If you’ve decided to read this, congratulations! You’ve decided to take up (or improve your skills at) one of the most difficult areas of photography. Not only will you need to brave all sorts of weather at dawn to track elusive subjects that don’t want to be near you, but you probably won’t make much money at it either! Most wildlife photographers make far more leading tours and workshops than they do selling prints or licensing images. But, no matter, we’re in this for the love of it. For the sheer thrill of overcoming all the obstacles and capturing images like we see in National Geographic. Now where I come in is in getting you started on that path with a few suggestions that have helped take my photography to a (slightly) higher level.
First, let’s get rid of some baggage. There are a number of subjects and discussions that tend to fill online discussion boards and which many photographers obsess about that won’t make any significant difference to how good your photographs are. Here are a few:
What you shouldn’t obsess about
Canon vs Nikon vs Sony vs …
- It just doesn’t matter. Your choice of camera system will depend on ergonomics, features, size, weight, whatever, but will make zero contribution to the quality of your images.
Don’t obsess about lens sharpness
- Yes, at the very high end, some lenses are better than others. However, I have yet to see a lens from a mainstream manufacturer that doesn’t give sharp images. If your images are soft, I can pretty much guarantee it’s not the lens so stop worrying about gear and focus on technique and composition.
- One of the images below was shot with a Nikon D3100 and a 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 lens (about $1500 worth), the other was shot with a Nikon D4 and a 200-400mm f/4 (about $13,000 worth)!
JPEG vs RAW vs TIFF vs DNG
- The file format you choose to capture your images in will not determine how good a photographer you become nor how good your images will be. It will determine how much post processing you will be doing and how big your files will be. Choose whichever you’re most comfortable with (or mix and match if you like) but don’t obsess about having made a wrong decision.
What you should obsess about
- Shoot level with your subject. Unless you’re deliberately experimenting with unusual angles, get down (or up) to your subject’s level. If this is a challenge, try moving farther away from the subject and using a longer focal length. This will ease the angle somewhat – every little bit helps.
- Watch the background. This is the biggest problem I see in images from photographers starting out in wildlife photography. Unless it’s part of the story you’re telling, the background needs to be clean and uncluttered. Sometimes moving even slightly (as in the images below) will clean up the background significantly. Use a wide aperture and if you have to shoot in bright sunlight (as I did below) watch out for distracting shadows that may be cast on your subject from overhead or adjacent branches.
- Resist getting super close. There will be times when you want to do a tight portrait of a wildlife subject but, by and large, we want to show something of the environment or relationship among animals. Some photographers seem to feel that they need to zero in as tight as possible. Maybe this is because the opportunity to do that is so rare or maybe it’s a way of showing off their technical prowess. Either way, it rarely makes for a better image.
Wildlife photography is a challenging but rewarding field of and I, for one, learn something new almost every time I’m out shooting. I hope these quick tips help you with your photography. Good luck and keep shooting.