Wildlife Photography

Night Photography | Wildlife Photography | Capturing Culture Digitally

In this series of Travel Photo Tips articles for photo.net, I plan to cover every aspect of travel photography. Hey, I know that’s a tall order, but I’ve been traveling around the world for 30 years, and have photographed just about every subject in every condition in more than 100 countries. What’s more, I’ve made every mistake in the book! Therefore, I am in a good position to help you avoid mistakes and to help you get the most out of your travel photography experience.

In Part II, I’ll share some of my favorite wildlife photographs and tips.
The opening image, which I took in Antarctica in November 2008, is one of my favorites. It may not be the most colorful or dramatic or striking image, but I think you’ll admit that those baby penguins sure are soooooo cute, which is why I like the photograph. Maybe the first tip is to photograph what you love.

The following tips are in no particular order. If you see a photograph you like, scroll down and grab that tip—and then move on to other photos and tips.

If you like what you read and see, you can learn more about me and my photography in my latest book, Digital Photography Secrets.

Want live action tips? Check out my On-Location Web TV show on Kelby Training.


A Note about Enhancing Images using Photoshop

Before we get into shooting tips, I’d like to share with you an important aspect of my photography: virtually all of my photographs are enhanced in the digital darkroom (Photoshop and Aperture) in some form or fashion—even if it’s only sharpening an image (all RAW files need sharpening, and I only shoot RAW files), or cropping (most of my images are cropped for maximum impact), or making a minor Levels adjustment to either reduce or increase contrast.

This pair of images is one such example (Image 1). The photograph on the right is my favorite image from my recent Antarctica adventure. However, the sky was overcast and the light was flat. What’s more, photographing a black and white subject is challenge in itself in any situation—made even more difficult here due to the fact that the subject was on white snow and the sky was light gray.

Photoshop to the rescue—and I don’t feel guilty about it! I feel that as long as a photographer is honest about how he or she created an image, it’s okay.

So, please keep in mind that the following images have been enhanced, although none as much as my penguin family portrait.

Okay, time for tips.

Main Ingredients for Wildlife Photography

These pictures of an elephant silhouetted against the setting sun in Botswana and an Arctic Hare in Cape Churchill, Canada (Images 2 and 3), illustrate the main ingredients needed for successful wildlife photography:

  • an expert guide who can find the animals for you
  • luck in finding wild animals
  • a good shooting position
  • a pleasing background and foreground
  • a knowledge of one’s equipment
  • patience—because sometimes we have to wait for days to get a perfect shot
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Speaking of equipment, almost all of the pictures in this article are were taken with my 100-400mm IS (image stabilization) zoom lens. The exceptions are the butterfly image, which was taken with my 50mm macro lens; and the shot of my son, Marco, which was taken with my 24-105mm IS lens.

Some readers may ask why I did not use a much heavier and faster 300mm or 400mm f/2.8 lens rather than my 100-400mm ISL lens. The answer is simple: a zoom lens, which is lighter and smaller, offers much more composition flexibility when I am required to stay in a vehicle, as is often the case.


Keep A Look Out

You might be wondering why I have included a picture of my son, Marco, in this article on wildlife photography. Well, he is actually demonstrating a good wildlife photography technique: shooting with both eyes open (Image 4).


When you shoot, try to keep both eyes open. The reason is with both eyes open, you can see what’s happening around subject. You can see other animals that might come into the frame, and where my subject may move—or run. Sports photographers also shoot with both eyes open because they need to see if other players may come into the frame and they need to see where the player may move.

In this picture, taken in Botswana, the leopard was looking at a warthog, eyeing a potential meal (Image 5). Nothing happened, fortunately for the warthog, but I was ready to capture the action because I used the “both eyes open” shooting technique.

Behavior Pictures vs. Portraits

Portraits of animals are fun to take. By portraits, I mean an image in which the subject is at rest. However, showing animal behavior is often more interesting. Admittedly, we often have to wait for an animal to exhibit behavior.

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Here you see one of my favorite behavior pictures. The strong legs of the giraffe help us imaging how its rear legs are forceful enough to kill a lion with one swift kick (Image 6). The lion portrait is nice, but not that exciting or interesting or educational (Image 7).


