In recent years, 'best photography tips' has become one of the largest google searches across the globe. Over the years, technology has seen a rapid growth and so has our interest in this subject, simply as it has become more readily available.
Despite the dramatic increases in google searches for photo tips, I was somewhat surprised to learn following some research, that the shipment of DSLR cameras worldwide had actually reduced rather dramatically between 2012 and 2019.
It's difficult to determine the exact reasons for the decline, but perhaps the fact that people typically hold on to camera gear for periods of 5 years or more, or the fact that there's been a shift in recent years to mirrorless systems are two stand-out contributing factors. Either way, in 2019, a total of around 4.5 million digital single-lens reflex cameras were shipped by CIPA* companies all over the world, and that is still a LOT of people.
Today, I'd like to share a few simple, easy-to-apply photography tips with you that can apply to all genres and can be put to practice where ever you may find yourself, even in the comfort of your own home. Some of them might seem like common sense, and you’ve probably read a similar list of “how-to’s” elsewhere, but remember that common sense is often not so common at all these days and everyone has their own take on things, however similar they may be.
Understand your gear
This sounds like the biggest cliche, but trust me, no words can express how much truth are in those three words. This is probably the biggest step that you as the photographer would have to focus on if you wish to 'up your game', which would tie into a later topic - Put in the time.
Based on my experience, action-packed moments as seen below last on average between 5 and 20 seconds.
So the truth is, if you are not familiar with your gear, you will either miss it or blow the images you do manage to capture.
To name a few, be sure you:
- Know where each button is
- Know what each button does
- Know you what shutter speed is required to obtain a sharp image
- Know how high you can push your camera’s ISO and still achieve acceptable results
- Know how to quickly toggle between focus points or modes
What I'm getting to here is simple, know everything about your gear. Know it extremely well, to a point where you only able to make these changes quickly but should also be done without lifting your eye from the viewfinder.
A good way to practice this can be seen below;
Set your self goals to achieve while blindfolded. With camera in hand, practice to move focus points and flick between focus modes, change ISO and aperture, set different drive modes and so on.
If you can get to this point of not having to lift your eye from the view finder, I can assure you that you will see an improvement in your photography.
Know your subject
For what we focusing on in this blog, wildlife photography, a lot is based upon capturing fleeting moments and it pays to be able to somewhat predict your subject’s behaviour beforehand. Keep in mind that not every species is as predictable as the next, but there are patterns of behaviour ingrained into every animal.
Take humans for example, what do we do after we wake up?
That's it, we yawn and there are many theories as to why we yawn. One popular theory is that yawning helps your body take in more oxygen in order to wake up, another theory is that its a silent scream for coffee? What ever the reason, this just proves that there are patterns of behaviour ingrained into every animal including us.
This yawning is usually a sign of potential movement in cats, get ready! Set up your gear for this!
I cannot stress this enough, knowing your subject can make the difference between being ready and prepared for capturing that “golden moment” and watching it fly by resulting in agony.
There are many great mammal & bird behaviour books available today and ones that will help you understand your subjects better. Here are two of many that I make use of;
But, books can only help you up to a certain point. Your Wild Eye guide is there to assist in interpreting animal behaviour for you!
There is only one true way to get to know wildlife and this is to spend time with them. Next time you are out in the field with an animal, don’t just hang around for a few minutes and seek out the next subject if the one you are observing or photographing isn’t delivering the goods.
Sit with them. Watch them. Wait!
This also ties into patience, which I will discuss in more detail later. Best way to get to know wildlife…spend time with them.
Know the “rules” but be prepared to break them
It is so important to understand certain rules in order to achieve proper composition and exposure.
Once you understand these elements fully, it is equally important to understand how and when to break these rules.
For example, when it comes to wildlife photography, eye contact is usually a must as this gives “life” to the image. Images must also be as sharp as a sharp thing no?
Go for it! Test the boundaries a bit, you don’t want your photos to always look like stock-standard images that every second photographer is getting. Here are two moments in which I broke these flexible rules;
Please... make use of the different focal lengths that you have at hand.
So many photographers suffer from that thing we refer to as 'lens envy'. It can get so serious that it becomes an obsession to have the longest/biggest lens possible and make use of this, and only this...
I am sure all of you would agree with me in saying that packing your camera bag is an exciting thing and yes, it is very much destination/location dependent. Sometimes you will need to pack that 600mm in if you are traveling to wide open areas such as the Masai Mara or if you will be exploring the red dunes of the Kgalagadi. Totally understand this, but the issue I want to tackle is more related to our obsession to get as close as possible to the animals and isolate them totally from their environment. Backgrounds and other animals within them can add major value to the scene.
Look at this first image, for all you know, this could of been a captive lion who was given a wildebeest to eat. If I didn't tell that this was photographed in the Masai Mara, you'd probably never know right? No doubt it is a powerful image that tells a very direct story.
But once you have banked those close-up powerful images, challenge yourself to pull back/wider to tell your viewers more about this lion. Where it lives, the terrain its on...etc. This applies to any species you photograph, from the squirrel to the deer to the elephant.
