Top tips from wildlife photographer Sharon Wormleaton for making the most of your wildlife photography.
A digital SLR is essential for wildlife photography. The ‘point and shoot’ cameras just don’t have the reach and require a lot of digital zoom resulting in loss of image quality for far away subjects. Also essential is a telephoto lens, preferably at least 400mm to allow working from a distance and reducing the chance of disturbing the subject. Telephoto lenses can be expensive but generic brands such as Tamron and Sigma are often cheaper and from what I’ve heard produce good quality images. Teleconverters of varying magnification are also available. Teleconverters allow for magnification on top of the zoom you already have, e.g. a 200mm lens with a 2x teleconverter equates to 400mm. The image quality usually isn’t as good as that of a dedicated lens of the same focal length but it’s still a good cheaper option. It also has the advantage of not being as heavy if you do a lot of hiking and don’t want to carry a heavy lens.
Carry spare batteries and memory cards. Nothing is worse then getting ready to take that magical shot and discovering the battery is flat. Large lenses can be quite heavy and hard to hold steady so some photographers prefer tripods. I tend to go hiking a lot so a tripod would be just one more thing to carry. Luckily I have a steady hand and do most of my wildlife photography shots handheld. I sometimes use such things as rocks or fence railings to steady the lens or brace my shoulder against a tree to help hold the lens steady.
2. Know your gear
Animals move quickly when they want to, so knowing how your camera works is essential. You don’t want to be fiddling with buttons and trying to work out what does what right at that exact moment when you need your camera pointed at the subject. Animals don’t wait and it could mean the difference between getting that perfect photo or missing out altogether. So read the guide that comes with the camera and/or join forums to work out how to best use the camera.
3. Quick shutter speed/camera settings
A quick shutter speed is essential to ‘freeze’ movement. A moving subject will look blurry with a slow shutter speed and detract from the image. The Nikon digital SLR I use has an ‘Action’ setting which I use a lot. The camera automatically sets the exposure factors needed including a fast shutter speed. This means I don’t have to fiddle with settings at crucial moments and can concentrate on getting the subject in frame and in focus. It seems to work pretty well most of the time as was the case with this ‘swimming’ Adelie Penguin I photographed on my recent trip to the Antarctic. I used the ‘Action’ setting and the camera set 1/1600 as the shutter speed which was perfect for capturing the fast moving Adelie Penguin mid-air.
Most digital cameras also have a ‘continuous focus’ setting which allows you to follow the animal as it moves and keep it in focus. Use AF (autofocus) points. For wildlife photography I usually have my camera set to a single focus point and focus this on the eye of the animal. The AF point can usually be moved from the centre position to allow for varying compositions.
4. Shoot relentlessly
Digital cameras allow you to shoot relentlessly and unwanted images can easily be deleted. It was much harder in the days of processing film and could be rather costly if you took hundreds of photos. Digital images can easily be deleted and it doesn’t cost a cent more if you take 100 photos as opposed to 10. I often do this for ‘busy’ animals. I might end up with several images where the head is facing in the wrong direction or the subject is a bit blurred, but I also usually end up with a few good shots as well. The rejects can easily be deleted. I find I often end up with a photo capturing some kind of emotion that makes the subject more interesting as was the case with this Adelie Penguin who looks decidedly grumpy and not agreeable with us being there.
I hadn’t realised I had captured this expression until weeks later when I started going through my photos. And you never know, you might just end up photographing a behaviour no one else has captured before.
5. Know your subject
If you’re going looking for a particular species then it’s best to know about its behaviour and habitat before heading out. There is no point in looking for crepuscular or nocturnal animals in the heat of the day or looking for a migratory species at the wrong time of the year. Information can be easily obtained from field guides and the internet or even word of mouth from other wildlife enthusiasts. Watching wildlife in the field and observing how they behave also adds to your knowledge bank and is useful for your wildlife photography.
6. Good lighting
Lighting is pretty important when it comes to wildlife photography. People think bright sunny days are the best but the bright midday sun can make the subject look ‘washed-out’, create glare on feathers and fur, and create dark shadows on the subject’s face. I like shooting on overcast days that aren’t too dark. The light is softer and more diffuse, creating even tones and no shadows. It also avoids areas of over exposure and glare. Early morning and late afternoon are also good times for wildlife photography. It often gives a ‘golden’ glow to the subject and background.
Sometimes moving just slightly will improve the lighting for a subject. Mostly front lighting of the subject works best but side lighting and back lighting from the sun can also make for interesting images. It’s not always possible to move when photographing wildlife as subjects can scare easily, but if it’s possible then move about the subject to see what angle works best. This is demonstrated in images 4 and 5 where image 4 shows the King Penguin’s face covered in a heavy shadow as opposed to image 5 where all the face detail is clearly seen.
