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Wildlife Photography Tips

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I hope the idea I have in my head for this wildlife photography series of articles turns out on paper the way I imagined it and you find some useful tips that will help you on your photographic journeys. This first part comprised of a number of tips will briefly touch on light, weather and lens \ focal length selection. Like in my other articles, I will start with a simple disclaimer: what I present here is what works for me and you have to find your own way to what ultimately makes you happy.
Small bull moose in snow
I will keep each section brief, presenting some points for you to consider and some comparison samples in various light, settings, conditions. I learnt most of this the hard way and hope you don’t have to go through it the same way. Let’s get on with it!

The Golden Hour / Light

I hope everybody knows what the ‘golden hour’ is, but in case you are not familiar with the term, it’s the first hour of light in the morning and the last hour of light at the end of the day. There are many reasons why the golden hour is a great time to shoot photos, but the three reasons I want to mention are the tone of the light, the soft diffused light produced and the height of the sun relative to the subject. Lets start with a sample photo taken during morning golden light time and show you the magical properties the light produced.
Immature Bald Eagle in Sunrise Light
If you look closely at the photo you will see that the bird is beautifully lit and even has light illuminating it from below, almost as if I am holding a golden reflector on it. There is also no over exposure areas anywhere, however this bird does not have a white head and tail like it’s mature bald eagle parent, where that would have mattered more and been easier to over expose. What I want to say about the golden hour, is that morning and evening light is softer and not as harsh, so use that to your advantage when shooting difficult-to-expose animals. Also, because the sun is low in the sky at this time, it will illuminate the subject more evenly and have a beautiful temperature to the light.
Wildlife Tips Part 1 Comparison Photo
The main point about the golden hour, is not so much the hour itself, but rather that first and last light are powerful tools and the harsh light of a midday sun can easily ruin a photo that might otherwise have been stunning. The midday sun also creates very strong shadows that can ruin a photo because of the dark areas it creates on the animal itself (e.g. from antlers etc.) to strong dark shadows on the ground. The comparison photos shown above have no strong shadows anywhere, because they were both photographed in early light. The tone difference is because the left photo was shot in absolute first photographable light, whereas the right photo was approximately 45 minutes later, but still soft morning light. You can argue which light/photo you prefer, because I also love the photo on the right; they are two very different photos of the same bird. The point is that light is important in how the resulting photo looks and you need to consider that when shooting, it’s hard to make a harsh midday sun look great.
TIPS:
  • You need to get up real early to shoot in the morning light
  • You need to allow travel time to get to the location
  • You need to allow time to find the subject
  • Watch the shutter speed, allow for the light level
  • Watch your white balance – Auto might not be best choice to catch the colors

Weather

My wife is a walking talking weather station. She checks the weather all the time and that’s great, but don’t let what you think the weather will be, rule your decision to go out and shoot. I have come to think that the weather for the most part doesn’t matter or more accurately, the weather can be your friend. Photographing moose / elk / deer or other large antlered animals is most of the time better done on an overcast day. However, shooting birds or having the sky in the image when it’s that sucky winter overcast off white could end in horrible results. Don’t be afraid to venture out into a bit of rain or snow either, you just never know what you are going to get until you go. I have seen some amazing light/skies the day after a major storm. Always be on the ready – there are no hard or fast rules. Look at different weather situations as photographic opportunities, rather than reasons to sit at home.
Bull Moose at Snake River
The above photo was taken right after it stopped raining and the extra details the weather provided were just awesome in my opinion.
details found in wet photos
I actually prefer to use wet photos to draw animals from or reference as they show how hair and fur really flows on an animal. To me, all these little extras add to the story of the photo and make it more interesting.
This next photo shows how I prefer my moose photos to look with nice, even light and no harsh shadows on the moose. Because it is a semi-overcast day, it’s perfect weather for moose photography. I am in between trees and a bright sunny day would make for very contrasty photos with areas of strong shadows and bright highlights that are hard, but not impossible to make look good. The biggest reason I love overcast days for this type of animal, is that there are no shadows from the antlers ruining a good photo. Finding a huge moose is hard enough, finding a huge moose and having crappy photos because of a bright sunny day can make a grown man cry.
Big Bull Moose up close at Gros Ventre
Most of my experience with moose in my part of the country (NH) where I chase them all the time, is that you usually find them extremely early in the morning or late evening when they are most active. The photo below will compare sunny versus overcast for you.
Sunny versus Overcast Sample
I tried to pick two photos from around the same time of year, same setting and similar subjects. It doesn’t matter which photo you like more – that’s a personal choice. Just be aware of your light choices. To me the left is the photo I prefer and here are the things I like about it: background looks more pleasing, moose is lit evenly, no antler shadow, no distracting lighting changes or harsh tree shadows. You can’t always pick the light, you probably booked your trip in advance and once you are there. You just have to deal with what you are given. We will make subject choices based on the weather e.g. we are in the Grand Teton / Yellowstone area and its going to be a bright sunny day, we may decide to just do moose at first light and then move onto other subjects while the light is harsher, or we get three days of overcast and we will forego all other animals and concentrate on moose or elk, because we prefer to shoot those with no shadows. Preferably, bright overcast is amazing light condition for wildlife photography where there are no scenic vistas with the sky showing – hehe if only it was that easy.
Harsh Light Comparison
Before I move off weather, I will re-mention that rainy wet animals look very different to dry ones. They have more texture to their fur and also, the environment will look more saturated naturally and set more of a mood. I don’t like it pouring down in such a manner that the rain becomes the photo. More a light drizzle or just after it rains is a good time to look for opportunities. This next photo is from Alaska and it is drizzling, but look at the texture it adds to the bears and also the motion it conveys from the splashes of water from the cub’s paws. Lastly, look how saturated the greens are and as an added bonus, there are no clouds of insects hovering around the bears because of the rain.
Coastal Grizzly Bear Photo
TIPS:
  • Get wet weather gear for you, your camera and lenses (I use AquaTech sports shield for camera)
  • Also you will need Muck boots or hip waders to get to those wet / muddy locations
  • Wet or snow – don’t point your lens up (water spots on the lens glass)
  • Windy rain or snow – watch the direction you point your lens to (water spots)
  • Cold weather – have layered clothing and gloves that still allow you to shoot
  • Cold weather warm car/house etc. – watch condensation issues, let the camera warm slowly
  • Cold weather drains batteries faster
  • Cold weather – breath / warmth fogs your viewfinder – can’t see your subject

