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10 Esential Digital Wildlife Photography Tips For Beginners
Here are 10 digital wildlife photography tips to help you master this exciting area of photography. The natural world is a great subject for photographers of all levels and you don't have to be in the Serengeti to take amazing images!
These are tips for beginners, which will hopefully give you some ideas for photographing the wildlife near you. Whatever local wildlife you have access to, it can all look beautiful and spectacular when photographed well!
1. Get To Know Your Subject.
Get hold of a little guide to wildlife in your local area. This is not being overly keen and involved - it's actually fairly essential! Check out the favoured habitats of the species you want to shoot. Find out what times of day and year they can best be found.
Discover whether any animals around you have interesting behaviours - like hunting methods, fighting, feeding, nurturing their young and so on. Armed with this info you'll have a much better chance of getting that brilliant shot. Without it, you'll basically be standing around hoping for the best.
2. Capture The Action!
Image by Szeke
Wildlife is a dynamic, fast moving, exciting subject. What does that mean? You're going to need some quick shutter speeds. Set your camera to manual or shutter priority mode (if you're not sure about this, here's some basic advice on how to take better digital pictures using manual controls) and select a really fast shutter speed.
A fast shutter speed inevitably means a wider aperture. Be carefully that it doesn't become so wide that the depth of field is really small. You need to account for the movement of your subject towards and away from the camera. There's nothing wrong with increasing the ISO if it enables you to keep a fast shutter and convenient depth of field.
Once you've mastered this, try getting creative and using a shutter speed that's just slow enough to produce a little bit of motion blur to illustrate movement and drama. This can be used to to either blur part of the animal itself, or the background by panning whilst taking the shot.
3. Use A Tripod
This is one of the essential digital wildlife photography tips on this list. A tripod is your friend. For a start, shooting wildlife pictures often involves quite a lot of hanging around, with your camera trained on the subject waiting for it to spring into life. That's a recipe for very tired arms if you're tripod-less!
More importantly, you'll often be using a telephoto lens when shooting wildlife. These lenses magnify the tiny bits of blur caused by camera shake (i.e. if you press the shutter button by hand, instead of using a remote release). It's so easy to take blurry telephoto shots. Here are some general tips for using a telephoto lens effectively.
4. Use A Wide Aperture For 'Portrait' Style Shots
Image by digitalART2
Wide apertures produce a narrow depth of field, which intensifies attention on the main subject. It's a great technique for human portraits, but also works brilliantly with animals too.
Using a wide aperture with a telephoto lens increases the effect further. The flattening effect of a telephoto (telephoto compression), isolates the subject from the background and creates a sense of distance for the viewer.
5. Telephoto Lenses
The purpose of telephoto lenses is not to enable you to 'get closer'. Generally I find in photography that if you want to get closer, move closer. The lens influences the aesthetics of a shot.
That said, if you're shooting a pack of wild dogs tearing apart an unfortunate impala on safari, being able to shoot from further away is an asset!
But the point is that telephoto lenses work for certain shots, not for others. They isolate the subject from its surroundings, compressing the scene and creating a sense of detachment for the viewer. They can often produce a certain intimacy and tranquility.
They're great for portraits and showing detail. Less great for capturing a sense of drama, dynamism, and 'being there'. They also require very fast shutter speeds, especially when hand-holding. These tips for using telephoto lenses should help.
6. Don't Ignore Common Species
Image by Kristin Bradley
As I mentioned at the start of this article, some of the most stunning wildlife photography ever produced has featured supposedly mundane species: common insects, plain coloured birds, field mice, even the humble city pigeon!
It's all about when, where and how you capture something. Photos can turn amazing animals like lions into something dull and familiar, and elevate innocuous brown rodents into creatures of compelling beauty! So don't give up on the wildlife nearest you. Shoot it at its best, in great light and in interesting compositions.
7. Fill The Frame
"Fill the frame" is one of those bog standard pieces of photography advice that you've probably heard a million times. In my opinion, a more effective way of saying it is, "don't waste any space in the frame". Every part of the image should be there for a reason.
Sometimes, showing the main subject in its environment/context is the way to go. Other times, filling the frame with purely the main subject works best. The idea is simply to produce maximum impact. There's always a danger of diffusing the interest of a photo if you include 'empty' space.
So, as a rule of thumb, zoom in quite tight on wildlife subjects. It's very easy not to fill the frame, even when you're aware of trying to do so! A quick warning: leave a bit of space around the very edges, as when things get squashed up too close to the borders of the frame it looks very awkward.
8. The Magic Hours
Image by Zest-pk
The beutiful light of dawn and sunset never fails to make awesome photos. This is as true for digital wildlife photography as it is for landscape photography.
Plus, lots of elusive species venture into the open very early in the morning or as the sun is setting. I've taken some cool shots of deer here in the UK in the early hours. Nothing around to spook them!
9. Urban Wildlife
Don't wake up to a rural paradise teeming with animals every day? Neither do I! But don't worry, because city streets can make a stunning and contrasting backdrop to wildlife shots.
There's an amazing image of a fox slinking through the snowy, dark streets of London in winter on the Sony World Photography Awards shortlist this year.
Pigeons are a brilliant subject too. You must have seen some of those great shots of pigeons taking off en masse in the middle of a city square, or swirling around some famous monument?
Image by Pixel Addict
10. Combine Wildlife With The Landscape
Capturing wildlife 'in context' can be a great strategy. Try to use wildlife to enhance a landscape, or vice versa. Digital wildlife photography is not just about animals themselves, but their habitats too.
Using a wider angle of view and smaller aperture, to increase depth of field, is the order of the day here. 2 of my favourite photographers who produce these kinds of images are Jim Brandenburg and Nick Knight.