Stopping Action

One of the cool things about digital SLR cameras (and top-of-the-line compact digital cameras) is that you can control the shutter speed to either stop or blur action.
When I photograph fast-moving animals, and even slow-moving ones, I often choose to freeze the action because I want a sharp shot. A shutter speed of 1/500th of a second is usually fast enough to freeze most fast-moving animal action, which is the shutter speed I used to photograph these two lions mating in Botswana (Image 8).


When an animal is moving extremely fast, as was this seagull in flight, I use a 1/2000th of a second shutter speed (Image 9). When photographing fast moving animals, I recommend setting your camera’s frame advance to the highest frame-per-second rate possible. Doing so will help ensure a nice photograph of the animal, in this case, one in which one of the seagull’s wings was not covering its face.

In addition, you want to set your auto focus mode to the focus-tracking mode, so the camera tracks the focus right up until the moment of exposure.


Want to stop and blur action in the same photograph? You can do it (Image 10)! Set your camera to a slow shutter speed (maybe 1/60th of a second) and use your flash. The flash will freeze the subject, and the slow shutter speed will let enough light into your camera to blur some of the action. Yes! You have to experiment with different shutter speeds and flash outputs (from full to perhaps -2 EV) to get the desired effect. But give it a try. You’ll love the effect.

One more tip on photographing fast moving subjects. When composing your pictures, try to leave a fair amount of space around the animal. That way, if it moves up, down, left or right, you’ll have a better chance of framing the entire animal, and not cutting off any of its body parts with the edge of your frame.


See Art in Nature

I am the first to admit that I am not a fine-art photographer. However, I do like to photograph the art I see in nature. Art is about many things, including highlights and shadows, and the subtle differences between them. Few works of art look flat and lack contrast.
Here’s something I learned long ago about light that helps me “see the light,” which, in turn, has helped me pick out artistic subjects and scenes in nature: “Light illuminates, shadows define.” I think about that often when I am shooting.

If we lean how to see the highlights and shadows in a scene, and when we are especially on the lookout for dramatic lighting, as illustrated in this natural-light photograph of a flamingo, we are on our way to artistic images.

Art, of course, is also about the subject—the flamingo in an artistic position in this example (Image 11). I doubt that a picture of one of my old running shoes in the exact same lighting conditions would be considered art by anyone…but who knows? Art is in the eye and mind of the beholder.

Speaking of art, check out Art Morris’s web site. Artie is perhaps the foremost bird photographer on the planet. He’s also my friend and super nice guy.


Shoot for the Peak of Action

Here is my favorite shot from a sequence of pictures I took of a hippo at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Florida (Image 12). It’s my favorite because it shows the hippo with its mouth wide open (in anticipation of a feeding session). The other shots in the sequence are certainly not as dramatic, and some, like the shots of the hippo with just its eyes above the water, are boring.

To capture the peak of action when photographing any animal, I first take a test shot of the scene to check my exposure. Then, when the animal moves into the scene, I set my camera on rapid frame advance and begin shooting.

One of the advantages of a high-end digital SLR is that the maximum frame-per-second rate is faster than that of a low-end digital SLR. For example, my Canon EOS 1D Mark III shoots up to 10 frames per second. My Canon Digital Rebel XTi shoots up to three frames per second.

When shooting action sequences, keep in mind that RAW files write slower to a camera’s buffer than JPEG files. Therefore, if you are into shooting an action sequence with your image quality set on RAW, your camera may “lock up” at the peak of action. The same thing can happen when shooting JPEG files, but because they write faster, you’ll have less of a chance of the camera locking up. For example, with my Canon EOS 1D Mark III, I can shoot up to 110 continuous frames in the JPEG mode, but only up to 30 continuous frames in the RAW mode.

I am sure you have heard about “fast” memory cards, cards that let the camera write to them faster than standard memory cards. If you have a high-end camera and shoot action sequences, they are beneficial. On an entry-level camera, you will not see any difference in write speed.


Place the Subject Off-Center

Here is another shot that I took in Botswana (Image 13). I’m using it here to illustrate a basic composition technique: placing the subject off center. When you place the subject off center, you give the viewer of the photograph the opportunity to look around the frame to see what else may be of interest, rather than having him or her get stuck on the subject in the dead center of the frame.