7. Tread carefully/camouflage
Wildlife photography is better if the animal doesn’t know you are there or isn’t frightened by your presence. I try to ‘sneak’ up on animals and get closer by using trees and bushes as a buffer to them seeing me approaching. In those instances where there are no buffers I find it best to act nonchalant and act like I have no interest in the animal. I don’t make eye contact and slowly make my way toward the animal. It doesn’t always work but rushing toward an animal will definitely scare them.
Try not to make any sudden moves or noise which will startle the animal. Always have your camera ready. Nothing scares an animal more then taking off a backpack and undoing velcro and/or zippers. Use a hide if possible. Cars make good hides when driving around looking for wildlife. Instead of trying to get out of the car, wind the window down and photograph from the car. And if you can see an animal is starting to get distressed by your actions then leave it be. An animal’s welfare should always be put before photography.
8. Photograph at eye-level
Try and photograph the subject at eye- level. It creates a more intimate connection between the subject and the viewer much in the same way as making eye contact with someone when you are talking to them. I have numerous photos of birds high up in trees but they don’t make a connection like the photos of birds looking straight into the camera lens. Tip: Achieving eye-level may involve crouching or even lying flat on the ground.
9. Eye needs to be in focus
With the exception of photographing a particular part of an animal’s anatomy, e.g. foot, the subject’s eye should be in focus. Eyes convey a range of emotions, express character, and are the main point of connection between the subject and the person viewing the image, so if the eye isn’t in focus the image doesn’t create this connection. The rest of the subject can be blurry but if the eye is in focus then the photo still has some appeal. The same also applies for animals blinking in a photo or if the eyes are lost in shadows on the face. I like the Cape Petrel photos I have from my recent trip to the Antarctic but they do lack a little because the eyes aren’t readily seen.
The eyes really do have it. I always focus on the eyes and reject any photos where the subjects eyes are blurred or obscured in any way.
Be aware of the background. The background makes the photo just as much as the subject. Sometimes moving just slightly can make all the difference. Be aware of cluttered backgrounds as animals can get lost and viewers might be drawn more towards the clutter than the actual subject. Also be aware of ugly backgrounds, I class most things man-made to be ugly and prefer them not to be in my photos. Wildlife photos look much more ‘authentic’ if only mother nature is on display.
I find solid colour backgrounds work best for close-up animal shots where a good depth of field has blurred out the background into a mass of colour so the photo ends up being all about the animal. Image 9 shows a busy background compared to that of image 10 which is just solid colour. It’s much easier to focus on the subject in image 10.
11. Shoot a range of images
I try to shoot a range of images of a species if I can: habitat shots, close up shots, behaviour shots. It tells more of a story and makes the subject more interesting. Images 11, 12 and 13 show Adelie Penguin habitat, close-up and behaviour shots.
Nature is unpredictable and very rarely will you arrive at a location and get the perfect photo within minutes of arriving there. I have had this happen a few times, but most times I’ve gone looking for a particular subject I’ve had to sit and wait for a while. I’ve sat on the banks of creeks and rivers for hours at a time waiting for a platypus to swim by. On the flipside, always have the camera ready if walking though the bush. Patience will not help you if you spot a bird sitting perfectly on a tree branch and it flies away because you have to take your backpack off, unzip it and take the camera out. Most birds will fly off in that instance and won’t come back.
13. Ethical wildlife photography
I have said this in a previous point and I will say it again: If you can see an animal is starting to get distressed by your actions then leave it be. An animal’s welfare should always be put before a photograph. Never interfere with nests or young. Parents can abandon nests or get separated from their young, making the young more vulnerable to prey when there is too much human interference. I don’t believe in bird apps. I don’t own one and never will. I think bird calls should only be used in scientific research and not be used to attract birds for photos. Territorial calls can agitate birds and make them feel threatened in their own territory, especially if they are played over and over again. I also don’t feed wild animals for the sake of getting a photo. Feeding animals makes them dependent on humans and animals have been known to get aggressive towards humans in their pursuit of a ‘free’ feed. In my opinion, part of the fun of wildlife photography is the challenge of getting the photo without ‘cheating’.
Last of all, never forget that practice makes perfect. The more you practice, the more you will get an eye for what looks good. I look at photos I took 10 years ago and see how much I have improved.
Can’t get enough of wildlife photography? Learn more about Sharon’s photography experience in Antarctica and the sub-antarctic islands here.
See more of Sharon’s photos on her Flickr account.