Earlier this year, whilst visiting Utah, I had my first real opportunity to photograph small-scale wildlife such as birds and squirrels. I thought I just had to pick a good spot, be unobtrusive and be patient, but after failing miserably the first time out I realised that I had to approach wildlife photography with a completely different mindset. I learnt that planning, preparation and patience is the key to success.
Comfort is a main consideration as you will be waiting for a while to get the shots you want. Use a cushion and, if it’s as hot as it was in Utah, wear a hat and have a drink nearby. And don’t wear bright colours.
Consider the light, and how it might change over the next hour or so, and position yourself accordingly. Wildlife activity usually takes place early in the morning before the sun has fully risen or early evening when the sun is going or has gone down. The light is rarely perfect so you may have to compromise on ISO and/or shutter speed and/or aperture.
Think about the background. Most wildlife will, by way of nature’s camouflage, blend into their natural habitat, but photographs of wildlife can be very effective against a background of bushes or flowers as these will be slightly blurred if you use a wider f.stop.
Get your tripod placement and height sorted out first. Unfortunately, critters do not sit still and pose like human models so leave the head of the tripod unfixed to enable you to swing the camera up and down or left and right to follow moving wildlife. Yes, this means that you will have to keep a hand on your tripod whilst you’re sitting (patiently) waiting for wildlife to appear, but it also means that when they do appear you don’t have to move too much, which can scare them off.
As wildlife won’t let you get too close use a zoom lens. Shoot at 100 ISO if possible. Focus on an object close to the spot where you hope the wildlife will be. Set your camera to “continuous shooting” mode. It’s a matter of personal choice regarding manual or auto-focusing – I use a mixture of both. Consider also depth of field, aperture v shutter priority and whether or not exposure bracketing will assist in achieving that great wildlife shot, particularly if the light is not perfect. If you’re photographing wildlife that moves quickly you might have to use a fast shutter speed to enhance sharpness.
Encouragement is acceptable. Bird seed and fruit or vegetables are great for attracting a variety of wildlife.
Preparation and planning completed so now is the time for patience. I don’t have a lot of it and I fidget so I had to be strict with myself. For my second wildlife shoot I sat on a cushion on a rock with my face behind my camera (but looking over the top) and my hand on the tripod for about 30 minutes before any wildlife approached and then I sat there for about two hours taking photographs. Hence the importance of comfort!
The Gambles Quail were far more difficult to photograph than I anticipated. I wanted some photographs of the chicks, but the parents were so protective they prevented a “clean” shot. The female was incredibly shy and I only managed to get one or two good shots of her out of four shoots over a 10 day period. She pecked up the seed so quickly that a lot of the shots were motion blurred, even at a higher shutter speeds. I was incredibly pleased that I eventually managed to get two good shots of the chicks.
The Ground Squirrels were another matter completely. They darted here and there, sat up on their back legs, munched on the fruit and chased each other. Very amusing.
Be prepared for anything. Focusing on the squirrels I forgot to be aware of other photo opportunities. Out of the corner of my eye I saw fast movement – it was a roadrunner. I had to swing round, focus and shoot without worrying too much about camera settings. Roadrunners are shy birds and very fast so I only had a couple of seconds in which to fire off a few shots before the bird ran away into the bush.
So the moral of my blog is this – if I can take photographs of wildlife then you can too. Planning and preparation help you to get good shots, but being patient (very, very patient) is the most important thing of all. My lack of comfort (and lack of patience) meant that by walking away too soon I missed a couple of opportunities to get additional (and better?) shots, particularly of the quail chicks, as the wildlife arrived within minutes of me deserting my post.
For me, the key to successfully photographing wildlife is: planning, preparation, patience. Give it a go – you might surprise yourself.