Top 20 Tips & Guidelines - Part 2, 11-20 ....
In The Field
In my previous article I presented ten top tips to wildlife and natural landscape photography detailing the ‘technical’ side of things. Photography is inherently quite technical and it’s really down to the individual as to how much of this you want to take on board and apply to your own photography. Some are very ‘boffin-minded’ and really enjoy getting into the nitty gritty technical stuff of the modern digital era. Others are happy to just take a pic, download it and print it off for their own ‘memento’ or to show family and friends.
One huge misconception out there is that to produce a superb, super sharp and detailed, technically perfect image you need to have the latest and most expensive high end gear. It didn’t take me long to realise that this is just not the case. Sure good gear will make your job a tad easier but at the end of the day it is how you use that equipment that will turn out the quality images. The old saying, “the nut behind the butt” comes to mind. Further to that (and proven also through my own experiences), the things you do and apply in the field are far more important and relevant to good photographs than all the technical stuff. Stalking ability, knowing animal habits intimately, being familiar with weather patterns, knowing when light is going to optimal and even bush craft ….. all are examples of field craft and knowledge that will have enormous effects on the type and quality of images you create.
So on that note here are my top ten ‘out in the field’ photography tips. (Keep an eye out for my absolute number one tip at number 20)
11. The Golden Hour
Good photography equals good lighting. Simple really. The ‘golden hour’ referred to in photography circles is that time at the start and end of each day when the sun is low on the horizon producing a soft, diffused light which is much more flattering than the harsh midday sun. This type of light produces less contrast, reducing the chances of losing parts of your subject or scene in strong shadows or blown-out highlights, those two extremes that the camera sensor’s dynamic range has difficulty recording accurately. The warm glow that is produced by this late and early light adds a pleasing, warm feel to the image and the long shadows help to pick out details, adding texture and depth to the shot.
Of course one bonus with these two times is that they also coincide with when wild animals are generally more active so giving you great subject opportunities with the best possible lighting. The term ‘hour’ is of course a loose term depending on the season. Make deliberate use of these golden hour times.
I took this shot late in the afternoon when Adrian and I were glassing for animals …. the golden hour. ( 1/250 @ f/8, ISO 200 )
Compare this shot to the one below of a very balmy warm spring day taken at one o’clock in the afternoon. Despite the alpine scene being obviously colder and bleaker, it still portrays more warmth and softness than the lower altitude bush scene. ( 1/320 @ f/8, ISO 400 )
This particular tip may well be redundant for many of you as you’ll probably be using it to aid your hunting in some form or other already. Stalking into wild animals whether for a kill or a photograph demands the same type of stealth and concealment to which end camouflage clothing goes a long way towards. In a previous issue I extolled the virtues of the ‘leafy’, 3D type of outfits and clothing and I still stand by this. Their main benefit comes in the form of texture that helps break up your human outline and form that a flat pattern will not accomplish to the same degree. Additionally, if you’re trying to blend in to your surroundings and your surroundings are ‘moving’ in the wind, it makes sense that you should be too. The leafy nature of your clothing achieves this. I consider them to be far better, more realistic and blend in more readily than the ‘flat’ patterns.
All this talk of camo is all very good but do remember that you can be blended in perfectly by way of great camouflage but movement will always give you away.
Great natural camouflage. Chukar, Marlborough high country. (There are eight birds in this shot).
( 1/200 @ f/8, ISO 250 )
13. Low Profile
The majority of our wild animals’ only ‘predator’ is man. The human shape is an instinctive, instant and absolute threat to them. This intuition has been ingrained into them on an almost genetic level through many generations of having to avoid, escape, flee and ‘survive’ the dreaded man shape. From our point of view (the predator or hunter) it makes sense to disguise our upright human form to be at least less of a threat. Crouch, kneel or even crawl on your belly like a snake when attempting to close the gap on your subject. Anything to change your two legged, erect outline and appearance. I continue to be amazed at just how quiet some wild animals are despite being in very close and knowing I am there.
14. Movement, Action and Interaction
Consider the following two photographs … firstly your passport photo. Now compare it too, say, a pic of you that a mate took while you were sharing some banter and a laugh round your hunting camp. The former is very dull and uninteresting while the latter portrays emotion, humour, perhaps movement and even some interaction with another member of your group. I know which one would hold my interest longer and probably even tell me a story of events or actions.
Images of animals and birds that include some sense of movement or action of the subject or better still interaction with either another or several individuals is an infinitely more compelling shot. By all means take those initial stationary or ‘perched’ images but challenge your self to go on from there and record more dynamic, interesting photographs using movement, action and interaction as components or ingredients.
15. Habitat Shots
Although those close up and intricately detailed images are fantastic to look at and something we as wildlife photographers aspire to they are not the be all and end all to good photography. Often and in many situations a wider and more expansive image of an animal or bird is just as captivating.
Intimate close shots neglect to show the viewer the habitat or environment which the subject is living in while also giving no sense of scale. Some situations prevent us getting in as close as we would ideally like so try turning a negative into a positive by capturing a wider image and using the animal as a smaller albeit just as important subject in the overall image/scene. Perhaps think of it as combining wildlife and landscape photography in the one image.
Red stag, Marlborough high country.
