How to stand out from the herd

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!

Action shots

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?

Lilac-breasted roller

Lilac-breasted roller

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!

Slow pan

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:

  • Elephant: 1/4s

  • 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…

Cheetah

Cheetah

Sunny silhouettes

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:

Giraffe

Giraffe

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…!

Bengal tiger

Bengal tiger

Sunsets

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.

Blue wildebeest

Blue wildebeest

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.

Cheetah

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…?

African elephant

African elephant

Bad weather

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!

Brown bear

Brown bear

Night photography

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.

Grévy’s zebra

Grévy’s zebra

Video

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!

How do I make money from photography?

Hmm, good question...

My top-selling shot

My top-selling shot

The obvious question for a lot of amateur photographers is 'How do I make money from photography?' The answer, unfortunately, is that I don't know. All I can do is tell you what I've done and give you a few ideas. I'm still learning the business after just four years, but my approach has always been to knock on as many doors as possible, whether it's microstock, exhibitions, competitions, lessons or even talks. Every source of revenue has its part to play, and it's just a question of working out where to focus your efforts. I make just under half my money from microstock/stock agencies and half from exhibitions, but everybody's different.

Nick Dale Photography

I loved photography when I was a teenager. I bought (or was given) books on Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Ansel Adams and other great photographers, and I even bought myself an old Chinon CE-4 film SLR. I remember buying two 36-exposure films for it - one colour, one black and white - and using up every single frame in a couple of hours just taking pictures around the house! I took my camera on holiday to Majorca and the United States, developed pictures in a dark room at school and even talked to my mum about becoming a professional photographer. However, my mother said I could always take it up later – so that was that for 30 years! Fortunately, I was given a second chance in January 2013 when a friend of a friend invited me to climb Mount Kenya and go on safari with her and a couple of other people. I'd always wanted to go to Africa, but I'd foolishly been saving it for my honeymoon! As that didn't seem very likely, I jumped at the chance.

My first digital camera was a Sony DSC-HX200V bridge camera, which means it had a good zoom range (both optical and digital), but not a very large sensor. As a result, it was only around £300 and therefore cheap enough for me to buy without worrying too much. Fortunately or unfortunately, a week in Kenya with people using proper Nikon SLRs gave me camera envy, and I bought a Nikon D800 SLR with a 28-300mm lens as soon as I got home!

And that was how it all started. I took hundreds of pictures in Kenya of the people, the landscape and especially the wildlife. When I got back, I bought an Apple MacBook Pro to work on them, upgraded the editing program to Aperture and then sent them off to various microstock agencies to see if they would help me sell them. It was hard at first, but getting the new camera helped, and I had a cash pile from remortgaging my flat in Notting Hill after another property purchase fell through, so I was able to go on plenty of trips to take more and more pictures.

An important breakthrough came when I sold a couple of prints for £100 each at my local tennis club's Christmas Fair in November 2014, and another photographer told me about a cheap exhibition space called the Norman Plastow Gallery in Wimbledon Village. I'd always thought it would be very expensive to mount an exhibition, but this place was only £70 for a week, so I booked it as soon as I could! The only problem was that I didn't have any actual prints to sell, and here I was very fortunate. I'd recently joined the Putney branch of London Independent Photography (or LIP), and there I'd met a very friendly and helpful chap called James, who'd offered to do all my printing for me at very low cost. After buying a few cheap, black, wooden frames from Amazon, I was all set. I invited all my friends to the exhibition in May 2015 - especially a group of tennis players from my club - and I ended up selling seven prints. As I was just starting out, I'd priced the small, medium and large framed prints at £80, £100 and £120 and the unframed ones at only £30, but I still managed to make £550 in total. The gallery hire charge was £200, and there were a few taxis to pay for plus incidental expenses, but the show actually turned a profit - unless you count the thousands of pounds I spent on buying camera equipment and flights to Kenya, Botswana, Antarctica and the Galápagos!

And there's the rub. It's relatively easy to generate revenue from photography, but actually making a profit out of it is another matter entirely. As a result, I have nothing but respect for the photographers I meet who have managed to make a career out of it. I've been on trips led by Paul Goldstein and Andy Skillen amongst others, and, in a way, that's where I'd like to end up. Since that first show in Wimbledon Village, I've sold nearly 5,000 downloads through microstock agencies, sold 36 prints at solo exhibitions and art fairs, taught five photography students and given two or three talks to various clubs and societies. Overall, I've made around £12,000 from my photography - but that wouldn't even have paid for my trip to Antarctica!

The problem is that everyone has a camera these days - even if it's just an iPhone - and it's almost 'too easy' to take pictures now that cameras are digital. The world is also a smaller place these days, with the arrival of cheap flights and a general rise in income and wealth. It takes a special talent to make it as a photographer, and part of that talent is being able to make the most of it.

What do I need to do first?

  1. Buy a camera
    If you want to make money out of photography, your first job is to get yourself a decent camera, and that means a digital SLR (or DSLR). The easiest way to earn cash is through so-called microstock agencies - which means selling pictures online in exchange for royalty payments - and they usually require shots to be taken with a camera that has at least 12 megapixels, if not more. You can obviously try to sell holiday snaps from your 'back catalogue', but, as I found out to my cost, it ain't easy. Once you've decided to buy a DSLR, the two main brands to choose from are Nikon and Canon. There isn't much between them these days, and the only reason I chose Nikon is that I didn't want a camera from a company that made photocopiers! They both make good lenses, but, unfortunately, they have different mounts, so one you go with one or the other you're locked in. I have various lenses ranging from an 18-35mm wide angle zoom to a 105mm macro lens for close-up work to an 80-400mm mid-range zoom, but I also rent an 800mm lens from Lenses for Hire whenever I go on a major wildlife photography trip.
     
  2. Buy a laptop
    If you don't have one already, buying a decent laptop is great for photography. I take mine with me on all my trips, and it means that I can work on my images every evening after I get back from a shoot or a game drive. I should warn you, though, that the so-called RAW files from digital cameras are very large (in the case of my camera over 40MB each!), so I'd recommend getting as fast a processor as possible and as much memory and hard disk space as you can afford. You should also arrange a back-up system: the last thing you need is for your life's work to disappear thanks to a software glitch! You could use an external hard drive, but I prefer backing up to the cloud just to be on the safe side. I use CrashPlan, which automatically detects any added, edited or deleted files and backs up the changes in real time, but there are other similar products out there.
     
