(Editor’s Note: This wildlife photography how-to from professional photographer Kristi Odom is part of a 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.)
Whether you’re in the field, on a vacation or in your own backyard, wildlife is all around us – and that means endless possibilities for photographing animals and insects. Nature photography is both fascinating and fun, but it also takes practice and patience to capture amazing images.
Here are seven of my top tips for photographing nature and all it has to offer.
#1 Understand Your Subject
Doing research on your wildlife subject before you go out and photograph will help you tell the best story through your images. Take the time to try to understand as much as you can about their behavior, because allowing an animal to express themselves lets you reveal their personality with images. Animals have a different way of showing emotions than humans, so pay attention to an animal’s body language and interaction with each other. This is how they express themselves and their emotions.
As a great example, I recently photographed Humpback whales and learned that the calves brush against their mothers as a possible sign of endearment. This is exactly the kind of moment that shows a connection and was a great opportunity to bring out the whales’ personalities within my images.
#2 Embrace Your Own Emotional Response
When taking a photo, I always ask myself “what am I feeling?” When possible, see if you can incorporate how you’re feeling into the narrative to bring more to the story. For example, sometimes there is chaos in the scene, so instead of dismissing it or avoiding it, I like to convey that chaos when capturing the image. One way to achieve this is to slow down my shutter to show an animal’s movement. On the other hand, if I feel calm, I can use muted tones and make the photograph as simple as possible to bring that sense of serenity to the image.
#3 You Don’t Have to Travel Far…
It’s important to know that you don’t have to go far from home to marvel at nature and take award winning images. My first assignment that went online for National Geographic was about the insects in my local parks. The story taught me an important lesson, which is that you don’t have to journey to exotic places to capture incredible photos. There is biodiversity in our parks and yards that can blow you away and make you connect deeply with nature.
#4 Try to Eliminate Distractions
Everything you put in the frame should add to the story and the narrative you’re trying to tell. Sometimes it’s as simple as shallowing your depth of field or moving positions so that distracting elements in the background don’t take your viewers’ eye away from the scene. I frequently shoot with my AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/5.6 lens wide open to fill the frame as much as possible and eliminate the background. With this technique, the focus of my image is always clear, and the viewers’ attention is drawn immediately to the subject – whether it’s a butterfly in flight or a lion laying in the savanna.
#5 Explore Underwater Photography
When photographing underwater, always explore and check different angles. When most people think about aquatic photography, they immediately default to diving deep and shooting low, but there are so many more ways to get spectacular shots. Sometimes the best images are from the surface, or just below, depending on the sunlight or the subject. For instance, I captured this whale shark image (above) while snorkeling and for me, the angle that worked the best was capturing this at the water’s surface.
#6 Patience Is Vital
With wildlife, taking time to observe your subjects and wait for the right moment is much better than capturing typical portraits. When I’m on a shoot, I put my camera down and watch, so that I can figure out the animals’ behaviors, including the areas they go to and how they interact. Right now, I am on an assignment chronicling Pikas, and documenting the effects of climate change on this community of small animals. When I take photos of the Pikas, I carefully observe their change in behavior and actions to create a more compelling story.
#7 Embrace New Technology
Mirrorless cameras have the latest tech that can help enhance your nature photography. Two features that I love are dynamic focus modes and eye tracking, which are extremely beneficial and can help you capture great photos of animals. For birds in flight, I use continuous autofocus in one of the wide area modes to isolate my focus on a single bird. I also track animals with my camera by locking onto the eyes for consistent sharpness. I’ve been impressed by the focusing capability of my Z 7II – it’s faster than my DSLR cameras. Focus peaking is another feature that has opened up the world of macro photography for me – I like to set my focus peaking lines to blue so I can easily differentiate between my camera and the green nature around me.
About Kristi Odom
Longmont Colorado-based Kristi Odom is an internationally acclaimed professional wildlife photographer, motivational speaker, film maker, workshop leader and Nikon Ambassador. With a background in sports, concerts, and wedding photography, she now works solely on her biggest passion, which is wildlife. Her work strives to emotionally connect people to animals and celebrates those who have a connection to the natural world.
Kristi runs international workshops where she travels all over the world providing life-changing experiences for individuals, while teaching them advanced photo skills. She is also a member of the International League of Conservation Photographers, an organization dedicated to supporting environmental and cultural conservation through ethical photography and filmmaking.