Wildlife photography : 7 tips to improve your photos
Being a good wildlife photographer takes time.
Before you can produce images that capture people’s attention, you need to go through several steps.
Like mastering the basic functions of your equipment or knowing, almost intimately, the animals that interest you.
Finally, and perhaps the most difficult thing to master, is to develop your own style of photography.
Once this process is completed, then yes, you will be able to give emotion to the people who look at your photos.
You guess there’s no point in rushing through the steps.
Unless you take the risk of getting discouraged by the lack of convincing results.
Note from Laurent: this is a guest article by Régis Moscardini of the blog Auxois Nature.
He is the one who expresses himself in this article.
That’s the whole point of this article.
I’m going to give you 7 tips to apply imperatively if you want to improve your wildlife photos.
7 tips that will have an immediate positive impact (provided you apply them, of course! )
Just before getting to the heart of the matter.
Wildlife photography isn’t really your thing? It’s not embarrassing, I promise.
I even advise you to read the following.
First of all, for your photo culture.
It’s always a good idea to take a close look at what’s going on outside your chosen field.
It’s not for nothing that I myself am a subscriber to Laurent’s blog.
Or that I receive Polka magazine every month.
There are very few animal photography su- jets in it.
That’s precisely what I like: to nourish my practice by the contribution of other universes.
Then because reading my advice will allow you to improve, among other things, two things: the sharpness of your images and the background blur.
Admit that it is useful in any style!
Tip 1: Bend down
A good wildlife photographer rarely shoots with a high angle of view.
In other words, photographing wildlife from its full height is the first thing to go!
Your DSLR should always be positioned at the same level as the subject, or even lower in some cases.
Using the vocabulary of the image, we will say that the point of view “while diving” is to be proscribed.
This is important for three reasons:
An animal, whatever it is, taken from a dive will give the impression of being crushed.
This reinforces the notion of human domination over the animal.
Do you want to raise awareness of the beauty of nature? Great idea! But then, take care not to show the subject as dominated.
Conversely, a subject photographed from its height will make it easier to immerse the spectator (including the person looking at the photo) in the observed scene.
In the first sentence of this article, I talked about capturing attention.
This trick is essential to get people to connect with the animal, with your photo.
Finally, crouching (or lying down, or kneeling, or bending in half, not very im- portant!) increases the distance between the subject and the background.
Thus, the blurred background so much sought-after to highlight the animal is very easy to obtain.
It’s very simple to understand: photograph your cat at your feet while standing.
What is the background? The floor! It will be almost as sharp as the kitty’s head.
Now lie down.
What’s the background now? Probably a hedge a few yards away.
This one will be very blurry while the cat’s in focus! (This contrast of sharpness and blur is enhanced by a maximum diaphragm opening).
I add that this advice is perfectly valid for children! Put yourself at their height and the three reasons I just mentioned apply just as well.
Photo taken from above: the bird is in a dominated posture.
Photo taken at ground level.
The bird is in a much more rewarding posture.
Tip 2: Increase your shutter speed
It’s no secret that wildlife photographers are known to use long, even very long lenses.
What are commonly known as super telephoto lenses.
The 400, 500 or even 600 mm are regularly mounted on reflex cameras.
If the photographer cannot physically get very close to the animal, he can at least get “optically” close.
Hence the use of these extreme focal lengths.
But this magnification has a cost.
No, I’m not talking about the cost! Even if evoking the very high prices of these stones would deserve an article.
I’m talking about the other side of the coin.
Yes, the 500 mm and others have the annoying habit of amplifying all the movements of the photographer.
Even the ones he doesn’t feel like he’s doing! A very small movement gives a big shake in the viewfinder.
I’m sure you’ve looked through binoculars before.
Have you noticed how difficult it is to get a stable image? Because unless you stand on a support (a low wall for example), you always get a shaky image.
This is due to the high magnification and there is nothing you can do about it.
You experience exactly the same phenomenon when you photograph at 400 mm.
The result of this involuntary and amplified shaking is a man- quant photography in terms of sharpness.
