View Full Version : Improving wildlife photography by becoming a better naturalist
29th of March 2010 (Mon), 16:48
I was reading though the long macro tips/hints thread and this one stood out to me (and is something I recall from reading the book myself)
John Shaw's "Closeups in Nature"
"In terms of locating subject matter and "working" it in the field, my best advice is to learn as much as you can about the natural world. I've said it before, but it still holds true: To be a better nature photographer, you must first become a better naturalist."
Myself, my major problem is that I have come to wildlife photography though a love of the BBC productions and through a (recent) introduction to photography. Till 2 or so years ago I had no idea that I could even afford let alone be able to use something as advanced as the professional camera gear that they used to make their productions. Add to that 20odd years of not looking at worldly things and instead being absorbed by human things and it has left me with a clear weakness.
I can now control a camera reasonably well, technical wise most problems I can understand myself where I have failed or can find help to advise; composition I am also working on (never an art's student either) improving. However my biggest problem area is fieldcraft and in this I am as green as they come. Sure I can find ducks on a pond and have reasonable luck at finding (non-specific at the moment) insects and that has tailoured my shooting recently toward more macro based subjects since I can at least find and shoot them.
But mammals, birds and reptiles are things that hold my interest, perhaps more than insects, but my failure to know how to find them is a very significant barrier.
So I'm out to improve myself and I am already looking to try contacting a few people (when I have good amounts of free time to dedicate to learning in the field). But I also want to brush up (a lot) on my theory as well. I know many of these skills are not the sort you learn direct and best from books/net, but out in the field - but there must be a starting point where I can get some entry into this strange new world.
Walks I can do - but with only 290mm odd of focal length most little birds sit there and mock me on them ;) so whilst lens shortness is a weakness (that I admitidly do sort of lean on) there has got to be more to this than owning long glass.
So (whilst also going through the sticky here) has anyone any advice/direction/guidance/refrences where I can start making a beginning?
30th of March 2010 (Tue), 10:55
Well...the truth is that all pro wildlife photographers usually count on local guide knowledge most of the time.
Yes before starting serious wildlife photography you should learn as much as possible about the nature of your future photo-subjects....but lets not fool ourselves...90% of our portfolio is taken with a local guide-naturalist present. He (she) is the one to locate game...we press the shutter button.
If you really really really want to get involved in to serious wildlife photography you will visit Africa at some point. This is the "Mecca" for all wildlife photographers. In most places in Africa you are not allowed to drive your own vehicle inside the parks (you have to hire a guide-driver and 4X4 vehicle through a tour operator).
Buy as many specialized wildlife photography books as possible...study the style of other well known wildlife photographers, get a subscription of major wildlife magazines (BBC Wildlife magazine, National Wildlife Federation magazine), gradually build your gear, starting with a good lens.
The 100-400mm f/5.6 zoom and the 400mm f/5.6 prime are ideal for most wildlife applications. If money is not an object lenses such as 300mm 2.8, 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4 are the holy grails of all wildlife photographers.
Regards from Greece
30th of March 2010 (Tue), 11:11
I sympathize, and there is a lot to learn; habitat, behavior, direction of the wind (to catch birds in flight), etc. I'm a little less limited in focal length with a 100-400 on a 50D, but am no less challenged. I've been at it long enough to know the seasons and at what time of year I may find what kind of creature in what spot at what time of day, etc. My problem, however, is that I also enjoy the hike; typcially about 3 miles. And these are trails through nature preserves so there's really no leaving the trail. I don't have problems seeing stuff, but they unfortunately see me first 100% of the time and take off. That said, I sorta enjoy that "hunt"; see what I can see, how close I can get, make the best use of the light, etc. And sometimes I get something, sometimes I don't. That's okay because it's always a great day out there.
You need to remember that some of the best stuff is shot not out in the open but from blinds. Sometimes even with the lure of food and possibly even calls. If you have the time and patience, you'll probably never do better than this approach. It's among my own personality flaws to be a little short of both. And again, I like the hike.
30th of March 2010 (Tue), 11:19
You need to remember that some of the best stuff is shot not out in the open but from blinds.
