Photographing Game Animals - Part 1
Game animals ….The prime reason why we all get out into the bush and back country. They are also the very reason why I took up photography more seriously.
I’ve always had a huge fascination and possess a large dose of respect for wild animals. Many people have had the privilege of immediate family to ignite the outdoor fire at a young age. My introduction to the ‘wilds’ and wild animals was through cubs and boy scouts as a pre-teen. I was exposed to the exciting outdoors via the many weekend camps, my mentors being the older boys and pack leaders. Eeling, possum catching, ‘crawly’ hunting in the bush streams at night with a torch and on more than a few occasions the absolute mega thrill and buzz of sighting a wild goat and sometimes even a pig !! When you’re around the age of ten or eleven, those trips always felt like huge big wild adventures … great stuff.
There was just something that stirred the heart and soul when being amongst and seeing truly wild animals in their natural habitat, and that still applies even today. Perhaps it’s just the hunting instinct within us coming to the fore, maybe the fact that it’s just not something you see every day (the rarity factor) or possibly because they are just that, ‘wild’, which stirs these emotions and feelings. What ever it is, a few years ago my motivations to get out in our back country amongst our wild animals changed from one of hunting these creatures for a kill to hunting these creatures to capture in a photo. Not that I don’t still kill the odd animal with the bow for the table or as a trophy, it’s simply a kind of lateral shift of my motivations of why I venture out into the wilds and also a change in what I’m looking to achieve on my trips. Some people might say I’m just getting older!!
As we are all hunters at heart I won’t try and tell you how to hunt and stalk game animals. I’m sure everyone has their own techniques and opinions on how to ‘hunt’ which I’m also sure will be entirely different to my own. So with that in mind I’d like to simply list a few topics, ideas and tips for your animal photography.
Patience isn’t a virtue … it’s a necessity
Now I know I’ve mentioned this more than once in the past but there is a very good reason for it … all the great wildlife photographers (and bird and landscape photographers for that matter) have oodles of patience and perseverance. They know that you can’t ask an animal or bird to look this way, do something cute or stand where the light is better. They also know the only way they’re going to achieve an exquisite, award winning shot is by exercising this patience so they are THERE and READY when the animal or bird does do something cute or something interesting. Be prepared to wait, wait and wait some more. It takes a long time to get a good wildlife shot and even longer to get a great one.
‘Wild Tenderness’, Marlborough high country. Patience …. I’d already gained some good images of these and other goats in the mob. By waiting and being patient I was able to capture this tender moment between a mother and her offspring. ( 1/320 @ f/5.6, ISO 400 ).
This whole idea of patience goes hand in hand with ‘knowing your subject’. Every species of animal has ingrained patterns of behaviour. By spending time observing animals (at times without the camera) you’ll learn many of these behavioural traits and be able to somewhat predict the animals next move. And each of those many failed stalks on previous hunts will all have contributed some valuable knowledge of their behaviour. This ability to predict is a huge advantage in terms of preparation for a camera shot.
Camera settings will vary greatly depending on the animal, the situation, the lighting, what you’re trying to achieve and so many other factors. However, there are a couple of general guidelines that will at least get you in the ball park.
With wildlife photography more often than not you’ll be dealing with poor lighting whether it be the time of day, when naturally game animals are more active (early morning/late evening) or dark, under-bush conditions. Av (aperture priority) mode is a good start here. You set the aperture and the camera will choose the appropriate shutter speed for the shot. By setting the aperture large (small dial number) you’re giving the camera the best chance of gaining as much light as possible. Remember too about the ability to increase the ISO setting during those less than ideal lighting conditions.
If you’re trying to capture action or are photographing fast moving animals then the Tv (shutter priority) setting is more appropriate. If you know your gear well you’ll know roughly what shutter speeds are required to freeze certain types of motion, movement or action. So, in Tv mode set the shutter speed you think will stop action or movement (probably 1/1600 of a second and up) then the camera will pick the aperture. In our inherent dark lighting conditions, chances are this will be a very wide aperture.
There is also a well known rule of thumb with telephoto or zoom lenses which states that your shutter speed should never be below the length of your lens. For example, if your lens is or at 200mm then you should never shoot below 1/200th of a second or you risk camera shake.
Shutter and aperture priority modes.
As with bird photography, focus and where it lies is important. Now I don’t like to harp on (and I only do it to stress an important point) but once again the eyes of the animal must be in focus.
