As a professional animal photographer, I photograph around 1300 animals each year. Traveling off the beaten track for animal charities or for commercial client’s shoots is a part of my job and I feel exhilarated whenever I’m heading out to meet new and extraordinary creatures in their natural habitat.
When I think about it, I’m most at ease in nature. This came from my childhood spent in remote and rural areas of South Australia, where as an only child, family pets and rescued wildlife were my closest companions. We later moved to the red desert mining town of Tom Price in West Australia. In each of these places I loved growing up in quintessentially Australian landscapes surrounded by numerous species of fascinating Australian wildlife each with their own unique characteristics and behaviours.
Every creature has a story to tell and I aim to capture their personalities in my photography. Great animal photos open our minds to the existence of each creature. Some images might evoke great concern about the condition of a species, others might inspire travel and a desire to see more of our incredible planet.
You don’t need to be a professional photographer to take good wildlife photos, but you do need to meet the challenges unique to photographing unpredictable, and often fast moving, creatures in conditions that can be far from ideal. At the end of the day, the thrill of achieving the result you’re looking for is worth the effort.
Here are some tried and true tips I’ve picked up over the years about natural light digital wildlife photography. They are aimed mainly at people relatively new to the genre, but there may be a few ideas for the more experienced snappers.
RESEARCH YOUR SUBJECT
Before you leave for your trip, consider the sorts of animals you may encounter. Read up on their behaviours. Are they more active at dusk and dawn? Is it breeding season? Do they have patterns of behavior (birds floating on the thermal currents or following a certain flight path) or regular habits? Are they dangerous or venomous? Are they found alone or in a pack? Are they aggressive to people? The more knowledge you are armed with will make it quicker and easier to locate your subject, and enable you to find the best and safest way to photograph them when you do.
SELECT YOUR GEAR
Researching your subjects also helps you to choose which lenses to pack before you go. If I have room to fit in several lenses, each morning I consider which ones to actually carry with me from my accommodation. A zoom lens suits a wilderness safari situation and for captive animals, where you have closer access, you may only require a portrait lens. There’s no need to carry unnecessary weight if you aren’t going to use it when you reach your destination. When photographing wildlife outdoors I prefer to use natural light over flash and I shoot hand held. I always travel with my Tamron 24-70mm f2.8 VC lens and Tamron 70-200 f2.8 VC lens. With the 24-70mm lens I can shoot portraits and include some environment in my images. With the 70-200mm zoom I can stand back at a safe distance and zoom in. Sometimes I include specialize lenses, like the super zoom 150-600mm Tamron lens, macro or wide angle lens, depending on where I’m heading and what I might see when I get there.
Or if changing lenses sounds cumbersome you can opt for an all in one lens, like the Tamron 16-300 lens, which enables you to take four different types of images; zoom, macro, wide angle and portrait. It also saves you the hassle of carrying extra lenses and having to swap them on and off your camera.
TELL A STORY
By planning the story you want to tell or the message you want to convey through your shots you are more likely to capture everything you need. Think about what you want to shoot and why that angle or scene might be interesting. Do you want to do a close up? Full body shot? Have lots of background in the picture? These are all things to consider and then experiment with. When photographing wildlife, it’s our aim as the photographer to capture the poses we see as great images and through them, tell a story.
They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, and this is no different for animals. One of the ways animals express emotion and character is through their eyes. Make sure the eyes are in sharp focus in your images if you are chasing eye contact with your subject. Don’t forget to photograph other parts of your subject as well – toes, noses, tails, ears, or even multiple subjects. These will give you some artistic results and can show your subject in a fresh and unique way.
I love to shoot in close and crop in on my subject, showing little environment and filling the frame with them. Sometimes though, there’s a need to add some of the habitat and environment into images. For smaller subjects you can shoot from above them, pointing your camera down towards the ground to make them appear bigger than they are. Or photograph up from ground level to over emphasize a subject’s size, like an elephant.
There aren’t any hard and fast rules, so you are free to find your own flow with the type of images you like to take.
THE RIGHT LIGHT
Light is crucial to good photography and cameras cannot operate without light. Outdoor photography is more of a challenge than studio photography, as you cannot control outdoor lighting conditions. It could be sunny one minute, overcast the next. Animal’s fur can shine and reflect in full fun, so even light is best, like a shaded area. Overcast days with a light sky are my favourite outdoor shooting conditions. They are bright enough to capture detail in fur or feathers but result in minimal glare. Planning not only where to shoot in good light, but also figuring out the times of day that provide the best light, will greatly assist with the exposure of your subject. Dawn brings with it lovely soft light, and it’s worth getting up early to capture it. At dusk, one of the nicest times to photograph is just after the sun has set, where you have a 15 – 20 minute window before darkness falls.
Capturing that split second moment you see as a perfect photo opportunity requires timing. Once you see the shot, grab it as quickly as you can. Always be prepared to come across a photo opportunity – the shot you miss could be the shot that never comes around again. Have your camera out with you if you can, wearing it on a neck strap or around your waist on a Spider Holster belt. Capturing that perfect moment is something you get faster at, the more you practice. Digital cameras allow us to take hundreds (even thousands) of images and I always make full use of this in order to get the photo I’m after.
Patience was the first thing I had to learn when I started photographing animals and it’s a crucial factor when taking portraits of your wildlife. You will sometimes get the shots you want instantly, while others could take hours or days. Being prepared to wait for an image to present itself pays off when you get that great shot!
When photographing animals be sure to move slowly and deliberately. Any sudden noises could scare off your subject. Be calm and watch your energy. Animals can sense when we are nervous or overly excited. By maintaining your composure you will also be more aware of the images you are taking, which result in better photos – rushed pics can lead to blurry photos through lack of concentration.
WHEN THINGS GO WRONG
Things can and will go wrong when working with animals. I’ve been urinated and pooped on, had animals vomit on me, bite me, jump on me, scratch me, kick me in the head, grab me in inappropriate places, wreck my props, knock me over, sit on me, and had the potential to be killed on a number of occasions. Most of these incidents were accidental and minor, maybe except the potential to be killed! In the “potential to be killed” instances, it was up to me to ensure I was safe and knew my boundaries – and those of my subject. The safety of everyone is always paramount.
The other incidents are generally quite funny and make for the best stories. They are par for the course and when things go off the rails, dust yourself off, learn from it, and get back into it. From a safe distance.