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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.

SPortnoy_20140618_0549-Edit

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.

SPortnoy_20141110_4970

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.

http://www.wendyperrin.com/take-better-safari-photos-elephants-lions-zebra/
http://www.wendyperrin.com/safari-packing-list-dont-leave-home-without-these-essentials/

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.
SPortnoy_20140927_5516

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.

Botswana 2013

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.

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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.

67 Comments
  1. The whole thing about leaving some room for cropping is one of my big problems. I shoot tight and crop in the viewfinder. Which was how I learned to do it, back in the days of film. But that was a long time ago and I’m still working at leaving some room so I can straighten a crooked horizon without losing have the picture, or just trim it for aesthetic reasons. I still shoot too tight, even though I know better.

    February 6, 2015
    • It’s hard not to want to make it right in camera. I struggle with that too. But when you’re trying to capture two animals playing or one running or anything where there movements can be erratic, it’s just a risk to compose it too tightly.

      February 6, 2015
  2. Thank you Leanne for asking me to pen this post! I hope it helps those interested in wildlife photography. These are things I’ve learned from some of the best photographers out there, and while I have a ways to go, these tips have helped me considerably. Looking forward to answering any questions or comments anyone might have.

    February 6, 2015
    • I’m sure it will be a great help Susan, and you are so welcome. I think you could use those tips for lots of things.

      February 6, 2015
  3. Reblogged this on Crash Course.

    February 6, 2015
  4. Reblogged this on Santa's Reindeer and commented:
    Lovely tips…

    February 6, 2015
    • I appreciate your sharing. Glad you enjoyed!

      February 6, 2015
  5. Beautiful photos

    February 6, 2015
  6. Great tips, lovely photographs.

    February 6, 2015
    • Thank you, Victor. I appreciate it and glad you enjoyed.

      February 6, 2015
  7. Jackie Saulmon Ramirez #

    Wow. Just wow. These are a 15 on a scale of 1 to 10. Susan Portnoy is the ultimate pro.

    February 6, 2015
    • Thank you, Jackie! You are so kind. Really appreciate it. 🙂

      February 6, 2015
  8. Fabulous!

    February 6, 2015
    • As always, thank you so much Julie!

      February 6, 2015
  9. Beautiful pictures and great advice especially the second body and borrow gear, If I get the chance to go on safari will differently do this.

    February 6, 2015
    • Hi Ben.. I’m glad you found it interesting. I hope you are able to go on safari someday. It’s life-changing.

      February 6, 2015
      • My sister lives in Tanzania and I have promised that one day I will make the trip.

        February 6, 2015
  10. Simply beautiful work!

    February 6, 2015
  11. Thank you for sharing these helpful tips Susan.

    February 6, 2015
    • Hi James.. I am glad you found them helpful. 🙂

      February 6, 2015
  12. Really beautiful photos. There’s a magazine I get called world of animals which always has a couple of pages in the back on wildlife photography and that’s where I get all my tips from, not that I’ve had much chance to put them into practise yet.

    February 6, 2015
    • Thank you! I haven’t seen that magazine. I will look it up. Thanks for the heads up. 🙂

      February 6, 2015
  13. Thank you Susan and Leanne for this excellent post. There’s lots of great information and some terrific images.

    February 6, 2015
    • John, so glad you found it worthwhile. Thank you!

      February 6, 2015
  14. Thank you Leanne for this fantastic guest post! All the advice is spot on based on my experience shooting birds and years ago shooting wildlife in Africa (before we all went digital). I still make lots of mistakes (like shooting too tight sometimes), but I’m learning patience, varying my composition, and to anticipate their next move. I’m excited to try panning in the way Susan describes it as I’ve been doing it wrong, w/o really slowing the shutter speed. Great post!!

    February 6, 2015
    • The shutter speed is really the trick for that look. Glad you found the information valuable. :))

      February 6, 2015
  15. These are incredible photos. My eyes have been gifted with visual dessert. FABULOUS ..!!!

    February 6, 2015
    • Isadora.. you are too kind!! Thank you so much.

      February 6, 2015
  16. Wonderful, Your article is truly inspiring, and gives such good advice for all types of photography. The images are just amazing and I certainly would love to try wildlife but no chance for awhile yet. Thanks Leanne and Sue!

