Great photography during the winter

An online talk that gives inspirational ideas about what to photograph during the cold and short days of winter

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In Nigel’s November talk, held live on 17th Nov, he aimed to inspire photographers not to put their cameras away during the winter. There is some great photography during the winter months, those short cold days a time of day-long low sunlight, dramatic storms, and over-wintering wildlife.

A recording of this talk is now on You Tube, and you can watch it here. Just click on the link below.

Looking for subjects during the winter months

There is a temptation for photographers to go into hibernation during the winter, putting the camera safely away until the weather improves in spring. But this would be a major mistake as there is really is the possibility of great photography during the winter months.

With the sun continually low in the sky, it is perfectly possible to do some magnificent, moody landscape photography right throughout the day. Moreover, with dawn/sunrise and sunset/dusk both at very civilised times of day, it becomes much easier to shoot during these prime photogaphy periods.

Admittedly, the sun doesn’t shine a whole lot of the time during winter – hence the temptation to hibernate – but when it does then the light can be magnificent. Moreover, even when it isn’t shining, the frequent storms that sweep in from the Atlantic provide some very wild, dramatic weather for landscape photography, both on the coast and inland. This is particularly so just after the main storm front has passed through, a time when the clouds usually break, providing some great – though rapidly changing – light, along with a succession of rainbows.

Wildlife photography too can still be worked on to great effect during the winter. Although many mammals hibernate, others do not, including foxes and all our deer species. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, mostly wetland waders, though also woodland and garden birds, arrive in the UK from colder climates to over-winter here. Their numbers greatly swell local bird populations, especially in marshes, lakes and along the coast, providing opportunities for some fantastic avian wildlife photography.

Great Photography during the Winter

Fog and frost

Winter is of course the main time for fog and frost, most especially during the early morning, but also often throughout the day and in the evening.

Fog and frost provide some of the most effective and beautiful opportunities for great photography during the winter, the latter adding a stunning sparkle and sheen to any landscape and/or foliage scene. Fog – especially ground fog – really makes for some ethereal and often monochromatic scenes, reducing complex details to simplistic outlines that can have fantastic photographic impact. This is most especially so when some sunlight is still visible through the fog, providing some delicate illumination.

Snow and ice

Not surprisingly, no discussion of great photography during the winter would be complete without snow and ice. The latter can quite transform any normally watery scene, whether it be an entire lake, a puddle or just a dripping gutter. Convert that water to ice, and suddenly we have beautiful crack and freezing patterns, pointed daggers of icicles, often quite blue when seen in low light levels, and rendered even more magical if frost and/or snow are also present.

Snow, of course, completely transforms an entire landscape, creating wholly monochromatic scenes when the sky is cloudy, and truly dynamic high contrast landscapes when under a blue sky. Wide vistas, closer landscape elements, or really close-up details (such as of snow or ice gripping vegetation) all make for stunning subjects in this kind of environment. Shortly before sunset (or shortly after sunrise), snow will usually reflect the sun’s pink glow magnificently, creating some wonderfully delicate colours.

Great photography during the winter

Putting it all together

With so many photographic opportunities available during the winter months, opportunities that don’t exist at any other time of year, there’s really no excuse for not keeping on shooting throughout this season. Pick your subject matter(s) and get cracking!

Just keep an eye on the weather forecast, and prepare to head on out whenever the right weather seems to be heading your way. Just wrap up warm and waterproof and enjoy the outdoors at a time of year when too few people get outside often enough.

A word of caution

Although I’m really enthusiastic to get everyone doing some great photography during the winter months, I do need to sound a few words of caution. Not surprisingly, with storms, rain, frost, ice and snow all prevalent at this time of year, some care and preparation are needed. And not just simply to keep warm and dry.

Plan carefully, drive carefully, and in really bad weather don’t push yourself further than you feel comfortable. Think ahead of all the things that could go wrong and prepare accordingly.

The top of a high cliff is no place to be at the height of an Atlantic storm, for example. You would probably find it hard to do much photography anyway. It’s better to wait until the main storm front has passed, winds have eased slightly and the light has improved. You’ll still get hugely impressive storm photos and with a lot less risk to yourself.

If venturing out in snow and/or ice make sure you’re prepared: take food and drink, extra warm and dry layers, a shovel, sheets of a material that can be pushed under slipping tyres to give them grip, and even a tow rope, just in case.