One of the biggest reasons I encourage my guests to do this is so that when the time comes for them to head back home, they will be leaving with a full and varied portfolio.
Before we move on, let me flip this quickly, it is also important to go super tight when the opportunity arrises as this will also add great value to your portfolio.
Get closer & get lower
It may seem in direct contradiction to the previous point, but there is absolutely a time to get up close.
Getting close to wildlife is a tricky and often dangerous task and usually comes down to luck, being in the right place at the right time, but if you can position yourself closer or lower, REMEMBER, this of course must only be done when it is safe to do so.
The closer you are, the better your image quality will be, its that simple.
How you portray your subject can make all the difference so try as close as possible to get an eye-level perspective (even lower if you can). This will draw your viewers right into the scene.
This is because the lower you can get the deeper the perspective. This is very difficult to achieve in many destinations and again, comes down to your luck at the time. There are certain areas that can increase this "luck level". Areas such as Mana Pools in Zimbabwe are one of these places. Embarking on adventure to Mana Pools will maximise your low level opportunities because visitors are allowed to approach the wild animals that roam the area on foot.
A truly phenomenal experience.
There is one particular species that people from all over the globe travel to Mana Pools for, the African Wild Dog. This will be the subject I'll use to give you a visual representation of this low angle/deep perspective view.
Now, the first image you will see of this beautiful creature was photographed from the high position of a game viewer where you will see the ground behind the animal. This does not make it a bad or horrible image at all but if at all possible, get lower to create more depth, enhancing the look and feel as seen in the second image which was taken in Mana Pools while laying flat on our stomachs.
So often have I seen people miss out on great opportunities just because they are sitting with a species they have no interest in. It can and does at times become the factor that alters the entire experience for people as they become too fixated on that ONE shot they have in mind, missing out on everything else. This is sad...
Just remember, every time you push the shutter, you have practiced.
Take as many images as you can, when you can. Practice new or different techniques. The beauty of the digital world is that you can simply delete the junk you do not want, and hey, maybe you have a pearler in and amongst that junk...
Patience isn’t a virtue…it’s a necessity
As a photographer, wildlife in particular, your images are predicated on the fact that things in nature are unpredictable. Anything can happen at any time and at any place. This may result in you needing to wait a few minutes and up to a few hours. It is therefore imperative that you become patient, very patient in fact, if you are wanting to capture that one particular moment.
Don't get me wrong, I often catch my impatient self out at times out in the field and is something you constantly have to work at. Essentially it’s almost a culmination of many of the things we’ve discussed so far. Observing your subjects, getting to know their behavioural patterns, requires a great deal of patience. Getting to that point where you fully understand your gear, yes, requires a lot of patience.
The image below was captured after sitting it out for six hours waiting at Serena Main crossing point for a small handful of wildebeest to cross;
So yes, WELL worth that wait. Remeber to use this time waiting wisely, it allows you to not only observing your subjects, get to know their behavioural patterns, but most importantly, it give you time to prepare yourself and your gear for that what will probably be a quick moment in time.
Often the implications are that you need to return to the same spot for days before things start to happen and even then you run the risk of nothing happening, having wasted your time. But hey, at least you gave it your best shot. As they say, you win some & you lose some.
Put In The Time!
Remember, this ties into the very first point, "Understand your gear".
Trust me, you can read all the photography tips books and blogs out there and still never remember anything if you do notr put this to practice.
The best way to make these rules/technicalities stick is by shooting as often as you can. The more you do it, quicker you will understand your gear and in turn the greater the your chances will be of securing good shots.
There are zero excuses... You have many things in and around the house yes?
Looking back at every single image you just saw above, I can honestly tell you that I had learnt so much from every single one of them. They have helped me grow as a photographer just by simply spending an hour behind my camera each time.
And to top it off, I has SO much fun capturing every single one of them.
Fun is what it should be! This leads into my concluding point.
BE THERE, in the moment & ENJOY IT!
I'll conclude this lengthy blog with the following advice... If you're not enjoying it, why do it?
On a day to day basis, you must do what makes you happy. Do things you truly enjoy and be as in tune with every moment as much as possible. By this I don’t just mean you need to physically show up and you need to be at the right place at the right time, of course that applies when it comes to wildlife photography but I actually mean you need to be in the moment and don’t get caught up so much with the technical issues and your settings that you don’t take in the moments you are witnessing while out photographing.
We need to be mindful of the privilege of spending time in nature and being in places where the hand of man hasn’t quite exerted its full force yet. Maybe for you it’s just the most isolated spot in your local park where you can sit and observe and photograph squirrels and birds, or maybe it’s facing a wild kodiak bear on the Alaskan floodplains. Regardless, enjoy what you are doing! Have fun doing it! What does it help us to spend so much time on this amazing art form if we are not enjoying the time spent?
Okay seriously now, last tip, putting the camera down at times is sometimes the best thing you could ever do. Just sit and take it all in! Bliss!
I hope these tips will stand you in good stead out there in the field. They have for me. Good light and good sightings to you all!
Until next time;