Written by: Anna-Mart Kruger & Helene Wiggett
One of the best ways to truly see the nature and wildlife that surrounds us is through the lens of a camera. As our Africa Geographic Photographer of the Year 2016 competition kicks into full swing, HAWK photography imparts some informative ‘hands-on’ knowledge so that you can enjoy shooting better images and making the most of your wildlife photography – everywhere, every time.
Here are things you need to bear in mind if you want to become a master wildlife photographer!
1. Patience isn’t a virtue; it’s a necessity
A patient wildlife photographer who has empathy with, and a fascination for, the animals at the end of their lens will always have a more enjoyable time in the field than somebody who gets frustrated because they feel that they aren’t getting the exact photo that they envisioned. The pleasure should be in the moment.
As a wildlife photographer, your results hinge upon on the fact that things in nature are unpredictable. Anything can happen at any time…
Africa is arguably the continent to visit for a safari, but it has many different countries to choose from. After you have selected your destination, you should learn about the species you want to photograph – their behavior, their routine and the best places to find them. The more time you spend observing an animal, the greater your chance of predicting its movements and behaviour, thus getting the shot you want. You can use the knowledge gleaned to predict the optimal time and place to set up your camera for the best chance of success.
2. Know your gear
Technical know-how and a fancy kit are not the most important requirements. However, you still need to have the knowledge of how your camera works and what you can do to obtain certain results.
The stunning, action-packed moments in wildlife photography last on average between five and 20 seconds. If you are not intrinsically familiar with the settings of your camera or the abilities of your chosen lens, you will either miss the moment or ‘spoil’ the images you do manage to capture.
3. Practice makes perfect
Like anything worth improving, you will have to practice your photographic techniques. Luckily, with wildlife photography – or any type of photography – there is no shortage of opportunities or inspiration!
4. Include habitat
Too many wildlife photographers get fixated on what we call the ‘focal-length debacle’, where it becomes an obsession to have the longest/biggest lens possible. Challenge yourself to shoot at a wider angle to capture more habitat to provide more context and variety in your images.
5. Get to eye-level
Try to shoot at your subject’s eye-level. You’ll capture more of the animal’s facial features and will have a better opportunity of the animal glancing into your lens. A flash of brightness in their eye can turn a mediocre photo into an unforgettable one. In the right circumstances, using a flash may prove an effective alternative. Eye contact in an image is tremendously powerful.
Shooting a subject from an ‘unexpected’ angle will have more impact than the viewing angle encountered in everyday life. To increase the possibilities of different points of view, challenge yourself to rethink what subjects are appropriate, and think outside of the box to find an unusual perspective on your subject.
6. Less can be more
The most dramatic wildlife photos usually include a very simple and non-distracting background. The goal is to highlight your subjects and make them stand out.
Photos with cluttered and distracting backgrounds cause your subject to get lost in the image or scene.
You can simplify your composition just by moving a few steps to the left or the right, or by zooming in or out.
7. Use the golden hour
Lighting is by far the single most important aspect of wildlife photography. The correct use of light is your greatest asset. Different options give different results. No light is sensually more pleasing than the so-called golden hour. The golden hour refers to the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset. The light travels through the atmosphere at a different angle, giving it a more ‘golden’ appearance.
The sun is low in the sky at this time: it will illuminate the subject more evenly and will lend warm hues to the subject. It also lights subjects from the side, creating stunning shadows and, therefore, adding texture to photographs. Clouds can be your friends in the form of a very large diffuser, and certain types of wildlife photographs really benefit from this soft and uniform light.
By taking control of your position relative to both your subject and to the sun, you can manipulate the available light to your advantage. Dramatic lighting can work in your favour – for example, to capture animal silhouettes in a sunset. The 10-20 minutes after sunset can produce a fantastically-coloured sky.
8. Show movement
One of the challenges of still photography, and nature photography in particular, is trying to create a feeling of life and movement in a medium that inherently presents a moment frozen in time. Combining movement with that moment can be an extremely effective way to stop a viewer in his tracks and invite him to study the image more closely.
Movement communicates mood and eliminates unwanted distractions. Portraying movement in wildlife photography is a balancing act. Ideally, you should use a shutter speed that is slow enough to deliver a little motion blur, but not too slow that your image loses clarity. Similarly, you want your images to be sharp but, if you freeze the action totally, you might find your image loses its energy. Think 1/500th of a second at the absolute minimum and much faster for birds in flight (1/2000 or higher). If in doubt, raise the ISO to accommodate for less than perfect light. Play around. Studying other people’s photos is a form of learning and not copying. Consider the end result and what they did to achieve it.
The most common method to bring movement to a photograph is to introduce what you might call a ‘controlled blur’, known officially as panning. This keeps the subject in focus while the background blurs, creating a feeling of speed. An overcast day is an ideal time to practice this technique.
9. Keep in mind the rule of thirds
A very simple way of improving your wildlife photographs is to think about the composition of your photographs. This essentially means where the different elements are placed within the frame and, vitally, how your eye moves between them.
Imagine lines running through the frame both vertically and horizontally that ‘divide’ the photo into nine sections. Many cameras allow you to select such a grid that is visible on your display in order to help you with this. Positioning your point, or points, of interest within specific sections of the grid makes them more aesthetically-pleasing to the eye. On a very simple level, put your horizon at the top or bottom third-lines. That immediately changes your photo from the very problematic horizon in the centre.
A caution about the rule of thirds: Do not be bound by the rule of thirds; never think of it as an absolute. A good photo needs to grab attention, and there are several ways to achieve this.
Lead-in lines are basically any lines that draw your eye from the edge of your photo to different points of interest at which you want the viewer to look. Lines add energy and movement, whether it is graceful curves or dynamic diagonals. Identifying leading lines in images is helpful. These are lines created by the direction in which your subject is found. Try to get your subject lined up and looking across the frame. A leopard gazing intently across a frame creates an arresting natural image as our attention is drawn to it. Literal lines can work too and are very popular in landscape photography. Frames within frames, like foliage and fauna, can provide natural frames.
10. Think about textures
Capitalise on the tactile qualities of subjects. Our memories of how things feel are so engrained in our consciousness that the mere sight of them brings a vivid sensation of touch. As long as texture is not front-lit, it will show contrast in fine details, which makes it a compelling subject.
Last but not least, we need to be mindful of the privilege of spending time in nature and being in places where the hand of man hasn’t quite exerted its full force yet. The capturing of God’s glorious creation is something we can enjoy immensely – and sharing it with others is an added privilege!
Think you have what it takes to be Africa Geographic’s Photographer of the Year? Enter here.