Wildlife photography is a combination of passion for the forest, the mountain, the fauna and a fondness for photography. Patience, tenacity and, of course, a bit of luck, are also fundamental. Whether you are just starting out or you have been bitten by the bug for photography, I am convinced that these 7 great tips will help you plan your next trips and getaways.
GREAT TIPS FOR FAUNA PHOTOGRAPHING: HOW TO GET THE BEST SHOTS OF ANIMALS
1) WHAT SPECIES DO YOU WANT TO PHOTOGRAPH?
Planning a photography trip always requires solving one important question: where are we going? But in this case in particular the answer is conditioned by the animal species that we want to photograph. Wild animals don’t usually live near large urban centers and their sighting involves traveling to isolated natural areas. Areas that are not easy to access without a vehicle of our own.
The first decision, therefore, is to determine which species we want to photograph. It’s not the same trying to photograph the lynx in its natural habitat, than trying to photograph seabirds from a boat.
Once we have decided which will be the main subject of our goal, the next step is to be well informed about their behavior in freedom, their breeding and breeding cycle, their aggressiveness towards man, etc. Knowing the main character is fundamental.
2) SO NOW, WHERE ARE WE GOING?
Chosen the main character of our shoot, we will have to decide where we will be moving to watch it. National parks and nature reserves are the most frequented places. Preparing the trip does not only mean searching for accommodation, but also finding out all kinds of information about the region we are going to visit, its climate, its access by vehicle, etc.
Majority of the times, public transports will not reach these regions, so we will need a vehicle. On some occasions, the entrance with our vehicles will be regulated or even not allowed at all, so we will have to be informed about the regulation of the parks.
If we want to camp in the area, we will have to check first if it is allowed. Many of the national parks and European nature reserves have a very strict policy when it comes to camping inside.
On internet, we will find the official websites of national parks, nearby towns and available accommodations. They will give us the most up-to-date information on the permits needed to camp or how to reach the most protected areas.
Finally, a look at social networks to consult tips and images of other travelers will give us ideas for our own photos. It’s not about doing what others have done, but about getting inspiration with their work.
3) PREPARING THE BACKPACK
The next question to answer is what basic equipment do we need for an trip of this type? When it comes to outdoor photography, we must take into account the time we spend with the equipment on our backs, walking or hiding ourselves under a tree.
Weight is the limiting factor. We have to reduce the equipment to the maximum without forgetting or ruling out anything that may be essential. For a short break, few days, we will need our camera with a couple of memory cards, a good telephoto lens, a good tripod, spare batteries and protective rain covers. If we want to photograph landscapes or to experiment with night photography, we will also need an angular lens and a pair of filters.
The basic equipment should not weigh more than 4 or 5 kilos.
Last (but not least), you have to have all the necessary “non-photographic” equipment. If we are going to spend several days in the area, we can leave part of the equipment in the hostel or in the car, but always keep in mind that in our walks we will need water, some food, warm clothes and a raincoat.
4) SET YOUR CAMERA
When it comes to wildlife photography, we must bear in mind that most animals move, and some do it very quickly. If you control the manual mode on your camera you will not have any problems, although you can also use the shutter mode, which is the one we use in sports photography when we want to freeze the right move.
Freezing the animal is essential to see it clearly in the image. Excepting some cases, when we seek a more artistic than documentary effect, we will try to freeze the move of our main character in the shot.
Whether we use the manual mode or we choose the shutter, the combination of the basic parameters is the same: very high shutter speeds (greater than 1/1000 seconds), which will force us to open the diaphragm or raise the ISO value.
When using a zoom lens, shooting on manual may cause moving pictures due to the weight of the lens. A monopod or tripod with a ball head will become our best allies, as it will allow us to easily move and rotate the camera while following the animal.
The approaching issue is another matter. It is always recommended to focus on the eyes of our main character, but that is especially difficult with wild animals, especially if they are in motion. It is advisable to use the point focus mode, for being more precise, although focusing on an animal that moves at high speed can be our worst nightmare.
Finally, it is recommended to shoot in burst mode when taking several consecutive photographs, so we make sure that at least one of them will be focused correctly.
There are two fundamental techniques in this type of photography. Stalking is the active searching method of the animal. We use it when we go out for a walk in the forest searching for wild animals. It may seem that we are improvising, but we rarely do so. The technique consists of knowing how to interpret tracks and paths opened by animals in the vegetation. This is the system used in this activity to search and photograph the bison.
As you will understand, the stalking technique requires patience and a desire to take long walks without knowing if we will find the animal. Footprint reading is not easy and you need some training for it.
On the other hand, the stalking technique consists on waiting in a place where we know that sooner or later we will watch an animal. The stalking is carried out in rivers, artificial springs, hunting posts, etc. It can last several hours, when we must remain still and silent, so it is essential to have a comfortable place, a shelter or a tent.
The hides, or observation spots, are very useful. They are usually located in front of drinking spots or feeding points. One of the most typical examples are the hides located in points of controlled feeding of vultures, a species very suspicious of the human presence.
6) BEFORE THE ANIMAL SHOWS UP
As some say, “the animal doesn’t have to be afraid, but I do respect that”. We do this because we like animals. That is why a true respect for wildlife must always be present in our code of ethics and behavior as photographers.
Rarely will an animal attack us, unless it feels threatened by our attitude towards them. That is why it’s very important to know the species that we are going to photograph and their behavior, both individually and in groups.
A basic piece of advice is to always work facing the animal and with both eyes wide open. We must not lose sight of a wild animal, no matter how harmless it may seem. Respect their space, keep a safe distance and never lose sight of it are simple tips, but we usually forget them “in the heat of a battle”.
7) A STORY TO TELL
The ultimate goal of a photograph is to tell a story. It’s not just about getting a pretty picture, it’s about bringing something to the viewer. A feeling, a story with which to feel astonished, sad, upset…
The photography of nature and fauna is not any different from any other kind of photography. Don’t limit yourself to focus and shoot. Frame the animal in its habitat. Take pictures of their behavior as well.
Meditate before photographing. Watch the light of the scene. Look for sunrises and sunsets, when sunlight is not so direct and hard on the lens. Could you photograph from a better angle? What is behind the main subject? Many times the fund is as important as the animal. In bird photography for example, uniform and unfocused backgrounds are sought, so they don’t divert any attention from the subject. But if we photograph large groups of animals we will also be interested in the natural habitat and the environment in which they live.
Play with the contrasts, the silhouettes and even the backlights. Sometimes the slightest gesture can turn an anodyne photograph into something that the viewer will always remember.