Wildlife Photography Tips
By Olympus Visionary Jay Dickman
There are so many different worlds of interest in which the photographer can spend time: landscape, nature, sports, people, the list is extensive. One of many photographic areas in which I love to work is the world of wildlife. Above water or below, from your local zoo to the closest National Park, and all the way to the Serengeti, wildlife photography provides an exciting and visually rich world of possibilities.
COMPONENTS OF A POWERFUL WILDLIFE PHOTO
The components that make a successful photograph are found in wildlife: composition, action, sense of place, and moment are critical to the wildlife photographer. Let’s discuss these various requirements that can cumulatively combine to make a powerful wildlife photo.
This is a core requirement on good photography, whether wildlife of any of the other types of photography. A strongly composed photo is always more appealing, which can draw your viewer into your photograph.
In photo workshops, I strongly suggest the idea that the photographers crop when they shoot. I think this creates a better photographer, as it forces one to watch every square inch of the image. Of course, we all crop, especially in wildlife photography as you can’t always get to the exact spot from which you’d like to shoot. But I think it’s great discipline to try to crop when you shoot, this makes you assume ownership for that frame.
Chiefs Island, Okavango Delta, Botswana.
South Georgia, Southern Atlantic Ocean.
In art, in photography (which can be the same,) when something very powerful and fast occurs (often the hallmark of wildlife photography) we tend to put the subject in the dead center of the frame. Don’t overthink this: shoot the moment, but if time allows, think what you can do to improve the frame. Look around the edges of the viewfinder to make sure that nothing irrelevant to the photo is in that frame. Your photos can be significantly improved by staying with the situation, working it until you get that powerfully constructed image, and "Rules of thirds" is a classic compositional tool to improve your work. Using "Rules of Thirds" here, I constructed the photo of the adult penguin in the group of molting juveniles.
Bay of Iles, South Georgia.
Gold Harbour, South Georgia.
Photographing wildlife reminds me of that old saw about flying: "hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror." Wildlife photography can fit this description well as the photographer can sit for hours, waiting for the animal to do something interesting, or simply appear. When the action does happen, the photographer needs to be ready as it is often a flurry of activity that can be over in moments. With wildlife, you always have that potential for good action photography.
I prefer shooting in RAW, as this gives me the greatest amount of data. If shooting jpegs, the Olympus cameras have a great setting that is ideal for the wildlife/action photographer. Found in the "Scene" modes, "Sports" is a setting the aspiring wildlife photographer can choose quickly, knowing the camera will "set" itself to the best settings for this world of photography. Sports mode will set the camera to a high shutter speed, adjusting the ISO accordingly as well as put the camera into a "burst" mode. This is ideal for action photography.
South Georgia, Southern Atlantic Ocean.
Vigur Island, Iceland.
YOUR VIEWFINDER IS YOUR CANVAS
In photo workshops, I emphasize to our participants the idea that they are responsible for everything in the viewfinder, it’s your world. When framing a photo, I’ll see that newer photographer tend to center everything when a great moment is occurring. Don’t miss that moment, shoot what you are seeing, but stay with the scene, don’t drop your camera down. One thing I love about photography is it is all about problem solving. You shoot that great moment, simply not to miss it…but then give it time to see what else develops. Think about off-centering the subject. Intellectually and visually, we like asymmetry. So after grabbing that moment, keep the camera to your eye, play with composition and structure. Often in photography, it takes time to allow the moment to build then fall off.
SENSE OF PLACE
This is an important component of your slideshow or narrative, creating that photo that puts your subject into the landscape. I often see the aspiring photographer zoom in to the subject, ignoring the environment that can provide important information as to where the animal is.
Palmwag Concession, Namibia.
Elsehul Island, South Georgia, Southern Ocean.
By adding information in the background, the photographer can create an environmental portrait. This tells our audience that the giraffe is probably not in Kansas, but in the high desert of Namibia. Shoot a tight portrait, enjoying the sharpness of your M.Zuiko lens, but then go wider with that 12-100mm f4, incorporating background along with the subject.
Wide-Shot, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda.
Close-Shot, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda.
Not only do you want to capture the wide and close photos, but consider photographing the incredible close-up detail of the minutiae of detail that makes up the environment. This does two things: presents a way of seeing that the viewer may not have considered, and allows the photographer to take the viewer by the eyes, telling them where to look.
Etosha National Park, Namibia.
Niue Island, South Pacific.
In photography, moment rules all. The function of the still image is to freeze time forever, the more powerful that frozen moment, the more that photograph has the potential to captivate the audience.
