Wildlife photography: do your homework

Although wildlife photography has become much more accessible, thanks to the ever-improving world of digital photography, not all wildlife images are equal. Adrian Hatwell talks to photographer Evan McBride about how you can prepare yourself to capture striking wildlife shots

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Ever since the boom in digital photography began, wildlife photography has become one of the most popular genres among photographers, professional and enthusiast alike. Once the provenance of specialists with extravagant equipment, the teeming wilds of this green earth became accessible to a far wider array of appreciators thanks to the rise of powerful yet affordable new imaging technology.

So, too, has audience appetite for photos of the world’s weird and wonderful animals become ever more ravenous. And it’s not hard to see why. A pristine wildlife capture not only has the power to take the viewer to exotic environs to glimpse unfamiliar beasts, but it affords us a wider perspective of the world, challenging our human-centric ways of thinking. Great wildlife photography helps remind us that we are not the centre of the world, and that this planet does not exist for us alone.

But with the profusion of wildlife imagery flowing freely through digital channels, it’s painfully clear that not all animal imagery comes close to these lofty ideals. To help elucidate the path to stunning fauna photography, D-Photo has enlisted the help of wildlife photography aficionado, Evan McBride.

McBride has been a dedicated wildlife shooter since he inherited a camera in 2008, and quickly established himself as an artist with a preternatural eye for composition and a knack for timing. In 2011 he picked up the top honour in the D-Photo Amateur Photographer of the Year awards, before going on to create a portfolio stuffed with some of the world’s most prestigious photography accolades. He has notched his belt with nods from the Paris Photography Prize (PX3), International Photography Awards, Photography Masters Cup, Black and White Spider Awards, B&W Portfolio Contest, International Travel Photographer of the Year, Better Photography Awards, and International Monochrome Awards.

As well as shooting the unique wildlife of home, the New Zealand–based photographer has roamed the reaches of the globe — Africa, Asia, Scandinavia, the Middle East — to capture striking instances of the natural world in action. He shares some of his most essential tips for creating wildlife imagery that sinks teeth and talon into viewers.

Before you leave home

One of the big draws for the would-be wildlife shooter is the chance to get out and see parts of the world hitherto unexplored. But though wanderlust might be a great motivator, a lot of work needs to be put in before you even set foot out the door if you hope see the best the natural world has to offer.

Firstly, the budding wildlife photographer will likely want to choose a subject. There’s some merit to simply strolling about and leaving your subject to chance. But the safer money is on picking a particular animal, environment or theme before setting out, camera in hand. For McBride, these decisions are best made from the heart.

“Photography is very much an extension and reflection of ourselves, and the choice of subject will always be something I have an affinity with, so this is usually my starting point,” he explains. “Then it comes down to the type of image I am after — I love black-and-white, so a less-cluttered environment and shooting in the snow tend to be themes I enjoy.”

While having a focus is a good way to get started, the photographer also advises keeping ideologically loose — becoming fixated on a single subject often makes one blind to the abundant natural wonders in the periphery. The living environment has so much to offer, you can never be totally sure what the star attraction will end up being.

“An example of this was in Sri Lanka, where I went to photograph leopards — the images I enjoyed the most came from being on a river shooting water monitors and kingfishers.”

Whatever you happen to set your sights on initially, one thing that will hugely improve your likelihood of satisfaction is research. McBride credits around 90 per cent of wildlife photography success to the groundwork put in ahead of time. Essentials include talking to other photographers who have covered similar ground, researching animal behavior for the time of year you’ll be operating in, checking suitable gear and provisions, and sourcing local guides and locations. Approaching a shoot with that work already done will give you a definite edge in the wild.

Boots on the ground

With your homework done, it’s time to get out in the field. Whether you’re delving into the heart of an untouched rainforest or wandering to the neighbourhood nature preserve, there are key considerations to be made in any environment to make sure you remain safe, respectful, and get the shots you’re after.

Ensuring you are dressed and equipped for the conditions is essential, though what exactly is needed will depend on where you are going. A foot trek through the jungle might require dressing to protect yourself from leeches, whereas travel in arctic conditions requires provisions to guarantee neither you nor your gear freezes. On simpler treks it might just be a matter of comfortable clothing and sturdy footwear.

