I got a lot of feedback and questions from my last two posts and it seems like there is some interest in my articles, so I am yet again inspired to give this writing thing another shot. I just want to re-iterate that what I suggest or talk about here is what I do and what works for me – you will have to find your own way to your photography success.
1) Focus Point
I am going to start with focus point and where it should be, and that would be on the eye of the subject. There are many things that can be forgiven in photography, but a blurry eye is not one of them. All the power is in the eyes and your own eye will always be drawn there without you thinking about it. I am shooting with a Nikon D4 so this is Nikon terminology, I use Single Point AF Mode, because I am a control freak and don’t let the camera make the decisions for me. There is Dynamic Area AF Mode you might want to consider trying and see if it works for you, but don’t try it on a once-in-a-lifetime shot.
The insert in this photo will show you what I mean about ideal focus point location. The longer the focal length of your lens is and the shorter the distance to the subject, it becomes that much more important to precisely place your focus point on the eye. In a multiple subject shot, your focal point should be on the animal that is the closest to you.
There is also a story to this photo that is important in telling to prospective buyers and making the image mean something more to those who hear it. This will make the image more compelling and personal to them.
2) Room to Move
It is also important that you consider how you frame or crop the photo. I like to give the animal room to move or open space in the direction the animal is looking or heading. An image will not look as good, if for example, you have the subject placed against the right edge of the image and that is the direction it is heading. It will look like the animal has nowhere to go or about to fly / walk / etc off the edge. Have a look at this final version of my image and note that the bald eagle has room to fly further to the left of the image.
Now I will crop it badly, so you can see a side-by-side comparison of what I mean by leaving room to move. The following image will show you the difference and you judge for yourself which one looks better:
To me and many others the subtle difference in the left image makes a huge difference to how it will be perceived.
3) Background Placement
What is the story you are trying to convey and how do you best display that in your image? Let’s revisit the snowy owls that I have been photographing for the last two months and done previous articles on.
I went out last two winter snow storms with the intention of getting dramatic photos of owls with snow falling as the backdrop and important part of the image. Darker colors over lighter ones in the backgrounds will show this snow falling more prominently and better convey the message of the image. This first image will show you a photo I am happy with, because I was able to move 15 feet to the right of my original position and place a nicer golden color behind the owl that contrasts with the white snow falling and will show beautifully in the final image.
When I first found this owl, I was to the left of it with a white snow-covered marsh as the backdrop. Let me tell you that it is hard to convey a snowstorm with white as a back drop. The following image was taken during a more severe snow storm than the previous photo, but it just doesn’t look like it, because the snow doesn’t contrast with the background. This subtle difference in how you frame your subject can make a huge difference and should be taken into consideration. The below image is a beautiful photo, there is ice on the owls face, it’s eyes are almost closed because the heavy snow falling hurts it eyes and it is heading right for me. However, you just can’t see the snow falling, because it blends with the background and thus an important element of this story is missing.
4) Action or Motion Versus Static
You can’t always pick what is going to happen, but if you are ready for it when it happens, there are action sequences everywhere waiting to be captured. To me, an image with an animal running, flying, jumping or whatever can be very visually appealing and help tell a more dramatic story. Don’t get me wrong, there are many other ways to tell a story and one way that is very powerful in doing that, is animal interaction. Action is a little harder to capture, because it usually requires a quick reaction time and most likely you will need to pan to follow and capture it. I won’t show another owl photo to convey my point, as you have seen plenty of dramatic in-flight sequences and I hope you agree that action shots can be very appealing photos. The bald eagle shot below is one of my favorites – it is an action shot taken standing in a 17ft dingy, hand-holding a 600mm. It has drama, anticipation, beautiful early morning light, great composition and even the subtle tail feathers dragging across the surface help tell the story of this image. Also, a reminder about the frames per second importance I have mentioned before for action shots, the bald eagle with the fish at the very beginning of this article is the very next frame to the image below and both were taken approximately 1000th of a second apart.
Anticipation can be a frustrating photographic tool, because what you anticipate will happen doesn’t always turn out so. When it all comes together, the image you get can be so rewarding and will drive you further along in your photography adventures and skill level. Sometimes you have to wait hours in one spot for what you think might happen and sometimes things happen suddenly and unexpectedly, in either case, be ready for it.
