Tips & Techniques » Wildlife Photography
One of the greatest benefits of a career as a photographer is having the ability to document the special things in your personal life, such as big events, your friends and family and your hobbies. I have been fortunate enough to create books that were of significant interest to me, from punk rock to fly-fishing, and even though they were at times challenging, they remain some of the accomplishments of which I am most proud.
Last month, while I was in Florida scouting location, I was able to spend some time shooting wildlife and nature imagery. This was sheer fun! I have always loved birds, especially water and shore birds. So let’s look at some of the things I have learned about this type of shooting. Many of these tips should be helpful for other photographic assignments or experiments.
|This nesting Great Blue Heron was positioned on a roosting island. This is a case where the birds are safely away from humans but still within reach of my 300mm lens.|
Location, Location, Location
Much like fishing or real estate, location can make or break your day shooting. When you want to photograph wildlife, make sure to research which species are in the area. Alternatively, if you want to shoot a specific species, make sure that it can be found in the area you are shooting. In this case, I was interested in shooting shore birds. I knew before the shoot that the subjects would be at my chosen locations of Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and a local Audubon preserve. When arriving for the shoot I always keep my father’s motto in mind, “If you are not ten minutes early, you are late.” Get to the area you want to cover early enough to check out the entire environment and learn the lay of the land.
|The Anhinga is known for diving underwater as it hunts fish. This image shows the extremely slim neck of the Anhinga protruding from the water. Since I had done my research, I was aware of their behavior and was prepared to take the shot when the bird surfaced.|
Timing is Everything
As we all probably know, the best light for much photography is either early in the day or late in the day, when the sun is low on the horizon. This helps avoid harsh overhead light, but it can also have a pleasant warm color, as well as provide flattering sidelight. Since I wanted to concentrate on shore birds I knew the best time to shoot would definitely be at low tide. This would be when the water was shallow enough to see the birds wading, feeding, resting, preening, etc. So in this case, the Daily Double would be the combination of low tide and afternoon sun.
When arranging your shoot:
|This was an opportunity to shoot the adolescent Ibis. When mature, the Ibis is a bright white. I switched to my intermediate 24-120mm zoom and was able to get close enough to shoot with the shorter zoom.|
Equipment, or Selecting the Right Tools for the Job
The right tools for the job are a necessity for taking great wildlife photography. Maybe this is obvious, but in my case, I have found that to shoot wildlife you really do need the right lenses. Most of your cameras will have the shutter speeds, ISO settings, white balance settings, etc. to be workable. But I believe the key is the glass. For instance, a macro lens or close-up filters would be mandatory for such things as butterflies, insects, flowers and leaves. In my case, the real need was for long telephoto lenses. I think for birding, the best lens selection would be in the 400-500 range. I do not own one this long. So my 300mm zoom limited me a bit, but the length combined with VR (Vibration Reduction) stability technology was most useful. I also had a 1.4x multiplier This combined with the 300mm gave me the equivalent of about 400mm. Unfortunately I have found that the multiplier is not as sharp as I want it to be, but I was able to use it a few times when the 300mm was not quite enough. Wildlife is often moving, so the ability to use VR technology allows you to be confident of a stable image capture and even gain up to 2 stops in speed.
|This Snowy Egret was using a pedestrian bridge as a launch pad to swoop down upon unsuspecting fish. I found it most interesting to go above him and to see what he was observing.|
Point of View
How best to capture the speed, lightness and personality of birds? With the follow-focus options now available on many DSLRs, you can easily shoot a bird as it flies. This works better with subjects that soar instead of dart, for example a circling eagle, osprey or vulture. Friendly seagulls can also be followed as they fly, and the same goes for pelicans. As we are so used to birds overhead, a change of perspective can make for a striking image. You can try shooting from ground level at a bird feeding at the edge of the surf, or better yet, shooting from above the bird, capturing him below you and showing his field of vision.
|This Willet was tilting his head and positioning his legs in an almost human-like pose. I would prefer to see the eyes a bit better, but I think the attitude is obvious.|
The Sparkle in their Eyes
I am a firm believer that the eyes are, as they say, the windows of the soul. When I shoot portraits or even live music or theater events, I always prefer to see the eyes of my subject. I usually want them facing my lens. And for me, the best is when you can pick up a glimmer in your subjects' eyes, some small highlight that will be noticeable by the viewer. When I shoot wildlife, I look for the same things. I want to make sure that the eyes are sharp and in focus and that they are well exposed, not set in dark, shadowed pockets. Finally I look for that sparkle or highlight. Look for the eyes, follow them, and focus on them. People or birds, the key to a memorable image is capturing the true personality of the subject.
Next time you have an urge to shoot wildlife, be like your neighborly Boy or Girl Scout — plan the time and place, bring the right tools and be prepared!
Follow the light…f-stop fitzgerald