  3. Subscribe to Lightroom
    Adobe Lightroom Creative Cloud is the choice of professionals and serious amateurs for organising and editing their photographs. It only costs around £8 a month (including Photoshop), and it's a very powerful tool, as well as being relatively easy to use once you've mastered the basics. Digital photographs never come out of the camera looking perfect, so it's always a good idea to try and improve the contrast, highlight and shadow areas and anything else you need to. If you're selling through agencies, you'll also need to add titles, captions and keywords (plus any other fields you're asked to fill in), and all that is possible with Lightroom. It's a pain to do for each individual photograph, but you can 'synchronise' any changes you make across a number of pictures, and you only need to do it once. If you've never used it before, I suggest you to do what I did and watch Anthony Morganti's series of free YouTube videos on Lightroom. He takes you through all the functionality, and it's an easy way to learn.
     
  4. Start taking pictures
    If you're a wildlife photographer, this is just a euphemism for 'spend thousands of pounds on trips to long-haul destinations'! However, you don't have to travel far to take pictures. Whether you're a landscape, portrait, Nature, fashion, wildlife, wedding or sports photographer, there's always something photogenic not far from home, and you simply have to have the enthusiasm (and discipline) to be able to get out there and take more and better shots. Quality and quantity are both important. The quality of your images is ultimately what matters, but even a shot that'll never win a competition might earn you money on a microstock site. I give my shots three stars if they're good enough for Facebook, four if they're good enough to be sold via agencies and five if they're good enough to go on my website.
     
  5. Start marketing your work
    As a photographer, you have to learn to talk the talk as well as walk the walk. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to cover the basics, which means building a website, printing out business cards and having an active presence on social media. You can't expect to win a bid for a photo shoot if you're still using an old Hotmail address! Personally, I have this website powered by SquareSpace plus a Facebook 'fan page', a YouTube page, a LinkedIn account and a Twitter feed, all of which are printed on the back of my business cards. I post articles on my blog about photography trips, exhibitions and useful techniques (which also appear on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter), and I tweet and retweet a 'Shot of the week' (which gets fed through to my Facebook account as well).

Yes, but how can I make money?

  1. Microstock
    Microstock agencies are online intermediaries that accept work from photographers and then market those images to potential clients such as creative directors of newspapers, magazines and other buyers. The advantage of using them is that it's 'making money while you sleep', in other words, it's a passive income that you can build over time as you add more and more shots to your portfolio. Some agencies sell a lot of images but with low royalty rates, some the reverse, but here is the list of the ones I've used (in descending order of sales):
     

    Getty Images/iStock
    Shutterstock
    Adobe/fotolia
    DepositPhotos
    123RF
    Bigstock
    PIXTA
    SolidStockArt
    Dreamstime
    EyeEm
    Canstock
    photodune
    ClipDealer
    Panthermedia
    Pixoto
    featurePics
    Mostphotos
    Pond5
    500px
    Redbubble
    Alamy
    Yay Micro
    Stockfresh
    Crestock
    Zoonar
    Lobster Media
    Fine Art America
    Storyblocks

    I should mention that not all agencies will accept you, and not all your shots will be accepted by any agency that does, but you shouldn't take it personally. I've had over £5,000 in microstock sales since 2013, but my overall acceptance rate is only 41%! Even if your pictures are accepted, of course, that doesn't mean they'll sell. I've had around 7,000 downloads from microstock sites, but fewer than 2,000 individual shots have ever been sold out of a total of more than 5,000. The rest of them are just sitting there, waiting for a buyer. If you're lucky, though, you take a picture that does go viral, and I've sold my jumping penguin over a thousand times (see above)!

    The basic process is similar across all agencies. You add titles, captions and keywords to all your pictures and then export them as JPEG files to upload to each individual agency via their websites or an FTP service using a program like Filezilla. You then typically add the category, country or other data for each of them and submit them for approval. The agencies then approve the ones they like and reject the ones they don't. After that, it's just a question of watching the money rolling in! A useful way of doing that is by downloading an app called Microstockr. All you need to do is to set up your various agencies on the accounts page and then check the dashboard every now and then for any sales you've made. It's very addictive! Sales should come quite soon after each batch is uploaded, but you may have to wait a while for payment. Most agencies have a 'payment threshold' of $50 or $100, which means your first payment (usually through PayPal) might take months to arrive. You'll also need to keep adding more pictures. Buyers tend to sort images according to what's most recent, so you definitely get diminishing returns from your shots, however good they are.

    The other thing to say is that, with dozens of agencies and hundreds or even thousands of images, it gets very confusing. As a result, I've created a spreadsheet to keep track of the whole thing. With filenames down the left and agency names across the top, I know if each file has been uploaded ('u'), submitted ('s') or accepted ('y') and how many times it's been sold. I keep a record of the dollar value of all the image downloads on a separate financial spreadsheet. I suggest you do the same.

  2. Stock agencies
    In the good old days, it was much easier to make a living out of stock photography, mainly because the royalty rates were a lot higher. The difference between 'stock' and 'microstock' is simply the average price level. Stock agencies want to differentiate themselves from microstock agencies (and everything else out there on the web) in order to charge a higher price, so they generally ask for exclusive agreements over one to five years and set a higher standard for acceptance. I use Design Pics, and you can see that they sell my images for hundreds of dollars rather than just a few dollars for the microstock agencies. My general strategy is to offer Design Pics the first pick of my pictures before sending the leftovers to all the microstock agencies. (I've also submitted some flower images to flowerphotos and a few marine wildlife shots to SeaPics, but I haven't seen any sales from them so far.) Due to the long sales and reporting cycle, I didn't see my first sale from Design Pics until more than a year after I'd signed up, but sales are starting to trickle in now, so it just takes a bit of patience.