To do this with at least some sort of user control accuracy the focus point decisions must be taken away from the camera. For example, when in the ‘green box’ (or auto) mode the camera will always tend to pick the easiest point to achieve focus. Generally this is the nearest subject to the camera and not necessarily what you as camera operator would like to focus on. Most modern cameras have the ability to move your focus sensor square (focus point) around manually on the frame. That is, have one accurate focus point that you control rather than several of which the camera chooses one or many of. This is very handy when you have bush, branches and twigs to shoot through to get focus on an animal. Also great when you have approached to with in a few metres of an animal (which will of course produce a narrow DOF) and you need that point of focus squarely on the eyes not on the ears or nose.
Focus points on a typical DSLR camera. On auto mode the camera will choose any one or many of the points to achieve focus. You have the ability to choose just one of these (on some cameras, a group of them) for much greater and more defined focus accuracy.
Using The Light
One term used to describe photography is ‘painting with light’. The primary ingredient for good photography is good light/lighting which we must use to the best of our ability. I’ve talked of the early morning and late evening ‘golden hour’ before and how it creates superb soft lighting. Between these two times the lighting conditions change considerably. The middle of the day when the sun is at its highest is the worst few hours of the day for good wildlife images. Harsh shadows and very bright highlights detract from what otherwise might be a good capture. Eye ‘catchlights’ (talked about last issue) also become very hard to achieve when the sun is so high. The exception to these mid day hours is when it is cloudy and overcast as these conditions act like a giant soft-box that filters out the light evenly. Shoot all day when it is like this.However, all is not lost if the light is not conducive to good photography. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in a position where the light isn’t ideal or the light is sweet but from the wrong direction and you can’t move around to a better position or angle. There is a silver lining in every cloud, as they say. Although difficult to pull off, providing you know your gear well shooting into the light can create a lot of mood in an image and produce some really interesting and pretty cool shots.
Looking into the light of late afternoon. Red deer, Marlborough high country. ( 1/400 @ f/7.2, ISO 200 )
In Close vs Out Wide
Many people believe that to gain good wildlife images one must have a super long telephoto or zoom lens. While there are certainly situations that require big long lenses such as wide open spaces, there seems to be almost an obsession to get as close up as possible, filling the frame from edge to edge with the animal and thus removing the animal from its surrounding environment. The result is often an image that looks like it could be taken of a captive subject in a controlled situation which gives the viewer no idea of the real environment in which the animal lives.
Image showing how a very close, frame filling shot robs the viewer of a look at the environment in which the pig exists. Awatere Valley, Marlborough. ( 1/80 @ f/5.6, ISO 1600 )
This is where ‘habitat shots’ shots come in. Basically these are images which take in a much wider view of the animal’s surroundings or environment. Naturally your subject animal will also be a lot smaller in the frame. Anyone viewing the image will gain a really good idea of where you took the shot and the type of habitat and terrain your subject lives in. This technique is applicable to any species from a tiny little insect to a rabbit and right on up to the largest of our game animals.
Now, here is the same boar taken with a much wider view which now gives a good depiction of the habitat and environment he is a part of. ( 1/100 @ f/5.6, ISO 1600 )
The flip side to shooting wider is, as you may have guessed, shooting closer. Now there is frame filling close (as mentioned above) and then there is the super tight, personal, in your face type of close. This type of shot is a great way to create some really different and interesting studies of the animals you encounter on your trips. It may also help you think in terms of more abstract compositions and framing of your images as well as indulge in a bit of rebellion to break a few of those compositional rules.
I just love the eyes on this shot. A very surprised female goat at close quarters …. camera to goat distance, three metres. Marlborough high country. ( 1/100 @ 5.6, ISO 800 )
We are blessed here in this country with the array of game animals that we are able to hunt. So many opportunities right on our doorstep, mostly all year round and with so few restrictions put upon us as to how we go about it. I’ve always loved the challenge and excitement of getting out in the wilds of New Zealand’s back country and into the natural world of wild animals. I ‘converted’ to a bow nineteen years ago now and ‘saw the light’ of the camera about three years ago. Surprisingly, I actually do a heck of a lot more hunting now than back in my rifle hunting days despite not going out anywhere near as often. What I mean here is that I’m doing more actual active hunting (stalking if you like) using the camera than I ever did with a rifle.
So, here’s an idea …. next time you get the urge to go for a hunt and your freezer is not completely devoid of ‘venny’ or pork, think about leaving the rifle at home for a change. Take the camera !! I think you’ll discover some new, very exciting and ultimately rewarding times.