Now let’s be straight, there are plenty of good books and DVDs out there showing you how to become a better nature photographer. So why are these tips any different? Well rather than being a full-blown banquet of information, they are more of a drop-in buffet bar – tasty snippets of helpful advice in bite-size chunks. I’m no techie-expert but I do have a few years of making lots of mistakes (and hopefully learning from them) under my belt. I hope by passing on some of these nature and wildlife photography tips you might short circuit part of that painful process.
Getting down low (or at least level) with wildlife subjects does two things: It throws the background out of focus making the subject 'pop' and it provides a more intimate interpretation of the subject's character. The 'mush' effect at the bottom of the frame, is created using a telephoto lens with a narrow depth of field. This technique works particularly well with birds on water.
2. 'Bad' weather
Bad weather is good weather as far as I'm concerned. When it starts raining, or better still, snowing, don't head for home. If you haven't got a camera cover, a carrier bag and an elastic band will do the job – the important thing is that you stay out shooting in the most exciting conditions. Bad weather is not as common as you think so make the most of it
I just love backlighting! Photographing your subject 'into the light' (towards the sun) against a dark (shadowed) background can deliver stunning results. The lighting can be difficult to manage but essentially your subject should be lit from behind and your background dark so that the 'rim light' shows up clearly. Use a lens hood (extended if necessary) to prevent flare from the sun appearing in your picture.
4. Work locally
It's great to go off on a photo-trip but don't overlook subjects close at hand. Ducks and geese in town parks, garden birds and even landfill sites can all be productive locations. It's not the rarity of the subject that matters, it's how you bring it to life and working regularly in one place, allow its story to be told.
5. Wide aperture
A book can be written about the effect of different apertures, but here's my take. For wildlife subjects I usually shoot at a wide aperture – f5.6 or even f4. Depth of field is minimal but this gives a lovely compressed effect. I always focus on the eye of the subject and if that's sharp, I don't get worked up about the rest.
Choose your subject carefully with silhouettes. Easily recognisable and distinct shapes work best – red deer are perfect, grey seals less so. With the benefit of detail taken away, the viewer only has the shape to work with so make sure the whole subject is placed against the sky/background, make sure all legs are distinct from each other and in this case, I waited until the stag looked at me so the antlers were symmetrical. The result is that this is obviously a red deer stag even though the body is blacked out. For exposure, take a reading from the sky, lock it and shoot – everything will be underexposed with your subject black (ish) and the sky rendered darker than it actually is.
Using long lenses for wildlife allows the subject to 'pop' thanks to a shallow depth of field. That doesn't mean all backgrounds will be blurred – you need to be VERY careful. Choose a muted background (darker colours work best) as far away from your subject as possible. Move around your subject if possible lining up different backgrounds – a few feet can make a big difference.
8. Record action
The standard of wildlife photography is now so high, simple portraits generally don't cut it. Look for unusual, interesting or humorous behaviour; photograph birds in flight or preening or displaying. Capture mammals running or fighting. Anticipation is often key – watch your subject and learn the signs for when something is about to happen. Set a fast shutter speed and focus where possible on the eye. Above all, be patient and wait for that decisive moment. Oh…and be prepared to fail before you succeed.
9. Go graphic
Very often it's about what you leave out of a picture rather than what you include: 'less is more' as they say. Despite our inclination to 'consume' everything within a scene, eliminating, or at least minimising, detail is key to this approach. Clean, simple lines; a limited colour range and graphic shapes all work well and often make the viewer linger longer than they would over a more conventional interpretation. Think clean and crisp!
10. Understand Light
It's an old cliché but it really is all about the light. Watch it, study it and learn how to make it your friend; treat it with indifference and your images will suffer. It's not just about light direction, it's about quality of light. Look at many of your favourite images and most of them will not be down to subject choice but light.
With many thanks to Peter Cairns of Northshots (northshots.com)