Another popular composition technique is to imagine a tic-tac-toe grid over the scene in your viewfinder, and place the subject where the lines intersect.


Shoot Sharper Pictures with a High Frame Rate

If you were to take a picture of this posing cheetah (or a friend) with a telephoto lens in low light, you might not think that for a hand-held shot, shooting at a high frame rate (3-5 frames per second) would be necessary (Image 14). You might be right! But to be on the safe side, I often do just that. Here’s why: when shooting with telephoto lenses (which exaggerate camera shake) at slow shutter speeds in low light, there is a chance of camera shake. When you set your camera at a high frame rate, you only have to press the shutter release button once. So at slow shutter speeds, there is a change that the second or third picture may be sharper than the first.

Image stabilization lenses (Canon) and vibration reduction lenses (Nikon) help reduce camera shake at slow shutter speeds too. But hey, why not do everything possible to get the sharpest in-camera image.

Setting a high frame rate does something else. It gives you a better chance of getting a picture of the animal with its eyes open. Animals blink too, you know.

Shoot Behind the Scenes Shots, Too!

I began this article with some Antarctica images, so I thought I’d end with some (Images 15-17). These are not wildlife photographs, but they are still an important part of the wildlife photography adventure—behind-the-scenes pictures that help to tell the entire story of the experience. Remember, we are storytellers, and the photographs that we have, the more detailed and interesting our story becomes.

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Rick Sammon has published 31 books, including his latest three: Rick Sammon’s Secrets to Digital Photography, Exploring the Light—Making the very Best In-Camera Exposure, and Face to Face—The Complete Guide to Photographing People. Rick, who has photographed in almost 100 countries around the world, gives more than two-dozen photography workshops (including private workshops) and presentations around the world each year, in addition to presenting at Photoshop World. He hosts five shows on www.kelbytraining.com. He’s also been spotted giving presentations at Apple stores in New York City and in San Francisco. Rick is also the author of the Canon Digital Rebel XT lessons on the Canon Digital Learning Center and is a Canon Explorer of Light. When asked about his photo specialty, Rick says, “My specialty is not specializing.”

Example Images from Rick’s Gallery

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Text ©2008 Rick Sammon. Photos ©2008 Rick Sammon.

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    • Great information... even for those who are already out in the wild photographing animals. Keeping both eyes open, shooting high fps in low light... great tips (and great shots). I would add one thing... Spell Check. The handful of typos got a little annoying. ;-) Cheers.
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    • How refreshing to read that it's okay to use Photoshop to enhance images, okay to dare to crop images, and okay to dare to use burst mode. People these days seem to have forgotten - or just don't know - what we used to do in the darkroom! I agree that we need to admit to manipulating the images though. This is a really useful article, with sound and practical advice - thanks very much! I can't wait to get back out there...
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    • hi all thanks for the positive comments. best rick
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    • I don't think using image processing software such as PS (CS) or PSP or other such software to "develop" an image to its best potential is a bad thing. I just think using such software to completely alter an image into something that it wasn't at the time of capture is unscrupulous unless the photographer acknowledges the image was altered. Here is a quote from the National Georgraphic "Your Shot" image submission program FAQ section.

      Is image manipulation allowed in My Shot?

      National Geographic magazine does not encourage anyone to manipulate photographs.

      Read Director of Photography David Griffin's comments on image manipulation.

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    • Mr. Sammon, What can you tell us about how you get your images to have a glossy look when posted online?
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    • Hi Rick I like your portfolio very much.
      One picture better than the other one.
      Very beautiful shots and very exeperienced tecniques also with photoshop not really intrusive.
      My compliments
      Bye Enrico

      Profilo Facebook di Enrico Pelos

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    • Jungle Terry has been working with animals all of his life and started the Jungle Animal Program back in 1990.  He is available for birthday parties and special events of all kinds. Biscayne National Park
        Fee's for a visit from Jungle Terry range from $135-$200, depending on the event and drive time.

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    • Hi Rick Sammon, 

      All you phots are really beautiful and very creative. All the pics are very attractive too. Toronto attractions

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