Is there a secret to better wildlife photography? For those of you following Chris on social media, you will know he just spent two months in South Africa with Wildlight Safaris guiding groups through Botswana and Namibia. And before that he was in Alaska hosting another group to photography the grizzly bears. It’s easy to get great photos when you have an expert beside you offering tips and advice and providing hands-on tuition and guidance! But how about some user-friendly tips for the rest of us who haven’t yet had the chance to get alongside Chris on one of his Photo Tours? Something we can practice on our own?

The first thing you could do is watch this video of Chris in Africa a couple of years ago for some motivation and a few interesting ideas with lighting…  But for something more immediate, I’ve listed below some basic tips and tricks to ensure your next wildlife photos are as good as they can be. Use them while you practice at the zoo, taking photos of the family dog, at the farm, or anywhere you can get your camera out and spend time creating images. Remember the 10,000 hour rule? (There are no geniuses, just those who have spent 10,000 hours perfecting their skills). Read on…

Nikon D810. Nikkor 200-500.

 1.  PREPARE:  It’s no use heading off into the wilderness without some idea of what you might encounter, and how best to react when you do come face to face with the ‘local inhabitants’. Whether it be native bird-life, timid herbivores, or more fearsome carnivorous predators; you should plan to photograph the animals you encounter in a way that is safe for you, for them, and for their environment. So this means doing a little bit of research before hand about the area, the animals you are likely to see there, and what their natural habits are. Knowing the potential photographic opportunities to come, also puts you in the best position to prepare and be ready for that magic shot when you get it!

Nikon D5. Nikkor 400mm 2.8. ISO 1600. f7.1 for 1/3200 second.

2.  EQUIPMENT:  There are so many professional (and non-professional) photographers out there capturing amazing imagery on so many different cameras, don’t get sucked into the “I need this camera or that lens to be able to photograph wildlife”. Use the best equipment that you have access to, but more importantly, learn it well. When shooting wildlife you often don’t have time to be fiddling with unfamiliar camera settings. You should know your gear well enough so that you can focus on the creative process and make changes to your camera settings instantly and without thinking too much about it. Check your histogram to make sure your exposures are good, but then concentrate on shooting. You are more likely to capture the action when looking through your camera than you will when looking at the back of it!!

Nikon D810. Nikkor 400mm f2.8 lens. ISO 125. f2.8 for 1/1250 second.

3.  CONTENT:  If you are shooting something exciting that you haven’t shot before, or an animal that is more likely to generate that “wow” factor simply because of what it is (maybe it is rare, exotic or dangerous), it is important to maintain your concentration and not get lost in the moment. It’s no use putting your camera on motor drive and shooting 100 frames of a pride of lions if the images are badly composed, poorly lit or without a specific focal point. Better to capture that one great image than a bunch of average ones.

Nikon D810. Nikkor 400m 2.8. ISO 250. f3.5 at 1/2500 second.

4.  CREATIVITY:  If you’ve done your preparation above, and are comfortable with your equipment, then you should be in a good position to retain your creative style as a photographer and plan your images more effectively. Good images tell us something about the subject, they create an emotional connection and make us “feel” something. So using that same frame of reference, the best photographers usually “feel” something when they take their images, they are emotionally connected to their subject in some way and are trying to show us their story. So let your creativity lead you in different directions, try different things, and be open to finding your own emotional connection within the image you are hoping to create.

Nikon D810. Nikkor 400mm 2.8. ISO 400. f4.5 at 1/250 second.

5. COMPOSITION:  Compose your images carefully. What angles can you use to emphasize important features about the animal – their size, the texture of their coat, their aggressive or passive nature? Look for leading lines to create a visual connection into your image and to the subject you are photographing. Are there any environmental features you could include in your shot to better frame or highlight your subject? Is there anything else you should be including – and what should you be leaving out – in order to tell the best story about the animal or group of animals you are photographing? Don’t forget to keep your horizons straight and be aware of (but not hindered by) the rule of thirds. Or throw the rule book out the window and think like you are using a smart phone!! Get your camera low to the ground, or shoot from directly overhead, everything doesn’t have to be viewed from eye level and some of my favourite wildlife images are taken from unusual angles. You can create a very different emotional response to an image simply through the perspective from where it is taken…

Nikon D810. Nikkor 70-200 f2.8.

6.  LIGHTING:  How is the lighting, could you improve your image by moving slightly to allow side lighting or back lighting to enhance the mood of your shot? Always look for the best light, and always make the most of the available light you do have in a way that improves your image. This can be the case regardless of the weather. Some of the most dramatic imagery can be created in dark, stormy or misty conditions. So don’t be put off by average weather or low light, use it to your advantage. Where appropriate, you can also look at the opportunity to add light to the scene if necessary, for extra drama or simply to hightlight your subject. If using speedlites, get them off your camera to give extra dimension with nice directional light (such as side lighting).

Nikon D810. Nikkor 200-500mm.

If you can allow yourself time to be creative then it is better to capture fewer images of better quality than a whole lot of average “snapshots”.

Nikon D810. Nikkor 400mm 2.8E FL ED VR lens. ISO 800. f3.2 at 1/1250 second.

And lastly, just a few general comments:

  • In most cases your focal point should be the animal’s eye.  Even better if there is some catch light reflected.
  • A longer telephoto or zoom lens will allow you to shoot tighter shots of the wildlife without impacting on the animal or its environment as much.  This will also give you a shallower depth of field, often a nicer way to capture wildlife portraits by bringing the subject “out” from the background through selective focus.
  • Most animals are more active early in the morning or late afternoon / early evening.  This is also the time when you are most likely to get the best light for photography as well – the warm colours of the sun from a low angle, as well as good shadow definition, and maybe even some fog or mist to add drama.
  • Look for graphical elements in your shots – groups of animals, or patterns and textures found in a single animal’s fur, coat or feathers.
  • Don’t always freeze the action – you could also try slower shutter speeds for movement blur or to pan a running animal.
  • Patience!!  As they say, “hurry up and wait”.  Be prepared to wait for the perfect shot, don’t be tempted to try and startle the animal or force it to behave in a specific way for your image.  Not only will the animal’s behavior not look right in the final scene, but it could be dangerous.
Now go out there and practice!!  Happy shooting…

Nikon D810. Nikkor 300mm f4 (uncropped).

Nikon D5. Nikkor 400mm 2.8. ISO 1000. f4 for 1/1250 second.

Nikon D810. Nikkor 300mm f4.

Nikon D800e. Nikkor 70-200 2.8. ISO 800. f2.8 for 1/1000 second.

Nikon D4s. Nikkor 300mm f2.8. ISO 800. f4 at 1/6400 second.

All images copyright Chris McLennan.

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23B Sarah Todd Lane, Waimauku 0812, Auckland, New Zealand   P +64 9 411 9561 F +64 9 411 9562   info@cmphoto.co.nz