And of course, as always, make sure someone else knows where you’re going, and also ensure that you have a phone with a fully charged battery.

Once you’re equipped and prepared you’re well protected. Get out there and enjoy the winter photography!

Great photography during the winter

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Close-up Photography

Nigel’s October 2021 online photography talk

In October’s online talk, Nigel covers many of the basic principles of close-up photography, explained in clear and unambiguous terms. Often also called macro photography, the subject covers the photography of both very close details and/or patterns in a host of subjects, and the photography of very small subjects. It is particularly widely used in wildlife photography, to enable the shooting of small animals and plants, such as butterflies, damselflies and many of the smaller wild flowers.

A recording of that talk is now available on You Tube, and can also be watched here. Just click on the start button below. We hope you’ll enjoy it.

The subject matter of close-up photography

The talk begins with a short introduction to the kinds of subject matter commonly shot in close-up photography. These range from detailed patterns in quite large subjects, down to small household objects, and all the way down to the tiniest animals and plants. Close-up photography techniques are commonly used to photograph butterflies, damselflies and other insects, as well as many flowers.

Some techniques and equipment explained: static subjects

The talk goes on to cover a range of basic techniques used in close-up photography, starting with the photography of static subjects.

Static objects such as flowers are usually shot with the camera on a tripod. With the camera inevitably close to the subject, focussing is critical, so a useful aid is a focussing rail. This is a track that fits between the tripod head and camera base that allows the camera to be slid forward and back over very small distances. It is a simple yet very useful little device.

Then there are the lenses. The fundamental problem for close-up photography is that you need to come really very close to your subject in order to get the necessary magnification. Unfortunately, this just isn’t possible using standard telephoto lenses as their minimum focussing distance – the shortest distance from lens to subject that they’re able to focus at – is too long. You need to be able to focus at a much shorter distance.

This problem can usually be overcome in one of two ways:

  • Use of a dedicated macro lens. This is a telephoto lens specifically designed to focus at very short distances. They are generally available with focal lengths ranging from 60 to about 180mm. The lens can also be used for standard photography, and its autofocus works throughout its focussing range, right down to the closest distance and smallest subject. This is the more expensive and bulkier, but more versatile option;
  • Use of an extension tube coupled with a standard telephoto lens. This is quite simply a tube containing no glass, but with all the necessary electrical contacts, that fits between the camera body and a telephoto lens. The effect is to allow the lens to focus much closer to a subject, providing it with an effective close-up facility. This is a small, cheap and highly convenient piece of close-up kit, but it does have limitations. A lens cannot be used for standard photography while it is coupled to an extension tube, and the autofocus usually does not work reliably. Focussing is usually achieved, if using a fixed focal length lens (a prime lens) through a combination of moving the camera (eg on the focussing rail) and by hand turning the focussing ring. If you’re using a zoom lens, the most convenient way to focus is to turn the zoom ring, though this will also change the magnification.
Close-up photography

Photography of moving subjects

When photographing moving subjects, such as insects, amphibians and small reptiles, the photographer needs to be mobile, so the tripod and focussing rail necessarily have to be dispensed with. This is almost entirely the realm of hand-held photography.

The same focussing limitations apply, so in this technique we’re still using macro lenses or extension tubes coupled with a normal telephoto lens (zoom or prime). In addition, it is also useful (though not always necessary) to have a flashgun attached to the camera. There are a number of points to bear in mind when using a flash for close-up photography:

  • The flash is usually fired in such a way that it balances with the ambient light, removing any shadows lying across the subject and providing even illumination. Only occasionally is it used as the dominant light – in poor natural light conditions or at night, of course. On those occasions, although the subject will be well-lit, the background will come out very dark or completely black;
  • Another reason to use a flash is to help reduce the risk of camera shake, and hence blur to the images. Inevitably, using a telephoto or macro lens and coming in so close to a subject the risk of camera shake being visible in the images is quite significant. Removing that risk ordinarily means using quite a fast shutter speed, but this would then make it difficult to maximise depth of field through use of a narrow lens aperture. The very short duration of a flashgun’s flash (about 1/1000 second) helps to mask any camera shake, thus making it possible to use a significantly slower shutter speed;
  • Rarely fire the flash directly at the subject, but instead either bounce it off a reflector or fire it through a diffuser. This will help to reduce, or completely overcome, the risk of hard flash-induced shadows around the subject. The only occasion when you might fire the flash directly is when shooting in very bright sunlight and the flash is struggling to generate enough power to balance with that sunlight;
  • The flash needs to be mounted either some way above the camera or off to one side, or perhaps with a special mount near the end of the lens. Shooting in one of these ways will ensure that the flash does not put a shadow of the lens across the subject – remember that your subject is very close to the lens, and so a lens shadow could easily reach it if the flash is in the wrong position. Do not be tempted to use the pop-up flash found on top of many cameras: this does not give you enough control of the light, it only fires directly at the subject, and because it is so close to the camera body it will fire its light along the lens, generating a long lens shadow that may very well reach the subject;
  • Because the flash and camera are so close to the subject (less than half a metre usually), a flash firing at full power will almost certainly overwhelm the subjec with too much light. It is important, therefore, that any flashgun you use has a dial-down facility, enabling you to greatly reduce its output.

