Wildlife Photography Tips Part One

I hope the idea I have in my head for this wildlife photography series of articles turns out on paper the way I imagined it and you find some useful tips that will help you on your photographic journeys. This first part comprised of a number of tips will briefly touch on light, weather and lens \ focal length selection. Like in my other articles, I will start with a simple disclaimer: what I present here is what works for me and you have to find your own way to what ultimately makes you happy.

Small bull moose in snow

I will keep each section brief, presenting some points for you to consider and some comparison samples in various light, settings, conditions. I learnt most of this the hard way and hope you don’t have to go through it the same way. Let’s get on with it!

The Golden Hour / Light

I hope everybody knows what the ‘golden hour’ is, but in case you are not familiar with the term, it’s the first hour of light in the morning and the last hour of light at the end of the day. There are many reasons why the golden hour is a great time to shoot photos, but the three reasons I want to mention are the tone of the light, the soft diffused light produced and the height of the sun relative to the subject. Lets start with a sample photo taken during morning golden light time and show you the magical properties the light produced.

Immature Bald Eagle in Sunrise Light

If you look closely at the photo you will see that the bird is beautifully lit and even has light illuminating it from below, almost as if I am holding a golden reflector on it. There is also no over exposure areas anywhere, however this bird does not have a white head and tail like it’s mature bald eagle parent, where that would have mattered more and been easier to over expose. What I want to say about the golden hour, is that morning and evening light is softer and not as harsh, so use that to your advantage when shooting difficult-to-expose animals. Also, because the sun is low in the sky at this time, it will illuminate the subject more evenly and have a beautiful temperature to the light.

Wildlife Tips Part 1 Comparison Photo

The main point about the golden hour, is not so much the hour itself, but rather that first and last light are powerful tools and the harsh light of a midday sun can easily ruin a photo that might otherwise have been stunning. The midday sun also creates very strong shadows that can ruin a photo because of the dark areas it creates on the animal itself (e.g. from antlers etc.) to strong dark shadows on the ground. The comparison photos shown above have no strong shadows anywhere, because they were both photographed in early light. The tone difference is because the left photo was shot in absolute first photographable light, whereas the right photo was approximately 45 minutes later, but still soft morning light. You can argue which light/photo you prefer, because I also love the photo on the right; they are two very different photos of the same bird. The point is that light is important in how the resulting photo looks and you need to consider that when shooting, it’s hard to make a harsh midday sun look great.

TIPS:

  • You need to get up real early to shoot in the morning light
  • You need to allow travel time to get to the location
  • You need to allow time to find the subject
  • Watch the shutter speed, allow for the light level
  • Watch your white balance – Auto might not be best choice to catch the colors

Weather

My wife is a walking talking weather station. She checks the weather all the time and that’s great, but don’t let what you think the weather will be, rule your decision to go out and shoot. I have come to think that the weather for the most part doesn’t matter or more accurately, the weather can be your friend. Photographing moose / elk / deer or other large antlered animals is most of the time better done on an overcast day. However, shooting birds or having the sky in the image when it’s that sucky winter overcast off white could end in horrible results. Don’t be afraid to venture out into a bit of rain or snow either, you just never know what you are going to get until you go. I have seen some amazing light/skies the day after a major storm. Always be on the ready – there are no hard or fast rules. Look at different weather situations as photographic opportunities, rather than reasons to sit at home.

Bull Moose at Snake River

The above photo was taken right after it stopped raining and the extra details the weather provided were just awesome in my opinion.

details found in wet photos

I actually prefer to use wet photos to draw animals from or reference as they show how hair and fur really flows on an animal. To me, all these little extras add to the story of the photo and make it more interesting.

This next photo shows how I prefer my moose photos to look with nice, even light and no harsh shadows on the moose. Because it is a semi-overcast day, it’s perfect weather for moose photography. I am in between trees and a bright sunny day would make for very contrasty photos with areas of strong shadows and bright highlights that are hard, but not impossible to make look good. The biggest reason I love overcast days for this type of animal, is that there are no shadows from the antlers ruining a good photo. Finding a huge moose is hard enough, finding a huge moose and having crappy photos because of a bright sunny day can make a grown man cry.

Big Bull Moose up close at Gros Ventre

Most of my experience with moose in my part of the country (NH) where I chase them all the time, is that you usually find them extremely early in the morning or late evening when they are most active. The photo below will compare sunny versus overcast for you.

