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Wildlife photography: Chris Martin’s top tips

Sharing views, sharing images, sharing tips and techniques … for me that is the essence of photography. Pro and amateur alike … we will all learn from each other and we never stop learning.  So this week I wanted to look at my “Top 10 tips” on how to capture better wildlife images. Nothing within the list is going to be revolutionary in it’s thinking, but so many photographers have helped and inspired me to grow as a photographer over the years by sharing their approach, and in doing so they’ve left me with a checklist that I remind myself of whenever I’m out there in the field.

Chris Martin Wildlife Photography

© Chris Martin

Its just a starting point for to develop talking points in our new blog. In the coming weeks we will look at some of these in a bit more detail, but for now I want to begin by putting some suggestions out there for you to consider. Probably the most frequently asked questions I get as a wildlife photographer is just “How do I get better wildlife photographs?” … “what settings do I need to make on the camera?” …”what equipment do I need to buy?”. There is no set answer to any of these ….. but there are sure ways to improve your consistency and preparedness  for when opportunity arises. So start by trying some of these:

1. Get familiar with the workings of your camera:

You need to understand how to switch between functions almost blindfolded. Often you will need to make adjustments to your shooting settings whilst the subject is in the frame … easy to do if you know the location of all the function buttons, impossible if you don’t.

2. Get off the fully automatic programme on your camera!! 

You need to be familiar with shooting in both aperture and shutter priority mode. Aperture Priority will give you full control over the “depth of field” (background blur) in your image and Shutter Priority is absolutely necessary when shooting moving subjects and you need to freeze the action.

Chris Martin Wildlife Photography

Photo © Chris Martin

3. Understand your camera’s ISO performance: 

Pushing up your ISO gives you access to faster shutter speeds and allows you to continue to work in low light conditions without the use of flash. Personally I prefer to do this as it generally gives you a far more natural looking image than those using flash photography. Modern cameras are capable of incredible low light performance these days with some of them able to produce clear noise free images in very dark conditions.

4. The animal’s eye is your focal point: 

The expression from an animal’s eye can make or break an image. You should not only take the eye as your primary focal point, but should also look to use the available light to highlight this feature and really make your image stand out. Either way, it’s a cardinal rule, the eye is always the sharpest point of any world class wildlife image.

5. An image is nothing if it isn’t razor sharp:

Forget post processing and the sharpening tool, if you are sloppy with your focussing you will spoil your image. If you are wanting to have your images published or used as wall hung prints they have to be sharp!! This is probably the most common fault in most images I’m asked to review, so what can you do to ensure you get it right every time? Firstly, always use a camera support. Either a tripod, monopod or a bean bag (if shooting from a vehicle). I rarely hand hold a camera when working from my vehicle, using a window mount or a bean bag on almost every occasion. Secondly, another golden rule, always shoot with a shutter speed at least equivalent to the focal length of the lens you are using eg. 1/200sec when the lens being used is a 200mm. A final point to remember … if working from your vehicle, when you settle into position on your sighting and are getting ready to shoot, turn off the engine as even the vibrations of the vehicle can potentially ruin a great shot!!

6. Get dirty and shoot from low down!! 

Perspective is everything and so often we become accustomed to having to shoot from above (say from a game vehicle etc). Images such as this are generally very unflattering to the animal and so on every occasion when you can shoot from below the eye level of your subject, you should go for it!! Try it and see the difference, but stay safe and don’t break the Park rules

Chris Martin Wildlife Photography

Photo © Chris Martin

7. Shoot in bursts and don’t be afraid to bracket your exposures: 

I always have my camera set on continuous firing mode and almost always the best image is rarely the first image in a sequence. Often the animal will react to the first shutter noise and it’s focus will shift to one of being more alert or it will start to run. Be ready!! The next frame might win you your next photography competition!! Most cameras also offer a bracketing feature which will allow you to fire off successive frames at differing exposure settings thereby allowing you options to find the right exposure quickly and without having to take your eye from the viewfinder. Try it …. it’s a great tactic.

8. Use exposure compensation:

This is a really important feature of your camera. It allows you to dial in under or over exposure as dictated by the prevailing lighting conditions. I rarely shoot anything without some degree of exposure compensation added to the photograph. Want to improve those washed out, brown tinted images of the African bush in winter? Dial in some under exposure and you will bring out much richer tones from the surrounding vegetation. A raptor in the tree but with a bright sky behind? Dial in some over exposure, meter off the bird and get much improved and detailed features on your subject. Use your camera’s histogram to confirm your exposure is just right, with a nicely centered “wave” peaking almost to the centre of your screen.