Apart from these flashgun rules, techniques are similar across both static and mobile close-up photography, and are described below.

Close-up photography

General techniques

Close-up photography, whether tripod-mounted or hand-held is best done in soft or even quite flat light. It is tempting to do it in bright sunlight simply to have higher light levels, but then there is the risk of bright highlights and/or shadows being thrown across your subject. With the subject being so small even what appears to be a small shadow or highlight area can have a dramatic negative impact on the final images. That said, if photographing animals and so shooting hand-held with a flashgun attached, sunlight can be very effective, as long as the flashgun has enough power to provide lighting that balances with it.

Naturally, if photographing plants you also need to have windless conditions as any movement will result in blurred images, especially if slow shutter speeds are being used (as is usual, especially in soft lighting conditions).

Remember also that the closer you come to any subject the smaller is the lens’s depth of field (ie the amount of a view that can be sharp). By the time you come down to close-up photography, in which the lens is usually a lot less than a metre from the subject, depth of field is generally only 1 cm at best. To maximise depth of field it is usually necessary to use a very narrow lens aperture – such as f/16 or 22 – something that will further lengthen exposure times and so increase the need for windless conditions.

Of course, it is also possible to improve the situation by increasing the camera’s ISO – the sensitivity of its sensor – thus reducing the amount of light that the sensor needs to be correctly exposed. The problem here is that as ISO increases so image quality declines, so there is a delicate balance to struggle with. There are occasions when the only way to get a useable image is to put the ISO up, but I would always do so only very carefully and to the absolute minimum needed.

I firmly recommend that, as far as possible, you always shoot using the camera’s lowest ISO setting, increasing it only when absolutely necessary.

Finally, a word on composition. Since depth of field is so small, it can be quite a challenge to get the whole of your subject in focus. For some flowers this is not always such a bad thing as having a small part of the flower a little blurred can help to direct attention to one particular part. However, that still leaves the challenge of ensuring that the right part of the flower is sharp!

Things are a little tricker when it comes to photography of insects, such as butterflies. It is quite common to see images in which one end of the insect is sharp and the other end blurred, a result that is rather off-putting and not very satisfying. This problem is the result of the insect being at an angle to the lens: the head is a few millimetres closer to the lens than the rear end of the wings, for example, enough to throw one or the other out of focus.

Ensuring maximum depth of field by using a very narrow lens aperture can help to overcome this, though even this may not be reliable. The most effective solution is to have the insect’s body at exactly right-angles to the axis of the lens, ensuring that all parts of the body are roughly the same distance away. This of course requires that you get yourself and camera in the right position – the insect certainly isn’t going to do it for you – something that can be quite tricky, especially as any movement you make when close to your subject risks frightening it away.

Close-up photography

A final word

There is no doubt that close-up photography can be quite a challenge. The difficulties created by short focussing distances, minimal depth of field, awkward lighting, wind, and rapidly moving (and easily spooked) subjects all work to make things very difficult.

However, once you have a few pieces of critical kit together and then make the time to practise, practise, practise the techniques and hence success will slowly come together.

Ge stuck in and enjoy it!

Close-up photography

Future talks

The next two talks are on 17th November and 11th December, when I’ll be talking about winter photographer and my in-computer workflow. Click on the link below to register – it’s free!

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Storytelling Through Photography

Creating a set of images that tell a story

My September 2021 online photography talk was held recently, the subject this time Storytelling Through Photography. This is the art of creating a set of images that tell a story about an event, a place or a person, something that is very different from simply shooting high quality stand-alone images. When telling a story, the images must work together as a team, with no single image dominating the others and distracting attention away from the aim of the story.

