Yes, a big lens helps. But a big creative spirit helps, too. Here are strategies for great wildlife photos no matter what your gear.
Great wildlife photos aren’t a cheap photographic endeavor. To get the type of shots that run in Nat Geo, it typically requires big, expensive, high-quality lenses and fast cameras. But most of us don’t have, want, or need that kind of kit. That’s okay – with the right approach, you can still bring home a winner.
1. Be Patient
Everything stems from this most important of all rules. Animals do things in their own time, which is to say time is not an issue for them at all, and despite your natural tendencies, it shouldn’t be for you, either. The more you observe your subject, the better you get to know them, their tendencies, and their personalities – all of which will inform your shot when you actually take it.
2. Focus on the Eyes
Anytime you greet a new acquaintance, you shake their hand and look them in the eyes. Wildlife photography is no different: The eyes need to be in focus over anything else in the photograph. Eyes can show fear, sadness, anger, and even happiness, and, most important, provide a connection.
3. Show Their Surroundings
At first, everyone who photographs wildlife wants to get really, really close to their subjects, hence the $11,000-plus 600mm lenses you see. Yes, this can have a dramatic effect, but you can tell more of a story by showing an animal in its environment. The above image was taken in Yellowstone this past winter. If you search online for winter images of Yellowstone you see this tree everywhere. You don’t see this tree with a bison crossing the ridge behind it though, and for me, that is a special moment. It gives you a little more of a story.
4. Wait for the Proper Moment
Photographing wildlife is exciting and that excitement that can have us forgetting the essential tenets of photography. It’s easy to pick out the inexperienced photographer in a group of photographers at a wildlife encounter because they’re often blindly shooting photo after photo of the subject.
Although this isn’t necessarily costly in the days of digital, it will leave you with tons of (often similar) images to sort through. Which in turn will have you ignoring the editing process altogether or bogging you down so you have less time in the field. You should try to anticipate the decisive moment and release the shutter just then to illustrate an action or a specific look. Remember a curious bear may not actually look curious, except when their eyes and body position are a certain way at a certain moment. That’s when you release your shutter.
5. Design the Photograph with Intent
Think about the animals you photograph as graphic elements. Snakes have amazing patterns and colors, but they also illustrate the concept of line in a photograph. I intentionally chose to fill my frame with the curving nature of this snake and your eye does not even care that the line runs out of the frame. Why? Because your brain fills in the gaps. You follow the line of the snake beginning either from its head or from its tail, and depending on the direction you started from, you quickly figure out what type of snake it is.
6. Make an Emotional Connection
Use animal dynamic to express relatable human events. Think of child rearing. Or protection. Always think about the concepts expressed in the scene in front of you. Is the animal showing vulnerability? Having fun? The world’s most powerful photographs are filled with emotion, and animals are capable of that every bit as well as people.
Then – Now | A Limited-Edition Fine Art Photography Book
This large-format landscape book is 13 inches wide by 11 inches tall, and includes 116 photos in 138 pages. It also includes four narratives chronicling the first decade of Jay’s career and his journey towards becoming one of today’s top creative story-telling professional photographers. Limited-edition print run of only 66 copies.