Since the onset of modern digital photography and its affordability, more and more people have started exploring the genre of Wildlife photography. The growth of photographers in the last decade has seen a huge spike and that is explained by the number of companies moving into the imaging industry lately.
Sharing images on platforms like Facebook, Flickr and other forums has been the major outlet for the photographers to share their work (including mine) and I am personally thankful that I live in an era where I could just switch on my computer and witness some amazing moments from the wild which was otherwise impossible a decade ago.
Over the last few years, I have learnt a few things which I consider quintessential in getting better at the art. During conversations with fellow photographers at locations or online, one of the
recurrent questions is - How do i improve my work?
Hence, I decided to just write a piece with some points in my opinion that look very simple but are overlooked by many in haste or indifference. Below I have listed my top 6 to that would help a new comer go from good to better with practice and perseverance.
Know your Light
Tell a story
Make eye contact
Know your gear
Enjoy the moment
Know your Light
As a bird photographer, I have always made sure to arrive at the location before sunrise. This helps me position myself as per the direction of the sun. As a wildlife photographer, one should know that these moments last for a very short duration and take advantage of that.
Similarly, another patch of light that’s very suitable for nature photography is the evening light. These 2 moments of lighting are called golden light and are the softest light that is naturally available to photographers.
One is not always blessed to shoot during these hours all the time and modern technology sometimes come to the rescue. When done correctly the technique of fill flash allows you to add small amounts of light to avoid shadows under the eyes and face of the animal giving it a natural look. Fill flash and the use of flash in photography is a huge subject and will be covered in a separate chapter. Fill flash is also used in overcast situations to give the extra pop in the image.
Tell a story
As a photographer, it has always been my aim not only to get a mug shot of a pretty bird but also to try and tie that with a story. In my opinion, the best photographers are the one that can associate their images with a great depiction of what encouraged them to make that photo either through a great write up or action in the image.
Often, I have seen some photographers get very impatient either before or after finding the subject. They do not like waiting but if they get lucky and do get a few shots they want to move on to the next location quickly.
This is huge roadblock for someone who wants to move to the next level. By clicking the same type of images the artist is limiting their creative abilities to portray something different. Unlike landscape or portrait photography one doesn’t have to do a lot thinking (not always true) for some of the images but with patience the quality of one’s work can increase dramatically. In the sequence below you will see where I started with the bird. We saw a pair of pearl kites in Costa Rica during one of my bird walks perched very high on a tree. We waited a few hours as we knew that they would come down when the light starts to die. To our great fortune not only did the bird come to eye level they also performed a mating ritual for us to witness.
This is probably one of the most debated topics in the world of wildlife photography. While there are plenty of suggestions out there I always try to listen to my heart. At the end of the day the outcome of my work should also be liked by me. There are many widely accepted suggestions and rules to compose images but remember that there is nothing called as ‘perfect composition’. I follow a few personal guidelines while shooting my images, needless to say that I don’t like to crop my photos (albeit I am not perfect) and compose my shots while on the field.
I follow some simple rules that I made for myself.
Simplicity of the shot
Rule of thirds when applicable
Include more habitat and interesting elements
Focus on my main target to be the most essential element in the image
Try to get a pleasing background (always)
Reduce negative space
Angle of the shot
Keep trying new angles
Move a bit to recompose
Drop to eye level
As a personal rule of thumb, I always try to get to the same level of the animal that I am photographing no matter what the subject is. I have seen many photographers shooting birds standing in while the bird is down low in the waters and to me that is just the worst thing to do while shooting wildlife.
Sometimes you might have to shoot slightly higher than eye level in case of a small animal or bird due to grass but always do whatever you can to get to eye level. This is the best way to connect to an animal when the animal is looking straight into the camera and the image is much more powerful when you are at the same height.
Know your gear
While most new wildlife photographers (and a lot of old ones too) will swear on their technical prowess and awareness not many still know what to do when stuck in a situation with no guidance. Remember, wildlife is the least controllable form of photography which is what makes it one of the toughest too. If you lack the propensity to learn and master the equipment you will be left with bad images. This is what separates the boys from the men! (figuratively) Here is a small list of what you should always be aware of based on the conditions –
Minimum shutter speed at which you can obtain a sharp image with your camera
Understand the in-camera or in-lens IS functionality
Learn to quickly toggle between focus points
Learn your cameras limitations when it comes to ISO
If using continuous shutter then know the buffer to avoid missing on important moments
Master the basics of exposure
It is very important to understand that ‘special’ wildlife moments last for less than 10 seconds. If you are not fast enough you are out of the race.
Enjoy the moment
One of the most important reasons for me to pick wildlife photography as a serious hobby as a kid was to get closer to nature and cherish the natural world. As I got more into the photography side of things I slowly realized that I had stopped enjoying the wild and was always focused on getting the shots. A few years ago, when I was going through some of the old images I realized that even though I had taken a lot of good images I had missed capturing some of them through my eyes. That’s when I decided that after getting my images I will always spend time with the subject. This is truly what made me happier as a wildlife photographer. Eventually I started noticing that not only was I coming back from my trips with better images but also great memories that will last a lifetime.
This is not really a tip but something that I usually practice. Our love for nature is not only tied to a photograph but for what we translate that to in our minds while we perceive them. At these moments, one realizes how important it is to conserve what we have for future generations to see.