Tips for Photographing Wildlife

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I get immense pleasure from photographing wildlife and would like to share some of my thoughts and tips.



Zoos

Personally I am not a fan of photographing animals in captivity, but I realize that many folk have no other way photographing exotic animals. The thing to keep in mind when photographing captive animals it is try and remove any trace of man-made objects or people from the photograph. Take this example of a polar bear:



In this case it is immediately evident that the polar bear is captivity. In this case I would have zoomed in or framed the photograph differently so that there no evidence of the fence, the barrel or the ball. Even if it means walking to a different position to ensure that the background is more natural.

Here is a photograph of a tiger I took when I was in a wildlife park in South Africa, the tiger was in a fenced enclosure which was electrified. I put my lens through the fencing to get a clear shot trying carefully to avoid the electrified part of the fence, shortly after taking this photo my chest touched the electric fencing and I was knocked off my feet! However, it was worth it because I managed to get a photo that could have been taken in the wild despite being a little bit shocked. Please excuse the digital noise on this photo; this was taken about 8 years ago on my first digital camera.



Always go out of your way to try and make the photograph appear as natural as possible.


Safaris

Preparation and patience are the two most important things when going on a safari. I cannot emphasize how important it is to have 2 cameras with you, or at least have one camera with a wide focal length like the Sony ultra zoom. The last thing you want to do is keep having to change lenses all the time, firstly because by the time you change your lens, the animal has usually disappeared, and secondly, because safaris tend to get very dusty. I found the best solution was to put a decent zoom lens on my dSLR and then use a compact digicam for the landscape shots.

The other thing to keep in mind is that you can go for hours without seeing anything, then all of a sudden something will happen; always have your camera around your neck and on standby. Generally I ramp up my ISO to about 400, this is not because of a lack of light, the main reason is because the wildlife may be running or the vehicle may be moving, increasing the ISO results in faster shutter speeds therefore minimizing camera shake and/or motion blur. Additionally I always have my camera on burst mode, I often take dozens of photos of one animal then choose the best, so make sure you have plenty of memory!

What usually happens on safari is that someone will spot an animal/s, the vehicle will stop for everyone to take photos then everyone puts their camera down and the vehicle drives on, never put your camera down! Often when the vehicle starts to move off so will the animal/s, so even when the vehicle starts to move off keep your lens focused on the animal and get ready to hit that burst button, most of the time you will get some action.

I took the following photograph in Tanzania, we spent about an hour watching some zebras drinking and as we were about to move up the whole herd got spooked by something, luckily I had my camera in hand and in burst mode:



Little things

Sometimes people don’t realize what is right outside their back door. I took this dragonfly on my garden pond. Firstly it wasn’t easy, dragonflies move around (a lot!), I was getting frustrated because when I had him perfectly focused and in frame as soon as I released the shutter he would move. After trying to get a decent shot for a couple of hours I put the camera down and studied the dragonfly. He had his territory and I noticed that he would fly around it in a pre-determined (almost) pattern, stopping in the same places for a few seconds before moving on. I then put my camera on manual focus and pointed it at a position when I expected him to fly to and managed to get him (apologies for the caption, this was used on a calendar).



The Unusual

Always be on the look out for something out of the ordinary. I took this photograph in Botswana from a boat. In this case an elephant crossed a shallow portion of the Chobe River to reach an island. I knew there would be a wonderful contrast between the wet dark skin and the dusty dry skin and I deliberately tried to line up the contrasting skin with the water line of the river:



The Golden Hour

The golden hour refers to a period of time where the light is at it’s best for photography, this is either just after dawn of just before sunset. During this time the light is a beautiful golden colour and the shadows are fantastic.

It is virtually impossible to get decent photographs of wildlife in the middle of the day for two main reasons: the wildlife will often hide under trees to keep cool so they are difficult to spot and secondly when the Sun is directly above there are no shadows so everything is very “flat.” The best thing to do is go back to camp, have some lunch, put the iPod on and read a good book for a couple of hours. This photo was also taken in Botswana shortly before sunset during the “golden hour.”



Where to Focus

There is only really one place to focus on when taking photographs of animal and that is the eyes. Often I will make sure the camera is focused on the eyes on the animal, I’m sure you all know you can do this by pressing your shutter half way. After focusing on the eyes I then keep my shutter pressed half way down and frame the photograph as I want it and click. Here is an example of a lizard I took in Ghana recently which I have already posted on these forums, in this case I focused on the eyes then framed the shot:



Backdrops

I am always on the lookout for great backdrops (backgrounds) to my photographs. Giraffes are so common in Tanzania that you actually get bored of seeing them after a while! The thing that really caught my eye here was the “Jurassic Park-esque” feel to the photograph, I just loved the greenery of the background together with the weird looking giraffes (lets face it, they are weird creatures!). If you squint your eyes (really hard!) you can almost imagine them being some ancient dinosaurs feeding.



Sunsets

I find sunsets are hit and miss, I have spent many hours looking for a good location and setting up my tripod only to be disappointed. The best sunset photos I have taken have been totally out of the blue and when I was least expecting it. In most cases the special light of a sunset will only last a few minutes, sometimes seconds! I have tried all different camera setting for sunsets but I have always found that Mr Auto always seems to do a good job for me.

Sorry I don’t have any magical solution for sunsets, you just have to be ready and shoot when the light is right. These were all taken on Auto setting with nothing more than a slight contrast adjustment (check out this tutotial: The Key to Sunsets for some great sunset tips!).







Well that’s about all I can think of for the moment, just remember to have patience and be prepared. Happy shooting!!!