A better Wildlife Photographer in 10 Steps
By Hanna Wigart, professional photographer at Volunteer Encounter, Victoria Falls.
Are you an avid photographer looking to improve your wildlife portrait photography skills? Then we can help! In this blog post, written by our on-site professional photographer, Hannah Wigart, in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, you will find 11 very useful tips on getting the perfect shot!
Wildlife Photography can be challenging for a beginner, but we have compiled some important tips on how you can easily become an amazing wildlife photographer, just by following some easy steps!
Firstly, we need to talk about equipment. As a general rule, to take amazing wildlife portraits, your equipment is really important, especially if you would like to take up photography as a profession. Having said that, I have taken some fantastic images of wild horses on an old digital research camera, so anything is possible if you have the right eye!
I would recommend that you start off with simple equipment, learn the basics and then upgrade once you have more experience in the field and understand how to photograph animals properly. Learning using basic equipment definitely pushes you to become more creative and understand photography better. I would also recommend watching some YouTube videos of people using your specific camera equipment in order to gain a better understanding.
Photographing animals in their natural habitat inevitably involves reducing the distance and enlarging those characteristic details.
For a beginner, I would recommend a cropped camera with beginner zoom lenses. There are many packages available in photography stores and the best thing to do is to just talk to a professional in the store. Ideally, you want lenses that can zoom up to 300-400.
For professionals, I would recommend a cropped or full format camera compatible with long-range lenses (e.g. 70-200 or 200-500) with f numbers between 2.8-5.6.
Keep in mind that often your lens is more important than the camera body, so if you are on a budget, buy a cheaper body and a more expensive lens!
My personal equipment is a Nikon D850 (a full format camera) with 3 lenses (24-70mm, f2.8, 70-200 f2.8 and a 200-500 f5.6).
A tripod is an added bonus for capturing those magical dusk and dawn moments when the animals come out to play – addressing the problem of low lighting. This would be a great asset if you are patient enough to set up at a waterhole and let the animals drift in and out of your level field of vision. Those are the moments that give anyone a reason to take up wildlife pictures!
Framing wildlife portraits
Framing your subject, especially wild animals, is an incredibly difficult thing to do because often they are shy and don’t want people too close to them. It is hard to get an animal in the right position for the perfect composition, but if you get the opportunity, I would suggest paying attention to using the beautiful nature around them when framing your subject, especially leaves and foliage.
Leaves make great frames!
Lighting and Shadows
This can take a long time to learn, unfortunately, but I will give you a small insight into what I think about light and shadows.
I personally think that most animals look best when not photographed in direct sunlight.
In my opinion, shade is always the best option. However, you obviously can’t tell an animal where to stand! So sometimes you can use light to your advantage and create incredible images with shadows from their own bodies or from the nature surrounding them.
The very important eyes!
Your subject´s eyes will tell a million stories.
I always feel that if you have good sharpness on the animal´s eyes you can show more of its personality.
Getting your subject´s eyes sharp is not an easy task, and this you will need to practice until you get it right. So, make sure the eyes are in focus and that the eyes catch the light!
Sharpness is KEY
Being able to take sharp images of wildlife differentiates you from being a beginner to a professional. To do this, you will often need a shutter speed of higher than 1000 to make sure that any shakiness or movement doesn’t show in the image.
However, this is a rule that sometimes can be broken to create different types of creative images, such as this wild horse image below. The face is sharp and in focus but the hair and background have movement in it.
Keep your background simple
While taking a photo you may have the most amazing subject. However, if you are not careful with how you place your subject, you can ruin the entire photo.
For wildlife portrait photography, you want your subject to be against a background that has as little noise as possible, so as not to distract your viewer from what you are photographing. With a lens with an f-number of 2.8 you can create beautiful soft backgrounds.
If you find yourself in a situation where your subject is located in front of a bad background, try to move around until you have a less noisy one.
Sometimes just a few steps to the side and the background areas of your subject become more peaceful.
What message do you want to convey with your photograph? What are you feeling as you are taking the picture. What have you been experiencing while immersed in the wild? Composition is like your ‘voice’ and is the way you convey a particular story. Is the lion’s head turned towards you, engaging, threatening? Or is his whole face zoned in on a potential prey with that powerful, hungry look. Which corner of the page will he sit in? Ready to leap forward, lounging about lazily or coming straight at you with all his force. Draw on all you know including the rule of thirds, working with foregrounds and background, placing your subject, lighting, sharpness and framing as you compile your powerful story!
Post-processing for the advanced
Post-processing is a vital part of photography. I would recommend Lightroom since it is what I use for all of my editings.
Here I´ll show you the result of some of my processed images using Lightroom to give you an idea of how I work and the techniques I use.
This is a REALLY important point. If you over-expose your images you won’t be able to save much of the information in the photograph. I always follow a rule to rather under-expose an image, than over-expose.
It is much easier to work with an under-exposed image in post-processing programs.
Practice makes perfection
It may not seem like it, but practising photographing is SUPER important. If you don’t pick up your camera often to snap some photos of animals you will find it hard to improve over time.
Taking pictures regularly not only helps you gain skills in manoeuvering your camera but also allows you to learn what will be a good photo before you take it.
Get on foot – if you can!
This is also one for the more experienced, especially in Africa due to the dangerous animals you may encounter. I happen to have the privilege of currently living next to one of the seven wonders of the world – Victoria Falls – surrounded by beautiful savannah bushveld and many magnificent species of the big five animals of Africa. For example, I found this fantastic spot in Victoria Falls, Elephant Hills Golf Course, where I can take a lot of images of wildlife, on foot.
This is how I managed to get low, frame and photograph animals exactly the way I wanted to.
Bonus: Capture the animals’ personality – knowing your subject!
It is truly something amazing when you capture the personality of your subject. It can be tricky, but it definitely helps to have an understanding of animal behaviour.
For example, I studied a Masters in Zoology and therefore I can understand much better why and how animals behave in certain ways. This allows me to know what to expect from wild animals and what to focus on. It makes me think about how I can capture that on camera.
So, study up before on the peculiar habits of your chosen species before you head out on your next adventure!