(Editor’s Note: This wildlife photography how-to from professional photographer Ron Magill is part of a new monthly series on Digital Photo where top pros from Nikon USA’s Ambassadors program share their simple tips, tricks, and advice on how to be a better photographer.)
Photography is very subjective. With that in mind, it’s important to understand that the first person who needs to like your photo, is you! While there is always room for improvement, don’t worry about satisfying others before you satisfy yourself. Wildlife photography is challenging, but it’s also a lot of fun, especially when you are able to photograph those once-in-a-lifetime moments.
Years ago, wildlife photography was very different; photographers had to do everything manually, focus, expose, etc. and yet they were able to produce amazing images, which is a testament to the incredible skill level they possessed. Today’s equipment takes so much of that work out of our hands thanks to the incredible advancements in autofocus, metering and exposure compensation. Not to mention the evolution of digital photography that allows you to put well over a thousand images on one memory card.
Think about what it was like for the film users who may get a maximum of 36 images per roll. I’m now using a Nikon Z 6 II camera and have truly embraced the mirrorless system. Don’t be afraid to utilize the technology available today. The capacity for these cameras to shoot in what would have been considered impossible conditions a decade ago is amazing as they are able to “see” things that we may normally miss.
1. Working with the Elements
I love photographing animals for many reasons. First, it allows me to be outdoors and really appreciate the amazing world of nature while inspiring me to help me protect it in any way that I can, and photography has become my greatest tool in that effort.
On a bit of a lighter note, one of the advantages of photographing animals is that they don’t complain or insist that you capture their “good side.” However, on the flip side, you don’t have the luxury of being able to pose animals or move the sun because the light isn’t in the right place. You have to work with the hand that nature has dealt you and maneuver the elements – whether it’s a restless animal or unpredictable weather conditions like be extreme cold, heat or rain. You certainly don’t have the type of control that you would have in a studio.
The word photography means “painting with light.” The most beautiful natural outdoor light is during the couple of hours just before and after sunrise as well as the couple of hours just before and after sunset. Those are the times when the soft directional light will produce the most beautiful and pleasing colors. Fortunately, those sunrise and sunset times are also when animals are generally most active, so it’s a “win-win” for wildlife photographers.
2. Know Your Models
There is an old saying that the only thing predictable about wild animals is that they are unpredictable. However, to be a successful wildlife photographer, it is extremely important to have a basic knowledge of an animal’s behavior. When you learn about your “models,” you can be better prepared to anticipate certain behaviors and in turn capture them with your camera.
All animals, including wild ones, have their own routines. Whether it be an animal getting fed at the zoo or one coming to a water hole to drink in the wild, knowing when and where that happens is what will have you in place to capture an impactful image. Scout locations to see what the light is like during certain times of the day and plan accordingly. Once you better understand why and how an animal does certain things, you will be better prepared to capture those behaviors with your camera.
I was a trained zoologist before I became a photographer and credit the knowledge I gained as a zoologist with enabling me to capture many of my images. That knowledge, combined with a profound amount of patience, is what will bring you rewarding success.
3. Don’t Hesitate to Use High ISOs
Today’s cameras have an amazing ability to capture incredible images in very low light. This is extremely beneficial when it comes to wildlife photography because it makes shooting during those critical low light times at sunrise and sunset easier than ever before. I have been able to push my ISO above 10,000 on the Z 6 II and produce wonderful images that capture the action of wildlife in low light, which would have been impossible only a few years ago.
And now with the electronic viewfinders (EVFs) in the mirrorless camera system, I can instantly see what the image will look like as I am taking it, which allows me to create the mood I want almost instantaneously. The EVF takes a lot of the guesswork out of setting your exposure and is priceless for those of us who like to shoot manually.
4. “A” Mode for “Always Ready”
Animals often move quickly and some behaviors only last for a split second. For this reason, when I am shooting wildlife outdoors and moving from location to location, I generally keep my cameras in Aperture Priority mode with my lens wide open (i.e. with the lens set at the maximum aperture, which is the lowest f/stop number). Aperture Priority mode gives me the fastest shutter speed while the background is as out of focus as possible, reducing distractions, so that my subject stands out in sharp focus.
When shooting wildlife photography, you are sometimes surprised by an animal or behavior that only gives you enough time to point and shoot your camera before it is gone. If the situation allows more time, then switch to Manual mode to get more creative with exposures and experiment a bit more. However, always remember to switch back before moving again.
