When you’re taking shots of wildlife, it’s very easy to end up with ‘record shots’ rather than what a friend of mine calls ‘printables’ - in other words, pictures that you’d be happy to print and hang on your wall. So what makes the difference? In this article, I’ve tried to suggest a few alternative techniques that should make your images stand out from the crowd - or herd, as the case may be!
In the early days of my photographic career, I used to take a lot of portraits - both of animals and of people. Now, that’s fine as far as it goes, and I like to think I took some pretty good shots, but these days I like to focus on action shots. Why take a simple shot of a ‘bird on a stick’ if you can wait for the crucial moment and capture it in flight or with its wings outstretched just about to land?
I was lucky with this shot. I was actually trying to take a run-of-the-mill portrait of the bird when it suddenly fluttered its wings just as I pressed the shutter release. I ended up with an image that was chosen by Outdoor Photography for a double-page spread!
In this case, the bird co-operated nicely, but it doesn’t always happen. What if the animals don’t co-operate? What if they just sit there and don’t do actually anything? Well, it is possible to increase your chances of getting action shots. One thing you can do (if you’re in Africa) is to follow the big cats around. Normally when you’re on safari, you drive around and then stop when you see an animal, take a few pictures and then drive on to the next one. Rinse and repeat. That’s what I did on my first four or five safaris, and I didn’t see a single kill! On my next trip, though, I went to Kicheche in the Masai Mara with Paul Goldstein, and the experience was very different. Paul paid out of his own pocket for a ‘spotter’ in a separate vehicle to radio in the location of any leopards, cheetahs or lions that he saw. Given that knowledge, we were able to find a group of cats to follow every single day. But it didn’t end there. Rather than just taking a few portraits and moving on, we stayed with the animals. Granted, there were some occasions when they didn’t do a great deal for half an hour or even an hour, but we kept at it, and eventually I saw five kills! That approach might not be for everyone, but at least it gives you a much better chance of getting that elusive ‘action shot’. And even if the animals aren’t actually chasing prey, you can at least wait for what Henri Cartier-Bresson would call ‘The Decisive Moment’. It might be a lion yawning or a warthog scratching its ear - whatever the activity, it’s a lot more interesting than the kind of awkward snap that would look better in a High School yearbook!
I learned this technique from Paul Goldstein, who’s a wildlife photographer and tour guide for Exodus. He’s a big fan of using slow shutter speeds to capture animals in action, and the results can be spectacular. Most people would use a high shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second or more to ‘freeze’ an animal or bird in motion, but the slow pan does the reverse. The problem with freezing the action is that you don’t get a very great sense of energy or movement. What the slow pan tries to do is bring that back by blurring all the non-essential elements, including the legs (or wings) and the background. What you have to do first of all is choose the right shutter speed. It will be slower than you’re used to using, so you have to be brave, but it also varies depending on the speed of the animal and the angle of its approach. If it’s a cheetah at full speed running straight across your field of view, the right shutter speed might be 1/80 or 1/100 of a second, but it might be as slow as 1/4 of a second for a walking elephant. The higher the speed of the animal, the higher the shutter speed you’ll need, but the angle also matters because getting the right blurred effect depends on the relative motion of the animal and the background. If it’s running straight towards the camera, there is no relative motion at all: the animal is not moving relative to the background, so the shot won’t work. You can obviously experiment as you’re shooting, but here’s a rough guide:
Walking animal: 1/6s
Running animal: 1/13-1/20s
Birds in flight: 1/80s
Cheetah running: 1/80-1/100s
Once you’ve chosen your shutter speed, you just need to check that the aperture and ISO settings are okay, too. How you do that obviously depends on whether you’re shooting in manual, aperture priority or shutter priority (or any other mode), but these slow shutter speeds let in a lot of light, so you may have to stop down the aperture or reduce the ISO all the way to 100. The flip-side of letting in so much light, of course, is that you can slow pan to your heart’s content even in very low light conditions, so that’s another reason to try it!