    If you're looking for a list of stock agencies, I recommend buying the latest version of Photographer's Market, which is the equivalent of the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. It has comprehensive coverage of the industry, including helpful articles and a wealth of phone numbers and email addresses for magazines, book publishers, greeting card companies, stock agencies, advertising firms, competitions and more. I suggest buying the Kindle electronic version, and then you can download everything on to your laptop. I did that and then simply emailed every stock agency on the list - Design Pics was the only one to say yes!
     
  3. Competitions
    If you just want the ego boost of seeing yourself winning a competition, then I suggest you sign up with Pixoto and enter the contests with the lowest number of entrants. It's a peer-to-peer site, and you can organise your own competitions, so there's a very good chance of winning something! That's exactly what I did, and I ended up with the Judge's Award in four competitions. However, there isn't much prestige to something like that, and it certainly doesn't earn you any money. Alternatively, you can scour the 2017 Photographer's Market for competitions, bearing in mind your chances of winning, the cost of entry, the potential prizes and the subject matter. The UK national press is a good place to start, too, and I recently won £250 in Wex Photographic vouchers in the weekly Sunday Times/Audley Travel Big Shot competition. 
     
  4. Exhibitions
    Putting on an exhibition may seem like a big deal if you've never done it before, but it doesn't have to be expensive or time-consuming. The Norman Plastow Gallery where I started out is cheap, but it's slightly off the beaten path, and you have to man the exhibition yourself, which is obviously impossible for most full-time employees. You realise pretty soon as a freelance photographer that the most expensive item on your tab is often the opportunity cost of NOT doing what you usually do when you take time off. As a tutor, for instance, I could easily have earned £1,000 during the two weeks of my first exhibition, but them's the breaks...

    If you're looking for a list of galleries, www.galleries.co.uk is a useful starting point. London is obviously the best place to look, but exhibition spaces there don't come cheap. I recently looked for galleries to use for an exhibition, and the ones in central London regularly quoted me thousands of pounds for a week! Everything is negotiable, though, so don't give up.

    I started out with 15 prints at my first solo show, but I also printed out a few postcards and greetings cards. You might not make as much money out of them, but at least you'll get something from punters who can't afford a print. There are some who say that cards are just a distraction, but it's so difficult to tell. I've had exhibitions with and without cards on sale, and it doesn't seem to make much of a difference. However, the main reason for an exhibition is to sell prints, so that should be the focus.

    One of the problems you'll almost certainly have is knowing how to price your work. Choosing your favourite shots is easy enough - although getting a second opinion from a friend is a useful exercise - but how much should you charge? I started off at £80 for an A3 print and ended up three years later at £2,000 for a 53" x 38" print, so you'll just have to suck it and see. Andy Skillen suggested a mark-up of two-and-a-half times your printing and framing costs to make sure your cashflow remained positive, but that's just a rule of thumb.
     
  5. Photo shoots
    Proper professional photographers make most of their money from photo shoots, but clients aren't easy to find. If you're a wedding photographer, I suppose you can put up flyers at various local venues such as churches and registry offices, but, for the rest of us, it's just a question of plugging away, taking as many good shots as we can and putting them online so that as many potential clients can see them as possible. It would be a dream to be able to rely on commissions from wealthy clients who called us up whenever they wanted pictures of something. A photographer told me once about a group of directors who asked him for a picture of five hippos in a lake looking at the camera. He sent them all the hippo shots he had, but they weren't happy. In the end, he told them if they didn't want to compromise on the picture, then they'd have to send him on an all-expenses-paid trip to Zambia for a week. Which they did! He got the shot within a couple of days and then spent the rest of the trip taking pictures for himself! That sounds like a nice way to make a living, doesn't it? However, until we're well established enough with a good enough reputation to get those kinds of jobs, all we can do is keep on snapping and use the networks that we have. I've worked for a milliner, a local councillor, a businesswoman and others, but all my photo shoots have come from friends of friends or personal contacts. I'm not very good at networking - and it's certainly not something I enjoy unless it happens naturally - but it's very important in this business.
     
  6. Lessons
    I work as a private tutor as well as a photographer, so I guess it was an obvious fit to offer photography lessons. It's finding the students that's the real problem, though. One of my tuition agencies provided me with a couple of clients, while the rest came from connections I made at exhibitions and talks. You never know when you might meet just the right person, so it's important to keep a few cards in your wallet just in case.
     
  7. Talks
    If you don't mind public speaking, then giving a slideshow and talk on photography is an enjoyable way to earn some pocket money. Camera clubs and other groups won't generally pay more than £100 (if anything at all!), but it's also a useful chance to take along a few prints to sell and to hand out business cards. I got started after meeting a very nice woman on an Antarctic cruise, and I've now given talks at her branch of the WI, two camera clubs and a local library. If you want to be proactive about it, I'd simply Google camera clubs (or WI branches!) and email all of them to see what happens. As my mum used to say, you have to cast your bread upon the waters...even if it sometimes comes back a soggy mess!
     
  8. Photography trips
    One final way of making money is to lead photography trips. A lot of photographers do it to supplement their income, and it's a good way to reduce your travel budget. I recently put together a list of tour operators and emailed them all one afternoon to find out if it could work, and I soon received a call from the founder of Gane & Marshall, asking me to lead a trip to Tanzania! I offered my services for free in exchange for the chance to go on an all-expenses-paid photographic safari. Now all we have to do is find at least five people to come on the trip and make it economic. Fingers crossed!

I hope all that was useful. If you have any more questions, please drop me a line at nick@nickdalephotography.com. It's not easy becoming a professional photographer, but we can at least take pictures as a hobby while we wait for our big break.

Here's to clicking and dreaming...

Basics of photography

The first things you need to know when picking up a DSLR

The Nikon D800

When you buy (or borrow), your first digital SLR, everything looks different, and it can be a bit worrying. What are all these buttons and dials for? Why is it so heavy? Where do I start? How do I change the shutter speed? All these are very good questions, and this is the place to find the answers!

Before we start, I should mention that I'm a Nikon user, and I have one D800 and one D810 camera body. The other major camera manufacturer is Canon, and they use slightly different terms for each function, but I'll try and include both to make life easier.

