for a much more engaging shot, like the one above. By confronting viewers with a view of the world from the animal’s perspective, you force them into understanding how the world looks from the animal’s point of view.
We all know what the world looks like from our eye level, but seldom do we get to experience the world from the point of view of a ground squirrel, a tiger, or a giraffe. Work to find improved angles from which to shoot, even if that means kneeling down or lying down on the ground. Granted, you need to remain safe and obey any and all rules regarding interacting with wildlife in the area in which you’re shooting. But, if possible, try to get on the animal’s eye level. The shots you take will be far more interesting as a result.
Honing your skills as a wildlife photographer will be a years-long process. However, starting out on the right foot will get you to a place in which you can take high-quality photos of wildlife much faster and with greater ease. The tips outlined in this guide will give you a good start, as will the tips in this guide to nature and wildlife photography. Commit yourself to learning how to use your gear, develop an understanding of the value of light and perspective, and strive to compose more interesting shots, and you will find that the resulting images are vastly improved.
If you’re looking for a book to help you develop your wildlife photography skills and which also takes a conservationist approach to protecting wildlife, Wildlife Photography by Uwe Skrzypczak is an excellent choice! Focusing on the animals that live in East Africa, particularly Serengeti National Park, Skrzypczak covers all aspects of this craft, from the equipment needed to compositional techniques to practical tips that help improve your workflow. The book is stuffed with hundreds of incredible wildlife images to inspire your creativity as well. No matter your desired subject or the location in which it lives, the tips included in Wildlife Photography will prove beneficial to you.