Saturday, 7 March 2009

Wildlife photography tips

Going on safari? Since most people nowadays own or buy a digital camera, the following tips are more or less directed towards this group of people. I haven’t gone into too much technical detail.

Know your camera.
A lot of people buy a new camera and lenses before embarking on safari. That’s not necessarily a bad idea but be sure that you have familiarized yourself with the camera before your trip. If not precious photographic opportunities will be lost while fiddling with the controls or reading the instruction manual. If you do buy new camera gear, remember that it’s better to spend more on the lenses and less on the camera body. The quality of your pictures is decided by the quality of the lenses you use. A basic camera body on the other hand will do the job. I know I’m cutting corners by stating this but generally it’s correct.

Take more than you think you’ll need.
It’s not always possible to buy the correct type of batteries on location so take these with you and make sure they work before you leave home. When you’re trying to figure out how many pictures you’ll be taking during your trip, remember this: you should at least double or triple that amount, so take plenty of memory cards with you. Alternatively, you may want to take a laptop or a portable image tank (hard disk) with you on which to store your pictures. In that case you don’t need a lot of memory cards since you can empty them every time.

In the field.
Remember that you’re dealing with wild animals or birds and these can be very nervous. So, no sudden movements as not to disturb them and contain your excitement. This also means keeping your voice down and keeping your distance. Don’t encourage your driver to come close.

Composition.
Don’t take all your pictures from the roof hatch. You’ll often get far more pleasing views through the side window (you’re more on the animal’s eye level). Look for the best of both worlds. Also mix shots between horizontal (‘landscape’) and vertical (‘portrait’). You’d be surprised how many people shoot their entire safari holding the camera horizontally. Think outside the box. Don’t go for the obvious but e.g. try to photograph a towering elephant from below for a change to create a dramatic effect or photograph a group of lions feeding on a kill from above. Another way of creating an effect is by panning your camera with a moving subject with the shutter speed set at around 1/60 of a second. Results can be dramatic but remember, it’s hit and miss. If that’s not what you’re after then use fast shutter speeds (around 1/1000 of a second) to freeze movement. If you’re using non-image stabilised lenses camera shake can be a real issue. In that case, see to it that your shutter speed is no less than the maximum focal length of your lens, i.e. if you are using a 70-300mm zoom lens, set the minimum shutter speed at 1/300 of a second. Alternatively, use a beanbag or a rolled-up sweater to stabilise your camera and lens onto (a tripod is not an option, there’s simply no room for it in a vehicle). I do sometimes use a monopod though, specially with longer lenses (a great way to rest the old arm). When composing a picture, try to avoid a ‘busy’ background as it may distract from the main subject. Take your time to compose the shot or a branch might seem to grow out of an animal’s head or the horizon might cut right through an animal’s neck!

Depth of focus. You can control the depth of focus (the area in the foreground and background in focus with your subject ) by changing the aperture value (f-stop) letting in more or less light. The smaller the aperture, the greater the depth of focus and vice versa. A large aperture value of e.g. f2.8 to f4 allows you to isolate the subject from its background (ideal for portraits). A small aperture value of e.g. f16 to 22 brings a large area into focus (ideal for large groups of animals or animals including landscape). There’s a way to check the depth of focus before pressing the shutter button. This ‘stopping down’ technique closes the diaphragm of the lens to the f-stop chosen, the image becomes darker, allowing you to see the area in focus. Most modern digital cameras are equipped with a push button to do this.


The rule of thirds. When composing a horizontal picture try to avoid the horizon running through the middle of the picture. If the sky is more important than the foreground give it 2/3. On the other hand give the foreground 2/3 of the picture if it’s more important than the sky. This works with vertical pictures as well: depending on the direction your subject is walking or facing, put your main subject to one side of the picture to create an area of space ‘to walk into’.

Exposure.
Sometimes you come across situations when automatic exposure meets its limits: e.g. dark subjects against a light backdrop or skies. You need to do things manually. Spot-meter your subject to get the correct exposure or use the exposure compensation dial on your camera to increase or decrease the exposure by 1 or 2 stops. Again, this can be a bit of hit and miss. Practice your technique before you go on your trip, thus preventing disappointment. It is a misconception that the sun has to be behind you. The harsh midday sun is to be avoided or you’ll end up with flat, evenly lit, pictures. Not very pleasing. In my view, the only photo opportunities that still work in the middle of the day are pictures of birds. Apart from that, restrict your photography to the ‘golden hours’ (the first 1,5 hours of sunlight in the morning and the last 1,5 hours of sunlight in the evening). In these golden hours, experiment around by using front lighting, sidelighting and backlighting. When using sidelighting, increase your exposure by 1 stop. This technique is only effective when the sun is very low in the sky. Try backlighting ( the sun is behind your subject). Don’t be afraid. Results can be most pleasing, creating a lovely golden rim around your subject. It’s not easy to get the exposure right. Take a few shots with the camera set on automatic, then increase the exposure by 1 or 2 stops (to create more detail in the shadow areas). Check it out when you’re back in camp and remember it or take note for the future. If you end up with incorrectly exposed pictures, all is not lost. There is some great software out there that goes a long way in correcting your mistakes.


Sunsets and sunrises.
Everybody wants to return from his safari with a decent picture of an African sunset or sunrise. Be sure to include animals and if possible a tree into your composition. Animals should be silhouetted against the orange/pink/yellow sky. Automatic exposure does the trick as long as the sun is not in your picture. If you include the sun in your composition, do the following. First look for a correct exposure by metering an area with nice bright colours (without the sun in the picture!). Lock the meter reading by half-depressing the shutter button (or a separate exposure lock button, depending on the camera) and, while still half-depressing the shutter button, recompose your picture with the sun in it and take the picture. Vary the exposure and take lots of pictures. It’s all about hit and miss...


Which brings me to the conclusion. It’s all a matter of trial and error. You’ll have to take a lot of pictures and you’ll have to learn from your mistakes. That’s what I did. But above all, enjoy your wildlife photography. Don’t forget to take some time to sit back without taking pictures and just soak in the magic...

Xavier

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