Our first job is to cover the basics of photography: exposure and focus. Without understanding those two things, nothing else will make sense!

Exposure

Your first job as a photographer is to make sure that your images are well exposed, in other words, not too dark or too bright. Photographers talk about the 'exposure triangle', but that's just a complicated way of saying that how dark or light a photograph is depends on three things: the shutter speed, the aperture and the ISO. 

The level of exposure is measured in 'stops' or Exposure Values (EV), but what is a 'stop'? Well, if you increase your exposure by a stop, the light is doubled (and vice versa). For example, if you lengthen your shutter speed from 1/200 of a second to 1/100 of a second, your shot will be twice as bright. They try to use round numbers, though, so the gap from 1/60 to 1/125 is obviously not quite right! The maths gets a bit more complicated when the gap is only 1/3 of a stop, but the idea is the same.

The built-in exposure meter in your camera will work out what the best exposure should be, but it has to make assumptions about the world that may not be true. To judge the 'best' exposure, the camera needs a starting point, and that is that the world is, by and large, 18% grey. If it assumes that to be true, then it can set the exposure accordingly. However, anyone who's ever taken pictures of polar bears on the ice knows that that's not always true! In order to make sure the camera is not fooled by very bright or very dark conditions, you need to use exposure compensation. If the scene is especially bright, you can dial in up to one or two stops of positive compensation. If it's especially dark, you can do the opposite. It might take a few test shots to get it exactly right, but that's better than coming home with lots of shots of grey bears!

Shutter speed (or Time Value if you have a Canon)

In the old days, cameras used film, and the shutter speed controlled how long it was exposed to the light in order to take the shot. These days, cameras are digital and have electronic sensors at the back, but the principle is still the same. The longer the shutter speed, the more light reaches the sensor and hence the brighter the image. The shorter the shutter speed, the less light reaches the sensor and hence the darker the image.

The shutter speed is measured in seconds and can be anything from 1/8000 of a second to 30 seconds or more. The amount of camera shake increases with the focal length, so the rule of thumb for general photography is to make sure your shutter speed is no less than the inverse of the length of your lens, eg if you're using a 400mm lens, you should be using at least 1/400 of a second. Lens technology such as Nikon's 'Vibration Reduction' or Canon's 'Image Stabilisation' means that you might be able to get away with a couple of stops slower - ie 1/100 of a second - but that's about it. 

The reason why shutter speed is an important setting is that it controls how much (if any) motion blur there is in the image, and that is an artistic decision. Some people like shots of kingfishers catching a fish that look like they're frozen in time, with every single water droplet sharp as a tack. Other people prefer shots of waterfalls shown with creamy torrents of water cascading over them. There isn't a 'right' or 'wrong' answer. Just try both and see what you think.

Aperture

The aperture is simply the size of the hole in the lens through which light passes on its way to the sensor, and the principle is similar to that of the shutter speed. The bigger the aperture, the more light reaches the sensor and therefore the brighter the image. The smaller the aperture, the less light reaches the sensor and therefore the darker the image. The only thing difficult about it is the numbers, which often have a decimal point in them like f/5.6 or f/7.1. The reason the aperture is not always a nice round number is because it is what you get when you divide the focal length of the lens by the diameter of the hole. Neither of those numbers is necessarily going to be a nice round number, so the result of dividing one by the other certainly won't be!

The aperture is measured in f-stops, which typically start at f/2.8, f/4 or f/5.6 and continue up to f/22 and beyond. A 'fast' lens is one that has a wide maximum aperture such as f/1.4. Photographers like fast lenses as they allow pictures to be taken in low light and offer great flexibility. 

The reason why the aperture is such an important setting is that it controls the depth of field, which is the amount of the subject that is acceptably sharp. The human eye is drawn to things it can see clearly, so making sure the subject is sharp and the background is an ideal way to focus the viewer's attention on an animal, say, but a landscape photographer might want his image to be sharp all the way from the boat in the foreground to the mountains on the horizon. Again, there is no right answer; the important thing is to experiment and find what works for you.

ISO (or ASA if you're still using a film camera!)

The ISO used to measure the sensitivity of the film being used, a 'fast' film with a high ISO being more sensitive than a 'slow' film with a low ISO. Now that most cameras are digital, we get the same effect, just with an electronic sensor instead of film. You might think that extra sensitivity is a good thing - and it is - but it comes at a cost. The higher the ISO, the 'grainier' or 'noisier' the image, in other words, the less smooth it is.

ISO is measured in ISO (funnily enough!), which just stands for International Standards Organisation. The lowest value is usually ISO 100, and the highest might be 12,800 or more, although the image quality at that value wouldn't be acceptable to most professional photographers.

Focus

Your second job as a photographer is to make sure that the subject of your images is in focus. In the old days of film cameras, there was obviously no such thing as 'autofocus', and focusing had to be done by manually turning a ring on the lens, but today's digital cameras have very good systems for making sure the images are sharp. In using the autofocus system, your job is first of all to choose the correct settings and secondly to make sure the camera is focusing on the right part of the frame.

There are lots of different focus settings, but the basic choice is between single area, shown as AF-S (or one-shot AF for a Canon), and continuous, shown as AF-C (or AI Servo for a Canon). Single area looks to focus on the area of the image under the little red square in the viewfinder (which you can move around the frame manually); continuous does the same but follows the actual subject if it moves. The best version of this on Nikon cameras is called '3D'. The other setting you can change is which button actually does the job of focusing. The shutter button does that on most cameras, but the disadvantage of doing it that way is that the camera stops focusing when you take a picture, which is bad news if you're tracking a cheetah running at 60mph! The alternative is to use 'back-button focusing', which means separating the jobs of focusing and taking pictures. The shutter button still takes the picture, but the focusing is done by pushing a button on the back of the camera. (You have to set this up yourself, but I use the AF-ON button, which I can press with my right thumb.)

Camera guide (based on the Nikon D800)

This guide won't go through every single setting on a DSLR, but it will show how all the main buttons work, not by saying what each one does but by answering the obvious questions. I hope that's the easier way to learn!

