How to Take Interesting Wildlife Images

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At least at one point of time in our photography journey, almost all of us want to try our hands on wildlife photography. Be it an attempt to photograph a bird in our backyard or taking a jungle safari, it is pretty rare to see someone with a camera not attempting to shoot the wild side. For a person like me living in India, the land of tigers & elephants to a wide array of resident and migratory birds flocking all the way from Siberia and Australia, it is no surprise that you will see me with a super telephoto lens crawling through wilderness. There are countless articles floating all over the Internet on the rules and guidelines of wildlife photography, not to mention some amazing articles on various aspects of wildlife photography right here at Photography Life. In this article, I would like to pen down a few pointers that I feel come very handy in the field, and things that aren’t spoken much of.

Sarus Crane Courtship dance
Sarus Crane Courtship Dance
NIKON D7000 @ 500mm, ISO 500, 1/3200, f/5.6

Light

Irrespective of our subject, be it a tiger, a mountain or the galaxy, we are merely shooting light. Photography itself is all about capturing light. So it becomes inevitable to talk about light before we talk about anything else. During the initial days of my photography life, there was one issue that I used to ponder upon more than anything else which was, ‘It looked so beautiful to my eyes, but I ended up with a below average picture. How come?’ I’m certain a lot of fellow photographers would have come across the same issue and in all honesty, it does pop out once in a while even now. The only difference is, now I can understand what went wrong. The reality is, there is no such camera as brilliant as the human eye. During our primary years of photography we end up assuming the camera to be very similar to the human eye. The human eye adapts to varying light conditions before we can even recognize it, but a camera doesn’t until we tell it that the light has changed. Below are a few pointers that help us on the field.

The Midday “Harsh” Light

The Golden Hour needs no introduction. There is no disagreement that we get the best colors and contrast during the first couple of hours after sunrise and a couple of hours before the sun sinks into the horizon. We all know of the golden hour magic. Nevertheless, it has its own disadvantages as well.

Indian Roller
Indian Roller
NIKON D7000 @ 500mm, ISO 500, 1/3200, f/5.6
Aliexpress INT

The above picture was shot at around 3 PM. A time most of us would avoid shooting at all expecting harsh lighting. Had I shot the above frame during the golden hour, it would have been very difficult to get the vibrant blue on the bird’s feathers. During the golden hour, most of the blues are scattered in the atmosphere and it becomes very difficult to get the natural saturated blues. It is true that we get the richest warm tones during the golden hour. But to shoot subjects of cooler tones, it is easier to get them outside the golden hour. Midday light is also when the sky retains the maximum blue. I don’t mean to persuade you away from the golden hour, but to advice against shying off during mid-day. It is true that the mid-day direct sunlight has a wide array of disadvantages, starting from yielding flat images to bringing down the contrast between highlights and shadows or blowing out the specular highlights…the list goes on. But there are instances where a particular natural history moment is possible only around mid-day. For example, tigers chill out in pools and waterholes around mid-day, especially moms with cubs. The Indian rollers in the above picture are mostly seen during mid-day. Raptors like Kestrels and Peregrine Falcons in Indian deserts are often seen perched during mid-days than during the early hours. There is always an angle even in the trickiest lighting conditions. Just because of the mid-day light, I have seen a lot of photographers not even attempt what could have been an acceptable picture. If we don’t get what we seek sometimes, is inevitable and can’t be helped. But missing a rare natural history moment just because we presume the light wouldn’t be good enough might be a chance of a lifetime missed.

On the other hand, with the sort of high ISO performance that current production cameras are capable of, dawn and dusk wildlife photography has also become within reach for photographers with semi-pro grade gear. The picture below was shot just before sunrise. Again, the cooler mood has brought out the contrast between the blues in the below picture of a Himalayan Monal, which tops to be my all-time favorite bird since the day I saw it for the first time.

