As we’ve just passed 100 days of lockdown in South Africa, there has been many an opportunity to think and reflect on various things during this time. It didn’t take much soul-searching for me to realise again how much I love photography and that the very thing I’m so passionate about I’d really like to be able to share with others in some shape or form.
In April this year, I had a booking for a photo safari to the Kgalagadi. COVID-19 then snuck up on us all like a thief in the night so needless to say, this trip was cancelled as South Africa’s national lockdown was enforced. With nowhere to go but my own garden, I started taking a closer look at the beauty of the various succulents lusciously in full bloom and the colourful little birds who love these flowers so dearly. This was an opportunity I wanted to put to good use by practicing my photography, so sunbirds instead of leopards it was going to be! I can definitely say that these birds have something in common with other African wildlife: When they sit still, it is only for a split second (apart from lions who sleep for about 10 hours before they move), so I had to make sure I was prepared for when the moment presented itself.
In this post, I will attempt to provide you with some easy-to-apply tips and advice for improving your wildlife photography. Some of them might seem like common sense and you’ve probably read a similar list of “how-to’s” elsewhere, but everyone has their own take on things however similar they may be. My goal is to cover a few points that are not just based on technical skill. My reason for this: I believe that photography is an art form and sometimes we need to be freed up to put down the vision we have in our mind’s eye rather than sticking to the conventions and norms.
1. Know your gear
This sounds like the biggest cliche, but you know it’s true. The really great action-packed moments in wildlife photography last on average (based on my experience) between 5 and 20 seconds. If you are not intimately familiar with the settings of your camera or the abilities of your chosen lens, you will either miss the opportunity or ruin the images you do manage to capture. Here are four points that are vitally important if you want to get the perfect shot:
- Know what the minimum shutter speed is at which you can obtain a sharp image with your camera/lens combo;
- Know the added margins that the in-camera or in-lens stabilisation gives you;
- Know how to quickly toggle between focus points or focus modes;
- Know how high you can push your camera’s ISO and still achieve acceptable results
In general, I like to say you need to be able to make most, if not all of the necessary adjustments to your exposure/focus settings without lifting your eye from the viewfinder.
2. Know your subject
This goes without saying since much of wildlife photography is based upon capturing fleeting moments, so it really is worth being able to somewhat predict your subject’s behaviour beforehand. Not every species is as predictable as the next, but there are patterns of behaviour ingrained into every animal species. Knowing your subject can make the difference between being ready and prepared for capturing that “golden moment” and watching it fly by you in agony. There is only one way to get to know wildlife: Sit with them. Watch them. Wait. This also ties into patience, which I will discuss in more detail later.
3. Work the light
The biggest piece of advice I can give when it comes to wildlife photography is to stick to the hours of golden light. This means getting up early in the morning and being in the field before sunrise, and going out in the afternoon to make the most of the last hours of sunlight. The light during midday (mostly between 11h00 and 16h00, at least where I live) is generally harsh and robs images of the magic that it needs. The exception is an overcast day when the clouds act like a massive soft box to filter out the light evenly. Since photography is all about painting with light, you need to know how to use the light to your best advantage. Often we will find ourselves in a position where the light isn’t ideal, or, where the light is great but it’s coming from the wrong direction but you’re not in a position to move around to a better spot. The good news is that light from the wrong direction can add lots of mood to an image. Shooting into the light is tricky, but if you adhere to the four tips listed in paragraph one, you can get some pretty interesting images from a less-than-ideal light position.
4. How low can you go?
This is not a trick question. The point-of-view of a wildlife photograph is just about everything. How you portray your subject can make all the difference in the world. In short, try to get an eye-level perspective (even lower if you can). This brings the viewer of your image right into the scene and confronts them with the view of the world from your subject’s perspective. Always bear in mind the constraints of your environment. This will alomst always restrict you to a certain perspective.
5. Patience isn’t a virtue… it’s a necessity
When photographing wildlife, your images are based on the fact that things in nature are unpredictable. Anything can happen at any time, but most things happen only rarely, or they rarely coincide with the exact time that you are in that specific spot. This is what makes it imperitave that you become patient… very patient. Observing your subjects and getting to know their behavioural patterns requires a great deal of patience. Often the implications are that you need to return to the same spot for days before things start to happen, and even then you run the risk of nothing happening and having wasted your time.
6. Be there and enjoy it
I’m closing off with the following advice: ”be there” and enjoy it! By this I don’t just mean you need to physically show up and be at the right place at the right time, (of course that applies) but I really mean you need to be in the moment. Don’t get so caught up with the technical issues and your settings that you don’t take in the moments you are witnessing while out photographing birds and wildlife. It’s such a privilege spending time in nature and being in places that recharge your soul. Maybe for you it’s just the most isolated spot in your local park where you can sit, observe and photograph squirrels and birds, or maybe it’s facing a lion walking toward you in the African bush. Regardless, enjoy what you are doing. What does it help to spend so much time on this amazing hobby/artform if we are not loving the time spent behind the camera?
I hope these tips will come in handy as you grab your camera and head outdoors to practice for your next South African holiday!
Stay safe, and just like the birds in the image below, remember… social distancing 🙂
If you’re interesed to see more of my wildlife images, you are welcome to browse through the link below: