With stunning nature documentaries currently gracing our screens, wildlife photographer and cameraman Luke Massey gives his top tips on getting into wildlife photography
Wildlife photography; it sounds so glamorous. Witnessing amazing sights, going to incredible places and spending hours watching stunning creatures going about their business while doing your best to get a photograph that does the encounter justice.
It is, in my opinion, one of the best careers or hobbies anyone could choose. What could be better than exploring the wilds (both rural and urban) in search of nature? I read a wonderful quote recently: ‘You should sit in nature for 20 minutes a day – unless you’re busy, then you should sit for an hour.’
Within the UK and further afield there are countless opportunities and now is as good a time as any to start. Equipment has become more affordable; you can start with anything from bridge cameras to DSLR set-ups. You can specialise, too – not everything needs to be shot with a bazooka-like telephoto, so why not go for something a bit different by shooting wildlife with a wideangle or get up close and personal with macro lenses?
Wildlife isn’t easy. Yes, sometimes opportunities will be put right in front of you, but at other times you’ll need hours of patience for that one moment. Ethics are key, from how you approach and treat your subject to how you tell the story behind your photo, allowing full disclosure. A lot is down to your own judgement.
Over the course of this feature, I hope I’ll be able to give you some helpful hints, advice and guidance on ways in which you can improve your wildlife photography.
Tip 1 – Project
The best way of improving your wildlife photography and learning about a subject? Start a project. They’re easy to do and can be a lot of fun; plus if you’re trying to make a career out of photography, a well put together project can often be the perfect way of getting noticed.
From your local fox family to feral pigeons and everything in between, they all exhibit interesting behaviour and live in photogenic environments. It doesn’t have to be one animal – perhaps tell the story of your local park or farm. Projects can also be used to tell important conservation stories.
If you’re starting out, choose a common or easy-to-photograph species such as pigeons. Then you’ll be able to keep going back to improve your technique. You’ll hopefully be able to repeat instances and behaviour but you never know, you might record something never seen before!
Tip 2 – Light
Light is key. Backlighting and rim light are fantastic, especially in winter when the sun is low, not high and harsh as it is during summer. The warmer the light the better.
Remember that the shape of your animal is key – a hunched-over pigeon, for example, may not make the best backlight subject. Light can also be used to create silhouettes, especially when the sun has gone down.
Tip 3 – Framing
Framing can make the difference between a good photo and a great one. I’ve seen images (including mine) that would be improved if the taker was a foot to the left or right. Be patient – either move into a better position to frame your subject or wait for it to move into a better location that will allow for a more striking image.
Time and again I see images from people (myself included) where if they were a foot to the left or right the whole image would be improved.
Tip 4 – Timing
Timing is important in more ways than one. Early morning and evenings are not only best for light, but animals are often most active then. Otters, for example, are often seen at dawn.
Timing can relate to your approach, too. During breeding seasons in spring, don’t get too close to nests or dens. The subject’s welfare should always come first. Time of year can be key, too, such as in winter when large flocks of wintering wildfowl can be found.
Tip 5 – Backgrounds
Backgrounds for me can make or break an image. Sometimes you don’t have a choice and the subject is in front of the messiest background possible or it just blends in too much (although that can tell a story). Before shooting, see if there’s an alternative. Maybe you can lose the background by changing your exposure to throw it into darkness or throw it out of focus by changing your aperture and reducing your depth of field.
Tip 6 – Go wide
Close-up portraits may be stunning, but zooming out and getting the whole scene including your subject can be just as effective. Or the complete opposite, maybe you can get close-up or use a camera trap. Using a wideangle on an animal close up can give some fantastic results. It could show them in a different perspective, give a sense of scale and show what kind of environment they live in.
Tip 7 – Experiment
Do not be afraid to experiment. Play around with your settings and see what you get – although some would argue there’s a fine line between artistic blur and ready for your reject pile. If your subject is hanging around but moving, you can knock your shutter speed down and go for some pans; if the light is low, that will lend itself to some panning action, too. Whatever you do, please don’t do the classic zoom in/out on bluebells.
Tip 8 – Be true to yourself and your subject
Wildlife is wild. That doesn’t mean you can’t take photos of captive animals, just don’t forget to let people know that that is what they are. Your photos should be near identical to the scene you saw through the viewfinder, though of course there’s no harm in making a few changes to brightness, contrast and the like, in Lightroom or Photoshop. Don’t add elements to an image and not say so. Likewise don’t remove elements that were there. There may be an annoying branch in the background but try to frame it out as you take the shot, not in post.
Baiting is all down to personal preference, but I’m morally against live baiting. Carrion, seeds, peanut butter etc are all useful and often make secretive animals a little easier to photograph. If baiting is used, do so sparingly; never let an animal become reliant on your food supply. Always remember what kind of photo you’re taking. You want to represent behaviour that is typical of that animal.
Tip 9 – Holiday
What better way of exploring your passion than by taking it on holiday with you? Countries all over the world – from Finland to Ecuador, Spain to Australia – are offering wildlife holidays. Be it specialist hides or safaris, photographing nature has become a lot more accessible.
Britain has some fantastic species, but you might get something a little different abroad. You don’t have to go far; take a short-haul flight to southern Spain and you could be photographing imperial eagles or even the rarest cat in the world, the Iberian lynx.
Africa is, of course, famous for its safaris. Try not to go with a tick list. Try to simply enjoy everything you see – don’t go chasing after the big five. Instead spend time with species. Baboons are common but if you spend an hour or two with them then you’ll see some amazing behaviour and possibly come home from your trip with a photo someone hasn’t got before on safari.
Tip 10 – Urban jungle
Wildlife doesn’t exist only in rural surrounds; many species are quite at home in our cities, too. Don’t think because you’re stuck in a city that there won’t be any animals. Of course urban foxes are well known, but look out also for badgers, deer and even otters. Many bird species live in our towns and cities as well – our buildings can give good nesting sites away from predators.
Tip 11 – Weather
Check the forecast. Some animals won’t come out in bad weather, such as owls in heavy rain. Check rainfall timings – if it has been raining all day in summer and stops an hour or so before sunset, animals will be coming out to forage. Weather also offers photo opportunities. Fast shutter speeds in heavy rain give great frozen droplets, while misty mornings can provide incredibly atmospheric photo opportunities.
Tip 12 – Storytelling
Images are the perfect tool for storytelling, as people often connect more with imagery than words. Some animals help you with expressions or body language. But the stories don’t just have to be good ones – images are great for educating. A photo of an injured or dead animal can tell a story equally as well as a live one.
Tip 13 – Research
Research your subject and location. You’ll need to know about behaviour; where your subject likes to live, what it feeds on, when it may appear. Perhaps you suspect your local lake is home to kingfishers but you haven’t seen one. Ask a dog walker or fisherman, they might visit regularly and will probably be in the know.
Tip 14 – Gear
It’s crazy how much gear is out there now, but to take photos of wildlife you don’t need tons of equipment. I’d recommend a comfy bag to hold your gear such as a Lowepro Whistler 350, a reliable large memory card such as a PNY 32gb 100mb/s so you don’t have any buffer problems, a sturdy tripod and a pair of binoculars. Oh and a camera and lens combination might help. A good start would be a body with anything between 300-600mm lens.
Tip 15 – Have fun
Most of all, have fun – never let your project or subject get you down. There may be days when you don’t get the shot you want or not even see anything at all, but don’t let it stop you trying again. When you do finally get that shot, it is the best feeling. I recently spent 72 days looking for a lynx before I was able to get an image, and when I did it was like winning the lottery!