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!

Cabárceno

The best safari destination you've never heard of!

A bit of an animal

A bit of an animal

Photography is a lonely business, so I was delighted when a friend called Tammy from my old camera club asked me to go on a wildlife workshop in northern Spain. "Spain?" I hear you ask. "What on earth is there to shoot in Spain?" Well, there's a little gem that nobody's ever heard of called Cabárceno. (In case you were wondering, it's pronounced kuh-BAR-thuh-noh). It's official title is the Parque de la Naturaleza de Cabárceno (or Cabárceno Wildlife Park), and it's a Longleat-style safari park that has hundreds of animals from all over the world in large enclosures perfect for taking pictures. You can't actually enter the areas reserved for the animals, but all you have to do is look at the map of the park, drive to the animal you want to see, get out of the car and start taking pictures. There's no waiting around for hours or driving aimlessly in the hope of spotting something - the animals are all where they're supposed to be, and that means the photographic opportunities are endless. I took nearly 4,000 pictures on the first day, which is more than I've taken anywhere else in the world!

The course ran for two days (17-18 June 2017), and it was run by a wildlife photographer called Marina Cano. Tammy told me she was very famous in the industry, and I was certainly impressed by the shots I saw on her website, so I had no problems signing up. I wasn't sure I'd get much from any tuition that was on offer - and that turned out to be the case - but I decided it was worth it just to be able to see so many animals so cheaply without all the hassle of long-haul flights to Africa, India or South America. 

Tammy and I flew in on Friday evening, stayed the night at a couple of local guesthouses just outside the park and then met up with everyone at the entrance at 0900 the next day. There were 12 guests, plus Marina, her partner Michael and a couple of assistants called Paco and Luis.  Most of the guests were Spanish and spoke little to no English, but we were lucky that a lovely northern couple called Barry and Christine changed their plans and made a last-minute decision to join us. That meant that the four of us from England could drive around in the same van, and we had a lot of fun together.

After spending an hour waiting for everyone to arrive and filling in forms and finding our passports to get tickets for the park, Marina gave us a briefing over coffee at one of the local cafés, telling us what the plan was and asking if we had any questions. The general idea was that she would take us to the best viewing spots, and we would get out and take pictures. Simple as that. She also gave us a bit of 'homework', which was to choose our five best shots for her to review the following day.

On day one, we ended up going to see the gorillas, then the bears, then the lynxes, zebras, cheetahs, lions, lynxes (again!) and finally the ostriches, with the odd giraffe, elephant and Bengal tiger cub thrown in. On the second day, we saw pretty much the same animals but with the addition of a couple of white rhinoceros, a herd of fallow deer and a glorious encounter with a hippo, which opened its mouth incredibly wide almost as soon as we arrived - and then did it again! We also went to see the birds of prey, and that was a good chance to take close-up 'portraits' of red kites, bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, vultures and - my personal favourite - the black-chested buzzard-eagle.

The general format was to spend three or four hours taking pictures in the morning, then stop for a long lunch at a restaurant at a little village just outside the park and then go back to take more pictures until around eight o'clock in the evening. The days were pretty long, and we had to cope with a rather unusual heatwave that meant temperatures rose to 33°C at times, so were were pretty tired when we finally got back to the various 'posadas' where we were staying. That made it quite hard to do our homework on the first night, as most of us just wanted to go straight to bed! However, we all managed to produce our five images for the review after lunch the next day, and that was the most educational part of the whole course.

Image #1

Image #1

Image #2

Image #2

Image #3

Image #3

Image #4

Image #4

Image #5

Marina gave some sensible feedback, and I was very impressed with most of the pictures people had taken. Even though we'd all seen exactly the same animals from exactly the same spots at exactly the same time, the quality and variety of the images was amazing! It just goes to show what's possible with a little imagination, and Tammy in particular produced a very creative picture of the two lynx side-by-side that looked just like a pen-and-ink police mug shot! That inspired me to try over-exposing (and under-exposing) my shots that afternoon rather than just taking the same old, same old sunny 'record shots' that didn't have an ounce of emotion in them.

It was a shame we didn't review all the images a bit earlier, as we only had a few hours to practise what we'd learned, but the trip wasn't quite over. We had a free morning on the Monday before our flight in the afternoon, and Barry and Christine kindly offered to drive us round the park in their motor home! That was a real bonus, and we got some great shots of a barnful of Ankole-Watusi cattle and the two white rhino lying side-by-side under a tree.

