Research: Wildlife Photography – Techniques & Tips

Within my research, I decided it would be helpful to find some general tips and techniques when approaching wildlife photography. In the past, I have found BBC nature to be a constructive resource when considering wildlife.

From this, I found an in-depth article discussing various useful tips and considerations in preparation, visual approaches and equipment. Some aspects were fairly straight forward principles: ‘Be patient’, ‘Check the weather’.  However others were more description, offering a potential means of fulfilling the objective: ‘Pick a topic or a theme and start thinking about a variety of ways to capture it. For inspiration, check out the nature activities happening near you and choose a subject.’

Many of the principles highlighted throughout this, I am already acquainted with through my general practice. However, there were numerous areas with constructive suggestions such as the use of remote trigger for greater flexibility in photographic opportunities, the associations of the golden hour and the use of a bean bag to add weight to my tripod or greater direction on a makeshift tripod in difficult conditions.

Preparation – Some quick tips before you start

Pick a theme and work it to exhaustion…the subject must be something you truly love or truly hate.”

Dorothea Lange

Before you head out there, it can often help to stop and think about what you want to achieve.

  • Pick a topic or a theme and start thinking about a variety of ways to capture it. For inspiration, check out the nature activities happening near you and choose a subject.
  • Have you read the manual?! Sounds silly but it is amazing what you can learn about your camera, photography and also gain a few creative ideas just by reading the instructions.
  • Make sure you check the weather forecast and pack and dress for the conditions (do you need your waterproofs or your sun block, do you need rain covers or lens hoods)
  • Keep a lookout. Have you got a spotting scope or some binoculars? If so, take them.
  • Hold it steady… And take a tripod if you have one. Shaky hands lead to blurry pictures and usually that’s not the look you’re going for!
  • Be patient – wildlife can be a fickle subject so expect to be out for a long time to capture a cracking photo and pack some snacks.
  • See them eye to eye – get on your subject’s eye level as it transforms the perspective of your images.
  • Share your images with friends and likeminded people to get their feedback. This really helps you understand what did and didn’t work and why.

Composition – Framing, “Rule of thirds” & Lead-in lines

Beauty can be seen in all things, seeing and composing the beauty is what separates the snapshot from the photograph.”

Matt Hardy

A very simple way of improving your wildlife photographs is to think about the composition of your photographs. This essentially means: where the different elements of your photo are within the frame and vitally, how your eye moves between them.

The “rule of thirds” is a fairly common phrase in photography and you may have already heard people talking about it. And fortunately it’s a very simple one to follow.

Imagine lines running through the frame both vertically and horizontally that “divide” the photo into nine sections. Many cameras allow you to select a grid that is visible on your display to help you with this.

Positioning your point or points of interest on them makes them more aesthetically pleasing to the human eye. And the points where these lines meet make “sweet spots” for positioning your subject, as you can see inRuth’s bee photo below.

Bumblebee on flower composed to rule of thirds convention

By following the “rule of thirds”, you should instantly start seeing some improvements to your photographs. Every rule can be broken and this is no exception – but better to know the rule and how it works before trying to find a good reason to break it!

Lead-in lines are basically any lines that draw your eye from the edge of your photos to different points of interest that you want the viewer to look at.

It doesn’t really matter too much where these lines start from. The wings work particularly well in Eddie’s demoiselle photo below to “point” to the insect’s face.

A banded demoiselle resting on grass

Get close – Use your legs, a zoom lens or a remote trigger

If your pictures aren’t good enough then you aren’t close enough.”

Robert Capa

Nice big close-ups are always fantastic ways to really capture the essence of your subject and work really well for nature photography and there are a few ways of achieving this.

The most obvious one is to move the camera closer to the subject and gives you a nice close up of your subject and a fair amount of detail in the background.

However, this isn’t always a practical option with wildlife photography as your subject will more than likely run, swim, slither, or fly away as you approach it!

So the next way is to zoom in. This is easier if you have a DSLR where you can change the lens but a compact camera usually has some degree of optical zoom. But if you are still too far away, what can you do?

Well this is where binoculars can come in handy. By putting the lens of the camera at one of eyepieces, you can allow the camera to focus on the image and then take a picture.

It’s not as good as a telephoto lens on a DSLR but it’s a lot better than no zoom or having to use the digital zoom functionality.

And if you spin your binoculars, you can use them as a macro lens!

