Over the past few years of photographing wildlife, I've picked up a lot of little tips and tricks that have helped improve my work along the way, and I'm sharing them with you here. Feel free to comment with your wildlife photography tip!Regal Eagle
My camera hasn’t left my hands in the past 6 years, and it’s been pointed at nearly everything (weddings, people, musicians, sunset, and so on) but only flirted with the occasional hawk or butterfly.
My love of nature has always been with me though. Since I was a small child I was obsessed with Bald Eagles and Orcas, always drawing or painting them. My mom would point out deer and hawks on along the road, and that always stuck with me. Fast-forward to now, and I’ve trained my 3 year old daughter to identify Turkey Vultures in flight - the cycle continues.
A trip to Alaska last fall to capture the Northern Lights resulted in the igniting of a passion inside me to photograph wildlife more seriously. I rented a large telephoto lens, the Sigma 150-600mm Version C, for the trip to photograph Bald Eagles and was instantly hooked. After returning from the trip, I sold off a few pieces of equipment and within a few weeks, had that lens delivered to my doorstep.
It’s been an amazing journey so far and I hope you find a nugget of info that can help you on your journey.
This has to be point number one because it’s so important and it's often overlooked - with or without bad intentions. It’s crucial to respect the space of the animals you are photographing, particularly during breeding times, so as not to impact their ability to raise young. The rule of thumb is: if the animal’s behavior changes due to your presence, you may be stressing it and you should back away or leave the area, depending on the situation. Getting the shot is not worth compromising the animal’s well-being or its ability to successfully breed. Click here for lots of useful information on the topic.
This has been huge for me. I know photographers have a tendency to keep to themselves and a lot of us are guarded with information, but in wildlife photography it is extremely helpful to network with other photographers you bump into, and share information about local wildlife happenings. You never know what they might be willing to share and you might, just maybe, make a new friend. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting local wildlife photographer, and now friend, Craig Corwin, and I am so glad I did. He pointed me in the direction of so many great wildlife spots (including a local falcon nesting site), which led to other findings and other fantastic people. It has only enhanced the experience for me. Also, your wildlife photography buddies are going to be much more patient with your “just missed it” stories than your family - trust me.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve discovered truly amazing places or critters right under my nose. Next time you are out on a nature walk, go a different way than the last time. Take that narrow dirt path and see where it leads. Get out of your routine and you’ll be surprised at what you will find. Don’t be afraid to hop on Google Maps in Satellite view and start scrolling around. Look for bodies of water and potential public trails.
This seems pretty obvious, but I’ve been walking under a family of Great Horned Owls for the past 4 years or so, at a local trail, with no knowledge of their presence. Whoops! IMG_7384
Along with being a photographer, I am a stay at home dad and 9 times out of 10 my kids are with me when I’m shooting. Young children aren’t always good at waiting, so I find myself crafting my photo outings around what will work best for them, and save the solo mission stuff for another time. We find ourselves on lots of kid-friendly hiking trails, nature preserves, lakes, coastal areas, and basically anywhere that might get us close-up with something swimming, flying, or crawling.
When I am alone I will go out during optimal lighting conditions and wait for things to happen, but I always have one or two backup plans or places I can go if things are not happening. Wildlife is wild, and you have no idea when things will be happening or if they will happen at all.
The more you know about the locations and wildlife in your area, the better luck you will have making good photos. Learn about mating rituals, breeding seasons, habits or anything else that you can use to make a better photo. Some days you can only hope for a great snapshot of an American Coot, but if you can anticipate and capture a Grebe's courtship ritual of walking on water, you'll come away with a stronger image.
One day you might walk right up onto the shot of your lifetime and then next day you might be waiting an hour or two for that darned owl to take flight. The longer you are willing to wait, the better your chances at capturing something unique.
Stick around after the action. Sometimes there will be an after-shock of more excitement. Early on I had the tendency to leave shortly after a burst of activity but you never know what's going to happen next.
Know when to abandon your plan and just wing it. Your instincts may not always be right, but you should try to listen to that little voice inside your head telling you to wait just a little longer or try a different vantage point. What I mean is don't stick to your routine if your spidey-sense is tingling and telling you to do otherwise. IMG_6702
The best light of the day is typically right after sunrise and just before sunset - the golden hour. As a rule of thumb, animals are typically more active during these times, so everyone wins - good light and good action. Last Light on Great-horned Owl This one is tough for me because I’m dealing with nap times, school, meals, soccer/baseball practice, and bath and bed time - but I do my best.