Sunny versus Overcast Sample

I tried to pick two photos from around the same time of year, same setting and similar subjects. It doesn’t matter which photo you like more – that’s a personal choice. Just be aware of your light choices. To me the left is the photo I prefer and here are the things I like about it: background looks more pleasing, moose is lit evenly, no antler shadow, no distracting lighting changes or harsh tree shadows. You can’t always pick the light, you probably booked your trip in advance and once you are there. You just have to deal with what you are given. We will make subject choices based on the weather e.g. we are in the Grand Teton / Yellowstone area and its going to be a bright sunny day, we may decide to just do moose at first light and then move onto other subjects while the light is harsher, or we get three days of overcast and we will forego all other animals and concentrate on moose or elk, because we prefer to shoot those with no shadows. Preferably, bright overcast is amazing light condition for wildlife photography where there are no scenic vistas with the sky showing – hehe if only it was that easy.

Harsh Light Comparison

Before I move off weather, I will re-mention that rainy wet animals look very different to dry ones. They have more texture to their fur and also, the environment will look more saturated naturally and set more of a mood. I don’t like it pouring down in such a manner that the rain becomes the photo. More a light drizzle or just after it rains is a good time to look for opportunities. This next photo is from Alaska and it is drizzling, but look at the texture it adds to the bears and also the motion it conveys from the splashes of water from the cub’s paws. Lastly, look how saturated the greens are and as an added bonus, there are no clouds of insects hovering around the bears because of the rain.

Coastal Grizzly Bear Photo

TIPS:

  • Get wet weather gear for you, your camera and lenses (I use AquaTech sports shield for camera)
  • Also you will need Muck boots or hip waders to get to those wet / muddy locations
  • Wet or snow – don’t point your lens up (water spots on the lens glass)
  • Windy rain or snow – watch the direction you point your lens to (water spots)
  • Cold weather – have layered clothing and gloves that still allow you to shoot
  • Cold weather warm car/house etc. – watch condensation issues, let the camera warm slowly
  • Cold weather drains batteries faster
  • Cold weather – breath / warmth fogs your viewfinder – can’t see your subject

Lens Selection

I don’t want to intrude on an area already covered to death by others, so this section won’t be a technical ‘what lens is the right one type of deal?’ Lets just say that a telephoto (prime or zoom) lens is required for wildlife photography. The only question here is how close do you want to get to your subject. There is, however, one Nikon lens I have hugged, loved, still love and I think it’s a fantastic wildlife lens and that is the Nikon 200-400mm f/4. Lets get away from the which lens talk and just touch briefly on lens selection and it’s effects on wildlife photography.

The opening paragraph teased you with ‘how close do you want to get’ and that is where focal length matters, the longer the focal length you have access to, the closer you can get to your subject. Why do I want to get so close you may ask? Here are some basic reasons:

  • Birds are fairly small, to get detail or fill the frame, 600mm or more is not uncommon
  • Many animals are skittish. Longer focal length keeps you further away from them (out of their fight or flight zone)
  • Some animals are dangerous and it might be wise to keep a safe distance away. This may require a long focal length to fill the frame
  • Most of the time you want to observe animals’ natural behavior, and distance or camouflage are two methods of many to do this

Grizzly Cub

This is a perfect example of using a long focal length to bring the subject closer, while keeping a safe distance from the grizzly bear sow and her cubs. So the next question that usually arrives is, how do I get longer focal lengths and how long is enough. That’s a question I don’t really want to answer, because it will open up all sorts of debates and I want to wimp out of those. Let’s just say I have a 600mm and a 1.4 teleconverter (and teleconverters degrade image quality), but if I am going to use a teleconverter, then the only one I find acceptable for f/4 glass is the 1.4x TC II (I am a Nikon man – Nikon TC). So the answer that everybody is looking for is, that there are times for long (600 +) focal lengths and the way you get there is your personal choice based on quality and dollars.

Nasim has written a couple great articles on bokeh and I will refer you to those for the technical talk and will just mention why I think it plays an important role in wildlife photography:

Black Bear Browsing in Rocks

The story in the above image, is the bear browsing in the rocks and the cuteness of the bear, so the part bokeh plays in this photo is separating the bear from the background and making your eyes focus on the bear, rather than on distracting things like a busy background. Longer focal lengths have shallower depth of field, so good quality long / fast lenses make it easier to achieve the bokeh effect you are looking for. You can get great bokeh with a fast portrait lens, but you may get eaten in the process if you try that while doing wildlife photography. In brief, the level of bokeh is relative to the distance between you and the subject and the subject to the background and with the right lens / distance combination you can almost eliminate unwanted backgrounds that might contain distracting or unwanted elements.