That’s because your shutter speed is not fast enough to freeze the micro-shake.
The first, simplest and cheapest solution is to increase the shutter speed.
We should rather say “reduce the exposure time”, I think it’s more explicit to understand that the tremors will be frozen.
The longer the focal length, the higher the speed has to be.
I like this mnemonic to make sure you get a sharp image: the shutter speed must be at least equal to the focal length used.
That is to say that if I shoot with a 400 mm, I have to set my speed to 1/400 (or more of course).
With a 200 mm, 1/200 should be enough.
Use all the levers at your disposal to reach the desired speed: aperture of the diaphragm and increase in ISO sensitivity.
Those lucky enough to own a stabilized lens (or an SLR for Pentax and Sony) can afford to respect this rule less.
Personally, I’m still very attached to it.
Because despite the Shake Reduction function of my Pentax K3, I know that by sticking to this rule I would never have any bad surprises.
The sharpness of this image owes a lot to the high shutter speed: 1/1600
Tip 3: Eyes
You’ve probably heard that you always have to keep your eyes on the ball.
Animal or human, it doesn’t matter! If the eyes are blurred, it’s very hard for the viewer to connect with the subject.
Everything can be out of focus.
Anything at all.
But not the eyes.
Unless the artistic effect is sought again, but then good luck attracting attention.
So I consider a picture to be missed if the subject doesn’t have sharp eyes.
And this is all the more valid when the animal is close!
For a mood picture where the subject holds a small place in the picture, the focus will be on the head.
For a portrait, no room for doubt: the focus will be on the eyes and not elsewhere.
Making sure that the focus will be in the right place is not very tricky.
I advise you to leave the all auto mode and choose the semi-auto mode, aperture priority or shutter speed priority.
I like the Av mode because I can manage my depth of field and speed at the same time.
But the Tv (or S) mode is fine too.
Why exit the Auto mode? To take control of the focus.
Otherwise, it’s the re- flex that manages everything, including the focus point! I would be you, I would stop leaving such an important function to the machine.
Who can guarantee that it won’t lock on the right branch rather than on the left eyes? Yes, I know, DSLR algorithms are pretty bad and normally favor the eyes instead of the temples.
In semi-auto mode, it’s you and only you who define the location where the point will be made.
You are the master of the collimators.
For example, you can take only the central collimator and focus on the eyes by aiming at them.
It’s as simple as that.
Once you’re more comfortable, nothing prevents you from selecting off-center collimators.
For composition, it’s more effective.
Well, speaking of composition…
Does your animal look to the left? Then place his head to the right of the image so that he has a large empty space in front of him.
Don’t place it so that its eyes come to rest on the edge of the picture!
This rabbit’s eyes are very sharp.
That’s the main thing.
Tip 4: RAW shooting
It is fundamental to have a correct exposure on the first try.
In wildlife photography, second chances are extremely rare in case of a mistake.
Digital photography allows you to make up for small differences in settings.
So I assure you, if the wonderful opportunity for fox games may not come again, you still have a chance to make up for that damn overexposure!
To do this, start by adopting one of the most important things: RAW photography.
It’s not Laurent who will contradict me.
His article The RAW: grow your hands is one of his most popular!
Photographing in RAW and not in JPEG guarantees that the camera retains details in the digital image file in both high AND low light.
This means that you are free to adjust the exposure of an image afterwards, if necessary, on the computer.
This format gives you almost a second chance if the exposure was not made at the time of shooting.
If RAW photography bothers you, because your computer is always in a hurry as soon as you give it a try, there’s a little trick to it.
Most DSLRs offer the possibility to record every shutter release as RAW + JPEG.
Some high-end cameras can even store RAW files on one card and JPEG files on the other.
Interested? It’s of importance for those who, like me, have a state-of-the-art SLR .
associated with an old computer dinosaur.
Clearly, my old Mac hiccups sternly whenever I import and file dozens of photos over 30 MB.
Files at 4,000 x 6,000 pixels is heavy.
So I work around it.
