The Art of Wildlife Photography
Dawn has just broken. You can begin to make out the details of the acacia studded landscape. Your hot breath condenses to steam as it touches the fresh country air. It may be cold outside, but not even that will stop you from having your car window wide open. It may be early but your senses are wide-awake, consuming the sight sound, and smell of the bush. You have not felt this relaxed in a long time, but still there is an air of tension. The tension of the hunt; your arms stay clutching your weapon, poised at even the slightest hint of action to take aim and fire. But you are neither after hides nor horns. You are hunting for memories, that split second of beauty where Mother Nature herself seems to conspire to present you with the “perfect” picture.
If this article has so far been speaking to you, you like many others share a deep passion, not only for the great outdoors, but also for the art of photographing its ever-changing beauty. I stress the word “art” because so many times, wildlife photography has been sidelined as a “an interesting way to pass time on those long drives.” Seldom is it given credit for the creative, and dynamic art form that it is. Art nowadays only seems to get credit if it is abstract, or different, while the lighting, composition, knowledge and often great patience involved in wildlife photography is simply deemed a “nice hobby”. I would like to challenge that notion and give you a few tips to help you and your art of wildlife photography.
Aperture: We will be using a long lens for our wildlife photography, and therefore, the greatest enemy will be that of camera shake. I therefore tend to open my aperture right up, which will allow for a faster shutter speed, thereby reducing the risk of camera shake. Another advantage of using a large aperture (small f number) is that you will have a shallow depth of field, which is more often then not desirable in wildlife photography. It serves to blur out the often-cluttered background detail and so to say “paints” your background with colour.
Shutter speed: The first rule of shutter speed, especially with hand help photography, is to make sure that the shutter speed you are using exceeds the maximum focal length of the lens. For example a 500mm lens would always require a 1/500 shutter speed or faster to avoid camera shake. This however may not be fast enough to freeze the action of your subject. For a running animal or a bird in flight, generally over 1/2000 you will be safe in freezing the action (unless of course your subject is a hummingbird).
Often times however your subject is better photographed with a slower shutter speed, which will result in movement, giving a dramatic feel to your photograph. One must be cautious in these situations however to keep at least a portion of your subject in relatively sharp focus. This can be achieved by tracking the movement of the subject within its environment. This technique is known as panning and can be discussed further in another article.
ISO: All of our discussion thus far has been dependant on available light. If however you find that the light is insufficient to get the necessary shutter speed – aperture combination you are after, you may have to turn to the photographers’ reliable insurance policy – ISO. Generally one would be advised to shoot with an ISO of 200 – 400 to achieve the sharpest possible image. However when you need a hand, and flash is not an option (as it seldom is in wildlife photography), crank the ISO up to the 1600 or so mark, and fire away. The resultant image may be noticeably noisier, but at least you will get the shot.
Where to aim: Undoubtedly the best place to lock your focus is on the animals eyes. This will provide the photo with a good crisp focal point, and will share a depth of focus evenly between the back and front parts of the face.
Where to place the subject: A. Leave your subject room to move into. Especially with animals that are moving or facing a certain direction, leave more room in that direction then the opposite. This gives a sense of freedom and movement. B. Although the rule of thirds works in creating good images more often then not, rules are as they say made to be broken. Wildlife photography can often suffer from being a bit predictable, so this is where I encourage you to do something different. Include too much foreground, or too much sky, focus on something that most people would ignore, get in really close for a more abstract feel. Have fun with this, because by breaking these rules, the common impala can be turned into something breathtaking and exciting.
Patience pays off (sometimes)
I would say, besides the camera and lens, the key to a good wildlife photographer is patience. Getting the right shot may mean sitting for hours in a hide, taking 100’s of exposures, until you nail the right one. When we see the finished product in a national geographic magazine, there is no sub-heading telling us that this photo was one in a series of one thousand shots, but this may well be the truth. If the key to the real estate market is threefold “location, location, location” then the key to wildlife photography is “patience, patience, patience.” It also helps to get to know your subject, because this may save some valuable time and aggravation. For example knowing a leopards’ timid nature may prompt you to act a bit faster then if you were parked ext to a lion on a giraffe kill.
Lastly, here are some tips that may help getting the final image as close to prefect as possible.
- Shoot in burst mode – with no printing required, use a big memory card and when the action is under way, take a number of frames at a time, standing you in better stead to get “the one”
- Over rather then under expose – when faced with such a decision, it is better to overexpose, and adjust afterward with Photoshop or the likes. This is because noise is more often found in shadows, and therefore by lightening a darker image, the image may become too noisy.
- Use a teleconvertor – For those of us who are not blessed with the means to afford a high-end telephoto lens, the next best thing would be to invest in a good teleconvertor. At a fraction of the cost, you can get some decent results.
Lastly, just enjoy! What makes us love this art form so much is that it enhances our experience in an environment we already so dearly love and appreciate. Take a deep breath in between shots and just be appreciate where you are