The talk is now available on You Tube, and so can be watched here. Just click on the image below to launch the video.

The essentials of building a photographic story

The talk runs through a series of tips about how to go about storytelling through photography. These can be summarised as follows:

  • The aim is to create a set of photos that work together as a ‘team’, building the story and without any single photo dominating the collection;
  • Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Without these, it is just a collection of uncoordinated images;
  • The beginning should consist of a couple of images that set the scene – the type of environment or general location for instance;
  • The end should again consist of a couple of images that round off the story, giving a summary of what transpired or the end-result of whatever process is described in the story;
  • The middle is the main meat of the story and is the longest section, consisting of a string of images that describe the heart of the story, such as what is happening, arranged in a sequence that a viewer can follow;
  • Production of technical perfection and spectacular stand-out images is secondary: telling the story is paramount. Things often happen so quickly and unexpectedly in a story-telling situation that perfection has to take a back seat. However, if there is time to craft perfect images then so much the better;
  • Report and record what you see impartially – leave any preconceptions or prejudices behind and photograph what you actually see, not what you think you ought to see or what you would like to see. If you want to put a particular slant on a story, do this at the post-photography image editing phase, not during the actual photography.
Storytelling through photography: Philippine crocodile

Examples of storytelling through photography

To illustrate the process of storytelling through photography, the talk uses images from two of Nigel’s own stories: conservation work with the Philippine Crocodile and reindeer herding in Lapland, in the far north of Sweden. These can be summarised as follows:

1. Conservation work with the Philippine Crocodile: This is the world’s most endangererd crocodile, and the photography in this story illustrated the work of the Mabuwaya Foundation in rearing infant crocodiles in captivity and then releasing them back into the wild once they were large enough to fend off predators.

The photography started with a couple of images that set the scene, one showing the forest and lake habitat, another the team of workers involved. The main part of the story then illustrated the work in catching captively reared crocodiles, taking their vital statistics, transporting them into a nearby national park, and then releasing them into a lake. The final images rounded off the story by showing a crocodile being released and then swimming as a free, wild crocodile in the lake.

Storytelling through photography: Philippine crocodile

2. Reindeer herding in Lapland: Every autumn the Sami people in the far north of Sweden round up their reindeer from the mountains, bring them down to lower winter pastures, and temporarily corral them in order to mark out ownership of newborn deer and to kill some of the older males for winter meat.

The photography in this story illustrated the corralling process and the capturing of both young deer and mature males. The story begins with a couple of images that introduce the environment, showing the wild mountains where the reindeer spend the summer, photographed from a helicopter just as the first winter snows arrived. The images of the main story showed thousands of corralled reindeer, with the Sami people picking out and lassooing newborn animals and mature males. The story rounds off with a summary of the family nature of this process, with a picnic once the work is done, including the presence of the family’s pet albino reindeer.

Storytelling through photography: Reindeer herding

The importance of storytelling through photography

Most photographic tuition available in one form or another concentrates on teaching people how to create fantastic single standalone images, but don’t look at the storytelling process at all. This is a shame, since throughout its history telling stories has been one of the most important roles of photography. It is a skill worth cultivating. Hopefully, the tips in this talk will help give you some ideas about how to go about storytelling through photography.

Storytelling through photography: Reindeer herding

The next talk

The next online photography talk will be about macro photography, and will be held on Wednesday 20th October at 8pm (BST). It’s free to join, just click on the link below to fill in and submit the form. This will enable me to send you the link.

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Wildlife Photography: Insects and Plants

An online talk by Nigel Hicks, given live on 21st April 2021

Wildlife Photography: Insects and Plants is the title for my April 2021 online photography talk. A recording of the talk has now been posted on You Tube, and you can watch it right here. Just click on the image below.

A world of macrophotography

The Wildlife Photography: Insects and Plants talk introduced many of the techniques needed for insect and plant photography, focussing most especially on the areas of overlap. This particularly applies to the area of close-up, or macrophotography, the skills needed for the photography of small subjects.

Obviously, this does not apply to the photography of entire or larger plants, but is important in the photography of flowers, particularly the smaller wild flowers commonly seen in the UK’s woodlands and pastures.

The essential problem – especially when photographing insects – is that the subject is usally so very small. You might be tempted to try to shoot using a telephoto lens, but you quickly find that such a lens has a minimum focussing distance that is just too long. It won’t allow you to come close enough to get an insect or small flower large enough in the final image.

