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Think before you shoot!

Many aspiring wildlife photographers, myself included, start life as ‘hunter’ photographers, the technique is simple, get the subject in the frame and shoot. Nothing too fancy, just get the shot. The shot may be technically well executed, but at the end of the day it’s just a bird in a bush or a mammal in vegetation as this first image demonstrates; it’s the species that counts and not necessarily the picture.

If you follow a few basic rules the mystique of photography is not necessarily as dauntingly complex as you might first think. While it is important to be comfortable with the technical aspects of photography, and there are plenty of books and magazines to guide you on those. The aim of this short blog is to stimulate a thought process, before you even think of pressing the shutter-button, and hopefully you will find it beneficial on your wildlife photography journey. The same principles apply to photography on other mobile devices.

Portraits are the commonest type of wildlife photos, even though the subject size of many creatures, and their shy habits, makes it difficult to get close enough to obtain a decent size image, without the use of an expensive telephoto lens. An uncomplicated method of overcoming the problem of getting close to wildlife, without bankrupting yourself, is by using a simple hide or screen and encouraging wildlife to come to you; a car makes a good impromptu hide. Providing a source of food (or water during the hot, summer months) is an effective means of attracting wildlife in front of your camera. Remember the correct type of food for the subject you wish to photograph is important. Once your subject is close enough, then the challenge is to make an interesting picture from a static subject. From an aesthetic point of view, portraits are amongst the most difficult to execute well. While it may be a perfectly valid reason to simply want, a record shot of a rare bird or unusual behaviour of a common species, with minimal artistic thought, taking your image to the next level can bring greater satisfaction. Here I want to talk-you-through the thought process of good practice ‘Wildlife Portraits’ by using one of my favourite subjects, Cyril the squirrel, to illustrate key points.

First, separate and isolate your subject from any distracting background. There is a tendency for those new to photography to concentrate so completely on the subject they ignore the background as in the first image. I have seen countless images (and taken many myself) that were ruined by a twig, leaf or piece of grass distracting the eye from the main subject. And if the offending object happens to be in front of the subject, it can often cause the subject to be out of focus if using auto-focusing mode. Try moving slightly left or right to isolate the subject from a cluttered background and if you think your subject may move or fly off, there is nothing wrong with taking a quick shot, before moving to recompose. Think, which composition most suits the subject landscape or portrait?

The most essential ingredient when photographing wildlife is, without doubt, patience. You can’t script nature, but you can give yourself a head-start by being well-prepared, knowing your subject and concentrating on the task in-hand. By waiting for that moment when your subject does something ‘natural’, a bird stretching a wing or a mammal pausing for a scratch, will add a sense of action to an otherwise static image. Try and capture the characteristic features of your subject; a red squirrel can be enticed to jump any-time, but it only has ear-tufts between October-March.

The excitement of photographing wildlife is still with me after all these years, but believe me when I say it doesn’t make for great wildlife photography. Once you have got a ‘record’ shot in the bag, you can relax, take your time and visualise exactly what it is you want to achieve while exploring different angles that could improve the composition. Low angles can add drama; get down low (or up high) to eye-level with your chosen subject for real impact to a portrait. Over-time you will get familiar with your chosen subject and begin to observe emerging patterns in behaviour. Which path does the subject take to reach the food? Once you recognise it has a rhythm, you can maximise this to your advantage. Being able to predict where your subject will be immediately before arriving at the food will help capture some good images.

We always think of landscape photographers taking advantage of the soft light encountered early and late in the day, but this can be good for wildlife photography too; early morning dew or mist can create a moody image. Experiment with side-lighting or even back-lighting, as illustrated in the next image, and create a new dynamic element to your photo. Using the natural surroundings or habitat of the subject can be very effective; try framing your subject with its surroundings in soft focus, possibly even partially masking the subject. Use a shallow depth of field technique to ensure that everything, but the subject is nicely out of focus. Utilize small-water bodies to try and create some amazing reflections or simply create a minimalist image; combined these two elements can often work well as illustrated in the next image.

It is important to think about where to place your subject in the image. Putting the subject approximately one-third in from the left or right edge of the frame often creates a strong balance, so long as the subject is looking into the picture, and reduces negative space. Avoid strong sun-light, the shadows will be too harsh, an overcast day would be a much better option.

Once you have acquired your initial equipment, digital photography is relatively inexpensive, so you can afford to experiment. What fails on one shoot may work at the next, so do not be afraid to make mistakes, photography is all about learning from your experiences. Breaking-down the creative process into easy-to-understand components will inevitably help you capture better images and heighten your appreciation of other photographer’s work.

Enjoy your photography and keep practicing!