I’ll try and show you want I mean photographically. This photo is not one of the best from the sequence of photos taken that morning, but it will help explain my point. I want the story of the photo to be the 2 day old chick, the care and interaction between mother and baby, not a busy background I can’t get rid of. The location is what it is and I have to deal with it:

Bokeh Effect Explained

I chose to shoot this scene with a 600mm focal length for three main reasons, ultimately reason #1 is most important to me:

  1. The bird is on a nest sitting on eggs, I definitely don’t want to spook it or be the reason it abandons the eggs – distance is then key.
  2. I want the bird to be comfortable with my presence and behave normally, but I also want to fill the frame – distance and focal length are key.
  3. I want separation of bird to background in a hard-shooting setting, where I can’t change much except for my position and even that is limited by ‘good light’ that only hits the nest at certain times of the day – bokeh, angle and shooting distances are key

Photo Comparison Good Versus Bad

This section on lens selection could be so much longer and detailed – we have only touched on the very basics, but all items are worth mentioning.

TIPS:

  • Long focal lengths get you closer
  • Big lenses are heavy and hard to take trekking long distances
  • Quality lenses are sharper and more robustly built
  • Zoom lenses give you flexibility when framing subjects
  • Buy the best lens you can afford, good lenses are great investments and hold their value for years
  • Protect your expensive lenses against bumps and scratches with covers like LensCoat – also helps with re-sale value
  • Get wet weather gear for your lens and camera, so you can get adventurous
  • Experiment with your lens selection, learn to use various lenses for different effects.

Hope I didn’t bore you to death. This article turned out to be much longer than I expected and contains less subjects than I had hoped for. That’s a subject for another article :)

Happy shooting and make sure you get out there and have fun.

Robert Andersen

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Daham
    March 18, 2014 at 12:41 am

    Great presentation, the explanations on the organization of elements the photos add more ease to understand.Keep writing like this .Thanks the tips & the style (of pointing out the facts) ! (y)

    • March 18, 2014 at 5:21 am

      Hello Daham

      Thanks for the positive comments, I appreciate it.

      Rob

  2. 3
    ) Alan
    March 18, 2014 at 5:23 am

    Robert, enjoyed the article. Keep them coming. You are providing a valuable service the the readers.

    • March 18, 2014 at 6:10 am

      Hey Alan

      Thanks – don’t know if you know but clicking on your name in the PL comments takes you to a non working link – might want to update that.

      Regards
      Rob

      • 11
        ) Alan
        March 18, 2014 at 8:52 am

        Thanks Rob. Typo, should have been a dash between first and second name instead of a dot.

  3. Profile photo of shawn
    5
    ) shawn
    March 18, 2014 at 6:24 am

    The most useful tips article I’ve read in a year.
    Thank you so very much.

    The annotated crops are especially useful as a teaching tool, but, as a related question to actual photography, do you crop a lot in post or are you usually trying to do all the composition with the camera?

    • March 18, 2014 at 6:29 am

      THANKS !!

      I do a lot of composition in camera – ie, I at least try to put myself at the right distance to frame the subject the way I want, I also try to place the subject in the right part of the frame ie: moose walking to the left needs room to move to the left in front of it.

      I don’t frame so tight I can’t crop, I always leave some room for final cropping and placement. I am only shooting with 16mp so I don’t generally have that much cropping room anyways.

      Regards
      Rob

  4. March 18, 2014 at 6:28 am

    Dear Robert
    Thank you so much for this very interesting article! Your pictures are amazing and when we watched them (me and my wife), we wanted to jump in an airplane and start photografing immediately! But we are learning Spanish in Bolivia…so… ;-) I’m relly looking forward to your next article!

    • March 18, 2014 at 7:06 am

      you are welcome, we do this because we love it and it makes us feel alive.

      It’s what we do when we a re not working our normal day jobs and to de-stress. I hope the next article lives up to your expectations – I do try to make them a learning and visual tool.

      Rob

  5. March 18, 2014 at 6:33 am

    Excellent article.