All in all, it was a great trip, and I thoroughly recommend Cabárceno if you're looking for a cheap and cheerful way to take great pictures of animals you'd never usually see without spending thousands on a long-haul safari. We were lucky with the people we met, and there wasn't much actual 'teaching' from Marina and her team, but that's only a minor quibble. Yes, the workshop cost €295, but the Ryanair flights from Stansted to Santander were only a hundred quid, the Posada Venero and Cabárceno only charged €50-60 a night, and an annual season ticket for the park was only €55, so what better place for a do-it-yourself safari! Can't say fairer than that. 

 

Species list

Animals

African elephant
Ankole-Watusi
Bengal tiger
Bison
Brown bear
Canada lynx
Cape buffalo
Cheetah
Common ostrich
Eland
Fallow deer
Giraffe
Grévy's zebra
Hippopotamus
Lion
Lowland gorilla
Rhesus macaque
White rhinoceros

Birds

Bald eagle
Black-chested buzzard-eagle
European griffon vulture
Golden eagle
Peregrine falcon
Red kite

Butcher's bill:

1 x lens hood (it fell off into the bears' compound, and they ended up eating most of it!)

 

Rules of composition

As everyone knows, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach" - but that doesn't stop me trying to do both!

Whatever kind of photographer you are and whatever kind of pictures you take, you always need to pay attention to composition. As an introductory guide (or a reminder), here are a few principles of composition to help you take better pictures. Just make sure you break all of them once in a while!

Rule of thirds

The most common rule in photography is the rule of thirds. The aim of the game here is avoid taking pictures that are too symmetrical. For some reason, the human eye doesn't like that, so it's usually best to place the subject off-centre. The rule of thirds is just one way to do that. Others include the golden ratio or the Fibonacci curve, and you can find them in Lightroom if you really want to, but the rule of thirds is the best and the simplest. The idea is that you imagine that the viewfinder is divided up into thirds - both horizontally and vertically - and place the subject at the intersection of two of those invisible lines in order to give it more impact. The lines also help you to place the horizon when you're taking a landscape shot. If the horizon is in the middle of the frame, it looks a bit static. Instead, try to establish whether most of the interest is in the land or the sky. If you want people to focus on the land, place the horizon on the lower imaginary line; if you want people to focus on the clouds in the sky, place it on the upper one. Just make sure that it's straight!

'The Decisive Moment'

Henri Cartier-Bresson was a French photographer considered a master of candid photography. He pioneered the genre of street photography. The Decisive Moment was the title of a book he wrote, and his idea was that timing is the secret of a good photograph. This is obviously more important in certain types of photography (such as wildlife) than others (such as landscape), but it is still a useful guide to taking any kind of action shot.

Framing

Every photograph obviously has a frame, but have you ever tried using a 'frame-within-a-frame'? Photographic frames come in all shapes and sizes, and so do the ones you find in real life. It might be the branches of a tree or a doorway or a window - the point is that it adds depth to a picture and focuses the viewer's attention.

Negative space

I don't know why people call it 'negative space' rather than just 'space' (!), but the idea is that a picture with a single subject can look more balanced if there is empty space on the other side of the frame. This is particularly useful for portraits if you want to stop them looking like 'passport photos'! It's also a good idea to allow space for a moving subject to move into. It just looks weird if a person appears to be 'walking out of the frame', so try to position the subject around a third of the way across in order to draw the eye into the picture rather than out of it.

Leading lines

Leading lines are supposed to 'lead' the eye of the viewer into the frame - and ideally towards the main subject. They don't have to be straight, but they tend to work best when they are. The obvious examples are railway tracks or a long, straight road stretching into the distance. S-curves can do the same job as leading lines, but they also add dynamism and visual interest to a photograph, particularly if it's a landscape. Again, it might be a road or a railway or even a winding river. All that matters is that the line is roughly in the shape of an S, meandering left and right into the distance.

Symmetry

The rule of thirds and others are meant to stop pictures looking too symmetrical, but sometimes symmetry suits the subject matter. If you have a reflection in the water or a human face, for example, you can't really avoid it, so it's sometimes best to make the most of it. That might mean positioning the line where the water meets the land exactly in the centre of the frame or choosing a square aspect ratio for the picture to enhance the symmetry of a face.

