Top 20 Tips & Guidelines - Part 1, 1-10 .....
Over the last eleven issues of NZ Hunter I have put together a series of articles about photography relating to our sport of hunting. The nature of technology has meant that photography (the modern digital era) has become somewhat technical. I’ve tried to keep things nice and simple and in easy to understand terms but at the end of the day there is certainly a lot to take in and apply if we want create high quality images. In these following two issues I’d like to put together a kind of ‘top 20’ tips and guidelines of what I think are important aspects of wildlife and natural landscape photography.
1. The Big Three
‘The Big three’ as I have labelled them refer to the aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings.
In basic terms then –
‘Aperture’ is the size or diameter of the hole that lets light through onto the camera’s sensor. Large numbers on the camera’s dial actually gives a smaller aperture (less light in), conversely for a smaller number. Remember here too that a larger aperture will yield a narrower depth of focus (DOF).
‘Shutter speed’ refers to the length of time that the shutter is open for. Or put another way, how long light is allowed onto the sensor.
The final component of the big three is called the ‘ISO’ setting. Simply put, it is the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. Each successive number (or setting) in the ISO range means the sensor is twice as sensitive to light as the previous number (setting).
As we know photography is all about ‘light’. The big three all deal directly with this light so naturally these three elements alone will have large and often dramatic effect on the exposure of any given image. For that reason it’s important to become very familiar with them and what influences they have over the outcome of a photograph. Experiment by varying the settings of all three and noticing what effect each adjustment has on the resulting photo.
2. Rule of Thirds and Balance
Compositional balance in any image, no matter what the subject is, will make for a much more pleasing photograph. The ‘rule of thirds’ is a common compositional guide where the framing of an image is divided by four lines to create three areas horizontally, three vertically and four intersections within the frame.
Balance of the content or subjects of a shot can be achieved by placing them according to the three sectors. Landscape images benefit most from this thirds theory. An example is a scene that might include three main elements as in the image below. The land, sky and clouds are each given one third of the frame providing a kind of natural harmony or evenness in the image.
Land, sky and clouds are given one third of the frame each for rule of thirds compositional balance. Evening setting sun casting cloud shadows, Marlborough.
( 1/124 @ f/7.1, ISO 400 )
Individual subjects or features within a scene are best placed on opposing intersections for that all important balance. The image below depicts this by intentionally composing the frame with each chamois placed at two opposing ‘intersections’.
Balance composition by positioning subjects at opposing intersections of the ‘rule of thirds’ division. Young chamois, Marlborough high country.
( 1/640 @ f/5.6, ISO 1600 )
3. Know Your Gear
Like any sport or recreational activity, the more familiar you become with gear and equipment the more efficient you will be at using it. When it comes to photography, this is paramount but even more crucial where wildlife photography is concerned. By their nature wildlife are highly unpredictable and flighty causing the scene you’re trying to capture to alter very quickly. This may also mean you will have to adjust camera settings just as fast to ‘keep up’ with the changing situation. If you know and are familiar with your equipment you should be able to make, at the very least, changes to ‘the big three’ without having to take your eye from the viewfinder. Split seconds can make all the difference.
4. Angles and Perspectives
Mix it up !! Think outside the square when taking your photographs. Try different angles and alter your perspective to achieve variety and perhaps something just a little different in your images. By all means take your usual shot first up. From there, however, take a minute or two and try capturing the scene from a totally different angle, height or viewpoint. A new feature (or secondary subject) and perhaps a leading line may also now be included in the image. At the very least a range of different (read better) backgrounds might be discovered.
In relation to wildlife and birds under this topic, there really is only one important piece of advice … get down at their level and into their world. A good and easy way to show why this is so important is to get two pictures of say your gun dog. Sit him down in front of you and take the first shot standing up. Now, for the second image get down on your knees or belly if need be so the camera is at his eye/head level. Now you are down in his world creating a more personal and intimate feel to the image. You will see a very real and obvious difference in the two images.
