5 tips for taking better photos of wildlife

  • By Mike Benbow, Special to The Herald
  • Friday, January 10, 2014 3:18pm
  • LifePhotography

When I retired from The Herald at the end of 2011, I vowed to become better at using my digital camera.

I’d taken photos for years, but mostly with a film camera where I’d shoot dozens of photos and hope for the best when I had them developed. But digital cameras provide immediate satisfaction or dismay, and it’s easier to learn and make improvements.

If you got a digital camera for Christmas or if you had one already and plan to spend more time in the outdoors during the new year, let me offer some tips on photographing wildlife that have helped me in the past couple of years:

Learn your camera

Take a lot of photos. Systematically learn what your camera can do.

One of the easiest ways to improve is to take a photo and look at it right away.

How would it be better? Is the light right? Is the correct thing in focus? Should you move to the side? Lie on the ground? Get closer? Higher?

If there is a book out on your camera, buy it. It will teach you more than the manual. You’ll be tempted to leave everything in program mode and let your camera’s computer make all the decisions.

That would be a big mistake. Try experimenting with and learning one control at a time. When you know your camera well, you won’t have to think much about what to do to get the photographs you want.

Learn your subject

When people first start taking photos, they snap a shot of say, an eagle, and think, “OK. Done that. Let’s find something else.”

But you’re really just getting started. Stay with the same subject and look for ways to produce a better photograph.

You’re a hunter with a camera, and it really helps if you think like a hunter. Read as much as you can about your subject and its likes and dislikes.

What does it eat? Where and when can you find it?

Most animals are creatures of habit, and you’ll often find them in the same locations around the same time.

As a general rule, most animals are more active in the early morning and toward dusk, so those are good times to look.

Watch your subject to learn its habits.

Look for good light

Photos are all about good light or perhaps unusual light.

In the Northwest, it’s usually dreary and gray, often raining, until July 4. So look for clear days and take advantage of them. On nice days, put off doing chores and take photographs. Or do the chores in the middle of the day, when the light can be flat or harsh.

On clear days, shoot before 10 a.m. or so or after 2 p.m. Shooting on cloudy days can be good because you can photograph all day. Just don’t squander the nice days because they’re so rare.

Shoot with the sun at your back or to your side if you can. Experiment with how the light falls on your subject. The light can be beautiful early and late in the day, just when animals like to eat.

Your car as a blind

It’s amazing how a critter can completely ignore you when you photograph it from inside your car. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gotten good photos just by stopping along the road and rolling down a window.

Most animals are afraid of humans, especially moving humans. But cars tend to be OK.

You can steady your camera in the window frame with a rolled up coat.

On many occasions, I’ve had animals come much closer to me by just parking along the road and waiting for them to forget that I’m there.

Plan your photos

I think many people look for new subjects once they’ve taken a photo of something.

But as I said earlier, that’s just the beginning.

What I like to do is look for a better photo on the same subject.

For example, I had been shooting swans landing in a farm field with the Cascade Range in the background. It was a nice photo of the swans, but there were some unsightly telephone wires in the background.

I laid on the ground and I moved around, but there was nothing I could do (barring computer magic) to remove the wires. So I found a different location with mountains and swans where the wires weren’t so obvious.

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