10X10: 100 ways to improve your photography: Birding and Wildlife

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Scarlet ibis. Nikon D200, AI 500/4 P

The focus of this post is on birding and wildlife: it’s something that every aspiring serious amateur photographer will probably try at least once, usually right after they purchase an enormous telephoto lens. Bragging rights are only good if you have the images to go along with the lens.

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Cattle egret. Nikon D3, 400/2.8 VRII

10: Dress right, bring mosquito/ insect repellant, and carry a bottle of water and a hat. The environment where some animals live can be harsh and remote. You’re not going to be concentrating on the photography if you’re not comfortable.

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Scarlet ibises. Nikon D3, 70-300VR

9: Pay attention to the time of day. There’s no wrong or right time to shoot, but there is good light and bad light. Bad light is flat and uninteresting, and doesn’t flatter your subject. Good light is always tangential and thus creates contrasts; better still, it can isolate your subject from the background. And if there’s plenty of it, that’s a bonus because you can use a higher shutter speed.

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Eagle. Nikon D3, 300/2.8 VR + 1.4x

8: A sharp but noisy image is better than a noise-free but blur one. Unless your intention is to be artistic or atmospheric, it’s better to have grain than none but also no idea what the subject actually is. This goes for all subjects, and types of photography: if your subject and composition are strong enough, nobody is going to care that the shot is grainy – look at Robert Capa’s Normandy Beach landing photos.

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Albino peacock. Nikon D3, 300/2.8 VR + 1.4x TC

7: Use single point continuous AF. Avoid the temptation to let the camera decide the AF point; it will almost never focus on the eyes, and certainly won’t be able to recognize animal faces (except perhaps some chimpanzees.) Continuous AF is necessary because your depth of field is razor thin; a little movement to and fro either by you or your subject can move focus dramatically.

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A thoughtful scratch. Nikon D200, 300/2.8 VR + 1.4x TC

6: Shoot in bursts. Two reasons for this: action usually unfolds in a sequence, and the first image may not be the most interesting; secondly, if you’re using a borderline shutter speed, then the burst helps to negate the effects of your finger pushing the shutter (and also camera). The first and last shots will usually be blur, but the middle group will be sharp because you didn’t have to move your finger in between.

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Stealth duck. Nikon D200, 300/2.8 VR + 1.4x TC

5: Focus on the eyes. With all living things, the eyes are the key to the soul. I can’t explain why, but everybody knows that a portrait with the subject looking at the camera is a lot more powerful than one where you just see the back of the person’s head. The same goes for wildlife. Better yet if you can get a catchlight in the pupil, be it the sun or a very small fill flash.

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Caught in the act of lunch. Nikon D200, AI 500/4 P

4: Have support. I don’t mean a sherpa team or an agony aunt. The longer the lens, the more support you’re going to need. A 0.1 degree camera movement with a wide lens covering 100 degrees horizontally is going to produce 0.1% blur, which you can probably get away with on a small print; but an 0.1 degree camera movement with a 5 degree field of view – corresponding to a 500mm lens – is equivalent to a whopping 2% blur. That shot will be so bad it might as well be completely out of focus. A gimbal head and solid tripod legs are great, but not very mobile. What I prefer to do is use a stout carbon-fiber monopod and rest my arm on the top of the lens to tension the system; if I’ve got something convenient to lean on, then I’ll use a bean bag to support the lens. This gets worse as your lenses get longer – I normally used an old manual focus 500/4 with 1.4x converter on DX, meaning 1,050mm equivalent. Handheld, this is an impossible combination to aim and hold, let alone get a steady shot with. With the monopod technique, 1/50s was routinely possible.

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Angry cassowary. Olympus E-410, Nikon AI 500/4 P + 1.4x TC

3: Know our subject. Do your research, learn behavioral patterns, feeding patterns and anything else such as favorite watering spots or trees; the more you know about your subject, the easier it will be to find it and go unnoticed. Also, identify rare or unusual behavior – further adding something unique to your image.

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The bird with the sun hat. Canon 1D Mark III, 500/4 L IS

2: Patience, patience, patience. The rarer your subject, the longer it’s going to take for you to a) find it and b) get into a position where you can shoot it, or where it stays still for long enough for you to get a good image. Give up and call it a day only when you absolutely can’t stand waiting any longer; some of the most stunning wildlife images – think of the BBC Planet Earth series – were only captured after years of waiting.

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Dancing flamingoes. Nikon D2H, 55-200/4-5.6 DX

1: Be ready and stay alert. Usually most interesting action happens in a split second; if you’re not ready with your settings fixed and your finger on the shutter, you’re going to miss it. This one seems to conflict with #2, but it really doesn’t; it’s what makes wildlife photography so difficult. Endless waiting, but the need to be vigilant. In the end though, the results pay off. MT


More of my nature and wildlife work can be seen here on flickr