Point of view

I'm a wildlife photographer, and the most important rule of wildlife photography is to get down to eye-level with the animals. It makes a huge difference to the composition and elevates a quick snap to an intimate portrait. Taking pictures at eye level sometimes means getting wet or muddy - especially if you're taking pictures of insects on the ground! - but it's the best way to go. The same applies to portraits, which usually look best taken at eye-level or above. If you get down any lower than that, you take the risk of ending up with a close-up of the model's nostrils!

Motion blur

A photograph is just a static image, so it's sometimes difficult to convey a sense of motion. One way to do that is to use a slower shutter speed in order to create motion blur. Different subjects require different shutter speeds, depending on how fast they are moving, so you might need to experiment a little bit to find that sweet spot between too much sharpness and too little. You could start with 1/4 of a second for a pedestrian walking along the street, but a Formula One car would disappear if you didn't cut that down to 1/250 or slower. If you want to go the whole hog, you might try the 'slow pan'. Panning just means moving the camera from side-to-side to keep a moving subject in the same part of the frame. The 'slow' bit relates to the shutter speed. What you get with a 'slow pan' should be a recognisable subject with relatively sharp eyes but blurred limbs (or wings) and a blurred background. I warn you that this is a tricky business - I once took 1,500 slow pan pictures of guillemots in the Arctic and only kept four of them! - but it's worth it when it works...

Depth of field

Another crucial element in wildlife and other kinds of photography is depth of field. To make sure the focus is on the subject and separate it from the background, you can use a larger aperture (such as f/4 or f/2.8). That will blur anything that's not in the same plane as the subject while keeping the focal point sharp. The eyes are always the most important part of a portrait - whether it's of an animal or a person - and we will always see something as being 'in focus' as long as they look sharp. Depth of field is just as important in landscapes, but what we generally want now is sharpness all the way through the image, so it's better to start with a smaller aperture such as f/11 or f/16.

Odd numbers

One of the funny things about the way people see the world is that we seem to like odd-numbered groups of objects more than even-numbered ones. It doesn't really matter why, I guess, but it's an important point to remember when planning something like a still-life shoot. Just make sure you have three or five tomatoes rather than two or four!

Fill the frame

Everyone has a camera these days because everyone has a mobile phone, but one of the problems with using your mobile to take pictures is that it's hard to 'fill the frame'. It's all very well taking a selfie when you're only a few inches from the lens, but trying to zoom in on a distant object or animal is difficult when you only have a few megapixels to play with. It's important to remember here the difference between 'optical zoom' and 'digital zoom'. The optical version is what you get naturally with a DSLR lens when you zoom in by changing the focal length; the digital version is when a phone or a bridge camera fools you into thinking you're zooming in by focusing on a smaller and smaller portion of the sensor. It's great when you look through the viewfinder or look at the back of the camera, but the image quality is a lot poorer. Anyway, the point is that what you really want to do is to make the subject dominate the image by making it as large as possible. If you're taking a picture of a cheetah, you don't want it to be a dot in the corner of the frame! You can always crop the image later using Lightroom or another editing program, but that means losing pixels, so the quality will suffer. It's always better to get it right in camera if you can. You just need to be careful not to chop off body parts in the wrong place when you're taking a portrait. Generally, it's fine to crop in on someone's face so that the top of the model's head is not shown, but it's not a good idea to crop people's bodies at the joints. It just looks odd if the edge of the frame coincides with the ankles, knees, waist, elbows, wrists or neck.

Aspect ratio

For some reason, taking a picture in landscape format just seems more 'natural' than turning the camera 90 degrees for a portrait, but it's important to choose the 'right' aspect ratio for the image. A photographer once advised me to make sure at least a third of my pictures were in portrait format, but the point is to look at the subject and decide what's best. If there are a lot of horizontal lines, then landscape is fair enough, but if there are more vertical lines - such as tree trunks in a forest - then you should probably choose portrait instead. If you really want to emphasise the length (or height) of a subject, why not try a panorama instead? Different cameras have different set-ups, but the average aspect ratio of a DSLR is 3:2, which doesn't suit all subjects. I've set up a 3:1 template in Lightroom to use for images in which nothing much is happening at the bottom and top of the frame.

Foreground interest

When we see a beautiful view, most people's instant reaction is to take a picture, but what we end up with a lot of the time is an image without any focus. Placing an object in the foreground can lead the eye into the frame and give the image balance. A picture taken on the beach, for instance, might be improved by getting down low in front of a weird rock or piece of driftwood.