    February 6, 2015
    • Hi Wendy – I am so happy you found value in it and thank you regarding the images. You’re so so kind. There’s no doubt African wildlife is spectacular but I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed shooting the wildlife around the lake in Central Park – the link is in the story. Maybe there’s some interesting wildlife around where you live?

      February 6, 2015
  17. WOOOOOWWW! Good stuff!!!!

    February 6, 2015
  18. Sound advice and some of it applies to all genre of photography.

    February 6, 2015
    • You are so right. There is a lot that just works for photography across the board.

      February 6, 2015
  19. I had just a few experiences with wildlife photography and I am talking about lions and elephant. I do not like it because you need patience, something that I lack. You have to stay still for a long period of time in order to catch something. Some animals are not afraid of human and can get close to you, others you just move one finger and they move away. The solution for that which can become expensive is to get long zoom lens

    February 6, 2015
    • No doubt.. especially in Africa a long lens is necessary. 🙂

      February 6, 2015
  20. Thank you Leanne and Susan. The tips are great . I especially like the idea of a second body at the ready and leaving some room for the animal to move. I started following the Insatiable Traveller last time Leanne introduced us to you, Susan and thoroughly enjoy your stunning images and humorous, engaging writing! Chris

    February 6, 2015
    • Hi Chris!! Nice to hear from you and thank you so much for the follow. Glad you liked this piece and thank you so much for all your kind words and support. xo

      February 6, 2015
  21. wonderful!! Ahh yes patience!! love the pan shot!! Thank you Susan and Leanne.

    February 6, 2015
    • Patience.. sometimes it’s a four-letter word..LOL…

      February 6, 2015
  22. What fabulous tips! I wish I had had them before going on safari. Especially the idea of renting a different lens. Thanks for taking the time to compose this post. It’s one I needed to read!

    February 6, 2015
    • Thank God for lens rental companies. It has saved me so much aggravation and $$. It’s also a really economical way to try out new lenses or bodies at home.

      February 6, 2015
  23. Thanks Leanne and Susan…awesome shots and great tips..patience is certainly something I am gaining more of..and I am super impatient! I have also thought a second body would be a good idea..makes a lot of sense…thankyou for showing wildlife still has a place in photography! Bev 🙂

    February 6, 2015
    • You are speaking to the choir…lol. Patience has been a real challenge for me but when shooting wildlife you really don’t have an option. Darn it all…LOL

      February 6, 2015
      • Yep…i do love the quiet though..usually my mind wanders..then i miss the roos wrestling…everytime! Lol

        February 6, 2015
  24. Thank you again Leanne Cole for all your great pictures and your tips for all to follow.

    February 6, 2015
    • These aren’t mine Donna, this post and the photos are by Susan Portnoy.

      February 6, 2015
  25. Another good post Leanne, thank you and have a great weekend. MM🍀

    February 6, 2015
  26. Such beautiful shots and some great tips that even an amateur like me can try. Thanks Leanne and Susan.

    February 7, 2015
    • That’s great Carol.

      February 7, 2015
    • You’re most welcome Carol. I’m very happy you found some value to the post. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.:)

      February 8, 2015
  27. Some really good advice, thank you! I’ve been thinking about getting a second camera body recently, and all I was doing was taking photos of snow leopards in a zoo environment! I definitely need to work on my panning technique- on my old camera I used it really well to get a moving object in focus, but I’ve not managed that on the new one, might be worth deliberately blurring instead…

    February 7, 2015
    • I’ve come to love the combination of blur and clarity with panning. It really conveys the sense of motion and I think it’s quick to capture a viewer’s attention.

      February 8, 2015
  28. Outstanding..:)

    February 7, 2015
  29. Reblogged this on djlsinclair8.

    February 8, 2015
    • Thank you. I’m very happy you found value in the piece. 🙂

      February 10, 2015
  30. Amazing shots, and very useful info for every photographer. thanks heaps.

    February 9, 2015
  31. makenzihogan #

    what excellent suggestions! thanks
    xx kenz, fiftytwoeas.tcom

    February 10, 2015
  32. Tola #

    Reblogged this on In My Mind It Makes Sense and commented:
    I’ll have to keep this in mind the next time i go shooting

    February 11, 2015

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