(All the numbers used are taken from the diagram at the top of this article.)

How do I switch it on?

That's simple. Just turn the power switch on the top right-hand side (1) to 'ON' (and back to 'OFF' when you've finished). If you turn it to the light bulb symbol, that just lights up the LCD display on top of the camera. 

How do I set it to Manual?

There are lots of exposure modes on a camera, such as aperture-priority, shutter-priority and program, but using anything other than manual is a bit like buying a Ferrari with an automatic gearbox - you just don't get as much control (or satisfaction). To select manual, press the 'Mode' button (50) and turn the main command dial on the back right of the camera (31). This allows you to set the shutter speed, aperture and ISO yourself, although I usually set the ISO to 'ISO-AUTO' by pushing the 'ISO' button on the top left of the camera (56) and at the same time turning the sub-command dial (21).

How do I make sure I'm shooting in RAW?

Press the 'QUAL' (for 'quality') button (47) and turn the main command dial until the word 'RAW' appears on its own. The word 'RAW' doesn't actually stand for anything, but everyone writes it that way to show that it's a file format that contains the 'raw' data from the sensor. The alternative is JPEG (which stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group), but that's a compressed file format and therefore should not be used. Note that RAW files don't end in '.RAW'. It's just a generic term, so each manufacturer has its own RAW extension, such as Nikon's .NEF.

How do I set the white balance?

Press the 'WB' button 57 and turn the main command dial (31) to whatever is right for the lighting conditions. The icons aren't very easy to see, but the options are:

  • Incandescent (ie light bulbs)
  • Fluorescent
  • Direct sunlight
  • Flash
  • Cloudy
  • Shade
  • Choose colour temp
  • Preset manual

The white balance tells the camera the colour of the light you're working with. It's a bit like working out what colour the curtains are at the cinema. The camera can't tell the difference between something white that's lit by red light and something red that's lit by white light, so the white balance setting just makes sure it makes the right call. If you can't quite see the icons or want to set up a custom white balance or preset, you can always go through the menu system. However, if you're shooting in RAW, you can always change the white balance later on your computer, so don't feel bad about sticking with 'AUTO'!

How do I set the focus mode?

First of all, make sure your lens is not set to 'M', or manual focus, and that the focus mode selector (18) is set to 'AF', or auto focus. After that, press the AF-mode button (17) and at the same time turn the main command dial (31) to choose single area or - preferably - continuous. If you want the 3D option, you press the same button but at the same time turn the sub-command dial (21) until the LCD screen shows '3D'.

How do I set up back button focusing?

Press the 'MENU' button (46), scroll to the menu item with the pencil icon, select 'a Autofocus' and then set 'a4 AF activation' to 'AF-ON only'. Half-pressing the shutter-release button won't work any more, so don't forget to focus by pressing (and holding) the AF-ON button (30) with your right thumb while you shoot.

How do I set the shutter speed?

Half-press the shutter-release button (3) if the shutter speed is not illuminated in the viewfinder or on the LCD screen and then turn the main command dial (31).

How do I set the aperture?

Half-press the shutter-release button (3) if the aperture is not illuminated in the viewfinder or on the LCD screen and then turn the sub-command dial (21).

How do I set the shutter-release button to continuous shooting?

Press the release button next to the 'D800' symbol and turn the release mode dial (48) to 'CH', or Continuous High. The D800 can shoot five frames a second.

How do I move the focus point in the viewfinder?

Turn the focus selector lock switch (34) to the dot symbol (rather than 'L' for lock) and use the multi selector to move the focus point anywhere within the central area of the viewfinder.

How do I check the depth-of-field?

Press the depth-of-field preview button (20).

How do I add exposure compensation?

Press the exposure compensation button (52) and at the same time turn the main command dial (31) to add or subtract as many stops of compensation as you need.

How do I bracket my shots?

Press the 'BKT' bracketing button (55) and at the same time use the main command dial (31) to choose the number of frames (3-9) and/or the sub-command dial (21) to choose the exposure interval (from 0.3 to 1 stop).

How do I shoot video?

You have to use the monitor rather than the viewfinder for this, so first of all turn the live view selector (36) to the film camera icon, press the live view button and then, when you're ready, press the red movie-record button to start (and stop) video recording.

How do I look at my pictures?

Just press the playback button (22) and scroll through the images using the multi selector (32). To zoom in, either use the playback zoom in/zoom out buttons (43, 44) or set up the multi selector centre button to zoom immediately to 100%. This is very useful to check that images are acceptably sharp. To do that, press the 'MENU' button (46), select 'f Controls', then 'f2 Multi selector centre button' and set 'Playback mode' to 'Zoom on/off' with 'Medium magnification'. 
To play videos, just press the multi selector centre button (32).

How do I delete my pictures?

Just press the delete button (23). If you want to delete all the pictures on the memory card, the best way is to format it. Press the 'MENU' button, select 'Format memory card' and then select the appropriate card, either the small, thin Secure Digital (SD) card or the thicker, bigger Compact Flash (CF) card.

Getting the most out of game drives

The worst part about taking pictures is knowing you've just missed a great shot. Here, I try to help wildlife photographers learn from 'the one that got away'.

The one that got away...

This would've been a great shot. It could've been a great shot. It should've been a great shot. But it wasn't. Why? Motion blur. If you look closely, you can see that the whole body is slightly out of focus, and that was simply because I didn't think to change my shutter speed. I was parked in a jeep in Botswana when a herd of impala came chasing across the road. They were galloping fast, but there were five or six of them, so I did have time to focus on each of them, one by one, as they crossed the road in turn. Unfortunately, I was using my default camera settings that were designed to capture animals that were standing still. I was using an 80-400mm lens, so I had my camera on 1/320 and f/8 with auto ISO. That would normally have worked, but not for a jumping impala! What I really needed was a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 of a second. I just didn't think...

In order to avoid moments like that, here are my answers to a few obvious questions:

What equipment do I need?

Good question. It's obviously too late to do anything once you're on safari, so it pays to get your equipment sorted out beforehand. People often ask me what camera I use, and it reminds me of a story I heard about Ernest Hemingway. He went to a photography exhibition in New York and was so impressed he asked to meet the photographer. 

