Wildlife photography is one of the most exciting and rewarding pursuits I know, but it requires some special knowledge and gear, plenty of time, and lots of luck. I’ve posted on this topic before, specifically about wildlife photography gear (Post on Wildlife Photography Gear) and about sensitivity to the wildlife we’re shooting (Post on Approaching Wildlife). Today’s post is a case study on my recent wildlife safari in Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, India. The park is famous for its population of wild royal bengal tigers, but even with its high concentration of the big cats, it is rare to see them. We were fortunate to encounter two tigers during our game drives, one a female who was stalking prey at some distance from us across a meadow, the other a large male who was close to us but obstructed by dense jungle vegetation.
I was rewarded with a few marvelous images of the female tiger, my favorite of which is this one:
The money shot! After weeks of planning, days of travel, hours of driving on rough tracks, and minutes of shooting, I had bagged several hundred images of this remarkable female tiger. A few of the images had the required combination of tack-sharp focus, uncluttered background, and appealing view of the animal. Buy this photo
Making an image like this requires careful planning to be in the right place at the right time. In our case, our travel company lined up the logistics and hired an expert guide and driver, which certainly helps, but it is still necessary to prepare for a photo safari like this. It requires some knowledge of the behavior of the wildlife you are seeking. It calls for having the right gear and knowing how to use it under time pressure and without hesitating. And it requires shooting a whole lot of frames in rapid succession, because most will not turn out perfectly.
To capture most wildlife, a long telephoto lens is a necessity. My go-to long lens for wildlife photography is the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 lens. It’s more economical than a Nikon or Canon super-tele, and it produces reasonably sharp images even when used at its widest aperture. You can spend much more on this type of big glass if you want or need to, but I’ve found this lens works quite well for me.
Stability is very important when shooting a moving subject far away using a super-telephoto lens. During most game drives around the world, a tripod or monopod cannot be used due to space constraints in the vehicle. I will often use a beanbag to support the camera and lens, but on our canter (a large open vehicle that seats more than 20 people) in Ranthambore National Park, even that could not be used, as there is no surface to support the beanbag. So the only option here is to shoot handheld. Fortunately, the lens has good image stabilization built in, but it is also important to use good shooting technique and a very fast shutter speed. Remember to keep one hand under the lens to support it, the other hand on the grip of the camera, and both elbows firmly pressed against your sides. Gently squeeze the shutter release. I recommend setting your camera to continuous shooting mode if it has this feature, as this will maximize the number of images you can capture as well as avoiding the camera shake from having to press the shutter release repeatedly.
To control exposure when shooting wildlife, I usually use Manual Mode with Auto ISO. This little-known but extremely useful exposure mode allows you to set both shutter speed (which needs to be fast enough to avoid camera shake and to freeze the animal’s motion) and aperture (which I like to keep close to wide-open in order to soften the background), while adjusting the ISO to keep the exposure correct during changing lighting conditions. To learn more about this technique, read this post: Post on Manual Mode with Auto ISO.
Shoot many images while encountering the animal in the field. Keep them all on your memory card (which, of course, you should back up to another medium) until you have the opportunity to carefully cull them down to the ones that are technically adequate. Finally, during post-processing, you can select the few images that are both technically acceptable (tack-sharp focus, proper exposure) and artistically appealing (the subject looks great, the background is uncluttered and attractive). These selected images should then be carefully cropped and adjusted for exposure, contrast, and color balance.
There you have it. The effort that goes into making just a handful of really excellent wildlife images is disproportionate to the workload involved in most tasks we do, and the frustrations are many, but the rewards when it all goes well and we have a wonderful portrait of the animal in hand make it all worthwhile.
What are your favorite wildlife photography techniques? Please share them in the comment box.
Want to read more posts about photographic techniques? Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.