If you’ve ever been on a nature photography trail or a safari before, you’ll realise that taking photos of wildlife is never as easy as it seems. Unlike people, animals do not pose on request, and their movement is always unpredictable.
However, help is at hand! Here are five expert techniques that can make a difference in your wildlife photographs.
Zoom in for dramatic close-ups
Have you ever stumbled upon a rare sighting and captured the exciting scene on film, only to find that the photograph looks bland and uninspired?
Taking a page from movie directors, a close-up photo of an animal (or a person) is an excellent way to show drama and draw emotion from otherwise staid scene. This is even more so in wildlife photography, when you need to stand back and not scare your subject away.
Many avid bird-watchers will swear by their comically long lens, which can magnify extreme distances. However, to balance portability and performance, start with a conventional telephoto lens with a maximum focal length of 200mm to 300mm. You’ll be surprised what it can do to bring life to your photos.
Use a fast shutter for action shots
It’s undeniably tricky to capture a clear photo of an animal on the move, and you’ll need a fast shutter speed to freeze the subject in a split second. Most DSLRs are capable of shutter speeds up to 1/4000 of a second, which very often results in a black screen. Yes, it is THAT fast.
There is a balance to meet when it comes to taking short exposure photos, since less light falls onto the sensor in the shorter period of time. To compensate for this, increase the aperture (lower f-number) or increase the ISO (light sensitivity).
Draw attention to your subject with a shallow depth of field
A well-composed photograph has a clear subject that leads on to a story that the photographer wants to show and tell. A shallow depth of field helps to isolate the subject by blurring distracting elements in the background and foreground.
To do this, use a lens with a large aperture. Start with one that goes below f2.5, and you can start seeing this bokeh effect. When used along with high focal length (i.e. zoomed in), you can start composing your photo to tell powerful stories.
Try taking from different angles and vantage points
Many casual photographers use their camera as an extension of their eye, and almost always capture photographs at eye-level. While it may work for photos taken from a distance, in most cases the photos turn out to be pretty bland.
Instead, try to vary your vantage point by holding the camera close to the ground, or holding it way up high. If you have a movable LCD display, use it and preview your photo when your eyes can see through the viewfinder.
A low-angle composition gives a photo a dramatic, intimate feel, while a high-angle one contributes a sense of vastness and magnitude, like setting a scene. If you’re taking a group of puppies playing, or can get close enough to an insect, stay low and take that photo at the height of the subject. You’ll find it so much more interesting that a top-down composition.
Avoid flash photography
In wildlife photography, you should make your presence felt as little as possible. This means wearing dull coloured clothes, keeping silent and watchful, and avoiding the use of flash.
The most obvious reason is that you don’t want your subject to run away from the scene. It takes a lot of effort to sneak up to a good vantage point and plan your approach, only to see it run off.
But there are more reasons too. Nocturnal animals do not take too kindly to flashes, when they are trying to sleep during the day. And it can disturb the animals in the middle of a mating ritual or a hunt. Try having flashes go off while you’re enjoying a nice quiet dinner at home, and you’ll understand why.
Also, flash photography washes your photograph with an unnatural harsh white light. This is seldom flattering, unless you know how to diffuse it properly. Especially in an uncontrolled environment like the outdoors, your photos won’t turn out to be as pretty as how you saw it.
There’s a lot more to learn to be a master in wildlife photography. But with patience and an understanding of the behaviour of your animal subject, you’ll be rewarded with incredibly beautiful wildlife shots.
And if all these tips are too much to take in now, just remember this:
“Leave nothing but footprints. Take nothing but photos.”