Chris Martin Wildlife Photography

Photo © Chris Martin

9. Put away the big telephoto: 

We all love big telephotos, they get us right in amongst the action and indeed they nearly always produce the most striking of images. But stand out from the crowd and now and again try and wide angle or short lens. It’s true to say that working with a standard lens (50mm) makes you think harder about composition. It challenges your photographic skill. The nice thing is that it will allow you to tell a story not just about the animal but also it’s habitat and behavior. Don’t be afraid to try this. I often go on a shoot and challenge myself to  work with a standard lens all day. I inevitably come back with images I would never have considered previously and which always get good feedback.

10. Consider your foreground, background and check your horizon is straight!!  One of most common places for distractions in wildlife photography is the background of your shots. Run your eyes over the space behind your subject to see what else is in the image (do the same for the foreground). Consider whether you want the background in focus or nice and blurry. If the back ground is really “busy”, look to shoot with a wide aperture (low F stop number ie. f2.8) and add that nice blurred effect. Be careful of sticks, branches etc in your foreground that could “grow out” of your image and potentially ruin your shot. Finally, if the horizon features in your composition, make sure it’s straight (always a challenging one if you are shooting from a boat on a river or out at sea!!).

Chris Martin Wildlife Photography

© Chris Martin

As the above represent a compilation of tips shared with me by countless others over the years as I grew as a photographer, I’m allowed to add one more which is my own piece of advice and is especially relevant when shooting wildlife in Africa…:

11. Grab your first shot … and compose your second!! 

As I approach a sighting, I always ensure that I give my clients the opportunity at a reasonable distance to get a “grab shot”. You’ll be glad of it if the animal takes flight and you don’t get a second chance. Once you have done this, you should move in closer and begin to compose your further shots more creatively, using as many angles as possible and looking for unique ways in which to highlight the animals most distinctive features … you have all the time in the world, because you have your shot already in the can!!

So there you go …. I hope that the above suggestions motivate you to go and try something different with your photography. Irrespective of your experience level these are all things that will contribute to you bringing a higher ratio of “keepers” home from your next photography trip. Even if you adopt all of them …. and perhaps you do already, the only way to guarantee any degree of improvement in your wildlife photography is to “Get out there and get images”. Good and bad, your learn from very one of them.

 

Chris Martin

Chris Martin is a wildlife photographer and qualified Field Guide, currently working in South Africa, both as a freelance wildlife photographic guide and as a member of the Africa Nature Training team. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (FRGS) in the UK. His photographic work has been regularly featured in magazines both in South Africa and internationally. Chris’ formative years saw him grow to love wild places and to explore and discover a love for adventure that continues to this day. In his younger years as an accomplished mountaineer and skier, Chris led and participated in expeditions across the globe, particularly throughout the Himalaya regions, Europe, North America and Alaska. Following an expedition in 1993 to East Africa, to climb in the Mount Kenya region, Chris experienced Africa for the first time and it captured his soul. Visit Chris's website

  • Chris Martin

    Thanks so much everyone for such wonderful opening comments to my blog. I’m so chuffed to have been asked by Africa Geographic to do these posts, I just hope you continue to enjoy them and find them helpful to your photography. Drop me a line with any topics you’d like me to feature. I’d love to hear from you all. Next blog is coming up hopefully later this week …. watch this space!! Thanks again … Chris

  • Frans Taueatsoala

    Thanks Chris- very true about the last point. “Grab your first shot” one. I can’t recall the number of times I missed getting “at least” a shot of a great sighting because I wanted to get the “composition” right. Now I know.

  • AfricaInside

    Hi Chris,
    I am an AGeo blogger also and not a photographer (although I organize photo safari workshops for professionals) but I found this post really helpful – even for me and my automatic digital camera. Thanks. I will refer to it for my upcoming safaris – photographic or not. Lori from africainside.org

  • Julie Ahlstrom

    Hi Chris I found your tips really helpful I`m going to Africa for the first time in 6 weeks and my photography will definitely benefit from your advice.I photograph humpback whales mostly

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