Hemingway: These pictures are great. What camera do you use?

Photographer: Well, I use a Leica with a 50mm lens for most of my shots. I'm actually a big fan of your work, too, Mr Hemingway. I've read all your novels. Can I just ask: what typewriter do you use...?

The point is obviously that a good camera doesn't necessarily make a good picture, and it's mildly insulting to photographers if you ask about their equipment without complimenting them on their talent! However, all other things being equal, a good camera can make life a lot easier for wildlife photography. I'd suggest getting a full-frame DSLR with a zoom lens with a maximum focal length of at least 300mm, preferably 400mm or more. The problem with a bridge or DX camera is that you won't get the quality you're after, as they don't have large enough sensors. I started off with a bridge camera and thought the zoom was great - until I saw the Nikon DSLR one of the other guys had! I had a severe case of 'camera envy', so I emailed a friend of mine who was a professional photographer to ask what he would get. He recommended either Nikon or Canon, but Canon made photocopiers, so that was out of the question! Instead, I bought myself a Nikon D800 - complete with 36.3 megapixels! - and it's served me well ever since. I now also have a D810, which is an upgraded version of the D800. Having two cameras means I don't have to worry about changing lenses. Instead, I carry them both cameras on a SpiderPro holster that looks a bit like an old Western cowboy's gun belt. I can take them out and put them back with just one hand, and I can lock them in place if I'm going on a boat ride or clambering over rocks and don't want to take any chances. 

As for lenses, I mainly use an 80-400mm on the D800 and rent an 800mm prime on the D810. They're both made by Nikon, and for a very good reason. I tried a Sigma 50-500mm and then a Tamron 150-600mm lens, but the images just weren't sharp enough. I now manually check the autofocus of all my lenses using Reikan Focal automatic lens calibration software. All you do is print out a 'target' and set up your camera on a tripod to take pictures of it from a certain distance away. Once you load the software, it guides you through the set-up and takes a number of exposures automatically, just asking you to change the manual focus adjustment anywhere from -20 to +20. When the routine is finished, it gives you a PDF report showing the optimal adjustment value - and that's what persuaded me to use only Nikon lenses. I'd been on a trip to Svalbard and wasn't happy with my shots of the polar bears, which were all just a little bit soft. One of the other guys on the trip told me he did a manual focus check, and that's when I started doing it, too. It was only when I bought my new 80-400mm lens that I realised the huge difference in sharpness: the Sigma and Tamron were down at around 1400 on the numeric scale, and the Nikon was way up at 2200! In short, check your lenses. They're mass-produced items, so there's always bound to be some slight variation in focus, and you'd rather fix it yourself than have to use it as an excuse when you don't get the sharpness you want.

I also make sure I always pack a polarising filter together with a lens cleaning kit (with sensor swabs and cleaning fluid), a beanbag (for resting the lens on the windowsill of a jeep) and my laptop (so that I can download and work on my pictures in the evening). If I'm going to be near a waterfall, like Iguazu or Victoria Falls, I'll also take my tripod and a 'Big Stopper' neutral density filter to give me the chance of taking creamy pictures of the water with a  long shutter speed.

What else should I do before I leave?

Getting the right equipment (and changing the time zone on your camera!) is one thing, but you can help yourself out by booking the right holiday in the right location at the right time. Check when the 'long rains' are if you're going to Africa. Check when the peak season is for wildlife viewing. Check if it's possible to visit when there's a full moon or - even better - a harvest moon. You can ask all these questions (and more) to make sure you get the very most out of your trip. One useful site for African expeditions is Safari Bookings, which allows you to search for packages by location, duration and price. I also like to travel light. I hate the whole airport experience, so I avoid having to check any bags in by having a roll-aboard camera bag and packing all my clothing into a jacket that has a pocket in the lining that goes all the way round. It looks a bit funny when you walk through customs - and some people just couldn't do it - but it saves me an awful lot of time and bother. If you’re a birdwatcher, you might also want to invest in an app to help you identify the local species. I downloaded one called eGuide to Birds of East Africa, and it’s excellent. It does cost around £27.99, but it’s very quick to check the name of a bird - which is often what you need to do when your guide tells you what it is but you’re too embarrassed to ask him how to spell it!

What should I take with me on the game drives?

If you're a keen photographer, you won't want to miss anything while you're out taking pictures from the 4x4, but that doesn't mean you need to take the entire contents of your camera bag! I would simply take your camera(s) and your longest lens(es) - protected by waterproof covers - plus a couple of spare batteries and a lens cloth. A beanbag might come in handy on certain vehicles, but that's about it.

What should I wear?

I generally cover up to avoid sunburn and insect bites, so I generally wear green cargo pants, a long-sleeved shirt, a floppy sun hat and trainers. (It's very easy to get sunburn, though, so do slap sunscreen on any exposed areas before you leave.) I also take a jacket on morning game drives as it gets quite cool before sunrise. If it's a walking safari, I'll wear hiking boots instead. I avoid baseball caps as it's hard to look through the viewfinder without bumping the camera on the brim, and sunglasses rather get in the way when I'm taking pictures. My wardrobe consists of greens, browns and blacks. I'm not sure if animals are exactly frightened by bright colours, but you'll get some funny looks from the other guests if you turn up in hot pants and a Day-Glo pink T-shirt!

What camera settings should I use?

There's an old photographer's joke:

Fan to photographer: I love your pictures. What settings did you use?

Photographer to fan: f/8 and be there!

The point is that 'being there' is more important than any camera settings, but that doesn't mean they don't matter at all - as shown by my shot of the leaping impala.