What you’re trying to get is a shot in which the eyes and head of the animal are sharp (-ish) while the legs and background are a creamy blur, so technique is important here. It’s obviously easiest with a tripod - particularly one with a gimbal-head design that is ‘damped’ to avoid camera shake - but most of us don’t have one of those, and you couldn’t use it in a safari vehicle anyway! There are a couple of alternatives. If you’re in a Land Cruiser or something similar, you can stand up and rest the lens hood on the frame of the car - ideally on a beanbag. If you’re on foot, you have to press the camera against your forehead, tuck your elbows in at your sides and turn from the hips. It’s not easy, so you might want to practise on cars on something before you make your trip! I learned the slow pan in Spitsbergen from Paul Goldstein, and I remember spending the whole day in a Zodiac taking slow pans of kittiwakes and guillemots: out of 1,500 shots, I only kept four! So why bother? Well, you don’t care about the 1,500 that didn’t work when you find one that did. I went on another trip with Paul to Kicheche in the Masai Mara, and I was determined to come away with a decent slow pan shot of a cheetah. In fact, I got quite a few, but this was my favourite. You be the judge…
There comes a time in every game drive when you wonder if any of the shots you’re taking are any good. “I’m just taking the same pictures as everyone else,” you think. “How can I be different?” Well, the answer sometimes comes in a flash of inspiration. When I was in the safari park at Cabárceno in northern Spain, I was taking pictures of the giraffes in their enclosure. They came right up to the fence, and the sun was behind them, so it was a bit awkward to get a decent shot. It was then that I thought of underexposing them to get a backlit silhouette with rim lighting. I positioned myself so that the sun was right behind a giraffe and underexposed by two or three stops. I played around with it in Lightroom afterwards, darkening the background and taking out any remaining detail in the neck of the giraffe, and this was the result:
The image was runner-up in The Daily Telegraph's weekly Big Picture competition and earned over 2,000 likes on Instagram!
Day for night
When filmmakers want to shoot a scene that’s supposed to take place at night, they sometimes do it during the day and underexpose the images, perhaps adding a blue filter for effect. This is called ‘day for night’ or ‘nuit Américaine’. I first tried it when I was on a game drive in Tadoba, India, and overheard Paul Goldstein telling one of the guests in his truck to underexpose the tiger in the water hole. At that point, I thought to myself, “Go big or go home!” So I decided to underexpose by three stops - that’s the equivalent of cutting out up to 7/8 of the light required for a normal shot. It was nice and sunny, and the sun had been beating down on us all day, but that meant any shots of the tiger were a little bit dull. What I wanted to do was something completely different. I wanted to create some mystery in the darkness, paint in a little light and shadow and pretend that the tiger was in a pool in a cave, illuminated by a single beam of sunlight from the entrance. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if I succeeded or not, but Paul thought this one was good enough to go in the Exodus calendar in 2018…!
One of the problems with going to a national park in Africa is that you always have to leave at sunset. That means it’s very difficult to get any shots at what should be the ideal time of day. One of the advantages in going to a place like Kicheche is that it’s in a ‘conservancy’, which means it’s owned by a group of landowners, and that in turn means that you can stay as long as you like. What we used to do with about half an hour to go before sundown was to pick a spot on the brow of a hill, find a group of animals and park so that we could all get out and take pictures. We did that almost every day (except when the clouds rolled in), and we ended up with some great shots. One of the good things about taking silhouettes of animals against the sunset is that you don’t have to do much with your camera settings. The camera is ‘fooled’ by the bright sky into believing that it has to underexpose, and that means the animals are automatically turned into silhouettes. The one thing to remember is that the horizon should be very low down in the frame - it’ll be pitch black anyway, so there’s no point in showing more than a thin strip at the bottom. Just make sure you pick an animal with a recognisable shape and in the right position to get a clear silhouette with no overlapping body parts and no other animals in the way.