5. Beware of Your Backgrounds
One of the greatest challenges in wildlife photography is locating our subjects. Sometimes that may involve hours of tracking or patiently waiting. When our subject appears, we get so excited and focused on the animal as our subject, that we don’t pay attention to the background. The lesson here is that it’s important to look at your LCD while you are shooting because you often will see things there that you just don’t notice in the viewfinder when you are focused on your subject.
With that in mind, be open to changing your perspective. I always try to shoot at the eye level of the animal, you can also get down low if you want to make something look more dominant or change position to play with light direction. Side lighting and back lighting can often be more dramatic and impactful than simple front lighting. The bottom line is you should try to do something different than what everyone else is doing to make your image stand out.
Another important tip when it comes to perspective is to be careful not to get too tight in your framing. As wildlife photographers we tend to want to use the longest lenses to get as close as possible. By doing so, we sometimes eliminate a part of the scene that is important to the overall impact of the image. With today’s cameras, the resolution is so high that you can often significantly crop in and still have enough resolution in your image to make big, beautiful prints.
7. Discover Nature’s Masterpieces with Macro
What is the definition of wildlife? Some may automatically think of the mega-vertebrates like elephants, big cats, or beautiful birds. The fact is that wildlife is all around us and some of the most amazing examples are found in the world of macro/close-up photography. Flowers, insects, reptiles and amphibians – there’s so much to explore! Take a feather and put it under a macro lens – it will become art in every sense of the word. Don’t limit your definition of wildlife to the something you would find on a big game safari – it could be almost anything that lives in the wild.
Pay attention to the tiny little details that make up the big things in life. Whether it be the eyelashes on a giraffe or the wrinkles on the skin of an elephant, photographing different perspectives of certain details in nature will open up a whole new portfolio that will blow people away!
8. Don’t Hesitate to “Put the Hammer Down!”
I keep my camera in image burst mode because by doing so, my camera, which is capturing over 10 frames per second, is seeing action that I cannot. Whether it’s a bird flying or an antelope jumping, burst mode enables you to select the frame that best illustrates a movement or behavior and is most aesthetically pleasing. Blinking eyes or split-second shadows can be eliminated when you have a series as opposed to a single shot.
One of my greatest pleasures is going through my images after a shoot and seeing a frame that just blows me away that I didn’t know I captured – it’s like opening presents during the holidays! There is an old saying in photography that states, “If you saw it, you missed it!” Remember, one of the greatest friends that the digital photographer has is the “delete” button, and-it costs us nothing (except for a little pride).
9. Practice, Practice, Practice!
Practice is the best tool that you have. You cannot get enough practice. The best thing about practicing in the digital world is that it doesn’t cost you anything but time. I’m still practicing every day!
10. Be Respectful
I cannot stress this enough. Be respectful, be responsible, and be aware. Don’t bait animals, don’t feed wildlife and always maintain a respectable distance. Never put yourself or others in danger. The bottom line is that your behavior should never influence the behavior of the animal. We all have a responsibility to protect nature and respect its beauty. One of my favorite sayings is, “We have not inherited this earth from our parents, we are borrowing it from our children.”
See more of Ron Magill’s work on his website.
About Ron Magill
Ron Magill has worked with wildlife for over 30 years and has had the privilege of having hands-on experience with a tremendous variety of animals ranging from crocodiles to eagles to cheetahs. He is an internationally recognized zoological authority who has appeared on a wide variety of local, national, and international programs including National Geographic Explorer, the Today Show, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, The Late Show with David Letterman, CBS This Morning, Dateline, CNN, and the Discovery Networks. Ron is also a frequent wildlife analyst for MSNBC and makes regular appearances on Spanish language television programs including international hits Sabado Gigante and Despierta America.
His extensive experiences have taken him around the globe to explore the wonders of our natural world. From swimming with sea lions off of the Galapagos Islands to tracking tigers on the back of an elephant in India, his adventures have allowed him to live many of the dreams he had as a child. No place has made a greater impact on him than the magical continent of Africa to which he has traveled over 40 times. He considers traveling to the wilds of Africa a “safari of the soul” that will leave the visitor with an indelible impression of indescribable beauty from a world lost in time.
Ron is an award-winning photographer and documentary producer whose images have appeared in publications and galleries around the world including the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Ron believes that photography is his greatest tool when conveying his message regarding the importance of conservation and nature. He hopes his images will help inspire an appreciation for wildlife along with efforts to protect it for generations to come.