Exposure

The 'Exposure Triangle' consists of the aperture, shutter speed and ISO value, and these are the only three ways you can change the brightness of the image: either having a bigger hole, keeping it open for longer or increasing the sensitivity of the sensor. A lot of beginners stick to automatic as they don't trust themselves to use manual settings, but they lose a lot of control by doing that. The camera doesn't know how fast the animal is travelling or how much of it you want to be in focus, so how can it possibly decide the best combination of shutter speed and aperture? Why not experiment a little and decide for yourself the kind of image you're going to take? Now, you still have to make sure you get the correct exposure somehow, and I'm not suggesting you use the exposure meter and manually change the settings for each shot! What I do is start off with a good set of general-purpose settings and set the ISO to automatic. That way, I get exactly the shutter speed and aperture I want, but the camera makes sure it's correctly exposed. The general rule is that you need a shutter speed the inverse of your focal length, so, If I'm using my 80-400mm lens at the top end of the zoom range, that means around 1/400th of a second. (Bear in mind, though, that you have to take into account the speed of the animal as well as how steady you can hold the camera!) I generally like to take 'portraits' of the animals, so I want to throw the background out of focus to emphasise the eyes. That means a wide aperture such as f/5.6, but I've started using f/8 because my lens tests tell me that both my lenses perform at their sharpest at f/8, and I want the maximum sharpness I can get. The problem comes, obviously, when there's not enough light to use your default settings, or the animals are moving too fast. That's when you need to take charge and make a difficult decision: which is the most important, the shutter speed, the aperture or the ISO? If it's a fast-moving animal, the shutter speed obviously takes priority. If the light level is dropping, then you probably want to compromise and change both aperture and shutter speed by 1/3 of a stop (or more). Most stock agencies don't want pictures taken at high ISO values (640+), so that's something to bear in mind if you're trying to sell your work.

Autofocus

Manual focus has its place in macro photography and in low light conditions, but wildlife photography generally demands that we use one of the two methods of autofocus: single point (AF-S on the Nikon) or continuous (AF-C). I generally keep my D800 with the wide-angle lens on single point, as I'll be using it to take landscape shots, but I keep my D810 with the long zoom lens on AF-C 3D, as I'll be using it to take pictures of animals. In fact, sharpness is so important for wildlife shots that I use what's called 'back-button focusing', which means setting up the camera so that I can focus by pressing the AF-ON button on the back with my right thumb. The AF-C 3D setting continuously focuses on one particular point on the animal that you select when you first press the AF button, and it magically follows that point even if the animal is moving. It's not perfect, but what it does mean is that you don't have to worry about losing focus when you half-press the shutter and then take a picture. By separating the focusing from releasing the shutter, you get the best chance of getting that all-important sharpness in the animal's eye.

White balance

You can always change it in Lightroom later (or another image-processing software package), but I generally still try to update my white balance setting as the light changes. It saves time later, and it follows the general principle of trying to get everything right in camera. Messing around in Lightroom should always be a last resort.

Quality (RAW)

Shoot in RAW. There. Is. No. Alternative. 

Other settings

One of the confusing and frustrating thing about the DSLR is the number of settings there are and the fact that you can't 'reset' everything in one go. It would be wonderful if there were one button that would do everything, but there isn't. There are mechanical as well as electronic settings, so it's impossible to assign one button to change both. As it is, it's worth having a mental checklist to go through before you go out on the game drive and even while you're out there. The main settings to monitor are the following:

  • Mode: Manual, unless you've never picked up a camera before...

  • Shutter speed: 1/1000 (I know the 1/focal length rule, and I know Nikon's Vibration Reduction and Canon's Image Stabilisation mean you might get away with up to four stops 'slower', but animals move too quickly to take that chance!)

  • Aperture: f/5.6 or f/8, depending on how big the animal is and therefore how much depth of field you need

  • ISO mode: auto

  • Exposure compensation: None, unless you're photographing a very bright or dark animal such as a polar bear on ice or a gorilla

  • Autofocus: AF-C 3D on the Nikon, continuous servo on the Canon

  • White balance: Daylight - if it's your typical African sunny day, although you can always change it later if you shoot in RAW

  • Active D-lighting or Auto Lighting Optimizer (ALO): Auto or off unless you're taking a picture into the sun and want detail in the shot (It's a kind of in-camera HDR to squeeze the histogram for images that would be too contrasty otherwise.)

  • Lens lock (off, obviously - you don't want to miss a shot because you can't zoom in!)

  • Artificial horizon: if you have symbols in your viewfinder to tell you when the camera is straight and level, then do use them. It’ll save you an awful lot of time later on straightening horizons in Lightroom…!

What should I do on the actual game drive itself?

Although you may end up spending many hours on game drives without seeing much of interest, it's very important to be ready for anything. That means paying attention to a few simple guidelines:

  • Tell your guide what you want to do or see. For most people, the epitome of the safari experience is to see a kill. To make sure you have the best chance of doing that, I’d suggest asking your guide to try and find the big cats for you and then - crucially - to stay with them for as long as it takes. Leopards are ‘ambush’ hunters, so that won’t work unless you’re very, very lucky. Lions are possible, but they tend to hunt in the evening. The best are probably cheetahs as they hunt during the day and - when they do - offer spectacular opportunities to see the fastest land mammal sprinting at up to 70mph! However, if you’re a bit squeamish or if you’re worried about your children seeing something that might upset them, you might ask your guide just to drive around with no particular plan in mind, stopping to take pictures of whatever you happen to see. If you have a specialist interest such as birds, for example, you’ll need a different strategy. Birds don’t come very high up most people’s list of things to see, so you might need to arrange a one-off day for all the birders in the group. In general, though, you should just make sure that you let the driver know when you want to stop and when you’re happy to move on. It’s your holiday, so don’t be afraid to ask for what you want!

  • Make the most of the sunset. If you’re in a national park, it can be very frustrating towards the end of the day when you have to get back before they close the gates, which is usually around 1800-1830. That means missing out on all sorts of possible opportunities, including taking pictures at sunset. The good thing about going to a privately owned ‘conservancy’ is that, first of all, you’re allowed off-road and, secondly, you’re allowed to stay as long as you like! One way to get great shots is to drive to the brow of a hill around half an hour before sundown, find a herd of animals and then take shots of them in silhouette against the sky. Just make sure the horizon is nice and low so that you make the most of all the colours.

