Wildlife Photography.


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Mar 15, 2010
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I got out duck hunting this weekend and fortuantly I brought my camera along as the birds that were in season, wern't where I wanted them to be, but there were plenty of ducks around that were out of season that I got a chance at photographing. After taking the pictures, and getting them home, I couldn't help but to see how snapshoty they were. Examples:




So now I'm scratching my head. Understanding that a good photograph needs to have real thought behind it, a subject, and set up, it needs to tell a story.....How do you go about doing that when you are photographing wild animals. I have no idea when or where these birds are coming... they could be there for a second and gone. While using an effective decoy spread and setting up into the wind correctly, I can directly them into a general vacinity, I can't get it exact. And the best time of day for these birds are right at sunrise or sunset so lighting is shotty at best, and there isn't a snow balls chance in Hell I would even consider using a flash. What can I do? Are there any tricks to photographing completely unpredicitble wild life? Is it something I just have to shoot hundreds of times looking for that one good shot? Even then, isn't it just a lucky "snap shot"?
LOL - you're asking the $54,000.00 question (Yes, it used to be the $64,000.00 question, but inflation ya' know...).

Wildlife photography is an art unto itself. Most good wildlife shots fall into one of two categories: (1) S**thouse luck, or (2) Hours/days/weeks of preparation, tens of thousands of dollars worth of gear and the patience of a saint. Avian photography is an even more specialized subset of wildlife photography with the MOST expensive glass, tripods, etc. This isn't something I do a lot of, but my recommendation would be find an area, and spend a lot of time there; observe the animal's habits, feeding times, etc and shoot lots.
What he said ^^.

You're right about them being snap-shotty. That's exactly what they are. The reason you see wildlife photographers with giant lenses is because unless you have big lenses, the subject appears way too small in the picture.

Unless you are a real expert, most people couldn't tell what kind of birds you photogrpahed because they're so small (and backlit).

Wildlife, especially bird photography takes 99% patience. The remaining 1% is equipment, knowledge, passion, location, etc. In the film days we shot 1:100. For every 100 shots we got one good one. In all honesty, that's if you were lucky. I gave it up when my patience ran out. The freakin' things drove me nuts. With digital, maybe it's better because you can shoot more without it costing you money in film- but it's still a hit or miss afair, IMO.
I disagree, wildlife photography isn't about 99% patience its about field skills and having field skills as good or better than a hunter. A hunter with a gun just has to get close to make the clean shot - the photographer has to (often) get far closer and watch the light and compose the shot.

This is the main weak area for many which means that they have to rely upon luck and chance - which can work but is darn difficult to master ;).

It appears you are well on your way to learning the field skills and into locating your subjects -the next skill is to get close - hides are fantastic for this as once you know where the wildlife might be or can manipulate it to be where you want you can setup your hide and leave it a few days/week before using it (let them get used to it first). Then sneak in early before the wildlife, settle down, and now comes the patience part. As you can see patience is worth nothing if you can't site yourself to get the wildlife and be in a position to get the shot.

After that we come to composition and telling the story - this is a grey area and it splis into two kinds - story and image. Image wise a shot of a key scene (feeding, raising young, playing, etc...) or simply a close up and engaging shot (close with the eye looking at the viewer). Story telling is more tricky and requires that you have a story to tell - this can split into two parts either telling a general story about the animals species (eg this is how red dippers feed) or a more personal one where you tell a story about a specific animal you are familiar with.

Edit you might get some inspiration from others as well eg:

And to show what familiarity can impart have a look here:
its not wildlife, but working with animals and showing how to capture an emotion or a stance
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Join a birding club, or at least check out their web sites. A good club will list sightings and locations for birds plus what to expect in you local conservation area. Many even have forums to share pics.
First off, you need to make sure the light is at your back so that you are shooting the lit side of the birds. Second, wildlife photography is all about getting close. Whether thats using longer lenses or physically move closer. A good start would be a 300 or 400mm with a 1.4x teleconverter. I had the Canon 70-300 with Kenko Pro300 1.4x and it worked great for birding although you are ALWAYS going to wish you had a longer reach. However, you need to just know what your range is and focus on whats within that range. Don't waste your time going for something that you don't have the reach for or can't crop well enough to make it useable. As for tracking the movement, its very hard to shoot birds in flight without a fast camera like a 7D with fast focus and fast FPS speed. Its also helpful if you have a long lens with IS that works in panning mode. You indicated that you would not use flash. There is a thing called a "Better Beamer" that can help should you choose to use flash.
I disagree, wildlife photography isn't about 99% patience its about field skills and having field skills as good or better than a hunter.

:thumbup: The most patience required comes in learning the fieldcraft itself. Even with a big lens, you still need to get close to get the good details, especially with birds. Yes, you can get shots from farther away, but by the time you crop into that tiny little subject in the center, all good feather detail is pretty much lost.

This was taken with a 500mm (1/500, f/7.1, ISO200), I was within 20', and I still had to crop....

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Man, you guys jumped all over me on the patience thing. Maybe you live in better locations than I did...

After I had all the equipment, and the field knowledge, and got close in a bird blind, I still had to wait for a subject to appear. And waiting for the subject took way longer than learning the field skills. Often, I was sitting next to a birder waiting! ... and waiting.

NJ just isn't an exotic location and I was shooting what would be considered a little more exotic for my area (egrets, cranes, etc.). Shooting a robin or black bird just wasn't too appealing. I've often gone on vacation and wish I had my old 400mm and 600mm lenses as a flock of young egrets would fly over on the golf course we were playing- never saw that in Jersey!

On vacation in Bonaire, we were walking through what I called a "herd" of flamingos. Thousands of birds, many getting close enough to eat out of our hands. Except we were stuck in the mud and couldn't get any decent shots.

So I guess it's all perspective.

Suffice it to say, wildlife photography does require special skills, the proper equipment, and patience since you are working with animals as a subject. (What did a famous man say? "Never work with kids or animals!"). Once you have all that stuff, the job is much less mysterious. Knowing your subject and its probable behaviours under certain circumstances goes a long way towards getting the shot.

But isn't that like all specialized areas of photography? The pro portrait photographer needs thousands in lighting equipment, backgrounds, and props along with the knowledge of how to effectively pose their subject. The fashion photographer, the still life photographer- they all need specialized knowledge and equipment optimized for their particular type of photography.
One thing to bear in mind is the opportunity presented by captive and semi-wild animals. The PSU main campus for example has a water garden with a large population of ducks that let you get right up next to them. In one of the posts above there's a link to a site with sensational bird shots, every one of which I looked at was captive.
Man, you guys jumped all over me on the patience thing. Maybe you live in better locations than I did...

Sorry 'bout that..... I just don't have the patience to sit in one place and wait for something to come to me. :greenpbl: :lol:
Man, you guys jumped all over me on the patience thing. Maybe you live in better locations than I did...

Sorry 'bout that..... I just don't have the patience to sit in one place and wait for something to come to me. :greenpbl: :lol:

No problem- lol, neither did I! That's why I got out of wildlife photography. I'd get up at 0dark:30 to wait for a friggin bird who was probably off in a tree in back of us laughing to himself. All to get one shot. Then see a better shot in a magazine a week later. It was demoralizing.
Oh yes, very much patience, mainly because of how quick you've got to be. Pictures of birds are nice, but they are even nicer if the bird is looking at you. When the bird lands and is looking around, whistle lightly. Chances are the bird will look in your direction. There's your shot.

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