( 1/1000 @ f/7.1, ISO 640 )
I’m sure that when out hunting all of us are constantly looking around our environment for telltale signs to better our chances of securing an animal. Often it might be a combination of several small things adding up to a certain conclusion which may not even be used practically that particular day but stored away in your memory for another time.
Observing and watching what is going on around us gives us better knowledge of nature as a whole but more specifically about our quarry or target photographic subject. I believe all this gathered, accumulated information is crucial to success though more often than not it is utilised further down the track on some future trip. My most recent practical example that comes to mind is my last time out exploring an isolated sand spit in a local estuary for nesting shore birds. I didn’t even snap the shutter that day but what I did discover was half a dozen scallop-shaped depressions in the sand with each one having a multitude of Oystercatcher prints surrounding them. Being early spring it was obvious to me that these depressions were the beginnings of nests. I marked each one with a vertical stick in the sand placed several metres away for future easy location. One day I hope to get back, position myself under a camo cover (lying on my belly so I’m down at their level), with the light at the correct angle and hopefully obtain either some mating shots of the adults or perhaps a few of chicks on the nest … who knows. All good information though, eh ?
“Patience isn’t a virtue, it’s a necessity”. I’ve used this quote before but I really love it and it applies absolutely fittingly for wildlife, bird and natural landscape photography.
In the above Oystercatcher scenario I fully expect to have to lie there for at least a couple of hours and possibly up to four or five if need be. No doubt I’ll be cramped and my lower back will be aching after a while, concentration will start to wane and the temptation to get up and ‘flag it’ will be there after the first half hour. However, it’s like duck shooting in the maimai. The action has been slow, you havn’t seen a flight for over an hour and decide to either sit back and have a coffee or you start to pack your gear up. As soon as you begin one of these tasks a couple of ducks WILL swing by the maimai. Murphy dictates that it just happens that way, always. Murphy also resides in the world of photography so you will have to be strong willed, long suffering but in the knowledge that it will pay off with a superb image at the end of it all.
Even a super careful and quiet approach to this remote Kahurangi Coast pond didn’t prevent the frogs that were residing in it to duck for cover beneath the water. It was a long forty five minute wait before they eventually started popping up one by one for a ‘breather’. A reasonably long, patient wait but I got a shot.
( 1/640 @ f/7.1, ISO 400 )
18. Preparation and Gear
Unless I have a very specific image in mind and know precisely what gear and equipment I will need for that shot, I generally carry everything I need for pretty much any situation I may encounter. I’m talking here of morning, afternoon or day trips as multi day walk in trips, for example, will necessitate limiting what gear you can take. You will recall in issue 30 – Aug/Sept I showed you all the gear I need for 95% of situations I encounter. (I’ve reproduced that pic below). When selecting and purchasing each piece of kit one of the main criteria was that I had to be able to carry it out in the field, was easy, quick and simple to set up and was of good quality. I have one large ‘bin’ that I store it all in so it is nice and easy just to grab the bin and go knowing all I need is in there.
As with your hunting gear, keep a regular eye on the condition and ensure everything is in good working order, all of the time. Also be very familiar with it all so when crunch time arrives valuable time will not be lost.
Clockwise, bottom left – lightweight camo long pants and long sleeve top, camera bag with two bodies, two lenses and all appropriate accessories, portable fold out ground blind, fold out chair, tripod, and in the centre is the rolled up ghillie suit.
(Apart from the camera bag, all this gear goes in one large bin. Included in the bin (and not shown here) is two other types of simple camo drapes and a lightweight waterproof ground sheet should I need to lie in water or mud).
20. GET CLOSE !!
As I’m running out of space I’m now going to jump straight to number twenty in my list of tips …. which is also my number one tip for wildlife photography. If there was only one piece if advice I was able to give anyone it would be ‘get as close as you possibly can to your subject’.
I hear many people enquiring about long lenses or powerful zooms on point and shoots because they wish to obtain good and close up shots of animals and birds two hundred metres away. Sure some modern cameras include powerful zoom lenses that bring things amazingly ‘close’ but at the end of the day the resulting quality of that image will be relatively poor. Now, if the same guy with the same camera took the time and had the necessary stalking skills to get closer his image would be vastly superior in quality.
Another method to produce frame filling shots is to crop down the image on the computer later. This is a mistake right from the get-go because as soon as you start cropping you will reduce the number of pixels in the image and consequently the quality of detail. Digital images are all about data … each pixel is a piece of information, the more pieces of information you have, the more detail you will have in ‘the story’. ie, the image. There is no substitute for getting close !!
I think half the problem lies in what people expect. Many suppose or presume that any modern digital camera should be able to create stunning shots in any given photographic situation. Most won’t but you will have a huge head start by positioning yourself as close as possible to the animal.
The image of the Paradise duck chick at the start of this article is frame filling with no cropping at all. Check out the amazing detail of each individual fibre of down.
Hopefully these field tips and techniques have shown you that what happens and what you do ‘out on the hill’ has a huge impact on the images you obtain. I think they will have a bigger impact overall than the level of technology that your camera equipment possesses and the technical techniques that you employ.
In applying some or all of what I have suggested here (much of which you will already have acquired through the many hours spent in the field with your hunting) I’m positive the quality of your photographs will go ahead in leaps and bounds.
A ‘by catch’ image while waiting for Kingfishers. Marlborough’s Wairau Lagoons.
( 1/640 @ f/7.1, ISO 200 )