I import all my photos in JPEG, much lighter and more digestible for my old cuckoo clock.
I classify, I sort, I delete the very, very, very numerous photos of an outing, without worry.
It’s only when I’m sure I’ll only keep a big handful of photos that I import them again, this time in RAW format.
So I no longer have a problem with the Mac’s slowness and blockages.
Developing photos, even in RAW, on the other hand, it does it without (too) flinching.
The body was fooled by the foreground light.
It underexposed the rest of the scene, including the bird.
I was able, in post-processing, to retrieve the underexposure
Tip 5: Light is the key
I know that you didn’t wait for me to hear about the notion of a beautiful picture reading!
To say that light is important in a photo is a banality without a name.
On the other hand, adding the term “beautiful” to the word “light” is perhaps less obvious to everyone.
I really believe that you have to have experienced a sunset photo shoot to realize the power of beautiful light.
A warm light at the end of the day, or the colorful mists of dawn literally transform you from a photo of little interest to an extraordinary photo.
You know, or have guessed it, the best time to photograph nature, in general, is at sunrise and sunset.
But not anytime! I mean, there is a small window of time to respect.
The light is (really) the most beautiful: – 10 minutes after sunset, – 10 minutes before sunrise
Experience it for yourself.
Go to the field a good 20 half nutes before getting up.
You will see how the light quickly becomes whiter, colder as soon as the sun is present.
And therefore much less interesting.
At dusk, the same constraints apply.
Too early on the spot and the light is in- core too hard.
Too late after the sun disappears, well…
there’s no more light.
No light, no picture!
That being said, how do you get the most out of these fabulous colors? There are two ways.
The opposite of each!
The first way is the one that we choose almost instinctively: photographing with the sun on our backs.
The subject is bathed in a beautiful, colourful atmosphere.
It’s easy and you can hardly go wrong.
Exposure metering is without major difficulty: don’t break your head and opt for a matrix exposure metering (Pentax talks about multi-zone, and that’s quite telling).
The camera takes care to respect the balance between light and dark areas.
The whole photographed scene is taken into account by the camera body to evaluate the light.
This is fine when there are not too great differences in contrast between the subject and its surroundings.
This is typically the case with the setting sun behind your back.
I explain in video on my blog how to do it here: 5 steps to photograph sunsets.
The second way is, as I said, the opposite of the first one.
It’s all about putting the subject between you and the sun: a real backlight! Exactly what you’ve always been told not to do!
So you’ll have to get out of your comfort zone! Taking incredible, out-of-the-ordinary pictures is at this price.
To get that chiaroscuro effect (see the picture below) that I love, forget about the dot-matrix.
When there are so many gaps between light and dark areas, the light sensor will go crazy.
It won’t know if it should expose the subject at the expense of the background, or on the contrary, correctly expose the environment at the expense of the animal.
Make it easy for him! Choose the Spot measure.
Just like the collimators above, you choose where in the scene the light measurement is to be made.
Spot measurement measures the light over a very small area in the centre of the frame.
Do you want the fiery sky to be well exposed? No problem.
You direct the center of the frame to the area of the sky that suits you.
The DSLR exposes this area properly and then…
you press the magic button: exposure lock.
With your exposure in memory, you can crop at will and place the animal as you like in the picture.
I’m well aware that it takes practice.
You won’t be able to miss out on many misfires.
So, I cannot advise you too much to try this kind of empty photos.
Quietly in your garden on a tree leaf.
Practise, you know!
You will be less stressed in the heat of the action, later, with the animal.
A beautiful light for a beautiful scene.
A harsh and unattractive midday light
A backlight allows such attitudes to be captured.
Tip 6: Choose your background carefully
I used to say that the background magnifies a picture… or destroys it.
That’s all I’m saying.
To me, the first parameter to consider is uniformity.
A background that serves an image is one that doesn’t distract the viewer’s eye.
His attention must be entirely focused on the subject.
And nothing else.
There is nothing worse than a background made of neat tangled branches (or any other annoying thing).
The eye has nowhere to go.
