Whenever you go on the hunt for wildlife, it is essential to be fully prepared for that moment when the perfect shot presents itself. Herein are some tips and tricks I have found helpful.
First and foremost, the best wildlife photographs are crisp and clear. That means capturing every feather, every claw, and every eyeball of your subject in sharp detail. This is especially important if you intend to frame or sell your work.
While out in the field, browse through your captures regularly with the quick view on the back of the camera. To verify image sharpness, use the magnifying glass option and zoom in for a closer look.
By checking photo quality while out in the field, you may discover certain images aren’t quite as good as you first thought. Knowing which images are junk will make time in the field more productive as you hunt for another opportunity to capture that amazing shot.
Here’s an example of a wildlife photo that appeared perfectly fine at first glance (left). You can’t really tell how blurred the edges of the ducks are until the photo is zoomed in at 100% or greater (right).
Other ways you will ensure sharp images while out in the field include:
Using the auto-focus.
In most cases, auto-focus will help you to capture the finer details of your subject better and faster than your eyes will. It’s also a valuable function when taking consecutive shots of a moving target due to the higher likelihood of capturing at least one quality image.
Sometimes the camera will have trouble locating WHERE it is you want to focus. For example, in the photo below, the focus was on the bird's butt instead of its head.
If your camera won’t focus on the area you want in sharp focus, don’t be afraid to switch to manual focus.
Although manual focus photography is a talent that will need to be honed, it is possible to become proficient. Repetition is key for reaching a level of competency you can count on when a critical moment arises. Just make sure you are wearing your glasses if you need them.
On a side note, the auto-focus will deplete your battery faster than using manual settings… especially if you’re out in the cold! Keep this in mind if elements in the field causes your camera to struggle finding its focus for too long.
Choosing your camera’s auto-focus points.
Your camera’s settings may offer one or two auto-focus point options, several different configurations, or no option at all for fine-tuning what your camera focuses on. Learning how these different options work may very well offer the wildlife photographer an edge in capturing crisp, clean shots while out in the field.
As an example of auto-focus options, the Nikon D850 DSLR can be set to AF-S (Single-servo AF) for stationary subjects, or AF-F (Full-time-servo AF) for moving subjects, and for the AF-Area Mode, choose from Face-priority AF, Wide-area AF, Normal-area AF, Pinpoint AF, or Subject-tracking AF.
Dig out your camera’s instruction manual to discover which auto-focus settings are available and which one will offer the best photographic results.
Using a rest.
Besides setting your focus points, you’ll need to keep your camera ROCK STEADY while shooting.
I know from experience that when you see something really cool to take a photo of, you’re going to want to mash the shutter release button just as quick as you can. The problem with getting overzealous while taking wildlife photographs is the pictures turn out blurry due to camera shake.
Trust me… this will totally happen, so don’t think you’ll be gentle on the shutter button when a herd of deer step into your view.
Besides remembering to take a calming breath before slowly depressing the shutter button, buy or make a rest and use it. Otherwise, that shot you were so excited about will end up being a blurry mess.
There are all kinds of rests available, but let’s run through some of the basics that every wildlife photographer may find helpful.
If you’re shooting from a vehicle, consider getting a bean bag rest. This handy rest saddles over your car’s door when the window is down, and in my opinion is a must-have for the drive-by wildlife photographer! While driving along dirt roads, trails, and two-tracks where photographic opportunities of wildlife flourish, don’t expect to sneak out of the vehicle to grab a shot without spooking your quarry away.
Using a window rest allows you the ability to use your car as a moving blind, so to speak, so you can stop and shoot along the way. Just make sure you turn the car off when you start shooting or suffer the consequences of camera shake from the vibration of your vehicle.
Tripods come in all different styles. Some are heavy goliath’s whereas others are flimsy and toy-like. Knowing whether you’re planning to hike for miles or shoot from an easy-access location will aid in determining the most suitable device.
You’ll also need to consider the tripod mount as some are quicker to work with than others.
Sometimes a successful wildlife shot will depend on how quick you can get your camera mounted to the tripod. Believe me, there’s nothing more frustrating than not being able to get the camera on the tripod quick enough when a shot is escaping your view! I really like the Monfrotto tripods with the grip ball heads for ease in lining up my shots. It’s so much easier than messing with that long, locking handle that can stick, or make quick scrap of your camera if you don’t get it locked down properly.
If your camera is lightweight, you may also consider getting a mono-pod for walking, standing, or sitting shots. The monopod is super light making it easy to haul around if you’re traipsing through the woods. Most have a magnetic attachment that you can screw into the bottom of your camera for quick mount and release.
When deciding on the right tripod, you should also consider if it would be beneficial to have one with a gimble head. If you want the ability to fluidly track a subject while taking photos, put one of these bad boys on your birthday wish list! Just keep in mind that some of these tripods are on the heavy side, so you might not want to hike around with one.
Blinds, Tents, and Hidden Spaces
If you can’t find your subject while driving or hiking, you might consider pitching a tent in your favorite wildlife hotspot so long as the area doesn’t prohibit it. Camouflage tents are fairly inexpensive, plus they’re roomy, light-weight, and easy to erect. I prefer one with lots of window options so I can remain easily hidden from my subject no matter where it is, and still have an opening through which to capture a shot. Don’t forget a comfy chair and a tripod!
Remembering the simple things.
Don’t get into a situation where you can’t take anymore photos because you forgot something simple. Be prepared by always bringing extra batteries, memory cards, a lens cleaning cloth, and at least one extra lens. I like to have both a telephoto and wide-angle lens with me as you never know when you’ll see a shot more suited to the lens not mounted on your camera.
Binoculars is one piece of equipment I like to use in specific instances and don’t bother with in others. If you’re sitting in a camo blind for hours, use a pair of binoculars to monitor the scene rather than hunching over your tripod and using the camera. Your neck and back will thank you later!
On the other hand, when using a camera to scan the field, you’re ready to take a shot if one presents itself. For this reason, I tend to use the camera instead of binoculars when checking my favorite, wildlife hotspots.
Preparing for weather.
Unless there is something really special happening, I don’t usually go out to photograph in the rain. But that doesn’t mean I’ve never gotten caught in the rain a time or two! Weather is unpredictable, and as a wildlife photographer, you can plan on getting wet on occasion. That said, consider bringing along a protective covering for your camera, and yourself.
You can purchase camera rain covers and/or insulated parkas to protect your camera from the elements, but if you’re on a budget, a plastic bag with a hole cut in it can work too. Be creative and keep your investment working at all costs!
In closing, remember to have fun while hunting down those exciting wildlife images. Don’t make your outings an equipment hauling nightmare! Find the quickest, lightest, and steadiest way to photograph your quarry and you’ll look forward to each and every photographic expedition to come.
Thanks for reading!
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To see more wildlife photos, visit: https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/marianne-kuzimski/shop
Camera House, May 15, 2019, Understanding Your Camera’s Focus Points, https://www.camerahouse.com.au/blog/understanding-focus-points/