My wife and I had just arrived at a bald eagle nesting site on a pond near our house, as we stopped to say hello to another boat that was eagle watching. I saw a streak of white movement far away in the middle of the pond. I realized it was a bald eagle flying low over water and then I saw a splash. The eagle had just grabbed a fish and was about to bring it back to the chicks in the nest. Here is where anticipation worked for me, I quickly moved my boat into a direct line of flight between the bald eagle and the nest hoping the eagle would take a direct route to the nest. In this instance the eagle not only took a direct route, it flew past our boat low over the water and within 30 feet of us. I snapped that 600mm around, focused on the face of the bird and held down the trigger following the bird until the angles were bad. The resulting bald eagle with a fish in its talons image is one of my favorite bald eagle photos. The lesson in this story is the fact I had learned the eagle habits and through that knowledge had put myself in a great location to possibly grab an action photo.
6) Animal Interaction
I mentioned it briefly earlier that interaction is another powerful tool that helps tell stories and create more powerful images. Haven’t we all gone ‘oooh aaah’ at an image of a six month old bear cub cuddling with mum or some similar image? Having more than one animal in the photo presents more complications to the photographer, like multiple sets of eyes that generally need to be sharp. Let me show you an image of a bald eagle delivering fish to its eaglet that I just love and then I will explain the technical difficulties of this shot, which will in itself lead to other pointers for you.
This image has a story, the baby screaming for food about to arrive, the anticipation of the delivery, the interaction between the parent and the baby. There are many technical aspects to this image that are important and they are the following:
- Two animals equal two sets of eyes. It would be great if both sets of eyes are sharp and it would be awesome if both sets of eyes are visible. I happen to be in the right spot to have both of these qualities happen. There was an element of luck in that happening, but I had at least placed myself in the right position for it.
- Originally, I was photographing a single bird and because I was shooting with a prime lens, I was not able to zoom in or out. I happen to be at the right distance from the original single bird to allow for both to fit in the frame without clipping any of the birds. I think an image is much more powerful if there are no parts clipped off the central subjects.
- There are no harsh shadows in this image, which can be a problem. Part of that is because it was 7 AM in the morning and the sun was still low and not so harsh, the other part to that is, I placed myself directly between the bird and the sun putting me in the best position for good light.
- This image doesn’t come to you that often, think about what has to happen for you to get this image. The light has to be good, the action has to happen at the right time, you have to be in the right place, both eyes have to be visible if possible, both eyes have to be sharp, you have to be the right distance away so as not to crop anything, the image has to be sharp, the water in the background can’t look horrible like sometimes happen in bad light. That’s a lot of elements that need to come together at one time; this means you probably have to go out quite a few times before in happens to you. The moral of the story is, persistence pays off.
In closing, I would like to underline how powerful animal interaction is in telling the story. It is always harder to get interaction shots, because it requires a greater knowledge of your subjects and a lot more time and persistence. The animals have to be comfortable in your presence in order to display their natural behavior. Also as I have mentioned before, multiple subjects create technical challenges in getting compelling images. If animals accept your presence, they will give you a front seat view to their most intimate relationship and opportunities of a lifetime. The following photo shows two immature bald eagles two months old squabbling over food. We were able to get this photo, because we had been present since before their birth and they had become comfortable with us. Just remember to respect them and let them approach you and not the other way around!
7) Improving Your Chances of Success
There is a positive aspect to the predictability of nesting birds in the fact that they will constantly travel to the same location (nest), which opens opportunities to capture both action and interaction photos. Some examples of this would be a bird delivering fish to its nest and thus presenting you with flying shots, where the bird has prey in its talons. Another would be the interaction of the eaglets in the nest, and yet another would be action shots that happen when food is delivered. The babies come alive and interact with the parent, pop their heads up over the edge of the nest etc. There are also predictable patterns during the nesting period as to when parents will deliver food to their young ones and thus increase your chances of success.
On a cautionary note, respect the distance required, so as not to disturb the animals. Bald eagles have been known to abandon their nest and chicks, if constantly disturbed or afraid to approach their nest. So please don’t get over-zealous in getting the shot and in the process harm the very subject you are photographing.
The final image is that of nesting bald eagles and a parent about to drop off a fish to its hungry eaglets. Notice how the eaglets are standing tall in the nest looking forward to their next meal. Because of this, they have their heads in view and present a powerful photographic opportunity for you to tell their story. The presence of both parents on the nest, which is rarer than you might expect, adds to the story and presents a more compelling image.
Happy shooting everybody and may the light be with you!
All images copyright Robert Andersen.