Robin feeding from hand in snow
Moving the camera closer with a “standard” lens

The last, and definitely slightly more advanced method which requires more kit, is to use a remote trigger. This way you can position your camera and not scare the wildlife, wait until it’s in the right place and then click the button.

David’s robin photo shows you the different look he managed to achieve with this method. It usually requires a few attempts to get right but will give you a perspective and image that you rarely see.

Light – Make the most of the conditions

Sunset through a field of grass

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”

George Eastman

You might hear photographers talking about “the golden hour” for wildlife photography and that this is the “only” time to take photographs.

The golden hour – or longer in winter – is the time around sunrise and sunset when the light has more atmosphere to travel through, giving it a more “golden” appearance. It also lights subjects from the side, creating nice shadows and therefore texture to photographs.

But what can you do if you aren’t out at these times?

Try to avoid the few hours around the very middle of the day as your camera struggles to cope with the bright spots and dark shadows in the middle of a sunny day. Also, your plant or animal will be lit from the top which isn’t a particularly nice look.

But what happens when there is no sun (let’s face it, that’s typical for a British summer!) and you find yourself out on a very cloudy/grey day? Don’t worry – all is not lost!

Clouds can be your friend in the form of a very large diffuser, and certain types of wildlife photographs really benefit from this soft and uniform light.

Taking macro photos of wildflowers, or long exposures of woodland streams are usually better off with an overcast sky as it gets rid of those really harsh, bright areas and the really dark shadows.

Kit – You don’t need all the gear, just lots of ideas!

A lot of photographers think that if they buy a better camera they’ll be able to take better photographs. A better camera won’t do a thing for you if you don’t have anything in your head or in your heart.”

Arnold Newman

Tripods – if you have one then great (and the sturdier the better). If you don’t, seriously consider saving up for one as the next part of your photography kit!

But if you need to keep the camera very steady and don’t have one or have forgotten it, look around for something to act like a tripod. Is there a wall/ rock/ fence post/ tree stump nearby?

A little trick is to carry around a small beanbag if you have one too. Pop it onto your makeshift tripod and it allows you to straighten up horizons or to tilt up or down slightly.

And to make it even steadier for landscape shots, once you are happy with your framing, use the timer on the camera to take the photo. This minimises any movement that occurs as you press the button and should give you much sharper shots.

Practice makes perfect – so take lots of pictures!

Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Like with anything you want to get better at, you are going to have to get practising your photographic techniques. Luckily with wildlife photography – or any type of photography – there is no shortage of opportunities or inspiration!

Upon further research, I noticed that the author of this article, Mark Carwardine, has done a series of master-class guides for wildlife photography. The most recent of which encourages the photographer to be ambitious in their approach, aware of the rules but unafraid to break them.

One extract that stood out to me due to some of my other previous research,  Pål Hermansen. I recently discovered his work through the series, Car Cemetery – A Wildlife Reserve. Much of his portfolio is ambitious in its visual approach, quite expressive and chaotic but beautiful and compelling. An example of this distorted style is below.



In a general sense, I found this article to be quite helpful in explaining some fairly experimental techniques. There is certainly a sense of sound logic within their theories, each image caught my attention immediately, encouraging me to access what cannot be seen and how what we can see is represented. For example, the first image by David Tipling acknowledges one of most distinct features of his subject and emphasises this through framing a close up of one eye, encouraging the viewer the gain a greater sense of the tarsier’s character.

Photo Masterclass part 12: Break all the rules

Photo Masterclass part 12: Break all the rules

Rules were made to be broken. So play with blur, relish clutter, crop out your subject and discover the dark. If you ignore the protocols of photography, you may just create a masterpiece, says Mark Carwardine.

Rules are a great starting point when developing your skills and growing as a wildlife photographer.

Keeping it simplegetting down low, the rule of thirds and all the other tricks of the trade we’ve been studying over the past year really will help to improve the quality of your images.

Yet none of these protocols is sacrosanct. Who says that clutter can’t make a good picture, that you always have to shoot at eye level or that every animal must sit squarely on a point of power?

It’s invaluable to have rules, but professional photographers break them all the time to get the shot they want.

The most important thing is to understand how rules work and why they are important before you start breaking them, because people who look at your images will soon be able to tell if you have done something intentionally or by mistake. But then you need to be free to let your imagination run wild.

It’s all about thinking outside the box and experimenting. It won’t always work – in fact, it often won’t work – but when it does, you will have created something really eye-catching and different.