There are two solutions to this problem:

  1. To use a dedicated telephoto lens that is specifcally designed to have a very short minimum focussing distance. This the classic macro lens.
  2. Or you can use an extension tube. This is a very small piece of kit, simply a ring containing no lens, that you insert between the back of a standard telephoto lens and the camera body. This lengthens the focussing distance between the back of the lens and the camera’s sensor, allowing the light rights to be focussed correctly.

The first is an extremely versatile, high quality piece of equipment, while the latter is much cheaper and smaller to carry around, quickly converting an ordinary telephoto lens into one that works at close-up distances.

Welcome to the world of macrophotography, as applied to wildlife photography: insects and plants.

Wildlife Photography: Insects and Plants

Too close for comfort

So now we can get close to our subject to make it large in our final image. But close enough for us may well be a bit too close for many insects. As you shuffle in with your macro kit it is very easy to frighten off such sensitive animals as butterflies and damselflies, thus completely defeating the object of the exercise. Needless to say, this problem doesn’t apply to flowers, so here we can come in as close as we need to!

So how do we solve the problem of insect shyness? Firstly, there’s the way you approach them, with a couple of does and don’ts:

  1. Never put your shadow across the subject;
  2. Tread very lightly – the slightest vibration through the ground will disturb the insect, especially one that is on the ground;
  3. Absolutely don’t brush against any part of the plant that your subject is resting on;
  4. Don’t rush, just move very slowly. There are times when an insect can seem to accept your presence, but don’t bet on it!

Secondly, there’s the equipment, the right choice of which can help you keep your distance. If using a macro lens, don’t try using one with a focal length of less than 100mm when shooting out in the field. Macro lenses of shorter focal lengths will entail you having to come in just too close for a timid insect to tolerate. Even a 100mm lens is pushing it, and a 150mm lens might be better.

If using an extension tube, you might normally couple it with a 100mm telephoto lens (or equivalent zoom lens). However, if this is making you come in too close then consider coupling it with a longer focal length lens, such as a 200mm or even 300mm lens. Doing this will enable you to stay a reasonable distance from your subject (as much as a metre if using a 300mm lens), helping to soothe its nerves.

If your lens has a hood, think about not using it. Having one of these on the front of your lens greatly shortens the lens-subject distance, thus increasing the problem.

As ever, there is a trade-off. The longer the focal length of your lens and the further you are from the subject, the lower your magnification. If a high magnification is essential to you then you may need to persist with the much closer view.

Keeping it sharp

One of the biggest challenges of macro photography is that of depth of field – the amount of an image that is sharp. As you come in really close to a subject the depth of field becomes really tiny – often less than a centimetre. So focussing is critical. A couple of steps to help this include:

  1. Keep your lens aperture really narrow – no less than f/11, and preferably f/16 or f/22. This will maximise your depth of field (though it will still be tiny!);
  2. Set the lens up so that it is at right-angles to the main surface of your subject (such as a butterfly’s wings), thus maximising your chances of having everything sharp from the head to the tips of the wings.
Wildlife Photography: Insects and Plants

Photography on the move

Given that any insect subjects will be constantly on the move, you will need to be too. Don’t try using a tripod – just setting one up will be enough to frighten off your subject. So hand-hold your camera.

So this means having to use a shutter speed fast enough to have no camera shake, which of course creates a conflict with the need to keep the lens aperture really narrow. A narrow lens aperture inevitable means a slow shutter speed (for any given ISO setting) as the amount of light reaching the sensor must remain in balance. To have a fast shutter speed you will need to open the lens aperture to allow in more light. This conflict is a difficult one to solve, but here are a couple of methods:

  1. Put up the camera’s ISO. This makes the sensor more sensitive, and so will need less light to be correctly exposed. The problem with this is that as your ISO goes up so image quality deteriorates. However, with the latest generation of cameras this is much less of a problem than it used to be. So if you have a newer model this is a worthwhile approach;
  2. Use a flashgun. Firing a flash will allow you to use a somewhat slower shutter speed than would otherwise be possible. With it firing to balance with the ambient light, it will also put in some fill-in light on your subject, helping to remove any awkward shadows, particularly on a sunny day.