You can shoot with the sun at your back and stretch those hours of light a little further. The quality of light will not be the same but you can continue to shoot and achieve useable results.
If it's a cloudy day, take advantage of the softer, more diffused light and spend the whole day making photos.
When I'm shooting during less than best lighting conditions, I'm accomplishing a few things at once. I'm learning about the animal and its habits through observation so I can come back with better light and use that knowledge to capture a better moment. I'm also getting more time behind the camera and practice should never be underestimated. Also, I have a chance to explore the area nearby for other potential shots. How else could you benefit from this time shooting?
If you're shooting into the sunset, consider capturing a silhouetted image of the animal. Silhouettes can make for striking compositions, and although considered cliche by some, are widely considered a timeless and simple technique by others. Give it a try!
Speaking of light... Especially with smaller birds, I am constantly watching their eyes through my lens and waiting for their heads to turn just right so the sun is catching. This will breathe life into the animal and make the photo pop more. Some photographers opt to use a flash to create their own catchlight and that is certainly an option, although not a technique I personally use.
There are many ways to get closer, and the result is almost always a better photograph - especially with wildlife. But there is a balance between getting physically too close and stressing an animal, and getting close enough to get a useable photograph. Make sure to review the link mentioned earlier for proper ethics in photographing wildlife.
The best way to get closer is to use a telephoto lens to extend your camera's reach. There are many great options to consider and I recommend the aforementioned Sigma 150-600mm Version C. I routinely shoot with this lens wide open at f/6.3 aperture (at 600mm) and I couldn't be happier with the results. The images are tack sharp, color and contrast is very pleasant, and it's light enough to hand hold in many situations. IMG_2556
There's no precise answer as to what lens is long enough for wildlife photography because it's quite subjective. One day you might luck into a hawk on the lamppost of your street and a 70-200mm lens will do the trick. Other days you will be on the outside of private property shooting over hundreds of yards and 600mm might be a necessity - or inadequate still. Other days a small bird will be foraging on the ground near your feet and your 600mm lens brings this already close scene extremely close, allowing for immense detail to be captured. All in all, use the gear that you have to the best of your abilities and if purchasing a lens, find the longest focal length in your price range. There's no substitute for a long lens.
Other ways to get close would be to use a blind, such as your car, to shroud your presence. When I'm walking along a path and see something ahead, I'll use a tree, bush, or rock to duck behind and use as an impromptu blind. If you're lucky the action might move toward you and you'll be ready.
When you're inevitably waiting for action, survey what's around you. Often times I'll find other interesting things close by; such as animal prints, feathers, other smaller creatures - you get the idea. Recently while waiting for some Peregrine Falcons to fledge, I discovered so many wonderful things including Western Gull chicks, a Canada Goose nest, whales breaching in the distance, and a host of other treasures.
Recently I was photographing an adult Bald Eagle who was perched in its regular spot. In the distance I heard what sounded like another eagle calling out. So I waited and not too long after two juvenile eagles flew into the scene. It's a moment I won't soon forget.
IMG_6202-4 The more you get out and shoot, the more you will start to recognize different sounds from various animals. The honk of geese might cause you to turn around quickly and capture them gliding onto the water behind you. In the thick of the eucalyptus grove a screeching hawk might be your only clue of their presence. You get the idea!
This happens so much I've considered starting an Instagram account just featuring epic moments that I completely missed focus, or missed all together. It's simply going to happen. Maybe you nailed the focus, exposure, and composition but the angle is not good or the action happened away from you? This is part of what keeps us going back for that next shot.
There are few things more exciting to a photographer than picking up a new camera or lens. Our first inclination is to go out and give it a whirl. Definitely do this! My suggestion would be to practice on gulls or crows - something common. There will be kinks to work out and lessons to be learned and it will hurt a lot less if you completely miss that gull shot, as opposed to, say, a Great Horned Owl in flight or a glance at a Least Bittern.
IMG_5519-2 Whether it's breaking in a new piece of gear or simply practicing for the sake of practice, use a common bird for your subject and the benefit will be twofold; a missed shot won't hurt so bad and a great shot will still be a great shot.
This has to be said for the simple fact that you might completely strike out and it might happen more than once. And it could happen five times in a row - yup. But that sixth time you go out and that Bald Eagle banks perfectly, soaring into golden light - you're stoked again.
A little bit of luck goes a long way out in the field. The more prepared and purposeful you are, the more luck will find you.
What are you shooting lately?
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