Wildlife photography often demands fast focusing, rapid fire shooting and lightning reflexes, however to be successful it often requires more than that – the one common factor required is thought and planning.  It doesn’t always work out the way you wanted but knowledge of your subject and it’s behaviour mixed with forethought and planning – plus calm and efficient reactions – and your odds will increase dramatically.

Timing is everything.  The speed required for great wildlife photography isn’t always about freezing high speed action but can be as simple as being in position to capture a critical moment in time  – often an opportunity that will never repeat itself.  For this shot I positioned the land rover in a location that would give me the right angle as this lion marched toward a water hole at sunrise.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t – this time it did.  The opportunity here was about capturing the lion with good “walking posture” whilst it passed through my frame.  I focused on the lion, locked the focus off, reframed and shot at the desired moment.

Patience mixed with speed.  I visited this location three times over a five year period before I got this shot.  I knew what I was after but all of the factors have to align to get the shot.  First up I am relying on nature so there has to be salmon moving up the waterfall, which can be hard to predict each season and even each day.  Secondly there has to be a hungry bear in the right spot and fishing.  (I have been there with bears but no salmon, and also with salmon but no bears)!  On this day, this particular bear was a great fisherman and spent several periods in this spot catching a good number of fish.  However this was the only shot I got where his head was tilted towards me so that I could see his eye and catch the light in it.  The fish was in the perfect position just before it met it’s destiny.  Here it was a matter of focusing on the bear and being ready to fire as soon as the fish appeared in frame.  I captured a lot of images of fish in the air as well as in the bear’s mouth, but this is the “perfect” composition I was after, and is my favourite from the series.  Patience and quick reactions paid off.

Prediction.  Be ready, and know your subject.  For this shot I was trying to predict where the humpback whale might next surface – and of course hope for a breach…  Whales can leave a footprint – a series of glassy spots on the surface from the pressure of their tail strokes that allows you to track their underwater movement.  Keeping this in mind I always keep camera raised, pre-focused on my predicted location, both eyes open – one near the viewfinder and the other scanning the area.  When it happens, the sight is truly incredible and fast reactions are a must.

Tracking whilst watching the light.  The cheetah is the fastest creature on land.  Therefor the need for very quick focusing is paramount but not the only key.  Whilst tracking the object try to think about the animals’ movements and your timing both for good body position and background.  Here the lead cheetah is bounding forward whilst they run through the backlit dust and gold foliage giving not only a high impact image of speed but also beautiful light and composition.

Think about your technique.  There are some subjects that move so fast that they become virtually impossible to track – particularly if using a long lens.  This pied kingfisher if one such bird.  No matter how hard I try or how quick I react I cannot keep this bird in frame when it drops from its hover into a full speed vertical dive.  The technique I used here is to study the kingfisher’s position whilst hovering then prefocus on the water below.  When the dive commences, I lock my concentration to the viewfinder, focus on the splash and fire as the kingfisher resurfaces and leaves the water.  This gives a great position with lots of water droplets and makes it possible to get the shot…

Keep your cool. Stay focused – within reason.  Use your common sense and judgement but stay cool, calm and focused on your subject.  Safety is number one of course for both the wildlife and yourself.  If you apply this rule whenever photographing wildlife your hit rate of succesful images will rise dramatically.

Hurry up and wait.  Be patient and wait for your opportunities to arise.  Wildlife photography is not for those wanting instant gratification.  Putting in the time is the only way to get consistent results.  Occassionally you can get lucky and everything will happen quickly but generally the longer you spend with a subject the more likely you are to get a great opportunity.  For this image I was watching these bears for several hours before they decided to fight over a salmon that one had caught.  The action was over in around two seconds so relaxing my concentration would certainly have meant missing the peak of the action, complete with swinging claws and teeth bared.

Predicting scenarios.  This was an image opportunity that unfolded through a unique set of events.  A group of wild dogs had killed an impala and gone to fetch their pups.  This leapord grabbed the kill and hauled it up a tree clear of the dogs’ reach.  With the impala wedged on a branch the leopard climbed higher in the tree to look for a safer spot to keep it’s treasure safe.  We knew that it would come back down and leap across the gap towards us – which it did (that’s another shot) – it then picked up the carcass, dragged it down the first branch before leaping across the gap with the impala clutched in its teeth!  The impala is easily as heavy as the leopard so it was an incredible feat.  Predicting what was going to happen was key to being able to get in the right position and to be ready for what was an extremely unique sight to witness, and one that was over in a split second!

Keep your finger on the trigger – and don’t scratch your nose…  Photographing great white sharks breaching off the coast of South Africa would have to be one of the most intense experiences I have ever had!  I was lying flat on the rear deck of a research vessel at water level focused on a “dummy seal” that was towed behind the boat.  This is done for a short period of time each day to study the unique behaviour of the sharks in this area.  I propped myself securely on my elbows, eye locked to the eyepiece focussed on the decoy, often wedged there for up to 45 minutes each day with no action.  Yet it is absolutely essential to be at 100% concentration the whole time.  There is no warning of an attack – and often no attack at all – but if the shark does hit then it is all over in a fraction of a second.  You can guarantee if you drop your guard or so much as scratch your nose you will have no chance of getting the shot.  I remained locked in place despite the discomfit – my shoulders and arms were screaming, my elbows bruised and throbbing, my eyes running and I was fighting off seasickness as I lay with my head between the boat engines and focused intently on the prize.  And yes it paid off.

Wait for the action and the right composition.  Watch and predict what is going to happen and where.  This was a great opportunity far North of Svalbard on the polar ice.  I photographed the bear making its way across the ice but the real opportunity was when it would leap across this gap, complete with reflections.   I could see this was going to happen so made sure I was ready.  I try to predict the peak of the action rather than take a “spray and pray” approach.  Don’t get me wrong, I do use the motor drive but I find that accurate prediction of the precise moment will most often give the best results.  This is a technique learned in my early film days when the number of shots you fired depended on two thumb strokes to advance the film and every shot cost you a couple of dollars so getting it right was so much more important than in the modern digital era.

So get out there, think, take your time and work quickly!  The harder you work the luckier you get.

All images copyright Chris McLennan

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Plus
  • Pinterest

No Comment.

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