Digital Focus: Photographing Wildlife, Part 2

Joyce Kilmer famously wrote "I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree." While trees are okay, I'm partial to the animals that live amongst them--wolves, mountain lions, bears, and all the other wonderful creatures of the wild. Last week we began discussing how to take better wildlife photos. This week let's pick up where we left off.

Get a Good Support System

Use a tripod, or at least a monopod. I've mentioned camera support many times in the past, and it definitely "bears" repeating. (Sorry about that.) My wife likes to use a monopod because it doubles as a walking stick when hiking, and also makes it easy to swing the camera around to take pictures of fast-moving subjects. I like the greater stability offered by a tripod, but I tend to leave the head loose so I too can swing the camera around to track unpredictable subjects.

Either way, I recommend investing in a support system that uses a quick release that attaches to the bottom of the camera, so you can easily pop the camera in and out. There are few things worse than watching a chipmunk wander away while you furiously and futilely screw your camera onto a tripod.

Watch Out for Harsh Lighting

Someone recently asked me how I'd characterize what separates good wildlife photos from bad ones. I responded with some obvious subjective considerations, like subject matter, framing, the rule of thirds, background clutter, and so on. For example, I really hate seeing signs of human life in wildlife images--nothing ruins a great shot of a mountain lion than seeing the outline of its cage or feeding dish in the background.

But when I really thought about it, I realized the answer was obvious: Bad photos suffer from overexposure because of contrasty lighting. What am I talking about? Consider a photo like this. It's a nice mountain lion, certainly, but the picture isn't very compelling. The main reason (discounting distracting elements like the branches) is the swath of direct sunlight that radically overexposes its face. The problem is that most of the scene is in shadow, and that's what the camera has exposed the photo for. But a beam of sunlight pierces the scene, and the photo is "blown out" wherever sun comes in direct contact with a part of the scene. This kind of overexposure doesn't have to happen on the subject itself to be a problem. If there are bright patches of overexposed sunlight in the background of a scene, then that can ruin the shot too.

Keep lighting in mind and try to frame your shot so that the entire scene has fairly even lighting. This shot of the same animal is much better, for example.

You'll have the best results shooting late in the day, after the sun has dropped in the sky. Not only will that give you even, predicable lighting, but it has the added benefit of giving you more active wildlife--everyone tends to get more hungry and playful in the late afternoon and early evening.

Be Patient

Finally, wildlife photography is mainly about having patience, being quiet, and waiting for magic to happen. I've had days where I stand behind my camera for hours, waiting for a wolf pack to do something interesting. Be ready all the time--have the shutter speed and ISO set, and constantly focus and frame your scene. And then just relax and enjoy the animals. Eventually, they'll give you some great photos.

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