Friday, 18 September 2009

Wildlife Photography

Wildlife is a popular subject for many photographers. Many will specialise in other subject matter to make money, but photograph wildlife for pleasure. However, it isn't straightforward. To be successful as a wildlife photographer takes more than being a good photographer, you also need to have good fieldcraft and know the animal. Many professional wildlife photographers will spend weeks or months on a project, trying to get close enough to get the shots they need. Some animals are used to people, so they are much easier to get close to them and get good compositions, while others take alot of patience. Even some insects are very difficult to get close to.
Equipment is also problematic, as the specialist lenses required are very expensive. While landscape photography requires a number of filters, the cost of the lenses in comparison is relatively inexpensive for good quality glass. While you may pay upwards of £1000 for a high quality prime lens, a high quality prime lens for wildlife work is upwards of £3500. Also, the difference in quality between a good wide-angle to standard zoom and a prime is minimal, so the primes are less attractive. However, with a few exceptions, there is quite a large difference in quality between telephoto zooms and primes.
I use the Canon 100-400mm L IS lens for most of my wildlife photography. While it isn't the highest quality, it is still good, plus it is light and relatively inexpensive. I do find that I'm always looking for more reach though. When the situation dictates, however, it is the ideal lens for tracking and stalking animals, because of it's relative lightness and flexibility as a zoom. I also use the Canon 100mm macro for my macro work, although I am considering a longer macro lens for some of the shy insects. Common to all macro lenses, the image quality is outstanding and despite not being an L grade lens, it has good build quality.
Using a telephoto lens takes alot of practice to get optimal technique. It is very easy to blame the lens for poor image quality, when it is simply a case of not applying good long lens technique. As with most photography, a tripod will give the best chance of a sharp image, but it isn't always practical. Image stabilisation is a boon, as it gives you a much greater chance of sharp images, particularly at slower shutterspeeds, but with the older lenses, you must remember to switch it off when mounted on a tripod. Beanbags and monopods are often more use than a tripod, as they don't need time to set up and are easier to carry unobtrusively. This is important when the animal you're stalking may only present a photographic opportunity for a split second. Having a good stalking technique though, will give you the best chance of being able to take a bit more time to get the composition right.
Stalking animals takes practice. They have a much better sense of smell than humans, so it is important to approach downwind of them where possible. Better still though, is to let the animal come to you. This is where fieldcraft and knowledge of the animal really comes in. You can either observe an animal and predict where it is going, so that you can get in place before it gets there or you can observe signs and stake out a likely spot. These are the sort of tactics that work for the Eurasian otter, particularly the coastal animals in Scotland. Even insects need to be approached carefully. It is important to be aware of where your shadow is, as the moment your shadow goes over the insect, it is likely to fly off. Instead, try to approach, so that your shadow is behind you. Failing that, try to make yourself as small as possible, so your shadow is shorter. It may be necessary to make the final approach by crawling. In all cases, you need to move slowly, so as not to seem a threat. Some insects have better vision in some areas than others, so learn where their blind spots are. While basic principles apply, each animal is different, which is why it is important to know as much as possible about behaviour.

Composition is just as important in wildlife photography as any other form. It is very easy to get the standard shots, like a side on deer or the top view of a butterfly, but try to think of different angles or look for specific behaviour. Also, don't necessarily go for the close up, sometimes it is much more interesting to photograph a subject, in context with it's environment. Think about depth of field, for closeups, you want to blur the background, so go for a wider aperture, conversely, a context shot may need the background in focus, requiring a narrower aperture. Also, make sure that the shutterspeed is fast enough to freeze the subject or wait until it freezes, unless you are deliberately looking for motion blur or are going to pan. This may mean that you need to increase the ISO setting. While you should always use the lowest ISO setting possible, you shouldn't be afraid to increase it when necessary. It is better to get some noise, than get a blurred shot because the shutterspeed was too low. Bear in mind also, that too much noise may be so distracting, that it renders the image useless for anything but personal pleasure, so learn when it isn't worth bothering.
Learning wildlife photography can be quite difficult, partly, because the opportunities for practice are less than landscapes and you don't always get a second chance. I have enjoyed learning the techniques though and look forward to perfecting and learning more.

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