Up for Discussion: Susan Portnoy with Tips for Shooting Wildlife
Last year I introduced you to Susan Portnoy and her blog, The Insatiable Traveler, she has lots of photos of Wildlife from her trips to Africa and other places. While she isn’t just a wildlife photographer, as you would notice if you follow her blog, she does love photographing the wild animals in Africa, so I asked her if she would be interested in doing a blog post for us on how she goes about this type of photography.
So, over to you Susan.
EIGHT TIPS FOR SHOOTING WILDLIFE
Wildlife photography is an addictive challenge filled with excitement, frustration, and its fair share of luck. There are so many variables that come in to play: What kind of wildlife are you shooting? Will you be in a vehicle or on foot? Are you in your own backyard or someplace unfamiliar thousands of miles away? It would be impossible to cover every angle.
When Leanne asked me to pen this piece my head almost exploded from all the possibilities. So for the sake of this post I thought it would be best to concentrate on eight tips I learned from professionals that have helped me the most, whatever the circumstances.
1. Embrace patience
In short: photographing wildlife requires a lot of patience. A lot. To every photographer’s chagrin, animals never do anything on cue. On the average, you spend the majority of your time watching them eat, sit or sleep.
When I’m at home in New York City, I am a poster child for A.D.H.D., but over the last couple of years I’ve learned to embrace patience—not that I really had a choice. It was either that or end up with some really bland photos.
On the flip side, learning to be patient has been a good thing for me. I’ve learned to savor the mystery of wondering what’s next; to enjoy the thrill of anticipation as I wait for a stalking predator to pounce, and to delight in the rush of capturing something special after a long wait. If you find yourself ready to pack it in, stay at least 30 minutes longer. On further thought….make that 40.
2. Shoot in the morning and the early evening
Whether you’re shooting people, architecture or wildlife, the best natural lighting is found in the early morning and late afternoon. Thankfully, this is when animals are most active. Score! Just make sure to monitor your shutter speed and ISO. The light changes quickly at these times and depending on how fast your lens is, combined with the capabilities of your camera, you’ll want to keep this in mind. Otherwise you risk ending up with a lot of blurry images or your highlights blown out. Either way, unless that was your intention, you won’t be happy.
3. Study your subject
Capturing photos you’ll want to share is much easier when you know an animal’s behavior. Lions in the same pride are incredibly social and often nuzzle each other in greeting, knowing that gives you a few seconds to think about the shot you want to take, fiddle with your settings, and be ready when the magic happens.
If you have access to wildlife near your home, take the time to study your subjects.Ask yourself, what do they do BEFORE they do the thing you want to capture?
Prior to the Christmas holiday, I spent six mornings exploring The Lake in New York City’s Central Park (http://wp.me/p3zavK-3YW). I had a wonderful time photographing the pigeons, toddler-sized geese and hundreds of mallards. By the end of the sixth day I knew a lot about our feathered friends.
For example, I noticed that while preening, before a goose stands up to stretch and flaps its wings—a lovely moment worth a photo—it uses its bill to toss water over its head and onto its back. I realized that the subsequent wing flapping was the goose’s way to remove excess moisture from its feathers. From that moment on, whenever I saw a goose splash that way I knew the wings weren’t far behind. I had the luxury of proactively creating the image as opposed to reacting at the last second. Anticipation is a wonderful thing.
If you’d like to read more about specific African wildlife behaviors for lions, elephants, buffalo, etc., here’s a piece I wrote for WendyPerrin.com.
4. Leave some space in your frame
A professional wildlife photographer gave me some great advice. He told me to leave a little room for my subject to move within the composition—especially wildlife lready in motion. At first I resisted. When I first became interested in photography, I wanted to be the “perfect” photographer (I’m a tad type A) who composed every shot entirely in-camera. But when animals move erratically in a frame that’s too tight, chances are you’ll chop off body parts in a way that’s neither attractive or “artsy”. At the end of the day I’d rather crop a photo than blow it altogether.