Himalayan Monal
Himalayan Monal
NIKON D7000 + NIKKOR 200-500 f/5.6 E VR @ 500mm, ISO 1000, 1/800, f/5.6

The warmth of the scene can be adjusted with White Balance, but during the golden hour the blues do suffer a loss of saturation. In the below image that was shot around the golden hour, I was able to get a blue sky with a WB of 5600 but still, the wings of the pied Kingfisher looked warm. Had I dialed the WB towards the blue furthermore, the sky would have become too blue, giving a bit of an artificial feel.

Pied Kingfisher
Pied Kingfisher
NIKON D7000 + NIKKOR 200-500 f/5.6 E VR @ 500mm, ISO 1000, 1/3200, f/5.6

The Lateral Sunlight

Depending upon where you live, the intensity and hence the quality of light varies by a great deal. In India, which lies in the tropics, during peak summer, the sun is almost right on top of our heads during mid-days, precisely between 10 AM and 4 PM. No matter how much we try, most of the time we end up getting clipped highlights. On the other hand, during winter, the sun is at an angle even around 12 PM, giving better contrast. Luckily the birding season here happens to be in winter (November-February) where flocks migrate from much cooler places to combat winter – we have nothing much to complain on the birding front. Whereas, with tigers, they are mostly found around water holes taking possession of them and chilling out in peak summer, where chances of sighting one is at the maximum. The picture below was shot in April around early evening. There wasn’t much editing that went on with the picture, yet I felt it to be a bit too harshly lit:

Bengal Tiger
Bengal Tiger
NIKON D7000 @ 420mm, ISO 400, 1/400, f/8.0

As we travel further north or south away from the equator, the light gets comparably softer. A while back, I used to ponder a lot on why I wouldn’t get the contrast that landscape photographers in Europe get. In my initial days, I would put the blame on the limited dynamic range of the crop bodies I use. It was when I ventured into long exposure photography did I understand that ambient light is what plays a major role than the limitations of camera gear. The latitude and the time of the year could be unavoidable parameters when it comes to planning your wildlife trips. Wildlife photography is highly appreciated all around, but the perils are kept a secret. The world gets to see only the best of the lot. The number of failed attempts and returns made empty handed mostly stay with the photographer. Wildlife photography demands months of planning, sometimes years. There is an excellent article on PL about why it is better to visit the same place multiple times. Rarely do we get lucky to get it in our first try, but more often its the persistence that yield the results we seek.

Favorable Lighting Conditions

  • Early bird gets the best meal. We, photographers are no exceptions. Besides lovely light, it is that part of the day when we have maximum activity in the wild, especially if you are into bird photography. More so if you are into photographing mammals. Maximum activity in the jungle is when wildlife gets hungry and desperate for a meal.
    Cheetal Indian Spotted Deer
    Cheetal or Indian Spotted Deer
    NIKON D7000 @ 500mm, ISO 1250, 1/500, f/5.6
  • For the reasons mentioned above in the Lateral Sunlight section, winter is pretty much the time when we get the best light, at least in the tropics. Also the mist/fog cover adds to the calm mood of the scene. Winters are also the best seasons when we plan photographing our subjects the entire day as the light is angular or unidirectional almost throughout the day, leaving contrasting highlights and shadows.
  • There are other factors that bring down image quality that are mostly overlooked. Suspended particles in the air, heat haze, pollution, fog and mist are few of the primary culprits. Almost all of them get washed away after rains. The wet feel of a jungle adds a lot to the overall emotion of the picture, not to mention the saturated green of the wet leaves. It would probably be like water washing your entire frame, bringing out maximum depth, clarity and contrast to the image. The below image was shot at around 8 AM when it rained pretty heavily the night before, leaving half dried tree trunks and saturated green all around.
    Asian Elephant
    Asian Elephant
    NIKON D7000 @ 200mm, ISO 1000, 1/400, f/5.6
  • While photographing sea birds, wind plays a very important role. Most of us do not have Gimbal heads or top-of-the-line tripods. I personally use a monopod with a simple ball-head. When it gets too windy, it is difficult to avoid shake and we are forced to get to higher shutter speeds. Also, while shooting birds in flight, too much wind makes them fly erratically, making focus acquisition itself a great challenge. In the tropics, sea breeze is gentler during the early half of the day. This is yet another reason to plan your shoot in the morning. Past 3 PM, it generally gets really windy, making photography conditions very tricky.
    Greater Flamingos
    Greater Flamingos
    NIKON D7000 + NIKKOR 200-500 f/5.6 E VR @ 500mm, ISO 800, 1/1250, f/5.6

