The Do’s & Don'ts of Wildlife Photography
For me, photographing wildlife is one of the most rewarding experiences. From witnessing newborn babies to fights over territories, it is always exciting when you go out to shoot as you never know what you may come across. But it comes with its challenges. I have been an avid wildlife photographer for over 12 years, and I have learned a lot from my mistakes. These are some of my suggestions, and hopefully, they will help others interested in this genre of photography.
Know Your Subject
When it comes to wildlife photography, you need to ask yourself; ‘What do I want to photograph? Do you want to photograph fur seal pups playing fighting in rock pools, royal spoonbills sweeping their large bills through tidal flats detecting prey or maybe two terns involved in an aerial chase over a fish? If so, then take the time to learn about your subject. This can give you a huge advantage. The more you know, the better equipped you are to be in the right place at the right time.
For example, when and where does the animal or bird breed, when are they likely to be most active, do they have a migratory pattern, what do they feed on etc. Knowing details like these gives you a better chance of finding the wildlife you seek to shoot. It's always great when you fluke it, and it's happened to me, but setting out with a purpose saves a lot of time driving or walking around hoping to find the animal. Join online wildlife groups as I have found this particularly helpful.
Decide What You Are Hoping To Capture
Are you looking to photograph the animal in its surroundings or habitat, or do you want to shoot an engaging close up? Decide what depth of field you are going to need to achieve this. Things can happen quickly with wildlife, so be prepared with your camera settings. A fast shutter speed is vital if you want a sharp action image, like a gannet diving into the sea. This was something I learnt early on, thinking I had captured the shot perfectly, only to discover my shutter speed had blurred that moment of impact. Post-processing can only do so much. Getting the image in focus is the goal.
Understand Composition & Light
Are you happy with your background, or is it messy and distracting when you have positioned yourself? Move around if you can. Sometimes only moving an inch or two will make all the difference. Don't make the mistake of having objects in the background that seem like it is coming out from the animal—for example, tree branches. This can ruin an image.
Learn about light and its direction. If you are shooting in bright sunshine, you will have to deal with the dreaded shadows on your subject. I always check where the top of my shadow is pointing and then stand so it points directly towards the animal. By doing this, you can avoid harsh lines on the subject. The aim is to get an image with no distinct dark shadow line running across the animal. Be willing to go out early in the morning or later in the evening. As a general rule, animals and birds are more active at these times, and the golden hour creates the perfect lighting for your images.
Do check the framing of your subject. Try to avoid cutting off parts of the body unless, of course, you plan to focus on a particular part of the animal or bird-like shooting a close up of an eye or a head shot. An image will not look right if you have chopped off part of an ear or a tail is missing. I have found that if the feet of the subject is hidden in grass or stones, then leaving some space at the bottom of the image when you frame it is a good idea. Including the area where they are standing will show you have not cut the feet off with poor framing.
Get Down Low
Eye-level perspective creates the emotion in an image, and I believe with wildlife photography, that's what we intend to do, create a feeling of connection with your viewer and the subject. So many times, I see photographers standing and shooting down on the animal. This will create an unusual perspective. The body shape and size will look wrong. There is also no engagement with the animal like this. Of course, there is the exception with birds in flight, but get yourself eye to eye if possible. And also most important is to have the eye in focus. An out of focus eye will ruin a shot.
Don’t Give Up!
Don't give up if nothing much is happening. Not all days will be action-packed with a lot to shoot. Some days you may have to wait for hours on end to get that one shot, but believe me, it is worth it. Patience is key. Wildlife is unpredictable so enjoy the experience of being out amongst it.
Lastly, be respectful to all wildlife. Don't chase, upset or tease animals to get your shot. I have witnessed photographers trying to scare animals to invoke a reaction, which is incredibly upsetting and infuriating. This behaviour can cause birds to abandon nesting sites, can leave babies vulnerable and cause the animal unnecessary stress. No photo ever is worth this. Be in awe of the incredible wildlife we get to share this planet with.... how lucky we are!
About Kim Free
Kim Free is an international award-winning photographer who is passionate about wildlife and conservation. She divides her time between Kaikoura, Canterbury and the South Islands West Coast in pursuit of images that will motivate people to care for the environment and the animals and birds in it. Kim is also a photographer for Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch.
Check out more of her work here!