One of the best ways to be certain you’re ready for whatever the surroundings might throw at you is to contract the services of a good guide. Unless you are truly shooting your own backyard, it’s guaranteed that there will be locals with better, invaluable knowledge of the surroundings and animals within them. A savvy guide will be able to bring you to the best locations, navigate pitfalls, and help make the most of any wildlife opportunities that arise. But as McBride recalls with some chagrin, not all guides are created equal.

“I had one fellow who, in the dense jungle in Thailand, got so nervy any time he heard a sound he thought might be an elephant that he would literally try to jump into my arms — he was not a great comfort.”

Once the destination is clear, one of the best things a wildlife photographer can do is keep their head on a pivot. Rather than simply focusing straight ahead, look up, down, and to the sides constantly — every aspect of the environment has the potential to play home to all manner of creatures (just be sure not to neglect where you are walking, either). Prior research into animal behaviour will pay dividends when staking out a fruitful locale to shoot from, especially if you have timed your visit for maximum opportunity. McBride points to photographing tigers in Rajasthan, India, as an example.

“Most people go when the weather is not too hot, but at this time of the year the tigers can stay well hidden in the foliage, and just seeing them becomes an achievement. However, going at the height of summer, though it may be well over 40 degrees, means the foliage is burned off and the tigers need to bring their cubs daily to the water holes, which changes the whole complexity and means sightings are frequent.”

Amidst the action

It might not immediately seem so to the recently arrived city dweller, but the wilds are a busy place. Animal life is plentiful, diverse, and often very fast-paced. Few photographers need to be as quick on the draw as a wildlife shooter, to capture the dynamics of animal interaction. But it is no sport for adrenaline junkies — those bursts of action are interspersed with long periods of waiting and observing. Patience is one of the nature photographer’s most potent tools.

But as important as a meditative temperament and an itchy shutter finger are, McBride also acknowledges one of the key components of most great wildlife images is a decent allotment of luck. Right time, right place, right light is something that can’t be forced, but getting yourself in a good position with the correct camera settings can boost your odds.

“As wildlife is generally more active in the early mornings and evenings when the light is not the strongest, having a camera body that can utilize high ISO is very important,” the photographer advises. “The key is to get an image with great timing, interaction, etc., rather than a pristine high-quality one. Action is more important — set your camera settings accordingly.”

He suggests shooting in manual mode, with auto ISO set to the highest rate that still produces an image of acceptable quality (test this before you venture out). Wildlife photographers are often pictured with great, whopping telephoto lenses in order to shoot animal details from afar — it’s an effective, but by no means essential, way of going about it. McBride prefers the mobility of mid-range zooms (at least f/2.8 or faster), utilizing a 1.7x teleconverter on two alternating bodies — a full-frame and a crop sensor — to reduce gear while ensuring variety.

In terms of positioning yourself for composition, there are some rules of thumb that can be helpful. Getting down at the eye level of the creature you are shooting, with focus sharp on their eyes, will generally result in an engaging image. But that’s not always possible in some cases, nor is it guaranteed to be the best shot. McBride says there are lots of ways to create something more distinctive or unique.

“Looking up with a wide-angle lens can create a greater sense of size and strength; shooting into the sun with backlight through feathers or fur; looking down on large numbers of wildlife can give a sense of size and environment,” he counts off.

“I love to look at markings on wildlife — especially those that are not readily seen, such as markings on birds, say the back of or top of their heads.”

Pay your dues

Getting great wildlife pictures can be a real thrill, but it should never come at the expense of the animals you’re depicting, the environment you have entered, or your own safety. In terms of looking after yourself, it’s largely a matter of commonsense and not getting so caught up in your endeavour that you take silly risks. It can be difficult to know what all the hazards are in an unfamiliar situation so, again, local knowledge can be a life-saver.

“Listening to advice is a mandatory skill, and taking cues from those that can read their local animal behavior way better than we as visitors can is very important,” McBride implores.

A good wildlife photographer will always be aware that they are an outsider, visiting a home that is not their own, so respect is a must. If we do not look after the ecosystems and the animals they support, then wildlife photography will serve only as a sad reminder of what we allowed to be destroyed. McBride says a responsible photographer is constantly mindful the subject is more important than getting an amazing image.

“This is first and foremost a state of mind — nature is God’s art and should be respected as such. We as wildlife photographers are ambassadors for nature, we look only, and do not do anything that would harm or alter animal behaviors, or the environment of the wildlife itself.”

Article originally appeared in D-Photo 77 April-May 2017