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Anyone can take a picture of an animal, but it takes skill to get a good one. Whether you’ve got a secondhand point-and-shoot camera or a top-of-the-line DSLR, remember these tips to help you get your best wildlife shots this season.
Have a PlanWhile chance encounters can be great for photos, you’ll have better luck getting a really good shot if you know what you’re looking for ahead of time. Research the wildlife you want to photograph – find out what it eats, what habitat features it likes, its most active times of the year etc. - then look for locations near you that would be attractive to that animal. If you already know you’re looking for something big and fast, like deer, or small and slow, like caterpillars, you don’t have to fuss so much with modes and adjustments when your subject shows up.
Get to Know the SubjectAll the planning in the world still won’t guarantee a helpful subject. After all, a wild animal doesn’t really care if there’s a random tree in your shot or the light would be better a little to the left. So, after you’ve successfully located a wildlife habitat with the desired residents, visit a few times to learn the specific animal’s mannerisms and habits. Then, use that knowledge to help you pick a good spot to shoot from. Obviously take into account any safety concerns with your plan, and avoid scaring the animal out of its home whenever possible.
Time it RightSo you’ve got a location and a subject, now what? Sometimes the honest answer is to hurry up and wait. Patience is key when you can’t communicate with your subject, and different times of day will vastly alter what the scene looks like based on sunlight. Try to avoid peak sun times like 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. as you’ll have very few shadows to work with and the direct light is generally less flattering than softer morning or mid-afternoon light. Weather will affect your light as well, and color will pop more easily when the sky is dark and cloudy. This can be great for delicate colors of flowers or portraits, which get washed out in heavy sunlight. Clouds can also give a sense of depth when photographing birds in flight, or give a more somber mood to a wide angle landscape.
Fluffy FeathersAs summer heat fades and we dig the long sleeves and pants out of our closets, local wildlife is essentially doing the same thing. Mammals grow a thick winter coat, birds’ feathers come in thick and fluffy, and most animals in general look healthy and photogenic due to having eaten well for the past few months. Take advantage of the pretty plumage and winter coats by shooting wildlife in late fall or early winter.
Long ShotWhile there is no one-and-only way to photograph wildlife, if you’re going to invest in gear, get a telephoto lens. They’re a must for animals you can’t or don’t want to get physically close to, and by staying back you’re less likely to disturb any subject. While different fixed-length telephoto lenses are good for different things, these lenses are bulky - so you’re probably better off starting with a zoom telephoto lens. These cover a wide range of focal lengths for less money, allowing you to get a good picture whether your subject is 100 or 500 feet away with the same lens. If you have the funds and want to invest in fixed-length lenses, look into purchasing a teleconverter to make them more adaptable. While you will lose some resolution and stops of light, these little gadgets can make one telephoto lens very versatile and they won’t break your back.
Ready SteadyOn the topic of gear, a tripod is great for extended shooting and crisp photos. If you need to move around more than a tripod allows, consider a monopod instead. They’ll still save your shoulders from fatigue and your photos from blur, but they take a little more effort and practice to use. As a rule, the longer the lens, the easier it is to get a blurry image, so account for supporting your lens itself and not just the camera body if you’re using a telephoto. A less expensive support option is a beanbag, but you’ll probably have to look around for something taller to set it on.
Hands OffAnother cool piece of gear to keep in mind is a remote shutter button. These are great for long exposures in low light, or for people who notice consistent blur in their images. Many amateur photographers will press the shutter button too quickly or just too hard, causing motion and blur, and others will incur the same problems from unintentionally breathing in abruptly when they take a picture. These problems can be avoided completely with this small remote, which triggers the camera to take a picture without you having to touch the camera itself. This little gear trick does wonders for many people trying to get sharp photos - only downsides are you have to buy the remote and set up your shot on a tripod or other surface. There is also a delayed shot option or timer built in to most cameras, so play around with this first to see if your movements are making a noticeable difference in your shots.
Hands OnIf you want clear pictures and want to press the shutter button yourself, make sure you’re using the appropriate body posture for holding your camera. Use both hands and tuck your elbows in against your body or rest them on a large stable object like a rock. For a DSLR, technically your right hand should be wrapped around the camera and your left should be flat underneath for support, but that can change based on your stance and hand availability. For a point-and-shoot it’s tempting to only use one hand because they’re so light, but using both will substantially reduce blur and help you take the picture you meant to.
Don’t Be a Middle ManCompositionally speaking, it’s a good idea to get your subject out of the absolute middle of the photo. It’s easy, yes, but it’s usually boring and takes away from any directionality in the picture. In more technical language this is related to the “rule of thirds” because any subject will generally look better a third of the way into the frame, and our eyes are naturally most drawn to the four points in a picture where the imaginary vertical and horizontal third lines cross. For a portrait, put an eye or other major feature at one of these intersection points to draw extra attention to it. As you gain experience remember that these rules are more like guidelines, and can be broken for emphasis.
Watch Your EdgesWhen you’re focused on getting the perfect shot fast, it can be easy to lose some of your subject at the edge of the frame. Missing a tail feather, wing tip, or one paw from a picture may not seem like a huge deal, but it will make your photo look sloppy and less professional. Zoom out a little and get a bit of buffer space between your subject and the edge of the frame so that you can get a shot of the animal in its entirety, even if it moves a little. You can always crop out excess space later. If you’re intentionally not including the whole animal in your shot, still watch that you don’t cut off an animal at a major joint like a knee or a hip, as this simply looks awkward.
Ditch the Auto Setting… SometimesWhile an all-automatic setting can help you follow a moving target, remember that you as a human have the real brain, not the camera. Accordingly, our eyes filter out unimportant details like power lines and focus on vibrant colors in ways your automatic camera settings can’t. One of the easiest ways to make sure the photo you take is as vibrant as what you see is to adjust the automatic white balance (AWB) setting to cloudy, shade, sun, fluorescent lighting, or whatever else is actually part of the present lighting conditions. This will keep colors from getting washed out. As with any rule, play around and break it when you have the time to give your photo an artificially warmer, cooler, or brighter tone than what you’re really looking at. Use a shady or cloudy setting when shooting sunrises and sunsets for colors that pop.
Take a Lot of PicturesDue to the marvels of modern technology, you can take a bunch of pictures and see what they look like without spending extra money. So the best advice is really to go practice, and decide what aspects and details of your own photos you like best. That way you can start to look for those things before you take a shot, and with practice it will take you progressively less time to get the shot you want.
For more tips, check out our Iowa Nature Photography board on Pinterest.