5. Don’t forget to vary your composition
The first time I saw an elephant I was utterly blown away. I was mesmerized by it’s sheer size and the graceful unfurling of its trunk as it peeled leaves off a tree. I focused on taking the quintessential portrait but I completely forgot to pull back and show him in his environment. The massive tree he was under framed him so beautifully, and a wider shot would have told a completely different and worthwhile story.
Today when I shoot I do my best to vary my composition form horizontals and verticals to close up details and wide-angled images. Give it a try.
6. Buy, borrow, or rent a long lens
As with all photography, the lens you choose will depend on your circumstances and how close you can get to your subject. When I’m on foot shooting animals in a local park, I carry a Canon 70-200mm f2.8. It’s relatively light while giving me a great focal range, a beautiful bokeh, and because it’s fast it stands up to low-light situations. I also carry a wide-angle Canon 24-105mm with me in case I want a wider shot.
In Africa however, I’d bring the Hubble telescope if I could. I only partly joke. Yes, when riding in a vehicle you can get pretty close to lions and elephants and so on, but on the average not as close as you might think. If you want the option to capture tight shots, you’ll need a long lens.
I typically borrow or rent the Canon 200 mm – 400 mm – EF telephoto zoom lens F/4.0 with the internal 1.4 converter. It’s a lot of bang for the buck and it gives me great compositional flexibility, plus it fits into my camera bag. To keep my options open I also bring my 70-200mm and my 24-105mm f4L or 16-35m for wide-angle shots. If I had all the space and money in the world I’d probably rent a 500mm or 600mm f2.8, as well.
Note: Some photographic safari companies and properties rent cameras and lenses to their guests, saving you the hassle of lugging heavy glass on international flights.
7. Have a second camera body on hand
The beauty of wildlife photography is that there are so many ways to interpret a scene. It all depends on the story you want to tell. But wonderful moments can happen in a flash and you don’t want to waste time changing lenses if you don’t have to.
I don’t usually carry another body when I am on foot, but in Africa I wouldn’t travel without it. I can’t tell you how many shots I would have lost of some gorgeous creature walking towards me, if I didn’t have a second body with a wider lens to switch to at a moments notice. I also like the freedom to toggle back and forth from tight shots to environmental wide-angle images as I see the scene unfold.
8. Shoot with an expert at least once
If you have the time and proximity to wildlife to learn as you go, then stop reading here. But, if you are taking a trip to photograph animals with which you’re unfamiliar, or located in a strange area, or both, hire a photographic guide to take you out on the first day.
A guide is a living cheat sheet you’ll be glad to have in your corner. They can point out known habitats and watering holes, give you a broad-strokes understanding of animal behaviors, offer insights into areas that look better at sunrise vs. sunset, and a load of other useful information. It may cost a little money but it will save you oodles of time and unsuccessful shots.
The best thing I ever did was to join a few photographic safaris once my passion for African wildlife was ignited. The combination of a trip built around a photographer’s needs and professional instruction has been invaluable to me, and the opportunity to hang out with other animal-obsessed photographers is a lot of fun. I highly recommend it.
9. Try Panning [Bonus tip]
This isn’t a tip in the traditional sense, more of a try-it-you-might-like-it kind of advice. I get a big kick out of panning and it’s a lot of fun too. A bit hit-and-miss but when it works, it’s awesome.
A good pan mixes clarity and blur to convey a sense of motion. The idea is to lower your shutter speed—anywhere from 1/20 – 1/50 second—focus on a subject’s head and while clicking the shutter, pan with its movement as it passes in front of you. The background blends into streaks of color and the photos can be very compelling.
That was fantastic, I hope you all enjoyed it as well, and will join me in thanking Susan for taking the time to write this post for us. She is happy to answer any questions you might have, so please leave your questions in the comments section. She sent me lots of photos and I will put them into a gallery for you, however, if you would like to see more of her wildlife photography and other photography then take a look at her blog, The Insatiable Traveler.