Well, it does.
To the picture next door!
Make sure you’re positioned…
at animal height! That was tip number one.
You’ll already be doing 80% of the work.
The remaining 20% is for minor adjustments to the framing.
Often you just have to move the lens a little bit to the left or right to get the background right.
I know that in the presence of a wild animal a few meters away makes any movement difficult (not for your survival, in France, you don’t risk anything, but not to scare it away).
So, be careful to go very slowly.
Shift the camera a few centimeters, no more, then observe the subject’s reaction.
Does he seem worried? Hold still! He’s at it again, it’s okay, you can move the frame again.
Until you manage to get the embarrassing part out of the frame.
Little trick from my experience.
I still sometimes don’t see an embarrassing element in the shot.
But I do have my eye in the viewfinder!
It’s a bit like spelling mistakes on a computer screen.
You can see them much better once the text is printed!
It’s the same with my photos.
I often take advantage of calm weather during a shoot (and God knows if there is!) to check my images on the SLR screen.
And I often notice that something over there, on the far left of the picture, is annoying.
The thing I hadn’t seen in the viewfinder.
So I rectify my framing, if I can, of course.
Otherwise, I don’t have any scru- pule to crop in post-processing to get out of the frame, which is too eye-catching.
The background made of branches is to be proscribed for artistic images.
A plain blurred background really brings out the subject matter.
Tip 7: Being immersed
With more than 9500 subscribers to my blog newsletter, I don’t hide that I receive many questions by email.
There is only one question that I always have trouble answering.
It’s roughly this one: “Thank you, Régis, for all your advice, but I still lack time to take pictures.
Do you have a solution? »
not really, no.
Cause this is definitely out of frame.
Well, there are a few tricks.
I’ll give them to you a little further on.
Why am I telling you about this notion? Simply because it’s the time spent in the field that makes you an excellent photographer.
You guessed it: the more time you spend in the field, the more you increase your chances to produce high quality pictures.
There is no secret! Theory is essential.
Learning the habits of a feral cat’s life from the specialist literature is a must.
Reading the instruction manual for your new reflex is just as important.
But agree that it’s easy, and anyone can do it.
Practice is not only essential, it’s vital.
I repeat: practice repeated again and again and again.
As the great naturalist Robert Hainard once said, “You have to persevere until your luck runs out.
“(Or something like that)
The most intense moments I experienced as a wildlife photographer were during a long follow-up of a clan of wild rabbits.
I went there almost daily.
It was during this photo experience that I realized that the more you are present on an animal’s site, the more interesting photos you can make.
Also, once you’ve done the, let’s say classic, “to do” pictures, you can then focus on less conventional images.
You’ll be able to express all your creativity.
Try new things.
Understand that if you only meet the badger once, your pictures will be very mundane.
You won’t dare to get out of the way for fear of missing out on this great opportunity.
It will be quite different if you meet him regularly.
It’s up to you to take the laughs! Because whatever happens, you already have a stock of usable images.
How can you have a little more time to practice photography? I wish I didn’t have to sleep! Hop! 8 more hours of activity per day.
It is for the moment impossible.
So I do things differently.
First of all, I choose animal species near my home.
90% of the time I don’t have to take the car.
And you who live in the city, you should know that there is also a very important active fauna in the cities! It’s just that you don’t see it…
because you sleep when they are active.
Then I photograph animals that do not require a too long presence on the ground.
I’ve never done a project on buzzards for example.
It would take far too long to be on the lookout for my availability.
On the other hand, rabbits, badgers and passerines on the riverside are full of patience with outings of one to two hours.
So I can go before the rise of my whole tribe, even during the week.
Finally, I use a lot of tools such as Geoportail to locate potentially interesting areas.
I note these areas on a map and then I go out into the field to check if the subject I want to photograph is there.
It saves me a lot of time.
I recently wrote an article that I really liked.
I explain in concrete terms how to take successful pictures of birds on the riverside in 3 simple steps.
Having such a close proximity is not done in one evening.
Here’s what you can do when the classics are in the box!