You don’t have to travel to exotic locales to shoot wildlife photography. Before investing in photo excursions to Africa or Antarctica, you can start by photographing wildlife in your own backyard or local parks or nature preserves. One thing you will quickly learn in the field or forest is that there are a number of factors that can either help or hinder your work. Through practice, you will discover that capturing a great wildlife image isn’t about being lucky, it is the result of being well prepared.
In wildlife photography, preparation is key. You must acquire a certain level of knowledge and experience in order to be in the right place at the right time to create an image that captures the essence of your subject and its environment. Here are a few tips:
Study the behavior of your intended subject. Your subject can be relatively calm and slow, or lightning fast and very dangerous. Begin by watching nature videos and documentaries, reading books, and examining other photographs. It’s important to understand the animal’s physiology and how the animal interacts with its environment. Believe it or not, a trip to the zoo can help. It also helps to talk to others who have visited the site at which you plan to shoot.
Know your camera and other equipment thoroughly. Practice with it before you go out for your photo shoot. To get the sharpest images, understand and practice balancing aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings. I’ve seen more than one photographer studying the instruction manual for a new camera or lens only a few hours before a critical encounter.
Prepare for handheld shooting. You’ll pick up your subject in the viewfinder by moving your head and shoulders. But to help keep your body steady and images sharp, remember to follow through with hip rotation. In other words, rotate your body, not just the top of it.
If you need to steady your camera for a challenging shot and can’t use a tripod, lean against a tree, brace the camera on a rock, or improvise a bean bag. Be inventive and resourceful and your shots will improve.
Try to fill the frame with your subject. A small animal will look very small in your image unless you try to fill the frame. This may involve using a telephoto lens and/or trying to get closer to your subject. Having said this, please respect the fact that a too-close approach can adversely affect an animal’s health, disturb its environment, or even drive a bird off its nest.
When approaching an animal, try moving forward at an angle, not straight on. Try to keep low, and keep your arms close to your body. Head-on movement is often perceived as threatening. Move in cycles, alternating movement with stillness. Sometimes freezing in place for a few minutes will help. With some animals, using your peripheral vision instead of looking directly at the subject is more effective. Direct vision is predator behavior.
Get rid of any accessories that can flap in the breeze, including camera straps!
Get out early. Many animal cycles of movement begin with false dawn and are in full swing at daylight.
Think about what kind of story you want to tell. A “portrait” of a bird can be great, even something of a character study. But all too often, bird images look static and uninspiring. Once you learn about different aspects of an animal’s behavior, try to capture one of those behaviors. For example, try to catch the animal feeding, flying, fighting, swimming, or playing. Watch for any action that has the potential to make your shot memorable and even extraordinary!
I used a Nikon D3 with a 70-200mm lens to capture this image of a flycatcher grabbing a mosquito just before dark.
I shoot lots and lots of images. Ever since I bought my first camera (the Pentax K1000), I have been hooked on the act of clicking the shutter then seeing what happened. I am always ready to shoot because I never know what I will see.
People who know me well know that my five favorite animals are the giraffe, mountain goat, crow, tortoise, and bighorn sheep. With the exception of a giraffe, I have seen every one of these animals in their natural habitats.
This last holiday I took my family to see the great national parks of Zion and Bryce. I have always wanted to see the great hoodoos (the spire-like rock formations for which Bryce is famous). What I didn’t expect was to come across a family of wild, young bighorn sheep.
As we turned the corner on Highway 9 in Zion National Park I spotted a family of Bighorn on the rocks. Of course we had to stop so I could take a few photos. I grabbed my D200 and 180mm f2.8 Nikkor ED Manual Focus lens and went off to shoot.
At first the bighorn sheep were far away so they looked a little small even with my 180mm lens. I was patient, though, and kept shooting.
My patience was rewarded when the animals started moving closer. Within 20 minutes, they were so close I felt like I could reach out and pet them. In all I shot at least 40 images. Of those, my favorites are the two images shown here.
I am not an experienced wildlife photographer. However I have had the pleasure of working with Natural Exposures, the studio of National Geographic Photographer Daniel Cox. On his website, he explains how he approaches the challenge. Cox writes: “The number one thing I begin doing when deciding to go after a subject is to find out where and when that subject is the most prevalent.”
I didn’t go out looking for bighorn sheep. But because there is no hunting in Zion National Park, the likelihood that I would see wildlife was pretty strong. I guess I got lucky being at the right place at the right time. Then, being patient enough to wait for the bighorn sheep to move paid off in these two favorite shots.
Still, as an experienced photographer you have to have everything in order if you plan to visit a site in which you might observe wildlife in their natural habitat. The right gear is essential. I have a Nikon D200 with a wide variety of newer and older lenses. (In fact, one of my favorite reasons to use a Nikon DSLR is that I can mount my manual focus lenses). I really love my 180mm Nikkor f2.8 ED* telephoto lens. I love that the lens has a built-in hood and extra-low dispersion elements in the glass to help to minimize chromatic aberrations. The speed of the lens helped me to get the early-evening shot showing the moon in the background as the Bighorn explore the territory.
You also have to shoot many frames and readjust exposure until everything looks just right.
Getting lucky in photography isn’t really just a matter of luck. Sure, it’s about being in the right place at the right time. But it’s really more about being prepared to shoot when the right opportunity arises.