Slow shutter speed portraits
People often say that you should use a wide aperture when taking portraits of people or animals so that the subject is ‘separated’ from the background. However, one of the problems with that approach is that you get left with a thin strip of the frame in which not just the subject but everything else is in focus. For example, imagine a shot of a lion lying in a field of tall grass. Yes, the lion is sharp (hopefully!), but so is a long line of grass. The result is that we don’t get a smoothly blurred background and foreground. One way around that is to use a slow shutter speed such as 1/8 of a second. It only works, obviously, if the grass is swaying in the wind, but, done correctly, it will give you a perfectly sharp subject isolated in a sea of creamy blur.
Black and white
There’s an old joke in photography that says, “If a picture’s no good, just turn it into black and white!” It’s not true, of course, that you can rescue just about anything like that, but black and white is a different medium, and it emphasises different things. If your picture looks ‘cluttered’ because there are too many competing colours, for example, then that problem can easily be solved by a switch to monochrome, which emphasises patterns, shapes and textures. I don’t use black and white very much in my wildlife shots, but elephants are a special case. For a start, they’re grey rather than colourful, but they also have the potential to show great texture in their wrinkled skin. I once took a shot of an elephant in Tanzania with the ‘wrong’ lens. I was using my 800mm when one of the elephants came a lot closer. I couldn’t fit everything into the shot, and I ended up with the animal’s eye far too close to the edge of the frame. However, I cropped it so that the tusk at the bottom was equally close to the edge and turned it into black and white, pushing up the Dehaze and Contrast sliders in Lightroom. What do you think…?
When it starts raining or snowing or sleeting or hailing, most photographers head home, but - if you’re willing to put up with getting a bit wet - you might find it’s worth staying out in the storm in order to take more unusual pictures. There are plenty of shots out there of lions lying in the sunshine, but not so many of lions in the pouring rain with water dripping off their manes! Whether you’re trying to sell your work or just find something to put on the wall in the downstairs toilet, it pays to be different. I went to Brooks Falls in Alaska once and had to put up with the most miserable weather. It rained the whole day at one point, and it was generally cold, wet and miserable, but - and this is a very big but! - I ended up with the best picture I’ve ever taken in my life!
I like wildlife shots with black backgrounds as they’re so rare and striking. Most of the time, I’ve had to create mine in Lightroom, but that’s not always necessary if you’re able to photograph at night. These days, a lot of safari companies offer evening game drives after sunset, and some may even shine torches or floodlights on the animals to allow you to take pictures. I was once in the Brazilian Pantanal driving home from a boat ride to see the jaguars when we heard there was a giant anteater right next to our lodge. We rushed home - over a VERY bumpy road! - and found it walking around with a baby on its back. It was long past sunset, so it was virtually pitch black, but one of the staff was lighting it up with a torch. Anteaters don’t have very good vision, so we were able to get incredibly close. Having said that, taking pictures was still very difficult. One of the guests ended up with nothing at all (after he forgot to take his lens cap off!), and I found it very hard to get the right shutter speed and aperture settings. Our guide Andy Skillen showed us the way by getting a beautiful close-up of the baby anteater on its mother’s back, but I had to delete all my efforts!
The closest I came to finding out the secret of night photography was when I went on a photography workshop in Cabárceno with Marina Cano. She promised us ‘the secret to getting a black background’, but she didn’t tell us immediately. We had to wait until the next day to find the answer. There were a few zebra next to an empty shed, and Marina threw some bread inside to tempt them to go in so that we could get some shots of them with a dark background. “So what’s the secret?” I asked. “Bread!” she said.
Whenever I get back from a trip abroad, I show my favourite pictures to my friends, but I always have the sneaking feeling that they’d prefer to see videos instead! I’m a wildlife photographer, so I obviously focus on taking photographs, but I still take video every now and again. I have a choice between my DSLR, my GoPro or - at a pinch! - my iPhone. The picture quality of all these devices is pretty good, but the main thing to worry about is camera shake. It’s bearable if you’re using a GoPro or a camera phone because of the wide angle of the lens, but trying to take video with a long lens on your DSLR without a tripod is a recipe for disaster!