From memory I was standing when this shot was taken. (Above, 1/2000 @ f/7.1, ISO 400 ). Now compare the image below which was shot while lying on my belly to get the angle/perspective at his level. Banded Dotterel chick, coastal Marlborough. ( 1/2000 @ f/7.1, ISO 400 )
5. Stay away from the ‘Green Box’
With all I have learnt about digital photography I am still astounded at the very high quality of images that modern digital cameras turn out. By using the relatively fail safe auto mode (signified by a ‘green box’ icon on the main dial) any camera operator is able to take very good and acceptable photographs without requiring to know much about photography at all. In saying all that however, cameras can also be fairly ‘dumb’. However tempting and easy it may seem to use the ‘green box’, my advice is to stay clear of it. This mode has very defined parameters and default settings which severely limit flexibility and control over how the image is exposed and focused. By employing other manual modes such as shutter priority (Tv), aperture priority (Av) and manual mode (M) you are taking away control from the camera giving you more ‘license’ over the outcome of the photograph. You will achieve better accuracy, have more say in how the image is captured and gain the ability to be more creative. There is no better way to learn more about photography while also gaining the potential for huge increases in image quality.
Using a tripod will more often than not help with the quality of your shots by increasing the sharpness. Even a steady rest will not totally eliminate blurriness created from your unsteady hands while hand holding a camera. A good sturdy tripod ensures much better odds in gaining a crisp image and those odds can be increased again by going one step further with the use of a cable or remote shutter release. These small and inexpensive devices will completely remove the ‘hands variable’ from the equation. My strong recommendation here is not to skimp on this vital piece of equipment as a cheap flimsy model with low quality components will not aid but hinder what you’re trying to achieve, that of complete stability. Tripods are a very under rated piece of photographic equipment and should be used wherever possible.
7. ISO – Don’t be Afraid
As we know ISO increases a camera’s sensitivity to light. The greatest benefit of this is to enable us to gain faster shutter speeds for low light situations, slowing down subject movement or help eliminate hand/camera shake. The down side to increased ISO is grainy ‘noise’ in the resulting image. Back in the day of film cameras high ISO’s were avoided as film was notoriously bad at showing noise and this fear has been ‘inherited’ into the digital era. However, modern digital sensors are now able to cope with noise far better than film, so don’t be afraid to up ISO settings in those situations where it is required. At the end of the day it is way better to capture a noisy image than none at all.
A feature of the green box auto mode is the camera’s capability of deciding when the in-built flash is needed or rather when it thinks it is needed. Now throughout these articles I have advocated getting out of the green box to become familiar with the manual and semi-manual modes which unfortunately (or fortunately if you look at it the right way) now require the flash to be engaged manually also. This is a good thing as now we can use of it at any time. In our hunting trip type situations, the best use we can make of it is as ‘fill light’ to brighten foreground shadows, dark areas, shaded faces and so on. Often a very weak subtle burst is all that is required to even out the lighting in the scene so don’t forget to use the flash exposure compensation to vary the power of the flash output.
9. Reciprocal Shutter Speed
This wee ‘golden rule’ is a real beauty. Once again, so many of our hunting situations will involve low light and shadows which consequently means finding correct settings to get optimal exposures that don’t end in blurry images due to hand/camera shake. So, when deciding on exposure settings bear this wee rule in mind …. In a nutshell it states that the shutter speed should not be slower than the reciprocal of the focal length. For example, if your lens has a 200mm focal length then the minimum hand held shutter speed you’re aiming for should be no less than 1/200 of a second. Base your adjustment of aperture and ISO around this shutter speed guideline and you’ll find a much bigger percentage of sharper images.
10. The Eyes and Centre Point Focus
In wildlife photography whether it be an animal or a bird, the eyes must be in focus. Without this important aspect your subject will become almost lifeless. Depending on how close you are and how large in the frame the subject is, accuracy of the focus along with where you want that focus point to fall will be enhanced by setting the focus system to ‘centre point’ focus. This is yet another form of taking manual control over your camera. By limiting the system to one point that you have total control over you will ensure focus is exactly where it should be. Combined with good light angles (light coming in from behind you) the all important ‘catchlight’ in the eye/s will bring even more life to the image.
Eyes in focus with an added bonus of a small catchlight which adds even more ‘life’ to the Fallow fawn. Golden bay.
( 1/400 @ f/7.1, ISO 1600 )
Same wee deer but no catchlight this time. Just a slight change in the position of the deer’s head has consequently altered the angle of light removing the catchlight.
( 1/320 @ f/7.1, ISO 1600 )
Since starting my photography ‘journey’ a few years ago the hunger for photography information has been immense. That appetite has not diminished to this day and I am continually learning a whole heap of new things all the time. There have been many occasions after I have returning from a trip that I wished I had remembered various ‘rules’, tips and guidelines that help produce better images. I would have come home with keepers rather than deletes. I’m hoping that the quick fire reminders in this article will be of help to you out in the field on your next trip.