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Photographing Wildlife

One interesting subset of nature photography is wildlife photography. It takes a lot of patience and a fair amount of luck, but capturing a great photograph of a wild animal is particularly rewarding.

It's also somewhat challenging, if only because wild animals don't just sit around waiting to be photographed. Animals in the wild try to avoid human beings, which means you have to seek them out—most often at a distance. It's a matter of knowing where and when to look, but also of being in the right place at the right time.

Using the Right Equipment

I don't recommend using a standard point-and-shoot camera for wildlife photography; the standard 3X zoom just doesn't cut it. You need a much longer zoom or telephoto lens, as you probably will be some distance from the animals. That argues for a prosumer camera with a 12X or 15X zoom, or a D-SLR with a long zoom or telephoto lens; I'd recommend a 200mm lens at minimum.

Naturally, you want a polarizing filter on that lens. And, if the lens is long enough, you might need a tripod to steady it. That said, you may need the flexibility of handheld shooting, so a tripod isn't mandatory.

Instead of using a tripod, try shooting at a fast shutter speed—the fastest your camera and lens are capable of. This minimizes the effect of camera shake if you're going handheld and also helps to capture the animal in motion.

Of course, the fast shutter speed dictates a wide aperture (small f/stop). You'll also want to shoot at a relatively high ISO setting.

Be Patient—And Plan

The key to capturing a wild animal in its element, as in the shot in Figure 23.13, is to be patient. Very patient. Extremely patient. You may have to wait for hours before that animal appears; be prepared for a long wait and for a flurry of action when the time is right.

Figure 23.13

Figure 23.13 Capturing a shot like this requires patience—and planning.

When the animal appears, you need to be prepared and ready to shoot at a moment's notice. Don't be caught unaware.

Because you might only have a second or two to capture a shot of an animal in the wild, you probably want to prefocus your camera. Here is where manual focus is handy. Manually focus your camera on an object near where you think the animal will appear—a tree or fence or whatever. Then, when the animal appears, you're prepared.

Also try to frame your shot beforehand. If at all possible, you want an unobstructed shot of the animal. That means positioning yourself at an angle that minimizes tree branches, leaves, and such between you and the animal. Work it out ahead of time, because you might not have a chance to move after the animal appears.

Shooting Animals in Their Natural Environment

When you're photographing small animals, you need to lower the camera. Don't shoot standing up from above; hunker down to get the shot at their level.

When composing the shot, you don't need to fill the frame with the animal. In fact, you might create a better photo by including some of the surrounding environment in the shot. This also helps to provide a sense of scale.

To avoid blurring the shot of an animal in motion, practice panning your camera. You want to follow the path of the animal as it moves; you may create a bit of a blurred background, but that's a nice effect when the animal is moving.

And here's one final, important tip. If you can, focus on the animal's eyes. Photographing an animal from the rear isn't very interesting, but if you can capture the animal looking at the camera, with the eyes in focus, you have your shot right there. As you can see in Figure 23.14, when you capture the animal looking at you (or at the camera, as it were), you create an emotional connection for the viewer. The eyes are the key.

Figure 23.14

Figure 23.14 Focus on the animal's eyes for a more dramatic shot.

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