    I think it may also be worth mentioning that it’s worth having the discipline and patience to wait a for an engaging shot, rather than simply capturing the subject because it happens to be there. This is true of shooting both animals in the wild or captivity. It is possible to capture something of their personality and frame them in a way that makes people appreciate them beyond the mere sight of them. Certainly one way of aiding with conservation efforts. My 2 cents.

    h-t-t-p://alphawhiskey.slickpic.com/photoblog/post/WildlifeCalendar

    h-t-t-p://alphawhiskey.slickpic.com/photoblog/post/FloridaWildlife

    • March 18, 2014 at 7:40 am

      I agree totally, it’s a great point and it was planned to be mentioned in the upcoming parts. Nothing beats story, interaction and character. The beauty of photography is that it is a form of art and everybody will have their own style.

      Regards
      Rob

  6. 12
    ) Hank R
    March 18, 2014 at 9:27 am

    Thank you, Robert.

    This was a very informative article.

    All the Best,

    Hank

  7. 13
    ) Bill Piercy
    March 18, 2014 at 9:28 am

    Thanks for a well written, helpful article. What are your thoughts on using a V1/V2 with a FT1? Many cannot afford to purchase (or carry) the monster telephotos. On paper, at least, the 2.7X multiplier of the V series looks rather attractive when coupled to, say, a 70-200mm f2.8. Your comments?

    Thanks,

    Bill

    • March 18, 2014 at 10:35 am

      Hey Bill

      1st – Thanks

      2nd – I suppose you don’t have to carry monster telephotos – you can get focal length with TCs, it’s just that my wife and I are not happy with the results they produce

      3rd – I don’t know enough about the V1/v2 system to answer this question in a qualified manner – maybe someone like Nasim could jump in here and offer an answer that would help you better

  8. 16
    ) Patrick O'Connor
    March 18, 2014 at 11:46 am

    Great article with the kind of information nobody else gives you. Very useful. Thanks a lot!

  9. 18
    ) Michał
    March 20, 2014 at 8:14 am

    Great article – interesting, useful and full of impresive photos.

    I found only one thing that went wrong – on first photo with 2 bears description doesn’t match with EXIF.

    • 19
      ) Robert Andersen
      March 20, 2014 at 2:58 pm

      Hey Michael

      Thanks – the data shown on the photo is correct – I used Photoshop to add the bottom text line and the exif info is from another photo – I realized for the others and made sure it didn’t happen – sorry about but thanks for noticing and letting me know

      Rob

  10. 20
    ) Oscar
    March 20, 2014 at 8:40 pm

    Great article…very helpful. I think some of these things one picks up with experience but often forgets it in the heat of the moment. (Any tips on how to keep your cool and get the settings and other fundamentals right while your heart is pounding as that grizzly, moose, elk, etc. crosses the road in front of your car?)

    I really hadn’t realized how beneficial rain or just wetness can be in terms of texture and detail.

    Thank you!

    • March 21, 2014 at 6:15 am

      Hey Oscar

      I will do some follow up articles, but these are things you pick up over time and after making many regrettable mistakes. This is why I thought they would be a great share.

      Grizzly, heart pounding – LoL – been there – not much helps in this situation – BUT >>

      You need to be ready, I travel with the camera ready to go – depending on light 200 ISO, F/4.5, Aperature Priority, Focus Spot in the middle, charged batteries, empty cards – I have auto ISO (Nikon Feature) set up if I need to switch quickly without having to think (set to MAX 2000 ISo, MIN 1200th Shutter) that ways I can switch quickly while shooting rather than fumble with settings.

      I have literally jammed on the brakes, jumped out of the car and whirled around with the 600mm to grab a golden eagle crossing the road with prey in the talons. I have seen a coyote grab a rodent with just seconds to capture it, feet off the road – so you definitely need to be ready to pounce.

      Know your animals – I carry bear spray (2 cans) – I have a large hunting knife (last resort) – I know the rules of bear behavior and safety – Elk, bears and moose can be dangerous, even dopey moose can suddenly charge you – you need to know the signs (tilting head, drooling, ears etc) – above all else don’t go running after bears – Two years in Yellowstone people got killed while trying to approach for a better shot.

