Trust Me On This…It Can Get Better
What it boils down to here is knowing what you hope to achieve and what your intention is. If you simply want to prove that you saw a certain type of wildlife and show off to your friends, you can disregard all of this. However, if you have a deeply rooted goal that aligns with photographic growth and an increase in the quality of wildlife photos you take, then here’s a quick list that will get you, your gear and your mind in the right place to up your game.
1: Stick Around Longer
This is hugely important. Nothing about wildlife photography is easy, and just spotting a creature can be hard enough. So when you spot an animal and snap that picture, you don’t get to call it good. I mean of course, there will be times that you get the shot right away but…most likely sticking around will unleash the better shot. Maybe because you can sneak in closer. Maybe because the wildlife becomes more comfortable with you and the picture becomes more relaxed. Maybe because you have a great idea that you can implement rather than just seeing and shooting. Time invested = quality returned. I don’t know if that formula has been proven as I essentially failed out of calculus but I’m sure we can get someone on it.
2: Crop For Drama
I often struggle with this. It feels like the image I shot is the image I shot and any reducing of surrounding details would take away or detract from the original story. When you let go though, and give your image a chance to develop after it’s capture, you can make some amazing progress with just a little bit of tweaking. This was demonstrated to me when a friend went through an entire portfolio of mine and cropped EVERY SINGLE IMAGE. They were all better for it. That is the magic of a 2D image in a constrained space.
3: Include Surroundings
If there is a story to be told, the context can be found in the wildlife’s surroundings. Prove to us that you’re not in a zoo! Unless you are in a zoo, then by all means crop in tight and tell your friends you went to Africa the other day, NBD. Seriously though, with wildlife it’s easy to zoom in as close as you can every time. This can lead to all of your images looking the same and leaving out a lot of good information. Wildlife are often specific to their environments so pulling out can show us where you were. If you’re photographing mountain goats…wouldn’t it be cool to see the mountains? Additionally we get to see more about the time of day, what season it was, oh so many things.
4: Focus On Details
I’m all about variety. Opposite the last suggestion, what would happen if you focus on just a small detail. Recently on a trip to Tanzania I came home with an image of just a small portion of an elephant that included his eye. Printing it large (I kind of think it’s now life-size) it is quite a bold image, of just his eye and skin. Other details such as a tail, or claw, or burrow entrance can add great visual interest.
5: Commit To Better Light
This is where we really start to require dialing into your intentions. When your intent is to get stunning images no matter what, then it’s important to commit to working in the right light. Perhaps ‘right’ isn’t the right term, and that ‘best possible’ might be a better way of thinking of it. Once you commit to finding the best possible light, you no longer get to operate on your schedule. You’re on Earth’s clock now.
Sunrise and sunset are now your best friends. The light at these times of day are nothing short of spectacular. Additionally wildlife is most often the most active at these times as well so it is a recipe for the best shots you’ll ever take. Spring of 2018 I found myself on a short safari in Kenya to the Masai Mara. It was the last thing I was doing before leaving the country, and in order to keep costs down I had joined a group of strangers in a van. I was the only person, save the driver, that had any interest in entering the park by sunrise and staying till sunset. Just to prove my point, of the three safari’s I’ve been on this one had the least amount of good images.
6: Learn Your Subject
I’m going to start taking my own advice one of these days. I intentionally left this one till later because I think it can add to inactivity. You should get out and shoot as often as you can, but if you wait till you know everything about your subject you may never get started. So this is definitely next level information, and can add much to your game. When you’ve found subjects that you know you are profoundly interested in, then invest some time in learning more about them. Every bit of information you glean will result in a more informed photograph. Answers to questions such as, “What does this animal eat?”, “How do I tell a male from a female?”, “What is their mating season?” and such and such will give you an edge and opportunities to make better images.
7: Have Realistic Expectations
When it comes to wildlife there are no guarantees. “Oh this is weird, we always see whales out here I don’t know where they are?” “This is insane. We’ve already seen the ‘Big Five’ and it’s not even lunch time yet!” It can go either way for you but the best thing you can do is just have realistic expectations when it comes to wildlife photography. By keeping an optimistic but realistic mindset, you will be ready for anything but not debilitatingly disappointed when you don’t snag the next National Geographic cover shot. Just stay positive and and give yourself the best chances for success.
8: Post Production
Here’s to the world of editing that can take your images from zero to hero! With the quality of digital cameras today, you have a lot of room to work. That doesn’t mean slack out in the field, but take the time afterwards to level up your work. I won’t give you anything specific here other than a quick Google search will blow your mind with readily available tutorials on how to edit wildlife photography. All I really want you to take away is to never settle on straight out of the camera. You don’t have to go overboard, oftentimes a little additional saturation, contrast and sharpness can go a long way. I’m also a huge fan of monochromatic pieces as well.
9: Invest In Your Glass
Unless you’re independently wealthy, wait till you know you have to have it. I’ve been eyeing and drooling over lenses in the $12,000 range and have yet to bite the bullet because if I look at my track record…I’d never go out and use it. Telling myself if I only had that lens then I would be out shooting bears in Alaska or tigers in India is just my bad GAS acting up (Gear Acquisition Syndrome).
The thing is though, some images can only be made with certain glass. It seems a silly thing to have to point out but good luck photographing birds with your 50mm f/1.4. Or getting a macro insect shot with a kit lens. There is a lot to be said about the ability of general gear but they make specialized lenses for a reason. They can give you that little bit of extra oomph you didn’t have before. I now own a 100mm 2.8 macro which rarely gets used, however when I take it upon myself to go out and shoot it specifically I can really surprise myself. Spending the money on the newest Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR Lens from Nikon was hard to do…but the added clarity and sharpness I see now makes me so happy. I could just cry.
10: Stay Away From Group Trips
I’m not jaded or anything. I just have learned this lesson time and time again, so you have to have a little talk to yourself about your intentions. Having never traveled on an explicit photo-tour, I can only relate to what I have done. Even a trip with a small group of close friends can detract from your ability to photograph wildlife. It’s important to decide ahead of time, what your goal is and if the group will have the same.
These are just some of the things that can happen. You may be the only photographer in the group, and thusly the only person with anything other than an iPhone. You will fight for a good vantage point but they will be in your way. Then when the animal is gone they will say, “Well I’m glad we have Ian, he’s the photographer and I’m sure he got a better shot than I did. I’ll just take his.”
You will spot something wonderful and after two minutes they will all be ready to move on instead of waiting for something even more photo worthy. They’ve already got their selfies so they’re set.
They may have never seen a wild animal in their life, or simply just be predisposed to loud screaming over everything remotely exciting. Upon spotting a skittish creature they will scream and scare it away.
Yeah, I’d say just go alone.
At the end of the day, as is true with all photography, the best thing you can do is just get out there and shoot more. Take your time, align your mind, and make something brilliant. If any of these tips speak to you and by trying it out you come away with something gorgeous, please let me know!