Or at the zoo. :D
30th of March 2010 (Tue), 11:37
I am no professional photographer, wildlife or other. I am a huge animal person though. I learned, at a very young age, how to stalk birds, reptiles, and small mammals. I can spot a snake in a bush from several feet away. I loved animals long before I got into photography. Part of it is sitting and waiting. I don't 'bait' my shots, I just wait for the opportunity to arise. I found a great spot for shooting lizards sunning themselves and walked over and sat down and startled everybody into their crevices, but a few minutes later, they all came back out and before I knew it, I was surrounded by lizards, some literally mere inches from me. It was really cool and I got some keepers from that. Sit and wait, don't just walk around, because you're right, animals spot you and fly/run/slither away before you see them.
30th of March 2010 (Tue), 11:59
^^^Great advice; try letting the nature come to YOU, instead of the other way around.
Start watching and taking note (mentally, or on paper) when you witness non-human movement around while you're out and about in your local area. Learn to identify your local fauna first, and try to be familiar with their habits/habitats. Then take some time to place yourself in the areas that they frequent and wait.
Also, remember that if you must move, stay low and slow. Some critters will still spook, but a lot of times you can move in much closer this way and get some decent shots. I duck walk a LOT when trying to get some of my birds...
And the only thing that MUST stay out of the mud and water is the camera...the photographer, however, may come home as dirty/wet as they please :D
Once comfortable with those things, start reading the Wildlife and Birds forums here and take notes on where you can locate other creatures that you might enjoy shooting; then start planning some trips!
Best of luck to you out there! It's a lot of fun.
31st of March 2010 (Wed), 19:34
I completely agree with your premise that to become a better wildlife photographer one should become a better naturalist. I believe that "becoming a better naturalist" means learning your subjects better. A great deal of this increased knowledge should come from personal observations out in the field.
Where are you located? I did not see a location listed under your avatar, so it is difficult for me to help you by giving you any specific advice about where to go to gather first-hand experience observing wildlife. If you can let us know where you are located maybe some of us on here could offer some specific advice.
1st of April 2010 (Thu), 13:55
Matman - I do very much agree and I have seen a few of the wildlife shows where they detail behind the scenes work so yes I do accept that local naturalists etc... are a very key part of the wildlife photographers setup in finding subjects. However the basic skills of finding the wildlife is one that I think most photographers do aquire and use to their fullest; however a month or even just a year working in a new environment is just not enough time to find all the subjects they want - so working with established locals is a way of speeding up the game.
Gear and books is certainly something that I am working toward ( a good midrange lens for the now - either the 300mm f4, 400mm f5.6 or the 100-400mm or the new 50-500mm OS from sigma - followed by a good godlens like hte 300mm f2.8 for the long term). Interestingly the wildlife photography books I have come across thus far don't make much mention of the methods of working with and finding wildlife; with many making only generalist statements about the topic in general with more of a focus toward gear with others focusing toward compostion.
Peasefield - yes blinds, baiting and photography traps are all valid methods to use and I have heard arugments for and against them all. However what I hear less is about how one goes about setting up these (outside of a few birdfeeders in the garden). Surely there is more method than just blind luck in setting these up, signs that one can learn to read in the land a little that will help with the best possible placement - waiting is no problem provided that all has been done to ensure that its a good spot to wait in (still no garantee, but more so than just picking a spot at random.
SkyBaby gives a good example of this - not just picking a spot at random to wait, but choosing the location based on previous sightings and conditions/evidence. From what I have found out many animals will grow acustomed to even quite obvious human precense provided that they do not see us as a threat - of course some species have been so hunted that we are seen as a natural predator and of course then things like photography traps and remote setups are often needed.
Tom and Snydremark you both go further on the documenting of local wildlife and events - and also point out that I missed something from my profile - UK, Suffolk at some parts of the year and Penrith (edge of the LakeDistrict) during termtime. Of course one limit that I have is no car so that restricts my range; however even unrestricted I think my major problem is finding a starting point to work from. Once I have that I feel that I will start to move in the right directions, but its getting and finding these starting points that I think I am messing up on (and of coures a very limited understanding of reading the landscape no doubt restricts some of the oppertunities that I can "see" to take advantage of).
1st of April 2010 (Thu), 18:55
I just Googled "Suffolk UK wildlife" for you, and came up with some good leads. You may want to get on these sites, read about the opportunities they offer, then contact them so that someone there can help you with learning the photographic opportunities available.
Here's a site that represents a couple dozen preserves in the Suffolk area:
Here's a page form the aforementioned site that is about an upcoming natural history photographic exhibition. Often, attending this type of event can be helpful, as you will likely get to meet some of the photographers. You can explain to them that you are interested in photographing wildlife in the area, and they may be glad to help you:
Here's the site of a good nature & wildlife photographer in your area:
If you contact him and explain that you would like some help getting started, he may be glad to give you some sound advice.