Balance

Speaking of balance, it can be a good idea to have the main subject on one side of the frame and a smaller subject on the other. Again, it's just a matter of what looks most satisfying to the human eye.

Juxtaposition

Old and new, blue and orange, large and small - all these are contrasts that a photograph can pick up on and emphasise. This kind of juxtaposition can be made the point of an image. Think of an elephant beside a mouse - it's not a picture of an elephant or a picture of a mouse, it's a picture of the contrast between the two.

Patterns, textures and colours

Sometimes, you don't need a traditional 'subject' to make an image visually interesting. There are plenty of patterns in Nature or in the man-made environment; the trick is to find them amongst all the surrounding clutter. Whether it's the bark of a tree or paint peeling on a wall, you can sometimes get a very effective abstract image out of it. Black and white images tend to emphasise patterns and shapes, as there is no colour to distract the eye, but colours can form patterns as well - it just depends on the subject and your personal preference.

Simplicity

It's hard to produce a visually striking image if there is no focal point, or if there are too many competing centres of attention. By creating a simple image - in terms of colour and/or composition - you can remove the distractions and focus on what's important.

Background

To increase the focus on the subject of an image, it's a good idea to remove any distractions in the background. It's obviously not a good idea to take a picture of someone with a telegraph pole sticking out of his head (!), but it's easy to pay too much attention to the subject and not enough to the background unless you consciously check the viewfinder. One useful way to reduce the chances of an embarrassing blunder is to reduce the depth of field by increasing the size of the aperture. The traditional way of taking portraits of animals or people, for instance, is to use a 'fast' lens, which means one that has a very wide maximum aperture, and shoot wide open. That reduces the depth of field, thus blurring the background and adding to the impact of the main subject. If you have lights in the background, you can even get a nice effect called 'bokeh', which works well for something like a bauble with Christmas tree lights in the background.

Humour

Whatever you're photographing, there are always odd moments of humour to be found. People and animals are usually the best sources, but it doesn't really matter what the subject is. If there's a visual joke to be made, why not have a go? I laughed when I saw these penguins together on South Georgia. It looked as if the female was confused by the rock. Was it an egg she was supposed to hatch, or was it just a rock? She spent about five minutes looking at it and examining it before the male came up and said something like, "Come on, darling. It's just a rock..."

 

Breaking the rules

Having said all that, it's important to break the rules once in a while. Rules tend to set expectations, so breaking them can make an image seem fresh and original. Why should the horizon be straight? Why should we see the whole face rather than just half of it? Why should the sky start two-thirds of the way up the frame? If you can't answer these questions, then why not take a risk? It's a bit like being a painter: you have to be able to follow the rules before you can break them!

If you'd like to know more or want to book a photography lesson with me, then please get in touch.

Good luck...

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.

Athens

Teaching Greek children is like watching France play rugby: you never know what you're going to get...

Stoa of Attalos: the Athenian version of the local mall

Stoa of Attalos: the Athenian version of the local mall

I just spent two weeks in Greece preparing a Greek boy and his twin sisters for 10+ and 12+ entrance examinations at a school in England. Highlights included spending a long, sunny weekend at a holiday home in Lagonissi, spending another long, sunny weekend skiing near Delphi - I wonder if the oracle saw that one coming! - and seeing the Parthenon every day from my hotel balcony.

Political refugees take many forms, but, personally, I prefer shipping magnates fleeing with their adorable (if strong-willed) families from Communist governments in the Mediterranean...

Red Xmas tree star with bokeh lights

Red star at night, photographer's delight...

The idea

I live in an Art Deco mansion block in Putney, and every year the porters put a Christmas tree in the entrance hall. Last year, I took some pictures of some of the baubles, inspired by an email from one of the photographic magazines about how to capture bokeh lighting. This year, the tree and the baubles were different, so I decided to have another go.

The location

Ormonde Court, Upper Richmond Road, London SW15 6TW, United Kingdom, around 2100 on 12 December 2014.

The equipment

  • Nikon D800 DSLR camera
  • Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED lens
  • Nikon SB-910 Speedlight flash
  • Manfrotto 190XProB tripod with 496RC2 universal joint head
  • Hähnel HRN 280 remote release.

