My love of wildlife encounters and my love of travel went hand in hand, so much so that it would be hard to imagine life without either.
From early trips to Costa Rica and South Africa to more recent adventures in the Galapagos Islands and Tanzania, we’ve been fortunate to experience some of the world’s most incredible destinations to refine your skills as a wildlife photographer.
Over the course of 20 years of traveling professionally, my wildlife photography skills have improved dramatically, from simple snapshots back in the late ’90s to getting my first photo used by National Geographic last year.
There were a few photography classes and a lot of trial and error over those years, with thousands of terrible photos and a few really good ones. Most of the winners came from improving my gear and experimentation in the field, using a few simple tricks I picked up along the way.
If you’re like me and you get a visceral thrill out of seeing wild animals in their natural environment, these tips can help you be a better wildlife photographer. Whether you’re a casual hobbyist or an aspiring professional, it’s really all about taking as many photos as you can, constantly adjusting in the moment to capture images that tell interesting stories worth a thousand words.
Wild animals are not paid to put on a show for our amusement. They do not care about issues such as lighting, branches obstructing our view, or whether we are entertained by their actions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to wait 30+ minutes for a lazy male Lion to raise its head and yawn (which looks a lot like a roar if you time it right). Truly great wildlife photography takes time, patience and persistence. If you want a great shot, be prepared to wait for it!
PROCEED WITH CAUTION
As responsible travelers and photographers, it’s important not to impact the animal’s behavior or draw negative attention in any way. Knowing the rules and keeping your distance is not just the right thing to do, but with some species it could be crucial to your survival. Of course, the animals don’t always get the memo. We’ve had Polar Bears in Manitoba, Sea Lions in the Galapagos Islands and Gorillas in Rwanda come much closer to us than the rules allowed us to approach them. But never forget that you are a guest on their turf, and treat all wildlife with the respect they deserve.
STUDY ANIMAL BEHAVIOR
Understanding the behavior of the species you’re photographing can give you a decent chance to predict their actions. The special moments we, as photographers, are trying to capture are fleeting. So being able to sense when they’re coming gives you more time to click the shutter when it does. Whether it’s knowing how often a Sea Turtle will swim to the surface to breathe, watching for Elephants near watering holes, or watching for hovering seabirds to spot whales, a little knowledge goes a long way.
KNOW YOUR GEAR
Understanding the gear you need for specific circumstances can make a HUGE difference . For our Tanzania safari, we knew we’d be photographing in low-light situations such as jungles, etc. So we invested in two f2.8 lenses– a 17-55mm and a 70-200mm– and a 1.4X extender to give us a longer focal length. We made bean bags to keep the cameras steady. Most importantly, we took time to practice with the new gear before we left. We spent over an hour watching this female Leopard from nearly 100 yards away, waiting for the sunlight to hit her just right. Knowing our gear helped us get the perfect shot.
GET A SHOT, THEN GET “THE” SHOT
Wildlife is unpredictable, often on the move, and rarely willing to wait around while you adjust your tripod, check light levels, or change lenses. I’ve missed many a decent photo by trying to get the “perfect shot” National Geographic dreams are made of. But now I take a picture as soon as I see an animal in the clear, then take my time observing to see if better action or angles develop. If it does, you can always delete the first photo. But if not, sometimes that gut reaction shutter click turns out to be a keeper.
EXPERIMENT (A LOT)
Once you’ve got a usable image, it’s time to explore the different possibilities your subject has to offer. Perspective is virtually everything in wildlife photography. Shooting from above can make even an Elephant look small. Shooting from eye level establishes a sense of intimacy. Shooting from below can make even small animals seem larger than life. Experiment with zooming out to show the animal in its environment and give the viewer a sense of place. Or zoom in tightly to reveal intricate details, like patterns on a Sea Turtle’s shell or wrinkles around an Elephant’s eye.
IT’S A SMALL WORLD, AFTER ALL
Our latest trip was to South Africa, where everyone is all about the world-famous “Big 5.” But the world’s smaller creatures can be just as fascinating. Take time to explore your surroundings and savor smaller aspects of our natural world. Whether it’s a colorful Caterpillar on a log in the Amazon Rainforest or a Red Eyed Tree Frog next to a swimming pool in Costa Rica, it’s a gift to recognize the beauty in the little things people tend to ignore. It’s all about being in the moment and making the most of every one, and developing the skills that turn you from a good wildlife photographer into a great one. –Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.