As a professional travel and wildlife photographer, I am frequently asked the same question: “How do I take better pictures of animals?” My answer is usually always the same. There is no perfect recipe but there are some things you can do that will substantially improve your end result. Here are 10 rules that I live by.
10. Vary your lens choice. A common misconception is that you need the longest lens possible to get the best wildlife images. In some cases that is true but there are many situations in which a wider lens is more desirable. For example, I found myself reaching for a wider lens in Africa to capture a cheetah on the hunt in northern Kenya. A nice tight headshot is always wonderful but incorporating an animal’s native environment into your composition is also very pleasing.
9. Use a monopod or tripod. Wherever possible, use a monopod or tripod. You will always get sharper images the more stable your camera and lens. This is particularly true in low light conditions such as dusk in the African bush or hiking in a tropical rainforest when your shutter speeds are slower.
8. Use a small bean bag when shooting from a vehicle. Often you cannot get out of your vehicle to capture an image for safety reasons. When a monopod or tripod is not an option, a small bean bag can be very helpful to stabilize a camera with a longer lens. These bags can be found at most camera shops, are very portable, and can be filled and emptied right on location so weight is not a concern.
7. Get lower and more into the animal’s environment. Most animals we like to capture on film live close to the ground. A common mistake is to always shoot down on the animal while you’re on foot or in a vehicle. For a more interesting composition, try immersing yourself into the animal’s world by getting lower.
6. Tweak the ISO to increase shutter speed. To stop animals in their tracks requires fast shutter speeds. To get sharp wildlife photos requires a certain amount of depth of field. To obtain the right balance of both requires patience and calmness. It can be difficult and, at times, frustrating.
I generally like to capture wildlife images at f/8 or f/11 to maintain sharpness. This can result in undesirable shutter speeds when the ISO is set at ISO 200 or even ISO 400. To combat the problem, I tweak the ISO settings manually to ISO 800 and beyond until I obtain a decent shutter speed. This technique usually provides an acceptable solution but may result in increased grain or digital noise depending on your camera’s low-light capability.
5. Utilize Shutter Priority and Aperture Priority. This tip is directed at those of you who rely solely on the full automatic setting on your camera. (You know who you are!) It’s time to take that next step and start using some of your camera’s manual settings. Two of these settings are “Shutter Priority” and “Aperture Priority.” These are typically found on the top dial of your camera and identified with an “S” and “A.” In Shutter Priority mode, you can select your desired shutter speed and let the camera take care of the rest automatically. This is particularly helpful when depth of field is really not a concern and you want to freeze an animal in action – such as the Saddle-Billed Stork seen here feeding on an unlucky frog.
In Aperture Priority mode, you can adjust the extent of your desired depth of field and let the camera take care of the rest automatically. As mentioned in tip #6, I use this setting all the time to ensure that the whole animal remains in sharp focus and I always make sure to fine tune the shutter speed if the camera automatically sets it too slow.
4. Always focus on the animal’s eyes. Set your primary focal point on the animal’s eyes. This is not an option, it is a rule. An animal’s eyes should always be the sharpest part of any good wildlife image. This photo of a King Penguin taken on South Georgia Island is a good example. My focal point was centered directly on the penguin’s eye. The eye is so sharply in focus that you can see me capturing the image in its reflection if you look real close.
3. Check histograms and use the exposure compensation feature. A picture is no good unless the exposure is correct. Be sure to check your histograms often to avoid “blowing out” highlights or underexposing an image. A highlight is “blown out” when the brightest part of the image (such as bright white clouds) are flat and without any detail. You can avoid this by making sure your histogram is not too far to the right on your camera display. An image is underexposed when it appears darker than normal. An underexposed image can be avoided by making sure that your histogram is not too far to the left. A proper histogram should look like a bell curve in the center of your camera’s display screen. To achieve a nicely-centered bell curve, fine tune your exposure by using the exposure compensation feature. This is the little plus-minus button (+/-) found on the camera’s body or within the camera’s menu section. This will greatly help you improve your end result.
2. Shoot in Continuous Mode. Many photographers often say to me, “Wow, what a shot! What timing! How did you get so lucky?” Undoubtedly, it is part luck but there is also a little secret I can share with you that will greatly improve your chances of capturing an image like this one of a leopard in a tree in the Maasai Mara in Africa. Shoot in “Continuous Mode.” You have a better chance of freezing wildlife engaging in interesting activity with short bursts rather than doing so one frame at a time.
1. Respect an animal’s space. Get close, but not too close.
This is not a tip, per se, but it is #1 for a reason. We must remember that we are all just guests while visiting a wild habitat. Please always respect an animal’s personal space. The average animal commands a personal space of about fifteen to twenty feet. Getting close to your subject will undoubtedly improve your ultimate composition but it goes without saying that no one should place themselves in danger just to get a picture or otherwise disturb any animal in its natural habitat.
Sometimes, as seen here in a King Penguin rookery on South Georgia Island, an animal might even come up to you if you wait quietly and patiently.