Wildlife photographer Paul Hobson shows three AP readers how to photograph small British mammals up close using a macro lens. Oliver Atwell picks up some tips

Creating your own sets

Building your own set can allow
you to previsualise how you want your shot to look, which is a virtually
impossible task when shooting in the wild. However, it’s important to
be disciplined when collecting material to work with.‘Don’t rush out and
grab the first thing that looks interesting,’ says Paul. ‘Spend some
time researching and collecting the right props. It’s crucial to ensure
that the set is in keeping with the natural history and environment of
the creature you’re working with. You wouldn’t have a short-tailed field
vole in a set made to look like a forest because that isn’t realistic
as they live in fields. So make it visually appealing, but in keeping
with your subject. Also, be careful not to overwork your set. Make sure
it’s not too busy, otherwise it could end up looking horribly contrived.

‘Make
sure you previsualise your image so you can have some control over your
composition and where the animal will appear in the shot. You can
persuade the creature to go to certain places by placing a little food
under some moss or leaves, or you could even make a little tunnel that
they’ll hopefully move through and poke their head out of. Once you’ve
previsualised your shot, you can ensure that everything remains
balanced.

‘When building the set, it’s crucial to provide places
in which the animals can shelter and hide. They need to have somewhere
to retreat to otherwise they’re going to become incredibly stressed and
that’s really not what wildlife photography is about. The welfare of the
subject is more important than your image.’

Manual Settings
‘With
regard to settings, I prefer to use aperture priority,’ says Paul.
‘Aperture priority allows you to determine the depth of field and
therefore the background. Over the years, through trial and error, I’ve
learned to understand which f-stop and shutter speed will be appropriate
for each subject. That understanding is an important skill to develop.
Aperture priority also allows you to produce work with shallower depths
of field and therefore faster shutter speeds, such as 1/100sec. This is
crucial to get a nice diffused background and means you don’t have lots
of blurred images. Small mammals don’t stay in one place for too long
and they can be off in the blink of an eye.

‘There are a lot of
people who set their ISO to automatic so the speed doesn’t get too low. I
don’t do that because I like to know what ISO my camera is set to all
the time. I’ll choose a higher ISO if I want to. I don’t need the camera
to tell me.’

Autofocus vs manual

According to Paul, while using autofocus is a good idea, it is not without its problems.

‘If
you’re shooting small mammals and using autofocus, there’s always a
risk that the lens will lock onto the animal’s nose and not the eye,’
says Paul. ‘There can be many occasions when you look through the
viewfinder and place the focus sensor over the eye that the focus
doesn’t catch. Bear in mind that when photographing small mammals the
subject is quite small, but the camera’s sensor is quite large.

Photo by Di Wilkins

‘One
way that you can tackle the problem is to hold down the shutter halfway
and let the focus settle. Then you can tweak it manually and get the
eyes sharp. Of course, if you’re dealing with something like a vole,
then it is unlikely to stay in one position for too long. The
alternative is to use a tripod and set up your camera pointing at a
location where you feel sure the animal will appear. Then turn off
autofocus and trust your eye. Autofocus is a brilliant tool, but you
mustn’t let it drive your photography. It can be particularly good in
“servo”, otherwise known as focus tracking, where the lens will keep the
subject in focus as it moves around the frame, but don’t rely on
autofocus. Learn when to override it and turn it off.’

  1. 1. Would you like to take part?
  2. 2. Page 2
  3. 3. The Background
  4. 4. Framing and Composition
  5. 5. Using natural light, fill-flash
  6. 6. Page 6
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