Wildlife Photography Tech Tips

27th January 2014
Having made many mistakes behind a camera and lost some decent shots because of it, thought I'd braindump some of the lessons I've learned in the hope these may help! These are guidelines not rules - in photography rules are there to be broken!

1) HIDE - for most wildlife photography this is critical (although photographing Waxwing feeding is somewhat different). You can use a purpose built hide such as those you find at nature reserves, a portable hide, a car (I use this regularly) or your house for garden photography - or find somewhere to sit still, put the camera on the tripod and drape it in camouflage netting. Remaining still is critical.

2) SUPPORT - support your camera, reduce camera movement/shake and you will get sharper shots. Use a bean bag or a car window support (such as the Eckla Eagle), a monopod for mobility or ideally a tripod. The tripod should be sturdy - there's a world of difference between a £40 tripod made from what feels like cast-off aluminium foil and one costing £100 or more. Try a simple test - extend a tripod, press down on the centre plate and see how much you can get it to flex. If it moves at all do not buy it! Invest in a good head - for wildlife the gimbal heads such as the Wimberley work best, although at a hell of a price, and the Manfrotto 393 Lens Bracket offers a much cheaper but equally sturdy option.

3) METERING - whichever metering option you go for the camera will always try and second guess you, unless of course you're in full manual mode. Personally for the majority of my work I stick to AV mode with the majority of my images spot-metered at the active focus point and use exposure compensation to get the results I want. Understand how to use exposure compensation and your images will improve significantly

4) HISTOGRAM & ETTR - the histogram is your best friend so learn how to use it and learn how to Expose To The Right (ETTR). By deliberately over-exposing but not blowing highlights (the Histogram will tell you if you are) you allow more photons to hit the sensor. More photons equals more detail and reduces the amount of guessing the camera has to do - dark or under-exposed areas in the image will be riddled with noise so make sure these are in areas that don't matter. Highlights can be easily recovered in post-processing - assuming of course that you are taking RAW images. RAW can be thought of as digital negative you then need to develop in Lightroom, Photoshop etc, JPEG is a lossy, compressed direct to print file where the camera (or more correctly the programmer in the Far East) has made all the decisions on how the image should look.

5) LIGHT - Light is everything, learn your environment, learn when the light will give best results (normally at the start or end of the day when the sun is low) and plan accordingly. Make sure you capture only the light you want by using the lens hood - light hits the lens from all directions so by using the hood (amazes me many photographers don't) you are taking light only from the direction you want. Result - cleaner images

6) COMPOSITION - while it's not always possible, bird photography gives best results when you're at eye level with the bird, when you focus on the eye and it contains a small 'catchlight' making the bird come alive. Think about your background, even a small move of a metre to one side or the other can make a huge difference and think about the composition of the image. One of the oldest guidelines in photography is the rule of thirds - and it's still valid because it works! Give it a go and see the difference it makes

7) CLOTHING - sitting inactive often for long periods can be a chilly activity so (over)dress accordingly. Layers are best with a wicking baselayer, remembering (fingerless) gloves, hat and warm footwear - being cold means your attention will wander and you'll miss the shot.

8) ISO - in the old days ISO400 was a guarantee that you'd be seeing grain in the image. That's not the case now as noise reduction becomes increasingly mature, remaining noise can be dealt with in post-processing, and ISO400 is my starting point - images at ISO3200 are perfectly acceptable so change ISO to make sure you retain a decent shutter speed.

9) BE ALERT- birds in particular are normally on the move doing stuff so be aware of the possibilities this gives. The most compelling shots are action shots, capturing a candid moment in the bird's life - try for these and be prepared to fail. In the digital photography age if you have to bin 95% of the shots you take it costs you nothing.

10) DoF - Depth of Field is simply a measure of how much of the image is sharp. The larger the aperture the smaller the depth of field and for large lenses the DoF can be measured at no more than a couple of inches. Shooting wide-open will give a nicely blurred background, supporting but not distracting from the main subject and will allow you to keep your shutter speed high freezing the movement.

11) BE CREATIVE - use slower shutter speeds to give motion blur and the sense of movement, try something different and see whether it works. Take pictures in a variety of conditions - the weather is very rarely so bad that pictures can't be taken so head out in those conditions. One thing is sure - sitting at home will not get you new images!



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