A bit of flash

A bit of fill-in flash is a highly useful tool for insect photography, but I really don’t recommend it for plants – it can all too often put harsh shadows in around the plant, and may cause white flowers to burn out.

It has to be done with a good quality flashgun, however. Because your subject is very close, the gun must be able automatically to quench its power output down to quite low levels in order to avoid blasting the subject with far too much light. You will often need some manual override too, so you can turn it down even more if necessary.

Furthermore, it is usually better not to fire the flash directly at the subject, but to bounce it off a reflector (attached to the top of the flashgun), thus softening the light.

If your camera body has in in-built pop-up flash, resist the temptation to use it for this technique. It is not sufficiently versatile, it can’t be fired indirectly, and because the subject is so close to the end of the lens it may well put a shadow from the lens across the subject.

Wildlife Photography: Insects and Plants

What about the plants?

Most of what I’ve said so far has concentrated on insects. So what about the plants?

There is plenty of overlap in techniques. For small flowers, macrophotography techniques and equipment apply, though of course not the part of about them possibly running or flying away! Also I do not recommend the use of a flashgun, although occasionally it can be useful.

You may be much more likely to use a tripod with plant photography, thus making sure you can use a narrow lens aperture (ie a high f-number) while keeping low shutter speeds and ISO. It also ensures that you keep exactly to the chosen composition, something that is hard to achieve if shooting hand-held.

Of course, a low shutter speed only works if there is no wind to blow the plant around, and many are the occasions when I have had to wait a long time for a lull in the wind to give me a motionless plant!

A wide-angle alternative

One method that applies only to plant photography is wide-angle photography. Of course, the main method of coming in close relies on macrophotography, which is perfect for showing close-up details of the plant. However, it is useless if you want also to show the plant’s environment.

This is where the wide-angle technique comes in. Bringing a wide-angle lens in as close to a plant as its minimum focussing distance will allow, can result in a reasonably close view of the subject plant, while at the same time showing a good chunk of environment in the background.

You won’t be able to come as close to the plant as a macro technique will allow, and for it to work at all your wide-angle lens must have a quite a short minimum focussing distance, something that not all such lenses have.

When it works it is really very effective.

Wildlife Photography: Insects and Plants

A final word

Some of these macro techniques are not easy – particularly the photography of insects on the move – and initially success is hard to achieve. But with practice and a lot of failed images success will slowly come. It is worth it because the results can be quite stunning.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this summary of my Wildlife Photography: Insects and Plants talk, and I hope you will/have enjoy/ed watching it.

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Wildlife Photography: Mammals and Birds

My March online photography talk, Wildlife Photography: Mammals and Birds, went ahead on the 24th, and you can now watch a recording of the entire talk here.

To watch the talk just click on the screen below:

Preparing to succeed

In talking about Wildlife Photography: Mammals and Birds I first set out the fact that most of what goes into successfully capturing wildlife images has little to do with the equipment you use. Much of the success lies in the preparation, which includes such some of the following points:

  • Understand the behaviour of the animals you intend to photograph;
  • Know what are the best locations/habitats, times of day and times of year in which to find your subjects;
  • Learn how to stalk carefully, or how to use a hide;
  • Decide whether to work wholly with wild wildlife or accept the inclusion of captive animals;
  • When photographing wild wildlife, research locations where your subject wildlife has become used to the human presence, and so is more approachable than might usually be the case;
  • Have huge amounts of patience and persistence, coupled with an ability to act quickly but calmly and smoothly when things suddenly start to happen;
  • Have a willingness to get out of bed very early and/or stay out quite late, since most wildlife activity usually happens around dawn/sunrise and dusk/sunset.
Puffin in flight. Wildlife Photography: Mammals and Birds.

Deciding what to photograph

Why take wildlife photos? There are of course many reasons, including such ideas as:

  • Simply ticking species lists;
  • Capturing artistically and/or technically perfect images that individually showcase the beauty of the wildlife around us;
  • Putting together a set of images that collectively tell a story about some wildlife or perhaps a conservation programme.

Whatever the photographic motivation, I would always urge photographers not to blindly follow wildlife fads and fashions (of which there are many). You should always think laterally and shoot a wide range of species, not just the cute, cuddly and famous, but also the ignored, forgotten and ugly. They all deserve and often need to be photographed (for the conservation publicity), and not just because a magazine or TV documentary has popularised it.

Cheetahs on the lookout for breakfast. Wildlife Photography: Mammals and Birds.