One old rule of thumb I learned while photographing NFL Football (a subject I photographed for more than 16 years): when photographing action/wildlife, set the shutter speed to a minimum 1/500th of a second if wanting to stop action. This shutter speed is about the minimum for "freezing" action, but that is also a relative speed. If photographing people running, this 1/500th will freeze feet moving, general movement. If photographing birds, and you want to really stop the motion of wings flapping, you really need to go up to 1/2000th or more. If photographing a hummingbird, going to the maximum 1/8000th of a second, found of the E-M1 Mark II will be the preferred setting. The photographer can also use a slow shutter speed, panning action to impart a feeling of motion. I’ve found that 1/30th to 1/60th of a second works well for animals and humans in motion.
Brown Bluff, Antarctic Peninsula.
A fantastic "built for wildlife" setting in many OM-D cameras is "Pro Capture." When set in this mode, and when pressing the shutter button half-way down, the camera is capturing 14 frames constantly, constantly filling and dumping the buffer. Then, when the action happens and you fully press the shutter, those 14 frames that were buffered are written to the card. Pro Capture is a setting that gives you more of a chance of capturing a powerful moment, as it constantly records and dumps those 14 images until you decide to shoot. Your chances of getting a great image of that bald eagle taking off from a tree are enhanced. Accessible via either the "Super Control Panel" (SCP) or on the top of camera buttons, far left, "burst/self time/HDR" by pressing this button, your back camera dial the allows you to choose Pro Capture. Two choices are available on this setting: ProCapH or ProCapL. The "H" setting, when shutter pressed half-way down, captures 60 fps. Within the high setting, you can choose 15, 20, 30 or 60fps. The "L" setting is capturing 18fps. This takes a little getting used to, as the high capture rate of the High setting can fill your buffer. Also, as this is a silent setting, watch in the viewfinder or on the LCD monitor for the flashing card icon in the top left. This indicates images are being captured.
CM Ranch, Dubois, Wyoming.
This is a setting that many wildlife photographers like. However, I strongly suggest that you practice with this as it’s kind of like rubbing your head and patting your stomach-it takes practice. Go to your local zoo, to the park, to your kid’s soccer game and try this out. The benefit of this is it allows you to choose focus only through the AEL/AFL button on the back of the camera, and the shutter button becomes shutter ONLY release. To find this, go to your Olympus menu setting, choose the "Gear" symbol (5th option down) > A1 AF Mode > scroll down to second icon, "A2 AEL/AFL > S-AF or C-AF (choose which one you want to enable this setting, based on your AF preference) > go to "mode 3" and select. Now your Olympus camera will focus with the AEL/AFL back button, the shutter release will only fire the shutter. This can be a great setup for wildlife. You can save this as a Custom Mode in the Camera 1 "Shooting menu" screen.
The Olympus E-M1 Mark II, as well as other interchangeable Olympus OM-D cameras give you several autofocus settings (AF). My initial settings for wildlife will utilize the back-button AF in many situations. Often when using this, I will set my Mark II to S-AFM mode, in "Burst" mode. This sets the camera to a high-speed burst, with a manual override.
My focus points set to either "single" center or the 4-point center weighted mode. Subject matter will dictate which of these I use: if photographing large animals that come close to filling the frame, I’ll use the single point. If photographing birds in flight, I’ll choose the multi-point, as trying to keep a bird centered in flight is difficult. The manual override allows me to make my adjustments accordingly if the subject falls out of that focus zone.
I also set my Fn1 button to reset the focus points. This is found in your camera menu > "Gear" > A2 > "Set Home" and choose the desired default focus point, based on that AF zone I want the camera to go back to by pressing the Fn1 button.
SHUTTER RELEASE PRIORITY
I set my release priority to On, otherwise the camera will not release the shutter until it determines focus is achieved. Menu > "Gear" > C1 > Rls Priority S > On.
I turn off the instant review of images, so if I want to see an image, I press the "playback" button (back of camera, lower right button with green triangle in rectangle) Menu > Wrench > Rec View > Off.
Isla Sombrero Chino, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Many people generally spend less than a half-second looking at a photo, whether viewing the image in National Geographic or your own slide show. The photographer’s job is to create an image that "pulls" your audience into the photograph: engaging and informing the viewer. So, whatever visual tools the photographer can use in creating a photo will help make an image the viewer will spend time with.
Photographing wildlife is a wonderful passion to follow. Grab your Olympus, your lenses and just, as they say, do it! See you in the outdoors.
ABOUT JAY DICKMAN
As a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist and National Geographic photographer, Jay Dickman is one of the most traveled, experienced and celebrated photographers in the program.