Spot Metering to the Rescue

Most of the time the camera’s default metering system (Matrix for Nikon / Evaluative for Canon) is what we tend to use. But it is not always ideal. There will be situations when spot metering works better. I am assuming that you are aware of how a spot meter works. Basically, the spot meter of your camera considers only the light reflected from the focus point, completely ignoring the light available in the other areas of the frame. Below are a few examples that would help us understand better.

Lesser Egret
Lesser Egret
NIKON D7000 + NIKKOR 200-500 f/5.6 E VR @ 500mm, ISO 800, 1/3200, f/5.6

Consider the picture above. It was shot at around 7 AM and the fella was hunting shrimps, allowing me to get pretty close to him after spending a good 30 minutes around him. I spot metered for the white feathers of the Egret. As you could see from the image, the background & the water was illuminated pretty low. Had I gone with matrix metering, the camera would have decided to bump up the exposure, considering the poorly lit background, which in turn, would have lowered the shutter speed, making the splash appear soft. The poorly-lit background helped in bringing out the highlights without blowing them out, while adding to the contrast of the entire scene. On the other extreme condition, consider the below picture:

Black Kite
Black Kite
NIKON D7000 + NIKKOR 200-500 f/5.6 E VR @ 500mm, ISO 1000, 1/2500, f/5.6

This picture was shot mid-day, with the sky already overcast. I used the center autofocus point as the focus point with Spot meter as the metering mode, which would have made the camera meter only for the brown tones (darker tones), leaving out the overcast background. Had I used Matrix metering, the camera would have tried to reduce the exposure by a couple of stops to get the background highlights inside the histogram, possibly underexposing the subject.

Backlit Shots

A lot of times when I made a trip to a bird sanctuary or a tiger reserve, I’ve seen people almost giving a blind eye to one half of the scene. It’s a fact that we get those high-contrast photographs of birds / animals having all the feather / hair details with the sun right behind us. But as it is always said, there are no hard and fast rules in photography. Sometimes shooting against the sun results in unique moods. What a back-lit shot lacks in details, it makes up in emotion. It does become practically impossible to shoot against the mid-day sun, but when you have a subject back-lit in the golden hour, it brings out unique moods. You might not necessarily shoot straight into the sun. Being at an angle also produces very interesting light on your subjects.

Sarus Crane Landing
Sarus Crane Landing
NIKON D7000 + NIKKOR 200-500 f/5.6 E VR @ 500mm, ISO 1000, 1/2500, f/5.6
Sarus Crane
Sarus Crane
NIKON D7000 @ 300mm, ISO 640, 1/800, f/5.6
Western Marsh Harrier
Western Marsh Harrier
NIKON D7000 + NIKKOR 200-500 f/5.6 E VR @ 500mm, ISO 1000, 1/3200, f/5.6

The first picture was shot almost straight against the sun during the golden hour. The second was shot against the sun through fog. In the third image, the Western Marsh Harrier took a turn to hover over a flock of common coots, making the sun illuminate its right half and leaving shadows on the other side. Back-lit shots also can give stunning rim lit effects and translucent effect both being beautiful moods. I always have it as a practice not to ETTR (Expose To The Right) with back-lit shots. I always under-expose a little. By doing so, I reduce the risk of blowing out the highlights. With today’s developments in high ISO performance, a lot of shadow details can be pulled out later in post. An image still looks good with a lot of blacks around, but not much can be done to repair an over-exposed shot. When it boils down to either protecting the highlights or protecting the shadows, I always prefer to protect the highlights, as I am a big fan of darker mood.