I've found that there is no substitute for the internet when it comes to learning about what potential opportunities exist in any area. You can find contact information for so many knowledgeable people. Follow up your research with phone calls, emails, and meetings, and you will have more opportunities than you know what to do with!
some more sites that may lead to useful contacts & information:
At this site, you can search for photographers by region. Look for those within the Suffolk region of the UK, then among those results, look for those which are described as "Environnement Wildlife Photography" businesses. There should be some contact info - contact the photographer and ask for help.
1st of April 2010 (Thu), 19:18
Nice, Tom! Got any suggestions like that for this area? (Greater WA)
2nd of April 2010 (Fri), 07:35
Tom and Snydremark you both go further on the documenting of local wildlife and events - and also point out that I missed something from my profile - UK, Suffolk at some parts of the year and Penrith (edge of the LakeDistrict) during termtime. Of course one limit that I have is no car so that restricts my range; however even unrestricted I think my major problem is finding a starting point to work from.
Suffolk is next door to Norfolk, where Chris Mills runs Norfolk Birding (http://www.norfolkbirding.com/). He does Photography Workshops but will also do 1-on-1 stuff. I'm sure he'd be only too keen to take you out and his day rates are pretty reasonable.
And he'll be understanding about the lack of a car - he holds the UK record for most bird species seen in a single year without using motorised transport - 251 species with just a bicycle and feet.
We spent one day with him last year and he got us to within 3 feet of a Barn Owl and about the same distance from Snow Buntings -
Riaan van Wyk
6th of April 2010 (Tue), 14:05
If you really really really want to get involved in to serious wildlife photography you will visit Africa at some point. This is the "Mecca" for all wildlife photographers.
Is there then no other wildlife in the rest of the world? Why Africa?
OP, guidebooks/ reference books will help a great deal for starters i think. Often it is a great help to understand the habitat of subjects and the biology long before having to debate lens issues.
6th of April 2010 (Tue), 14:17
Because that is where much of the exotic, big game animals are found, I imagine. Also, "going on safari" is highly romanticized in literature and pop culture, so shots from there resonate with a large part of society.
6th of April 2010 (Tue), 19:01
Safari is also plains land shooting - so far less area for a subject to hide and far easier to move in and also to track them at distance. That added into the abundant lighting and clear skies (at least in all the pics I've seen - aside from storms in the rainy season) make it a great place for photography. Compare that to shooting in woodland or forested lands or mountainous environments where the land is far slower and harder to cross and provides far more oppertunity for the subject to hide and also a reduced line of sight to the subject - ie you have to get close and that puts people (and animals) at more risk.
That is not to say african shooting is easy, but that it might be easier than other areas. Add into that the whole touristindustry that supports this venture and it does indeed make it a "wildlife Haven" for photographers.
They also have wild lions and cheetah and leopard and and (I could add loads more - sadly though no tigers)
Tom - thanks ever so much for those links - esp the latter few regarding contacting and finding other local wildlife photographers. Doing such is something that I have planned to do, though I have mostly held of for the moment as I flit between suffolk and uni and also until I at least have something a little longer than 290mm in lens length (at least so I can turn up with something on the DSLR that is around the same length as what a little bridge camera can achive ;)).
Frank - that is a great site and certainly about the best rates I have seen being offered for such daytime trips (and he's not too far off either). Certainly I can see myself going on at least one if not more of those trips once I get the chance to (I have seen similar and much larger group events costinga lot more for just a single day which always makes me worry that the whole day will not get much learning done - esp if the group have grealy varying skill levels)
8th of April 2010 (Thu), 00:17
I am a birder. Not bad. I got my money shots. :) Since you are focal length limited, to get good shots with good IQ, you need to shoot the subjects close. You can setup a bird feeders in your backyard. Hid in a blind and wait and to bait the subject (putting seeds on top of a tree trunk). Basically, with your focal length limited, you can't just go and find birds. You have to go and wait and let them come to you. I am shooting with a 500L + converter. There were times the subjects got too ridiculously close because I have been standing in that spot for some good 20 minutes. The birds just worked their way to me. There are birds just won't come to you closer no matter what.
vBulletin® v3.6.12, Copyright ©2000-2013, Jelsoft Enterprises Ltd.