The Art of Wildlife Photography

Like the fabled tales recounted by seasoned fishermen, photographers also have stories about the “one that got away.” Peering deep into the horizon they sigh while uttering, “if only I had my camera ready, it would’ve been a real prize winner.” It’s this elusive pursuit of beauty that makes wildlife photography both challenging and rewarding. Unlike the controlled environments common in zoos and farms, wildlife is fleeting. Since most opportunities last just a few short seconds, there is little room for error when the subject appears. While patience, persistence, and a touch of luck certainly are helpful, they’re not sufficient to achieve consistent results. By utilizing these tips and techniques, you’re sure to come home with an abundance of keepers.

Study Your Subject

Wildlife photography is about so much more than technical details like aperture and shutter speed. It also goes well beyond the technology in today’s latest and greatest cameras. In order to capture a subject’s true beauty, it’s essential to understand their behavior. By using the internet as a research tool, you can greatly increase your chances of success. For example, as part of my preparation to photograph Harbor Seals, I researched the tidal charts off the coast of Long Island. At low tide the water recedes to reveal large off shore rocks. These boulders are ideal for the seals to rest, and warm up on. Besides determining the best time of day and month to see them, I was also able to determine their approximate GPS coordinates. This knowledge proved invaluable as I found over sixty Seals on a quiet Friday afternoon in February. Ironically enough, I was the only photographer in the area. While it may be impossible to predict all of nature’s variables, understanding your subject before heading out is one sure way to separate yourself from the pack.

Expect the Unexpected

Wildlife waits for no one so you must be ready to shoot in an instant. As soon as you arrive at a location, take the cameras out of your backpack, turn them on, and remove the lens caps. This way, you are prepared for anything that may cross your path. I learned this while on a dolphin watching expedition in Costa Rica. I had a 400mm lens mounted on my tripod as I waited for the first sign of marine activity. Luckily, I also carried a second body with a 17-40mm lens draped over my shoulder. The exposure had already been set for the ambient light. As I scanned the waters through my telephoto lens I heard a collective gasp from the other passengers on the boat. I immediately turned to see a Bottlenose Dolphin completely airborne mere inches from the boat. In a split second I managed to fire 6 frames with the second body. Had I not prepared that camera with the exposure and wide angle lens, I would have missed one of my favorite images from the trip. By expecting the unexpected, you won’t be caught off guard.

Technical Photography Tips

One of the most common issues facing wildlife photographers is how to get enough light into the camera while using a fast shutter speed. Ideally, you want to be at 1/1000 to freeze the action. Anything slower than 1/500, you increase the likelihood of blurry images due to subject motion. Before you set your super telephoto lens to its maximum aperture, consider that many lenses are somewhat soft when used wide open. To attain maximum subject sharpness it’s helpful to stop down to f5.6 or even f8. Since you will be using a fast shutter speed and a smaller aperture, you will likely need to bump up your ISO to 800 or 1600. While it’s true that DSLR noise levels are improving at a rapid pace, you will have much more control over the final image by using a third party noise reduction program. Software like Neat Image and Noise Ninja do an outstanding job of removing most noise artifacts. Once you apply the noise reduction, consider adding a small amount of Unsharp Mask to the image. To avoid over sharpening, try these settings as a starting point. Amount 135, Radius 0.3, and Threshold 3.

Of course, no amount of post production work can correct a blurry photo. To minimize the possibility of camera shake, use a tripod and ball head that are specifically designed to support the weight of your longer lenses. Once it’s on this stable platform, connect a cable release so you don’t have to touch the camera to press the shutter. By using this long lens technique every time, you can be confident that your images will be tack sharp, and suitable for enlargements.

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