You know you can make a great landscape even better by having something animate in it. Like wildlife. Our latest speaker, Roy Jacobson CPAGB, showed us that patience, knowledge and persistence certainly pay off when you put the fauna in the flora. And aeroplanes too, though they are better in the sky. In both cases fortune favours the prepared.
Wildlife photography isn’t all about safaris in Namibia (I wouldn’t turn one down if anyone is offering a free one), it can be found much closer to home, like in your garden or local park. The key is to start small, get to know your kit really, really well, and know, I mean really know, your location and the sort of wildlife it attracts and when it attracts it.
Whereas there is definitely a case for having a 600mm telephoto in your bag when photographing shy or skittish animals, your back and your wallet will not thank you for it after lugging it around for the day. And that’s before we even consider the stuffed ant eater or who owns the copyright when the wildlife presses the shutter release. Start with the kit you have, was Roy’s advice and find somewhere local.
We have, of course, the benefit of Slimbridge under an hour away, if birds are your chosen subject, and it is set out for walking and observation. Roy suggested picking a spot and sticking with it, rather than wandering around and looking for something to happen. When it does happen it tends to happen quickly and be over just as quick: feeding, fighting, preening, breeding, taking to wing, coming into land or some other photo opportunity.
Much, as has been said already, is down to being prepared. As movement is going to be a big factor in most of the (airborne) shots then a fast shutter speed is going to be necessary, starting at around 1/1000th. To facilitate this it is probably best to select shutter priority/auto ISO and let the camera pick the aperture. Focal length is probably going to be long, metering and focus turned to spot (though that is questionable if you are composing on the thirds) continuous autofocus (depending on age and speed of your system), motor drive as we used to call it on as we are going to be shooting in bursts.
We might also use a monopod or tripod and if we have saved our pennies or do a lot of this sort of photography, maybe use a gimbal on the tripod. The problem quickly becomes how much gear do we want to lug around? How much can we practically use even, or especially, in an urban environment? Well, the happy medium is our own to find and is going to be dictated by subject, location and environment.
Birds aren’t the only option, of course. There are larger animals in most urban areas. Locally we have many different parks in which foxes can be seen with a little patience. There are two deer herds (Fallow and Red) at Ashton Court, the Red, in particular, are used to people being around, as are the grey squirrels around Cabot Tower on Brandon Hill if you get bored with shooting the Peregrine Falcons down by the River. There are plenty of pigeons and gulls to practice on whilst you wait. There are also some quite rare species of bird to be found (depending on the time of year) at the Arnos Vale cemetery as well as bats and foxes and badgers.
Now aeroplanes in flight that is a completely different matter. Actually only completely different from the earth-bound subjects as far as the mechanics go. Generally, aircraft are far more predictable than wild-life, especially at air displays (Weston Air Day this Saturday and Sunday by the way) through knowledge of the behaviour of each still sets the photographer in better stead.
The basics are exactly the same, fast shutter speed, single point meter and (possibly) focus. Don’t be afraid to boost the ISO and shoot Raw as we are probably going to see a fair whack of dynamic range within the frame, especially if the aircraft is dark and the sky bright.
In the stands at air shows, you will often see a forest of tripods and monopods. There are issues with doing this. The Mono/tripod will cut down on the flexibility that we have to move and pan. There can also be safety issues, especially when shooting around other ‘Togs using similar set-ups in relatively tight spaces. Better tuck your arms into your chest, deep breath and brace, takes more practice but it gives us more manoeuvrability and there is less gear to carry.
Air displays have a defined centre and also defined edges. If we know where these are (in front of where the crowds are thickest, basically) then we have the chance to hit peak action (centre) but at the edges is where the aircraft will turn in. Here we can get some great shots that aren’t aircraft flying straight and level.
The Wriggly Road Show slithered, scuttled and strutted into town and a fascinating and interactive show it was. Snakes, lizards, crabs, albino rats and hedgehogs formed the cast and many thousands of frames were burned in a very enjoyable practical evening.
Perhaps the key to photographing animals, both wild and domesticated, lies in reconnaissance, having knowledge either direct or through an expert at hand. The latter was definitely the case in our session, given the exotic nature of the animals Wriggly Road Show brought with them. The welfare of the animals (and the photographers) is paramount and what may appear to be innocuous behaviour to the untrained eye could be stressful for the animal. There is a balance to be struck and if we believe the maxim that if your photograph isn’t good enough it’s because you are not close enough (Robert Capa) then there is an indicator to be had about choice of lens. However, that is a function of the environment that the animal is in and the size of the animal itself, as much as anything else.
Photographing domestic pets successfully is a different proposition to photographing large animals on a farm, is different from taking pictures of animals on safari (that’s the photographer being on safari rather than an alligator with a DSLR). Any way that you want to cut it animals are most likely going to be more work than your average subject. Cats and dogs may be the most frequently photographed animals (and certainly they take up a fair amount of space on Flickr, about 2.8m and 2.1m respectively) but they are also creatures with their own minds and curiosity.
I was shooting either in Handheld Twilight mode (Multi-frame at ISO 6400, wide fixed aperture, variable shutter speed) or aperture priority and auto ISO, plus some with fill in flash from the camera. Direct flash is rarely a good option, risking as it does red eye, and being generally unflattering, but needs must. I do not pretend I know what I was doing but the decisions were actually driven by the conditions.
Two positions were well lit, the others were more reliant on the ambient light. The animals were fairly static, none of them particularly quick even when mobile (having been fed), so moderately slow shutter speeds and moderate apertures with high ISO’s (1000 – 6400) did the job mainly with longer focal lengths. No chances to pan whilst shooting, no need to. From the look of most of the results I got I think I was concentrating more on the camera than the subject for some of them. That is sure sign of being short on practice. On the other hand it does not pay to be stingy on the number of frames that we commit to in pursuit of the shot we want.
Metering, especially the insects, where I was using fill in flash, was quite tricky and I found I was dialling in quite a bit of compensation. Fur is always interesting to get a reasonable meter reading from, tending to be either darker or lighter than the average for the environment the animal is being photographed. Spot or centre weighted metering, when metering from the camera, is probably preferred in these sorts of situations, but if shooting against backdrops it pays to be aware of how they will appear in the shot. Getting right at the point of taking the shot saves time in post production.
Focusing again depends on our subject, more specifically the speed it is moving across the frame, but also whether you are up close or standing back. Single shot, by and large is good enough close up because focus won’t shift that much and the shutter won’t fire till focus locks. A dog bouncing through the long grass is probably a candidate for Continuous AF and we live with the out of focus shots to get to the one or two for which the focus is bang on.
None of which will counter poor composition. The eyes have it, just as with people portraits. Viewers will seek the eyes first. We take our clues from the perceived expressions and the eyes are the windows of the soul, after all. Knowing the animal, having a rapport with it, are not necessarily the same things. Your pet snake will act differently to your pet dog, though both will have ways of attracting and directing their attention. It is also important not to stress the animal. The usual tools of composition can be applied, just getting there involves subjects who may be less predictable than a landscaper or a portrait photographer, or the yet-to-make-up-their-mind-ographer might be used to.
Here we can just scratch the surface, the tools we develop as we gain experience are mostly relevant, but as ever an ounce of practice is worth a pound of theory (kilogram and kilo translations also apply) and the Wriggly Road Show certainly provided us with that.