I’ve just managed to remortgage my flat in Notting Hill, so I’ve been investing in a few photographic supplies. Ever since a German called Stefan took a magnificent shot of Old Faithful at night using flash, I’ve wanted a proper flashgun. Well, now I have one. I bought the Nikon SB-910 Speedlight a couple of weeks ago, and it arrived just in time for this shoot. I didn’t know whether I’d need it or not, but I was prepared to experiment.

The settings

  • Manual ISO 100
  • f/5.6
  • 1 second
  • 105mm
  • Tungsten white balance
  • Single-point auto-focus

The technique

In the last of these posts, I mentioned how I’d got used to taking a tripod with me in almost all circumstances, and last night was no exception. Last year, I was generally pleased with my shots of the baubles, but the ISO was far too high. I was using my tripod, funnily enough, but to hold the bauble rather than my camera! This year, I decided I would definitely mount the camera on the tripod, but that left me with nothing to hold the baubles. I thought about using a light stand from my flash kit, but I needed something horizontal rather than vertical so that I could hang the decorations from it. I then had the idea of using my golf clubs. I could stand the bag in the lobby and balance one of the clubs on top, held in place by the other clubs.

As it turned out, I’d forgotten that the bag would be at an angle of 45 degrees, so my original plan didn’t work, but I simply pulled my 4-iron half-way out and hung the first bauble from that. It was a silver reindeer, but the green wire loop wasn’t very long, and I wouldn’t have been able to get the shots I wanted without the golf club getting in the frame. I needed a piece of string. I thought about going back to my flat, but leaving my golf clubs and my camera unattended in the entrance hall didn’t seem like a sensible idea! Fortunately, I was wearing trainers, so I just used one of the laces. It took a few gos to get each bauble to point in the right direction and remain still – particularly as there was a stream of curious residents opening the front door on their way home from work! – but I managed in the end. Phew!

I took lots of pictures of the silver reindeer, a red bauble with a spiral pattern on it and the red star shown above, and I played around with the flash settings to try to make the background a bit darker. Sadly my new flash was so powerful that I couldn’t manage that – even with -3.0EV of exposure compensation! There might’ve been a better way, but it was the first time I’ve ever used a flashgun, so I’m still a newbie.

The main problem I had in taking the shots was actually getting enough depth-of-field. The reindeer was fine, but the round baubles and even the star were proving a nightmare. If I focused on the front of the bauble, the metal cap and wire loop were out of focus, but, if I focused on those, the rest of the bauble was out of focus. I’m an absolute stickler for sharpness in my images, so I wasn’t sure what to do. In the end, I stopped down a little bit and hoped that f/5.6 would be a small enough aperture to keep everything acceptably sharp. I tried ‘chimping’ (or checking the shots on the LCD screen) a few times, but it was tricky to tell. My problem was a kind of Catch-22: the three variables controlling depth-of-field are normally the focal length, the aperture and the relative distances of the camera to the subject and the subject to the background. I couldn’t change to a wide-angle lens, as I needed to limit the background to just the Christmas tree; I couldn’t change to a much smaller aperture without making the bokeh circles of the blurred Christmas lights in the background too small; and I couldn’t change the relative positions of the camera, bauble and tree without changing the composition completely. Hmm… As you can see from the shot above, the two arms on the right of the red star didn’t turn out completely sharp, but it was ‘good enough for Government work’. Shutterstock obviously didn’t accept it – they’re very hot on sharpness! – but I did win an award on Pixoto for the sixth best image uploaded to the Christmas category yesterday!

The post-processing

I made three changes to this shot:

  1. I had the camera on ‘Tungsten’ white balance, as I’d just read somewhere that I should use the amber filter on the flashgun when shooting indoors in order to avoid a clash of different light sources. However, it turned out that the shot looked a lot warmer with the ‘Flash’ white balance, and that was just the look I was after at Christmastime.
  2. A lot of my images end up being quite dark, and I’m not sure whether it’s just because I’m lucky to spend a lot of time in very sunny places or whether there’s a problem with my camera! In this case, I actually had to push the exposure up by +2EV in Aperture to make it look like all the others. I have a feeling that’s because I changed from f/2.8 to f/5.6 to get more depth-of-field but forgot to lengthen the shutter speed to compensate. Silly me…
  3. I was desperately trying to frame the shot perfectly so I wouldn’t have to crop, but the balance of the bauble with the ‘negative space’ on the right wasn’t quite right, so I cropped in slightly to position the star a third of the way into the frame.