Psychology and choice

In subconsciously empathising with wildlife, we are programmed to be more attracted to those animals that in some way look at least a little like us: in other words the higher mammals with flattish faces and forward-facing eyes (abbreviated to 4FE).

These encompass most especially the big cats and apes, but also monkeys, horses and dogs, plus a few others. Think meerkats, orangutans and lions as examples. On top of this, babies of almost any species trump just about everything – cute, cuddly and vulnerable, pleading eyes crying out for protection and care will sway human emotions every time.

Of course, birds rarely if ever fit the 4FE idea, but the cute baby consideration still applies, and the adults of a few species do just happen to have cute, appealing faces – think puffins for example.

So these subconscious considerations can have a major impact on what we choose to photograph. While it is inevitable that you will be drawn to photograph these much of the time, I would always advocate that lateral thinking mentioned above. With this, you can ensure you also include those animals that don’t fit those empathetic or cute criteria, but which nevertheless deserve to be photographed.

Grey Seal pup. Wildlife Photography: Mammals and Birds.

The equipment and how to use it

Once you’ve done all your preparation, you finally get to use the camera equipment. Camera equipment designed for wildlife photography can be hugely expensive, so don’t be too mesmerised by the glossy adverts for all the kit you ‘need’. Instead, follow these the important points:

  • The camera must be able to work well in poor light conditions typical at dusk and dawn. This essentially means being able to produce good images even when shooting with a high ISO (over 400);
  • Focussing (a combination of the lens and camera working together) needs to be fast, crisp and accurate, and be able to continue working well in low light conditions, when contrast between your subject and the background might well be quite low;
  • A telephoto lens will inevitably be needed, but not necessarily a massively powerful one. The bigger lenses can be very awkward to handle in the field, and it can be annoyingly difficult to find your subject in the camera’s viewfinder, let alone getting it to focus. A smaller lens may restrict certain types of photography, but it can make much of your life easier without cramping your photography overall;
  • Whatever type of lens you have, it must have good optics. Without this, even well-focussed images can come out not as sharp as you would like. This may not be as important if you’re photographing purely for your own enjoyment, but it is critical if you’re intending to get your work published;
  • Although a lot of wildlife photography is carried out with the camera hand-held, you still need to have a good, sturdy tripod, especially for when working in a hide;
  • A flashgun may not get used all that often, but it’s useful to have one to hand, for those occasions when you’re shooting in really poor light and your subject is within the firing range of the flash.
Flamingoes at Lak Nakuru National Park, Kenya. Wildlife Photography: Mammals and Birds.

The shoot itself

So, finally you get to take some photos, something that can be both exciting and frustrating. The latter results from the many photos you’ll inevitably get of disappearing backsides, tree branches where a fraction of a second before a bird had been sitting, or pictures that seem to be well composed but which are blurred due to a failure of focus. But the excitement and buzz that comes when everything works makes it all worthwhile!

Little tips to bear in mind include:

  • Do not disturb or frighten your subjects. Not only is the stress bad for the animals, but it will result in failure for your photography;
  • When photographing a portrait, try to shoot while the animal is looking at you, giving the sense of interaction;
  • Always focus on an animal’s eyes: we are programmed to look at these, so if they are even slightly blurred the image will not work;
  • Make sure the animal’s eyes are open in the final picture(s). Closed eyes (even if just in a blink) usually ruin a shot, so don’t be shy to take a series of shots in quick succession if necessary;
  • Ensure that your backgrounds are blurred so the animal will stand out clearly from that background – especially important when an animal is a similar colour to the background. This is usually easily achieved when shooting with a telephoto lens;
  • If photographing two or more animals interacting, carefully judge the moment(s) to shoot in order to make the most of the inter-animal interaction. Don’t be afraid to take a series of shots in quick succession;
  • When photographing movement/action make sure your lens is set to track the animal(s), continually adjusting focus. This is one area where lens quality is critical. You’ll often need to shoot with bursts of rapid continuous shooting.

Yet another list, but hopefully these pointers will set you on the road towards successful wildlife photography!

A wildlife photography course

I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog, and watching the recording of my talk, Wildlife Photography: Mammals and Birds. To learn more about how to actually do wildlife photography in a real life situation, you could join one of my wildlife photography courses. The next one is scheduled for 24th April 2021, and will take place on Exmoor, southwest England. Click on the link to find out more and to sign up.

Philippine Tarsier.

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