      I will touch much more on this in the follow up articles – In Summary – Be ready – Camera Ready – Use the car for a blind when possible – know your animals, it will help keep you calm – respect the animals – don’t rush towards any animal – slow calm movements required even if heart is pounding :)

      Regards
      Rob

      • 23
        ) Oscar
        March 22, 2014 at 6:46 am

        I really appreciate your follow up comments, Rob. I look forward to subsequent articles in this series. I was already a regular visitor to this site and now, thanks to you, I’ll be coming back over and over again religiously looking for your new articles. Keep up the great work, you and the entire team at Photography Life. This is one of the best sites- if not the best- I know on photography.

        Oscar

  11. 22
    ) Eric
    March 22, 2014 at 12:03 am

    Thanks a lot Robert for this very fine written piece.

  12. 26
    ) Iksas
    March 25, 2014 at 3:52 am

    My hobby is to shoot nature, it’s just a pity i can not afford more time for it. But it is always interesting to read about pro photographers experience and learn. Great article, keep writing. Will be looking forward to next your posts :)

    • March 25, 2014 at 2:48 pm

      Hey Iksas

      I hope you mean photograph nature :) – but any time spent doing that is quality time. We all started somewhere and for me it was one trip out on a lake to photograph bald eagles that truly got us going in a die hard way. So maybe one day too you will get more time to do that. Thanks and regards.

      Rob

      • 28
        ) Iksas
        March 26, 2014 at 12:56 am

        Yup, photograph nature :). It’s nice once in a while get out of the city and enjoy the nature and maybe take some pictures. Thanks again, and will be really looking forward for new articles!

  13. 29
    ) Jason
    April 14, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    Great Article! Thanks for all of the instructive tips. I found them very interesting and helpful with what to look for in a good wildlife shot.

  14. April 15, 2014 at 11:31 am

    Robert,

    Fantastic article and definitley looking forward to others. Since I use the same gear as you for the same reasons, but in the Great White North of Canada, the metedata you provide is really helpful as I am still on a steep learning curve, especially using the 600 VRII.

    Stephen

    • May 15, 2014 at 5:32 am

      Thanks – I am going to be writing part II shortly.

      The 600mm is an amazing lens and the F4 versus F5.6 on the 800mm matters. I find myself constantly shooting in high ISO, low light situations. It just seems to be that a lot of the wildlife I shoot comes in at dusk or early am. I will be posting some beautiful black bear photos taken with the 600mm.

      Regards
      Rob

  15. 31
    ) Noel
    May 13, 2014 at 8:06 am

    Thank you for the article, Robert. I was just musing the other day as we are having a lot of strong sun behind grey cloud in the UK, that colours can sometimes be more intense in this sort of light, so not a bad substitute for golden hour later in the day. Am I right?

    Thanks again

    Noel

    • May 15, 2014 at 5:37 am

      HI

      I interpret that as being like bright overcast, which is also one on my favorite shooting conditions as it eliminates a lot of shadows and a softer diffused light. The golden hour or lets say the 1st 30 minutes or last 30 minutes of light is kind of special, a different hue and temperature to it. It can be hard to shoot in but I think that, that kind of light mostly happens at those times. Photography is a very artistic venture and there are no rules, its all about being aware and capturing things the way you want them. So if you see light you really like, shot away and enjoy.

      Regards
      Rob

  16. 35
    ) James
    June 5, 2014 at 6:12 am

    Robert Great article. Agree don’t get involved with equipment debates. I did a short study on the equipment used in the last 2 years by photographers who won the world wildlife photographer awards. I know it is for specific competition but he point is simple. People using old equipment such as Nikon D1x, D2x etc won major awards. the telephoto lenses that achieved the most rewards were the 300 f2.8 and 200-400 f4. The first prize this year was Greg Du Toit from South Africa using a D3s and 16-35 for a elephant image. THe D800 was also very prominent. Point I am making is that with the selected equipment and clear idea of what you want to achieve, It can be done, but composition is the key as you indicated. May I request that in future you also cover the different focus modes, if possible. I have recently learned an expensive lesson, using the wrong focus mode in the wrong conditions. We often blame equipment but most of the time I could be out photographic methods and settings. Looking forward to the next..

  17. 36
    ) Sandy
    August 30, 2014 at 1:33 pm

    Super article Rob, thank you! I read your part 3 wildlife photography article this morning, which was superb and came back for this one! Your advice and shared experience makes such sense! Some comments confirm what I have learnt the hard way too, and many others are things I will definitely incorporate myself! Thank you so much for sharing!

  18. 37
    ) Joni Solis
    October 9, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    I too read your part 3 article and then looked for the other parts — great job on these articles! GREAT photos and info!

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