So this month we’ll be breaking all the rules, developing our own individual styles and remembering the golden rule of wildlife photography: it’s not what you photograph, it’s the way that you do it.


1. Focus on the features

The expert: David Tipling, UK

One way to push the boundaries of creativity is to concentrate on an animal’s most distinctive feature.

That’s exactly what David has done with this portrait of a Philippine tarsier. It may be one of the smallest primates in the world, but it does have the largest eye-to-body ratio of all mammals.

“When you are looking for tarsiers, the first thing you notice is those disproportionately big eyes staring out through the foliage,” says David.

“I wanted to capture the essence of that in a single photograph.”

David has focused on just one eye for even greater impact. He has also cropped out the rest of the animal, filling the space with foliage.

2. Find magic in mayhem

The expert: Pål Hermansen, Norway

Few gull images have the energy and excitement of Pål’s striking flight-shot of black-legged kittiwakes in Norway’s Lofoten Islands.

It may be blurry and chaotic, with most of the main bird out of frame and the head of a second blocked from view, but it’s dynamic and powerful, and really stands out from the crowd.

“Real life isn’t always neatly structured and well ordered – it’s often quite shambolic,” explains Pål, “and that’s exactly how a flock of eager gulls appears to me.

I wanted to capture how it might feel to be a bird among the throng, which meant breaking a few photographic rules.

I like to experiment with the accidental chaos of motion, where I don’t have full control over every element of the image. I prefer these shots to perfectly composed ones.”

3. Think dark thoughts

The expert: Peter Cairns, UK

Can a picture be dominated by black? Judging by Peter’s wonderfully unusual shot of a coot, it can.

This is clearly not a black and white photo – there is colour in the light, in the coot’s plumage and in its familiar red eye – yet more than 90 per cent of it is pitch black.

“The light on this particular day was gorgeous,” says Peter. “It lit up the coot’s dark plumage just enough to lift it from the background.

I like the way its white frontal shield is reflected in the water, forming a vertical line right down the centre of the frame.”

Note also the faint horizontal white line at the water’s surface. This anchors the coot, so it doesn’t look as if it’s floating in mid-air.

4. Capture the character

The expert: Edwin Giesbers, Netherlands

Distinctive subjects lend themselves to a little extra creativity, offering the chance to highlight or even exaggerate their most striking features in unusual ways.

“I wanted to give a prey’s-eye view of a praying mantis,” explains Edwin. “By focusing on those archetypal spiked forelegs, I was able to show the last thing a hapless insect might see just before it is seized.”

Your eyes are drawn straight to the insect’s forelimbs because they are the only sharp parts of the image.

You can immediately identify which animal they belong to – even though its head and body are completely out of focus – because praying mantises are so distinctive.

A picture like this wouldn’t work nearly as well if the animal wasn’t instantly recognisable.


Now you know the rules, let your creativity run wild for an even better picture.

5. Challenge your viewer

The expert: Jan-Peter Lahall, Sweden

Jan-Peter is renowned for pushing the boundaries of wildlife photography.

He takes plenty of traditional images, but is best known for throwing away the rule book and letting his imagination run wild.

This delightfully off-the-wall picture of greylag geese in Tysslingen, Sweden, is a good example of his unique and recognisable style.

“I was able to get a clear view of the geese,” he says, “and I did take a number of more conventional pictures by shooting across the open snow. But I wanted to capture something more unusual, so I moved to a different position and shot through the trees instead.”

There is one key ingredient to this image – the goose on the right. If this bird wasn’t clearly visible through the branches, the picture wouldn’t work so well.

It’s a very abstract image – one that most photographers probably wouldn’t have noticed – yet Jan-Peter has made sure that it’s immediately obvious what you are looking at.

There is, however, a limit. You have to be careful not to become so ridiculously creative that your pictures leave the viewer frustrated and confused.


SWAP PLACES Try intentionally breaking one rule at a time. For example, experiment by placing your subjects in the centre or close to the edge of the frame rather than on a power point.

WATCH THIS SPACE One interesting rule to break is the use of ‘dead’ space. Have your subjects flying, running, walking or swimming (below) out of open space rather than into it.

FIND AN AUDIENCE Bear in mind that many of the most creative images are loved by some people but hated by others – reactions are subjective.

KNOW YOUR LIMITS Don’t give up the rules altogether. After all, they are designed to make pictures aesthetically pleasing.

Overall, I have found these tips and techniques to helpful in both developing both basic and experimental concepts when approaching wildlife photography.

I will continue my research.


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