The Learning Curve to taking better wildlife photos

The Learning Curve to taking better wildlife photos

By: Kevin Allen Pepper

I’ve had clients that come on my workshops that get so bogged down in the technical aspect of photography they miss taking photos because they are too focused on their camera settings.  It is important to know how to technically achieve a good photo, i.e. what shutter speed to use to freeze motion, how aperture impacts your backgrounds, and how to use ISO to acquire a good photo, no matter the lighting conditions. That experience comes from taking photos and learning from your successes and your mistakes, not trying to match what you read in a magazine.

I always will explain my settings on my workshops and then tell the clients to take photos with me and adjust on the fly to attempt to achieve what they are trying to capture… sure, I’m always there giving input and guiding them, but at the end of the day… it’s not until you make a mistake, or dial in the perfect setting to take that great photo, that you will really learn.

Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”

Don’t read too much into the number; take note of the message here. I highly doubt that in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s day a serious hobbyist  would take 10,000 photos in their lifetime. I assume he used the quote as a memorable way to say that it takes a lot of experience and perseverance to develop your technical aptitude and your creative eye.

Awhhh, the creative eye, now THERE is the flipside of the photography coin that’s often overlooked with today’s machine gun cameras…

I know some of you are chuckling because I am guilty of pressing on the shutter button and firing off a lot of images… but I will explain that in another wildlife focused article… today we will keep it to the topic at hand… “The learning curve to take better wildlife images”.

When it comes to wildlife, I want you to remember something… In my opinion, what separates a good photo from the rest is the following… (1) Composition, (2) Lighting and (3) Creating a connection with your subject matter.

I believe that you can improve your photography right now by thinking creatively, not technically. Let the technical come, and in the meantime when you are out photographing wildlife, remember two compositional lessons and creative things to help make your wildlife images better…

Get down to the subject’s eye level

Wildlife photos are most effective if they create an intimate connection between the subject and the viewer. The best way to do this is to take your photo at the subject’s eye level. This way, your wildlife photo can create the illusion of a shared moment inside the world of the subject, rather than from the outside looking in.

If, for example, your subject is low to the ground, then crouch or lie flat,  getting as low as possible so you can take your photo at the subject’s eye level.

Look at this photo of the Canada Lynx. The animal stands a few feet off the ground and I was trying to capture the animal while it was stalking a meal… Standing wouldn’t have created the connection I wanted, so I laid down and waited for it to come over the mound… the result, a ground level photo of an apex predator stalking its next meal… eyes in focus and a good leg position to show movement.

It’s all about the eye contact

It is important to get the eyes right. If the eyes in your wildlife photo are sharp and clear, the photo will probably work.

If they are out of focus, lost in shadow, or if the subject blinks, the connection will be lost, and the photo will almost certainly fail every time.

Look at the photo of the snowy owl… it’s so very hard to capture an owl flying towards you, but my  patience, proper positioning and studying of the owl’s movements paid off and I took one of my favorite wildlife images I have ever shot.

If you are interested in learning more, you should come with me on one of my wildlife workshops… I run a few each year… some for apex predators, some for birds of prey, others for shorebirds and usually one a year that takes you to a location that very few ever get to visit in some remote part of the world…