The natural world is full of potential subjects for amazing images, and if you’re anything like us, escaping the rat race for a few hours to watch them is the ideal way to unwind after a busy week. But whether wildlife photography is something you have chose to specialise in or that you shoot alongside other genres, there are a few simple tips to bear in mind that will elevate your images from good to astounding.
Read on for some of the tricks and techniques used by leading professionals to produce shots with the wow factor…
1. Research your subjects
This may seem a somewhat obvious suggestion, but it’s one that nonetheless, many photographers overlook. If you want to capture the best wildlife photos possible, it’s worth finding out at what times of the day your intended subjects tend to be active, which areas or national parks they habitat, and what behaviour they may exhibit during different parts of the year. There’s no point spending your day staking out a potential location when your planned animal has migrated already or is hibernating somewhere else. Of course, you may get lucky and stumble across a few great wildlife images by chance, but if you want to make the best use of your time, it usually pays to be prepared. Having a good idea of what you want to capture before you ever leave the house will enable you to pack the right gear, and head to the right spots, to bring your vision to life.
2. Visit locations at the best times of day
Just like with landscape photography, the type of lighting within a wildlife image can make a dramatic difference to its atmosphere, while like portraiture, the contrast created by harsh mid-day sun can appear unflattering for subjects. For these reasons, and also to catch many species at their most active, the most popular times to be shooting for many wildlife professionals are at “golden hour” and “blue hour”. Golden hour is the period of time shortly after sunrise and just before sunset where light is warmer and softer than when the sun is higher in the sky, while the blue hour is the period of time just after a sunset and just before sunrise when it’s also diffused but produces deeper blue tones. These two periods of light can bring a sense of magic and atmosphere to your images, that wouldn’t have been present in the middle of the day. If it’s not possible for you to visit locations at this time, try to either shoot during overcast periods of cloud when light within a scene is more even or try to capture subjects in the shade, this will help you to produce more even exposures of subjects.
3. Remember, patience is a virtue
Modern life seems to happen at a breakneck pace, but in wildlife photography, good things come to those who wait. Take the time after arriving at a potential location to allow the wildlife to return to the area, and when it does, watch it, don’t just photograph it. Just because you’ve got a photo in the bag of your intended subject, doesn’t mean that you’ve got “The Photo” in the bag. Learn to enjoy the wait, and you’ll be rewarded with unique natural moments of animal interaction and behaviour that will hold far more interest for viewers of shots than simply the animal darting across your frame.
4. Get eye-level
One of the things that many new wildlife photographers do is to take all of their images from their own standing height. This is a perspective that viewers are expecting to see, and with often smaller and shorter subjects, doesn’t create much intimacy in the image. Just like with human portraits, images taken from an animal’s eye-level tend to be the most complimentary. In order to improve your wild life photography, get low and look for eye connection to produce more captivating shots.
5. Use depth-of-field for effect
Another benefit of getting lower down for images is the ability to really incorporate depth-of-field in images. By selecting a wide aperture such as f/4, you can drop areas of your foreground and background into a stylish blur, sandwiching your subject in a band of sharpness that makes it leap out from the image. With careful composition you can also use this technique to frame your subject with defocussed foliage, further drawing attention to them within the image. This leads to much more dramatic and considered-looking photos that appear more professional.
6. Consider contrast
For images with impact, contrast is a must. This can be contrast in colour, pattern, light, sharpness, or a combination of several of them, but if you want a subject to stand out from their environment and be a strong focal point for viewers, good contrast is essential. While it may seem at first that in wildlife photography many of these factors are out of your control, it’s amazing what shifting your height or angle on a subject just a few inches can do, or visiting a location at a different time of day. Use your processing during editing to enhance these contrasts slightly, while even the flattest looking scene can sometimes be made to pop with careful handling of its tones in mono.
7. Get the space in front and behind your subject right
For photos that seem considered and natural, be careful with how you position subjects within a frame and how you crop them on tighter shots. A simple error many photographers make is to leave more room behind an animal, than in the direction it is looking. Not only can this appear odd if it seems to suggest that the creature is aware of the edge of the photo, but this oversight normally makes images feel unbalanced, as viewers expect to see where it may be moving next. One way to avoid this is by using the classic compositional technique of “The Rule Of Thirds”. Consider your frame equally split by two horizontal and two vertical lines to form a grid of 9 rectangles. By placing your subject on one of those two vertical lines, facing into the frame, you’ll have an image that feels much more pleasingly balanced.
8. Look for clean backgrounds
In busy and cluttered scenes, the focus of your image can quickly become muted, while elements of human activity such as signs and fences can ruin the impression of authenticity in a scene. It’s easy to get engrossed with watching and capturing the main subject of your image, but its what’s happening in the background that can make or break a shot, so always be aware of the scene at large. Use wide apertures to produce clean background blur, and choose angles with natural looking backdrops for the best possible images.
9. Vary your compositions
It’s tempting to get as close to wildlife as possible with your available lenses, filling the frame for portraits of subjects. While these shots can look brilliant, don’t forget to take wider more environmental shots as well, or get even closer for tighter detail images. Look for moments of interaction between several animals, or the relationship between predator and prey, consider the creature as a small part of the landscape in which it lives. All these approaches will lead to a set of images with much more variation, insight and intrigue, than 20 similar portrait-style shots.
10. Continue to experiment
Just because you have a few images of a creature that you’re happy with, doesn’t mean that your work is done. For truly unique images, experiment with your approach to a subject. This could be through using an unusual shooting technique, such as allowing it to blur mid-movement with a slow shutter speed, or through selecting different gear, such as a MIOPS Smart that will enable you to remotely capture images at closer distances for dramatic wide-angle shots of a subject.
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11. Don’t over-edit
Nature, it should look natural. While there’s nothing wrong with a bit of an enhancement to an image such as mild sharpening or exposure tweaks, perhaps even a slight colour palette shift or saturation boost if done with reserve and purpose, push your processing too far and you run the risk of completely undermining your captures. Editing techniques like colour popping and extreme HDR are best left well alone. If in doubt, leave it out is a good motto to apply when editing your wildlife images.
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