Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tips and Observations for Nature & Wildlife Photography

I was asked to speak at a camera club in Maryland recently, and accepted because while I am not a Pro Photographer, I aspire to be one one day and thought of it sort of like training for the big leagues... About 35 people attended and as far as I could tell no one left or fell asleep - so it was a success! My presentation last about 2 hours... With nearly each image I told something regarding the subject or location or both, and elements that went in to the photograph/shooting.

I showed about 120 images in 6 categories and made these collages as intros in to the image groupings (a few photos not in the collages made it in too - almost all images were ones I'd posted to flickr previously):






And finally LANDSCAPES

I made a handout with the below info. I've actually spoken at another camera club already as a presenter and not just a member, and had organized the talk around locations and showed images from each place (about a dozen spots). This time I chose a more themed or subject based organization.

1) Learn photo basics (f/stops, shutter speed, ISO, etc) and your gear. period.
a. Practice on captive animals or inanimate objects
2) Learn to observe wildlife, see. Focus on behavior, predicting things.
  a. Practice at the zoo – even captive animals can reveal nuggets as to wildlife observation
3) Learn locations, start locally, expand travel distance.
4) Learn to do basic location/site discovery on visit #1
5) Build an informed plan for visit #2 ->
6) Execute on that plan, adapt, be flexible, but still plan and try to use the planning to your advantage.
7) Grow sphere of observation, your photographic world, start close to home, grow travel radius
8) Form good habits for shooting
  a. Prep gear day before (batteries, clean, pack bag for location/plan)
  b. Turn off the cell phone, or put it on vibrate.
  c. Place car keys IN pocket.
  d. While an iPod or radio can help pass the time, it can distract from proper observation
  e. Dress for the weather – but keep options open (bring or have extra clothes ready – shoes, sox, hat, gloves, scarf)
  f. Pack food and water, even for half day trips.
  g. Gas up the car the day before
  h. Use GPS or printed map for first trips to new locations
  i. Always have extra batteries and memory cards. Forgetting that one and only CF card can be a big problem, especially if you don’t realize until after you’ve driven 100 miles. Take the 2 minutes to verify before leaving the house that the camera bag has a camera, battery, memory card, etc.
9) Form habits and plans and patterns for locations
  a. Go where the light is best first, animals have patterns and habits, try things that have worked before
  b. When scanning a given road with good light on one side, and poor light on the other – focus on the side with good light – simple but not worth checking the poor side of the road since photos are all about light.
  c. Be patient, setup and focus attention where the light is best.
10) Go beyond those plans when you start to feel like you are “check-listing” things and not doing "new"
11) Aim for the new, take risks, avoid shooting in crowds, (shoot alone)
12) Always look to get inspired, find photographers that are producing great work and come up with something to try to advance your own work - and not *just* gear.
  a. Gear helps - instead pursue locations, subjects and images (not gear).
  b. Learning subjects’ habits and behaviors can help you get closer than any gear
13) Go shooting alone; or if in a group plan to split up at some point. Don't all line up on a subject or spot and click in unison - or if you do don't expect to get something all that unique. Shooting alone also has the added benefit of putting you in sole control of your interaction with nature/wildlife. The inputs may be directly linked to the outcomes. It is easier to realize a jingle of a set of keys will disturb a bird when you're alone. If your are paired up you may be talking and never see the bird or it might leave before you have a chance to spot it.
14) Try to shoot early or late in the day – golden hour and all, flat / noon-time images are easy to get and lack appeal – an hour at sunrise can yield much better results than 4 hours during mid day.
15) Always keep trying – Luck can yield the occasional great image (think golf swing and a single good ball), but it takes practice and tons of things go in to making good images consistently or at least somewhat regularly.
  a. Get something from every day – and learn to be ok with that not always being a great image. Some days the reward is a new location gets found, a revelation about a subject, or a seemingly minor thing that advances the next trip
16) Last but not least – when you’re wondering what to do, questioning everything and anything, just go out shooting. Unhappy with file management? Go shooting. Unhappy with making prints? Go shooting. Wish you could process a RAW file better? Go shooting. Don’t get caught up in the OTHER STUFF, shoot first, and worry about the rest last.

Qualities of a good image – things I shoot for, use to select images once shot, etc:
  • Is the light good, unique?
  • Are the lines compelling, is the composition good?
  • For Animals does the image show?
    o Behavior
    o Hunting
    o Eating
    o Mating
    o Resting / Sleeping
    o A uniquely close view
    o Animal’s habitat
  • Is the image clean? A twig or the slightest distracting thing in the background can make the difference between ok and great
  • Spend a good amount of time reviewing previous shoots, and give days and weeks for images to age and see if they still hold the same meaning as when first shot – that will help you pick the images that others will respond too since they were not there.

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Listen to Podcasts:
This Week in Photography (TWiP), This Week in Media (TWiM), Martin Bailey Photography, The Candid Frame, LightSource Studio Photography, Tips from the Top Floor, Chase Jarvis Photography, Moose Peterson, Nature Stories Podcast, Photofocus.

Find an online community to participate in, I recommend Flickr. Other people I know frequent, and I think flickr has a good mix of photo and social elements to make it a better choice.

Photo Stats: In 4 ½ years I’ve taken about 300,000 images and have shot on about 1000+ location-days @ usually one location per day (sometimes 2 a day, rarely 3 or 4 in a single day).

My gear (working items only): D200, D300, D300s, Fuji S5, Nikkor 200-400mm f/4, Tamron 18-200mm, 80-400mm f4.5-5.6, Tokina 12-24mm f/4, 35mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.8, 2 x SB-800’s, Gitzo Basalt (GT2941), FEISOL Tripod CT-3472LV, Whimberly Gimble Head, Naturescapes Kwik Camo Blind, Quad-core AMD 8GB RAM, ~8TB internal and ~3TB external (backups) disk space running Windows 7 x64.

Two recommended photographers:
Gaƫtan -
Hennie -

(and stealing a page from the candid frame podcast I recommended TWO fellow photographers that happen to both be from



Hennie van Heerden said...

Jon, congratulations on a perfect job!! I only wish I could have been there to listen to you and to enjoy those perfect collections you made!!
Thank you so much for your recommendations. I'm honored, especially coming from you!!
Best regards,

Anonymous said...

Well done. I like how you organized this. All great tips. I agree, the more you know about the creature you are shooting, the more you will know where it is and what it is doing. I was in a photo club but finally gave up on it. After three years, no one even knew what kind of photos I usually shoot.

Dina said...

What a great list! I'm going to print this and keep it with my camera gear to use. Thanks for the tips.

Matt said...