Grey Heron
Grey Heron
NIKON D7000 + NIKKOR 200-500 f/5.6 E VR @ 500mm, ISO 640, 1/800, f/8

Silhouettes

The best of back-lit shots are undoubtedly silhouettes. In my opinion, they are pretty much the easiest means of creating those ‘wow’ images where gear gets less preference. In other words, stunning pictures can be made with basic gear. In a silhouette, we are basically blacking out the subject and as a matter of fact, we do not have to worry much about getting those feather / hair details. Still, silhouettes demand a high level of sharpness and image quality. Silhouettes are photographs that bring out a vast array of creativity.

White Breasted Kingfisher
White Breasted Kingfisher
NIKON D7000 + NIKKOR 200-500 f/5.6E VR @ 500mm, ISO 800. 1/1600, f/5.6

All you need to get such a shot is the sun around the horizon and a subject suitably perched / placed against the rising / setting sun. Pre-visualizing is a key factor in getting such shots. You most probably will get an angle where your subject aligns with the sun. Sometimes we have got to move around to get the angle and sometimes we need to wait for the sun to get in angle, provided that we do not make swift moves and make the subject leave its place. You can plan those shots better using mobile apps like TPE (The Photographer’s Ephemeris). It gives you the exact Azimuth angles of the sun with respect to time.

Painted Stork
Painted Stork
NIKON D7000 + NIKKOR 200-500 f/5.6 E VR @ 500mm, ISO 800, 1/1250, f/8
Birds and Sun
Birds and Sun
NIKON D7000 + NIKKOR 70-300 F4.5-5.6 G VR @ 300mm, ISO 800, 1/1000, f/8

There are times where it might not be possible to get the subjects aligned into the sun. On such conditions, we need to get the best possible compromise to an angle where the subject and the sun compliments.

Darter
Darter
NIKON D7000 + NIKKOR 200-500 f/5.6E VR @ 500mm, ISO 400, 1/800, f/5.6

It is not even mandatory to get the sun in the frame. A good red flushed composition is all we need.

Marsh Harrier
Marsh Harrier
NIKON D7000 + NIKKOR 200-500 f/5.6E VR @ 500mm, ISO 400, 1/1500, f/5.6
Indian Peafoul
Indian Peafoul
NIKON D7000 + NIKKOR 200-500 f/5.6E VR @ 500mm, ISO 1250, 1/1250, f/5.6

Tips on Shooting Silhouettes

  • The first challenge in shooting Silhouette is getting the red sky. It is available only for a few minutes when the sun is around the horizon. You have to be in the scene before it all happens awaiting the best moment for the shot.
  • Try to shoot at ISO levels as low as possible as the subject itself is blacked out and we do not want it to be noisy. More than noise, it is the color that we need to be worried about. With higher ISO, the colors look either flushed or under saturated, bringing down the overall image quality. Pulling the Saturation / Vibrance slider in PS / Lightroom is not the best option to get accurate colors.
  • Make sure not to overexpose the scene. It is the reds and the yellows that make a silhouette shot magical. When we end up overexposing the sky, it becomes difficult to dial it back to what we want as a final result. Underexposing yellows make them orange and underexposing oranges make them reds.
  • Do not hesitate to push the White balance to the warm extreme. All silhouette images above were shot between a white balance of 8000K-10000K.
  • At least in the tropics, the red sky is available only during winter. During summer months, the sun and hence the sky around the horizon is bright, making it yellow until the twilight.
Greater Egret
Greater Egret
NIKON D7000 @ 500mm, ISO 400, 1/1600, f/5.6
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