Capturing a unique photograph in the wild is all about patience, experience, and a fair amount of luck. Unfortunately you’ll need some decent and often expensive camera gear too, but the good news is it doesn’t have to be the very best. With the right gear and some careful preparation you’ll be able to make the most of every situation and these six wildlife photo tips will help make you as lucky as possible.
1. Be prepared
When things happen in the bush, they happen suddenly – a concept understood by photographer Morkel Erasmus, who captured these lions in Etosha National Park. Set your shutter speed priority (Tv) mode to 1/1000th second or faster, and use a high ISO (400 or as high as your camera can handle without sacrificing image quality). This will allow a higher f-stop / wider depth of field and will help keep your subject in focus while avoiding motion blur. You can now shoot on other modes (such as manual or aperture priority) but can switch rapidly to your pre-set Tv mode when required; ready and capture the action without fumbling with your settings. Practise moving quickly between focal points, so you can focus without delay.
2. Look for new perspectives
Most of the time wildlife shots are taken from inside a car, which doesn’t allow for much change in perspective. Look out for animals in valleys or on hills, where the vantage point is unique. Find the location of hides in a reserve or picnic areas where you can alight from your vehicle and focus on smaller creatures, vistas and views.
3. Watch and wait
Learning your subjects’ mannerisms is crucial in predicting what might happen next. Look out for interactions: one grazing gemsbok may simply eat while two gemsbok might banter with each other, bringing the unexpected into the scene and creating a story. Practise shooting with both eyes open. This might take some getting used to, but it will enable you to see what is happening in your peripheral vision and to react faster. It’s tempting to zoom in and fill the frame with details, but remember that the context can be just as interesting.
4. Get the best (possible) gear
Wildlife photography is, unfortunately, all about the gear. Lenses with focal ranges between 300 and 600mm will do wonders, but they’re incredibly expensive. A budget option is to buy a teleconverter. This works as a magnifying glass that can be fitted to the back of your standard lens (check that your current lens is compatible – you’ll need one with an aperture wider than f/5.6 for it to be effective). A teleconverter is more affordable than a big lens, but comes at the cost of reduced speed and sharpness. To capture wildlife in its environment, use a wide-angle lens with a focal length smaller than 50mm. Use a beanbag to take the strain off your arms and stabilise your camera while waiting at hides or in your car. And remember to turn your car off (to reduce vibrations) before shooting.
Also read: the one thing you need to shoot wildlife
5. Weather the storm
The pros aren’t afraid of adverse weather conditions, and here Shem Compion embraced a deluge. Clouds and rain make for dramatic, moody scenes which work well when converted to black and white. Animals can also change their behaviour; taking shelter or sitting glumly in the downpour. Bonus: You’ll be in the perfect place for amazing light when the weather clears and the sun breaks through the clouds.
6. Be different
Combine technical ability with creative thinking, as seen in this shot (above) by award-winning wildlife photographer Greg du Toit. Digital photography has freed us up to experiment with our camera settings without worrying about film cost, so play with slower shutter speeds, break rules of composition and take images that you like rather than what you have been taught are correct. Be inspired by the pros and look at online competitions such as Annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year to get ideas of what top photographers are doing. Identify why you are drawn to them and bring that insight with you when you next head into the wild. Who knows – maybe your image will be the next winner.