  • Make sure you're camera settings are correct. It may sound obvious, but it's no good being lazy and thinking, "Oh, I'll set the shutter speed and the aperture if an animal comes along." There's often very little time to get a good shot before the animal turns or moves away, so the last thing you want to be doing is checking your settings. Just stick to the basics, with the shutter speed at 1/1000, aperture at f/5.6 or f/8 and the ISO on auto. If it's still a bit dark in the morning, that might not work, and you might have to reduce the shutter speed or increase the aperture, but the important point is to make those decisions in advance, not when you're about to take a picture.

  • Get into a comfortable position from which it's easy to take pictures. If you have more than one camera or a camera with a long lens, find a good spot for all your equipment so that it'll only take a few seconds from spotting an animal to taking a picture. If you're in a jeep, that might mean winding the window down half-way so that you can rest your lens on it or taking your shoes off so that you can stand on your seat if there's a pop-up roof. Just don't end up in the same predicament as a friend of mine, who thought his camera wasn't working when he'd actually just left the lens cap on!

  • Keep a good look-out. Your guide or driver will usually be very good at spotting animals and birds and stopping in the right position so that you can take a picture, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't pay attention. I generally sit in the front seat and point things out as we go along. If the animal is far away or it's something common like an impala, I'll just say, 'Impala on the right', but I'm quick to tap the driver on the shoulder if I spot something more interesting. Even if you end up right at the back, don't be afraid to tell the driver to stop. He may have seen it all before, but it's your trip and your memories!

  • Tell everyone where and how far away the animal is. If they see an animal, a lot of people will just point and say, "Oh, look!" or "Over there!" but that's not terribly helpful unless it's a herd of elephants on a treeless plain! It's difficult to follow someone's arm when they're pointing from a different position, and it's hard to know where to look if you don't know how far away the animal is supposed to be. I'd suggest using the 'clock' method and giving a rough estimate of distance. For example, if you see a lion on the right side of the vehicle, you might say, "There's a lion at three o'clock about 100 yards away."

  • Take care of your kit. A lot of safari destinations are very dusty or sandy, and it's easy for your camera and the front lens to get covered with a film of dust, so be sure to clean them regularly. It's often hard to tell if you have a lens hood, but it's worth checking. When I was in India, I wiped the front of my 800mm lens with a lens cloth after a couple of hours on the road, and it turned almost completely red from all the dust!

  • Keep the noise down. Animals and birds are easily spooked, so try to keep your voice low, either when you're chatting to other guests or when you spot something. There's nothing worse than getting a great sighting of a leopard or something, only for someone to scare it off by talking too loudly...

  • Don't rock the boat. The best wildlife shots need a rock-steady platform, so twisting around in your seat, standing up, sitting down or generally moving around too much is a nightmare for the other photographers. If you have to change position, either wait until other people have taken their shot or do it very slowly and gently.

  • Be considerate. Tempers often get a little frayed in the excitement of the chase, so do be aware of the other guests and what they're trying to do. If you jog someone's arm or tell the driver to move on before someone has finished taking pictures, just apologise. You're there for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not to hack off your fellow guests!

What makes a good photograph?

Dust, air and spume. That's the Holy Trinity of wildlife photography, according to Paul Goldstein, who is a wildlife photographer and also a great speaker and raconteur. I went on two of his trips to Spitsbergen and Tadoba, and I've seen several of his presentations. The idea is that 'dust' is thrown up by the movement of the animals and gives you a sense of dynamism and energy, 'air' means that an animal is in the air and about to land - so we have a sense of anticipation - and 'spume' is the spray that is thrown up by movement in water.

That's just Paul's view, and there are obviously other aspects to the question. One thing that he also points out is the difference between a 'record shot' and a 'photograph'. To him, a 'record shot' is just a snapshot, a picture that records exactly what's in front of you, but a 'photograph' is something that obeys the rules of composition and has been consciously constructed by the photographer to provoke an emotional reaction. There aren't that many rules of composition in wildlife photography, but it's worth bearing them in mind when you're out shooting. Here are a few of the common ones:

  • Fill the frame. Robert Capa once said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” People don't want to have to search the image for the animal, so zoom in or ask your driver to get closer so that you can make it the centre of attention!

  • Use leading lines. Where available, they can lead the eye of the viewer into the image, for instance in a picture of an impala on the horizon crossing a road leading into the distance.

  • Use the Rule of Thirds. Human eyes don't like things that are too symmetrical - unless you can manage a perfect reflection - so try to put the focal point of your shot off-centre. That adds dynamism and a different kind of balance.

  • Focus on the eyes. People don't care if 99% of an animal is out of focus as long as the eyes are sharp.

  • Capture the moment. A guide in the States once compared my shots to those of another guy on the trip. He said that Stefan's were always technically perfect, very sharp and with gorgeous, saturated colours, but mine were all about the moment. I take that as a compliment. It means you have to wait for the right moment to take the shot. Don't just keep clicking away like a Japanese tourist by Big Ben. Compose your shot and then wait for the animal to do something to make it more memorable. It could be a sneeze, a yawn - anything! - but it will mark your picture out as special.

  • Tell a story. The tagline to this website is 'Every picture tells a story', and that's a goal we should all aspire to when taking pictures. What are we trying to say? What mood are we trying to create? What's the emotion behind the shot? It's not always easy, but picking exactly the right composition can create humour, joy, sorrow, horror and any number of other powerful reactions - which is just what we want.

  • Break the rules - selectively! Obeying the rules will give you a nice, balanced image, but Paul for one hates 'nice', and I can see his point. Sometimes, the best way of creating a strongly emotional image is to break a rule or two. You have to do it sparingly - and consciously - but it sometimes gives you that much more of a chance of creating a genuinely arresting image. One of his favourite techniques is the 'slow pan', which means following a moving animal or bird with a slow shutter speed and taking a number of shots as it goes past. The idea is to create a sense of movement by blurring the background and the legs or wings of the animal or bird while keeping the body and especially the eyes sharp. It's a technique that's very difficult to master. You have to do a lot of experimentation, and it helps to have a tripod! I once went on a boat trip in Svalbard and took 1,504 pictures of guillemots using the slow pan - but I only kept four of them! It sounds like a lot of effort, but it's worth it in the end.