Lens Selection

I don’t want to intrude on an area already covered to death by others, so this section won’t be a technical ‘what lens is the right one type of deal?’ Lets just say that a telephoto (prime or zoom) lens is required for wildlife photography. The only question here is how close do you want to get to your subject. There is, however, one Nikon lens I have hugged, loved, still love and I think it’s a fantastic wildlife lens and that is the Nikon 200-400mm f/4. Lets get away from the which lens talk and just touch briefly on lens selection and it’s effects on wildlife photography.
The opening paragraph teased you with ‘how close do you want to get’ and that is where focal length matters, the longer the focal length you have access to, the closer you can get to your subject. Why do I want to get so close you may ask? Here are some basic reasons:
  • Birds are fairly small, to get detail or fill the frame, 600mm or more is not uncommon
  • Many animals are skittish. Longer focal length keeps you further away from them (out of their fight or flight zone)
  • Some animals are dangerous and it might be wise to keep a safe distance away. This may require a long focal length to fill the frame
  • Most of the time you want to observe animals’ natural behavior, and distance or camouflage are two methods of many to do this
Grizzly Cub
This is a perfect example of using a long focal length to bring the subject closer, while keeping a safe distance from the grizzly bear sow and her cubs. So the next question that usually arrives is, how do I get longer focal lengths and how long is enough. That’s a question I don’t really want to answer, because it will open up all sorts of debates and I want to wimp out of those. Let’s just say I have a 600mm and a 1.4 teleconverter (and teleconverters degrade image quality), but if I am going to use a teleconverter, then the only one I find acceptable for f/4 glass is the 1.4x TC II (I am a Nikon man – Nikon TC). So the answer that everybody is looking for is, that there are times for long (600 +) focal lengths and the way you get there is your personal choice based on quality and dollars.
Nasim has written a couple great articles on bokeh and I will refer you to those for the technical talk and will just mention why I think it plays an important role in wildlife photography:
Black Bear Browsing in Rocks
The story in the above image, is the bear browsing in the rocks and the cuteness of the bear, so the part bokeh plays in this photo is separating the bear from the background and making your eyes focus on the bear, rather than on distracting things like a busy background. Longer focal lengths have shallower depth of field, so good quality long / fast lenses make it easier to achieve the bokeh effect you are looking for. You can get great bokeh with a fast portrait lens, but you may get eaten in the process if you try that while doing wildlife photography. In brief, the level of bokeh is relative to the distance between you and the subject and the subject to the background and with the right lens / distance combination you can almost eliminate unwanted backgrounds that might contain distracting or unwanted elements.
I’ll try and show you want I mean photographically. This photo is not one of the best from the sequence of photos taken that morning, but it will help explain my point. I want the story of the photo to be the 2 day old chick, the care and interaction between mother and baby, not a busy background I can’t get rid of. The location is what it is and I have to deal with it:
Bokeh Effect Explained
I chose to shoot this scene with a 600mm focal length for three main reasons, ultimately reason #1 is most important to me:
  1. The bird is on a nest sitting on eggs, I definitely don’t want to spook it or be the reason it abandons the eggs – distance is then key.
  2. I want the bird to be comfortable with my presence and behave normally, but I also want to fill the frame – distance and focal length are key.
  3. I want separation of bird to background in a hard-shooting setting, where I can’t change much except for my position and even that is limited by ’good light’ that only hits the nest at certain times of the day – bokeh, angle and shooting distances are key
Photo Comparison Good Versus Bad
This section on lens selection could be so much longer and detailed – we have only touched on the very basics, but all items are worth mentioning.
TIPS:
  • Long focal lengths get you closer
  • Big lenses are heavy and hard to take trekking long distances
  • Quality lenses are sharper and more robustly built
  • Zoom lenses give you flexibility when framing subjects
  • Buy the best lens you can afford, good lenses are great investments and hold their value for years
  • Protect your expensive lenses against bumps and scratches with covers like LensCoat – also helps with re-sale value
  • Get wet weather gear for your lens and camera, so you can get adventurous
  • Experiment with your lens selection, learn to use various lenses for different effects.
Hope I didn’t bore you to death. This article turned out to be much longer than I expected and contains less subjects than I had hoped for. That’s a subject for another article :)
Happy shooting and make sure you get out there and have fun.
Robert Andersen
 


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