Started with photography as a daily challenge in 2017, learning from the basics to photo editing and posting. Instagram: @idelafuentef
How to Bring a Wildlife Photo to Life
Photography's advancements these last few years have led to the lowering of equipment prices. The previously expensive DSLRs that only could be afforded by professional photographers can be seen in the hands of almost every amateur photographer today. With the growth of social networks like Instagram and Facebook, I've seen a corresponding growth of wildlife photography.
However, you will see that not every animal post grabs your attention and speaks to you. In most cases, this is because people venture into wildlife trips and take photos of every living being around, hoping that an amazing image will appear—this could not be further from reality.
Do not get me wrong, taking lots of images when you go into this kind of trip is a really good practice, but if you know you are going there and you want to get that perfect photo you will also have to be prepared when the perfect moment appears. Here are five tips to help you do so!
1. Master the Rules—Just Enough to Break Them
I have not gone to any photography courses or photography classes of any kind, but I know that in this art, there are many unwritten rules that set the difference between the average and the outstanding. Understanding how to make the proper composition, set the exposure, read your histogram, and use a guideline like the "rule of thirds" are all important aspects to learn and stick in your subconscious to instantly capture that right moment.
Once you know the “rules” and the guidelines, it’s time to start breaking them. Test your boundaries!
Take a look at the image above. One of the first rules that you learn from wildlife photography is the need for eye contact. However, it can work to shoot an image in which the subject is not giving the photographer eye contact. For example, I found the elk looking at the plane crossing the sky. I thought that even if the elk was not looking directly at me, the feelings transmitted by the image were stronger, so I captured it.
2. Learn How to Adapt to the Light
When you are in wildlife photography, you cannot control the light of your shots. You are not in a studio where you can set the illumination you want. Instead, you have to adapt to your environment.
The most basic rule you can follow when adapting to the light is: look for the golden hours. This means getting up early (sometimes really early) in the morning and being in the field before sunrise or going out in the afternoon to make the most of the last hours of sunlight. In the midday, it's harder to find good light because the sun is completely upon you, creating unwanted shadows and overly bright tones. The exception to this could be an overcast day when the clouds filter out the light evenly and provide the desired amount of light.
However, you will miss really nice shots if you just stick to those hours, so you will also need to know how to use that light to your advantage. A good example of this would be the reference photos. The first one shows my finding: a hawk had just captured its morning prey, and the scene was really dramatic, but there were a lot of shadows that dampened the mood. However, with a little bit of plane change—voila! The snow reflected perfectly the light over the hawk's feathers, improving the image. Same subject, same scene—very different outcomes.
3. The More, the Better
There is not much more to say about this. When you are observing animals, you will have notices that one is company, and two is often a crowd, especially when there’s food or shelter involved. If you have a good view of more than one member of a species – stay a while!
4. Your Gear is Your Best Friend
I'm likely not the first person you have heard this from, and surely I will not be the last, but you know it is true. The really great moments in wildlife photography last about 10 seconds. If you are not intrinsically familiar with the settings of your camera or the abilities of your lens, you will either miss it or blow the images you do manage to capture.
- Know the margins that your camera can achieve, in order not to lose any detail in the post-processing and cropping of the final image.
- Always try to set the minimum shutter speed possible in order to get sharper images of your subjects.
- Know how high you can push your camera’s ISO without getting a lot of grain. As my personal experience tell me, compact cameras are really bad in this case, because their smaller sensor produces a lot of grain in high ISO photos.
Have you ever tried to take a close-up of a lizard? They are literally one of the worst models you can find! They run out of the frame as soon as you try to push the shutter. But after a bunch of missed shots, with all the settings prepared, I could get the one I wanted.
5. Patience is a Virtue
Between the definition of wildlife photography, you should find the term "unpredictable". Anything can happen at any time, but most of the cool things happen rarely, and your presence in the scene will probably make things more difficult. It is therefore imperative that you become patient—very patient.
Observing your subjects and getting to know their behaviors requires a great amount of patience. Often, the implications are that you need to return to the same spot for days before things start to happen—and even then, you run the risk of nothing happening and wasting your time.
The image above was captured after waiting for one hour on a frozen lake for these gooses to make seven landings on the ice. After trying to get nice shots the previous times, I realized that these animals do a circular pattern of several turns before finally landing, so when they were about to approach for the seventh time, I knew the exact path they were going to take and had my camera prepared. The best event of that evening was not, in fact, the photo, but the experience I had and what I learned from these animals.
Ignacio de la Fuente (author) from West Lafayette, Indiana, USA on April 11, 2018:
Thanks for the comment, Bede! In fact, I never thought about using some bait for squirrels, but I may use it in the future! However, on my other trips to natural parks and so, feeding the animals was prohibited, so I could just wait patiently for the best moment.
Bede from Minnesota on April 11, 2018:
Thanks for the good advice, Ignacio, especially regarding patience. Having the right equipment and lighting are important, but having the patience to wait is key. Did you ever thinking of setting out some bait, such as nuts for squirrels, to get the winning shot? Great photos.