For me, wildlife photography is a window into a world of animal behavior that few people understand. Fewer even take the time to enjoy and still fewer enjoy photographing wildlife. Over the years I have learned to create technically good images, but until I began to understand wildlife, those images were plain and devoid of “life”. Through the journey of the evolution of my photographic skills, I have learned something new almost every time I have ventured into the field.
When working with wildlife, you must consider the following items:
Shooting Angle: When photographing wildlife, the subject’s space, eye level and image orientation are critical to the success or failure of your image. I have seen many photographers shooting only from a standing position and only in the landscape format. You must realize your subject, in some cases, is smaller than you. This means you could be looking down at them. Having images that are looking down makes it feel awkward for the viewer to relate to. It also lessens the impact you wish to make on the viewer. Don’t be afraid to get down at eye level with your subject to create stronger images, as the viewer of your image should establish eye contact with your subject.
My general rule about shooting the portrait or vertical format is simple. You must realize that it is the animal’s structure that dictates first the horizontal or vertical composition. Birds are a great example for this; some have very long tail feathers. The landscape or horizontal format may cut the tail off. This may lead the viewer to feel uneasy with the image because some critical information has been left out. A vertical shot that includes the entire animal would be more appropriate.
In figure 1, I have photographed a Blue Darter Dragonfly in my backyard. Located below my knee level on most of the plants along the water, I literally crawled around on the ground with my 300mm f2.8 to get the image.
Background: Animals crawl, perch, sit or stand right where you don’t want them to be, that is just the way they are, accept it! Then improvise, adapt and overcome! Check your background when you set up, and make sure it’s clean, simple and will allow the viewer to focus on the animal. If it isn’t, don’t waste the pixels. Sometimes you will need to adjust your position to get the animal against a better background. If your background is poor, then no matter what your subject, the image will be lousy. Do not believe that Photoshop will help you. I believe in making a great image in the camera and not in Photoshop or any other image enhancing software.
In figure 2 I have photographed an American Bison in Wind Cave National Park. In the first image, the background is cluttered with trees and I feel it detracts from the overall impact of the image. I repositioned myself by moving to the left of the bison. This changed the background to a contrasting light brown making him stand out better, but also the background became simplified and clean of distractions. There was nothing in the background to compete with my subject for the viewer’s attention.
Understand your subject and be patient. Use as many sources as you can to learn about your subject; how does it feed, what does it do just before flying away, when is the breeding and or nesting season? The more information you are armed with, the better images you can create. Wildlife does not operate on a schedule, they do not do what you would like them to do and speaking to them does little to coax them into another position. I never condone moving closer to animal to get them to move or fly. This scares the animal, invades their space and changes behavior – no shot is worth this. It takes time to work on this and develop patience to capture striking images.
In Figure 3 I have photographed a Great Egret. These birds were almost hunted to extinction around 1900. The breeding plumes shown here were desired for the hat industry. Grown only between February and May, this marked the time period that they were hunted. Both males and females were taken, leaving nests orphaned. Knowing when these birds have the plumes was a critical element in capturing this image. Also, these birds tend to nest in trees above water that also contains populations of Alligators. This piece of information helped me locate nesting birds, but also dictated the extreme caution that I needed to exercise.
Understand your equipment and always be prepared. Wildlife action lasts only seconds if that. That means there is no time for referring to your camera manual, changing lenses, inserting a new memory card or taking your eye away from the viewfinder. Do it ahead of time. It’s common for me to stay stationary watching a subject through the viewfinder clicking away as action happens, then when it is safe, I will review or my images. I will make decisions about meter settings and aperture before I start working with the subject.
I have practiced changing lenses with my eyes closed, I pack my bag exactly the same way each time I go out, I know my lenses by feel. Understand your camera completely. It is an extension of you and you must know it intimately.
In figure 4 I saw this Whitetail Deer fawn and its mother moving in my direction. I settled quietly into the brush and began to wait. It took about 30 minutes for the fawn to get close. As I clicked the shutter it would look at me. I clicked single shots in order not to startle or scare it away. Deer have poor eyesight but excellent hearing. Fumbling for lenses, changing settings or loading a new memory card may have scared it away.
Quality of Light: Morning or late afternoon light adds a warming glow to images. It also helps show texture. Overcast days give a soft diffused light and midday light gives a strong, often overpowering light that can overpower or whiten colored subjects if not handled properly. Learn to work with the light and avoid shooting into it. I personally like to have the sun behind me for black and white images and at 90-degree angles to me for color work. It, however, does not always work this way.
In figure 5 I came prepared and used early morning light. This herd of horses is known to gallop through Cheyenne Canyon almost daily. I had done my homework and knew that the morning light lit the canyon for about ten minutes each day, bringing out textures in the canyon walls that were lost as the sun rose higher in the sky.
A certain amount of wildlife images just happen in front of a photographer. More often than not, they involve research and understanding of the subject. A dynamic wildlife image involves planning, patience and determination.
George Wilson has more than 30 years of experience as a professional photographer, and his work has appeared in many national and international publications. Now focusing on nature and wildlife photography, George exhibits his infrared black and white landscape work and teaches photography at numerous art centers, botanical gardens and at the Walt Disney World Resort in his home state of Florida. A key element to George’s work is his dedication to traditional photography as his post processing is strictly limited to tools aligning with the traditional darkroom. To see more of George's work, visit wilsonphotographyfl.com