Close-up of golden eagle head with catchlight

So sharp, I cut my finger...

So sharp, I cut my finger...

I’m a photographer (among other things), and this is the first of a series of posts about my favourite photographs. I’ll tell you how I took them and break down the shot into the idea, the location, the equipment, the settings, the technique and any post-processing.

The idea

When I took this shot, I was at a Battle of Hastings re-enactment at Battle Abbey in Sussex. I was there to take pictures of the battle scenes between enthusiasts dressed up as Normans and Saxons, and I had no idea there was going to be a falconry display until I bought my ticket and was given a flyer with the plan for the day.

The golden eagle is my favourite bird (isn’t it everyone’s?!), so I was very excited to be able to see one in action. The falconers from Raphael Historical Falconry put on a couple of displays with a variety of birds, including a gyrfalcon and a Harris hawk, but the golden eagle was the highlight. Afterwards, I wandered over to their tent, and I was able to get within just a few feet of all the birds. The falconer was happy to chat with the spectators with a bird on his arm (so to speak!), and later he fed and watered the birds outside. That gave me the chance to set up my tripod and get a few good close-ups, and this was the best of the lot.

The location

Battle Abbey, High Street, Hastings and Battle, East Sussex TN33 0AD, United Kingdom, around 1500 on 11 October 2014.

The equipment

  • Nikon D800 DSLR camera
  • Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM lens
  • Manfrotto 190XProB tripod with 496RC2 universal joint head
  • Hähnel HRN 280 remote release.

I was a bit worried about using my ‘Bigma’ to take this picture, as I hadn’t been very impressed with it on my trip to Spitsbergen to see the polar bears. Admittedly, the bears were usually a few hundred yards away, and no zoom lens is at its best when it’s at its longest focal length, but I was disappointed that my shots were so soft. As a result, I did a manual focus check and discovered that the calculated auto-focus fine tune setting was a whopping -12! Armed with this new improvement to the sharpest tool in my box, I was ready for anything…

PS They call it the ‘Bigma’ as it’s made by Sigma, and it’s enormous!

The settings

  • Auto ISO 110
  • f/9
  • 1/250
  • 500mm
  • Daylight white balance
  • Single-point auto-focus

I had the camera on Manual with ISO on Auto, which I thought was appropriate for a day when lots of things would be happening, and I’d be taking candid shots without much opportunity to sit down and check my settings. However, I should probably have set the ISO to its optimum value of 100 for this shot, as I had plenty of time.

The technique

I’m generally a travel and wildlife photographer, but I normally don’t use a tripod as it gets in the way and doesn’t work too well in a Land-Rover moving at 40mph! However, I learnt a new perspective from a professional photographer called Mark Carwardine. He happened to be on a cruise to Spitsbergen that I went on a few months ago, and he was always carrying around his tripod with the legs fully extended – even on the Zodiac inflatables that we used to land on the islands. I thought to myself, If he can do it, so can I! After that, I’ve tried to use a tripod wherever possible. I love really sharp wildlife shots, and a 36.3-megapixel DSLR and a tripod make a winning combination.

Another important thing about wildlife shots is to get down to the level of the animal or bird you’re shooting. You can see from this shot that I’m right at eye-level with the eagle, and that gives the sense of power and intimacy I was looking for.

Finally, I’ve learnt from a couple of portrait shoots the value of the ‘catchlight’. This is the reflection of the light source that you see in the eye of your subject. It’s just as important with wildlife as with people, and I was lucky enough to get a break in the clouds that allowed the sun to provide the perfect catchlight. Lucky me!

The post-processing

I changed from a PC to a Mac a few years ago, so I do all my post-processing in Aperture. I suppose I should upgrade to Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw or Photoshop, but iPhoto was the default image-processing software on the Mac, and Aperture was the cheapest upgrade!

I only had two changes to make to this shot:

  1. Even at 500mm, I still wasn’t quite close enough for the bird’s head to fill the frame, so I had to crop in later. I’ve found from experience that 6.3 megapixels is the minimum size that the major online photo libraries accept, so I never go below 6.4 MP (to avoid rounding errors), and that’s the new size of this file.
  2. In the end, the automatic ISO setting was close enough to the optimum of 100, but the shot was slightly overexposed due to the dark colours of the eagle’s feathers and the grassy background, so I had to reduce the exposure by 0.5EV.