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Posts tagged ‘wildlife’

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.


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 ( 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

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.

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.



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.

Weekend Wanderings – Revisiting Banyule

My grant application has been in for a couple of weeks, and this last Thursday I joined the Warringal Conservation Society. Then this morning I was trying to work out what to put in the post today and thinking about all the photos of Banyule that I have taken since the beginning of the year, especially as I have Social Snappers excursion there this afternoon. So today, I thought I would go through those photos and make a selection and show them again.  I hope you don’t mind.


There is lots of evidence or remains in this area which says it used to be farming land.  Everyone who lives around here knows that, but it has been interesting, especially since my involvement with the WCS, how much of it was farmland until the 1970’s.  I know that the house I live in was once in the middle of a paddock, and paintings by some of the Heidelberg School show that.  I think it is interesting that it was once bushland, converted to farmland, and now is all set to be bushland again, well if the developers don’t get their way.


One of the biggest threats to this area is the North East Freeway.  In Australia it seems that roads and freeways are more important than anything else, and “we must have as many as we can.  It is important that there are roads everywhere because the only way people can travel is by car.  Public Transport, bite your tongue”.  Well, that is how our government seems to be.  Caring for the environment and what we have always seems to be secondary, or thirdary, I don’t know, a long way down on the list.  Part of the reason for starting to document Banyule Flats and some of the surrounding parkland was, hopefully, to draw more attention to what we are trying to conserve here.


Really, in a nut shell, this is the main part of it.  This beautiful wetlands that is accessible to anyone who wants to visit it.  Anyone who cares about the environment and want to find some peaceful place in a city that is becoming very fast.


Shall we put some perspective on this.  Melbourne is a big city, not necessarily in population, but in land mass.  Everyone wants their quarter acre, so Melbourne has spread out, and spread out a lot.  It is becoming one of the largest cities in the world due to the size of it, or geographically.  It spans 100km from East to West, I suspect more North to South, but not sure.  Still that gives you an idea.  So one of things that makes Banyule Flats so unique is that from the city centre we are only around 15kms from it. Which means there is this amazing parkland, with lots of wildlife, only a 30 minute drive from the city, there is public transport and a train to Heidelberg will get you here in about the same time.


This is parkland, but it isn’t manicured parkland.  There are parks everywhere in the city, but this one is more special because it is about the land returning to its original state and being bushland again.  It is a place where you can go walking, and you might see kangaroos, at night you will see wombats.  There is an abundance of birdlife in and around the swamp. It is a place that is like an oasis in the middle of suburbia.  I don’t know how many times people come to visit me for the first time and they can’t believe where we are, it is like we live in the country, though we don’t.

My grant application is about producing something that will help people understand how beautiful this area is, hopefully, if I get it, I will produce a book on the area, something that will include the history and what the area is significant.  Development isn’t always the answer, and sometimes it is great to just let things be, for now and in the future.

I have a gallery with some of my favourite photos taken since February. They show the different seasons, different times of the day, and just how beautiful it is.  I hope you all agree that conservation is good and think about what you can help conserve in your local area.  I’m looking forward to taking more photos there this afternoon with my Social Snappers group, explore some areas I haven’t been to for awhile.