Take Better Wildlife Photos without Buying Anything!
There is no wildlife or bird photography without a camera and lens, but I am here to tell you not to buy another piece of gear. It is not the camera or lens that will make you a better photographer; rather, the three things that will improve your wildlife photography are: to know your subject better, to know yourself better, and to know your gear better. I'll cover the first two today & the third in next week's blog.
Subject - Of these three, I think that the most important, or at least the first to address, is to know your subject better. And that means research—reading, tutorials, conversations—and time in the field, with or without your camera—walking and observing, making mental notes or even “IRL” notes on animal location, movements, and behavior. Do not overlook other aspects of your “subject,” such as the light, shadow, weather patterns, and landscape. There is no substitute for experience and for making the time and having the patience to observe the behavior of your subject in its environment. This, of course, could mean a lifetime of observing your backyard or just giving yourself that extra day to study a new location you may be photographing for a week.
There are also ways to streamline or expand an understanding of your subject and its behavior patterns and movements. Aside from reading and research, this includes speaking with other photographers, or even scientists. Also, if you have your property or other means, trail cameras can be very helpful in understanding animal behavior.
One thing I encourage: Tell the story of your encounter with the animal, incorporate the vision you have of your location into the photography. Don’t pretend that a city park is the Serengeti. Find ways to frame your image that illustrate your subject as part of the environment you are in; don’t frame out aspects to imply a different location or to isolate the animal out of context. Create the story you want to tell.
Self. Knowing your photographic self is a way to improve your wildlife photography. This area encompasses a broad swath of ideas and behaviors, but at the top of that list should be the self-assurance that this is the type of photography you want to be doing, because it takes time and dedication. I think many photographers fall into a trap that has us pursuing a kind of photography that we once told ourselves was the “real” photography, whether that be wildlife, news, or fashion, without asking ourselves how we like to spend our time when we photograph and what truly thrills us. If you have tried wildlife photography and know you enjoy the rigors and rewards, then pursue it with a confident and curious passion and you are well on your way to improving your work.
With that existential issue behind us, it is important to understand your strengths and weaknesses and find ways to be more patient, stealthy, persistent, or creative in your pursuit. Also, understand the role that exercise, nutrition, hydration, and proper attire will have on your ability to stay present and engaged in your photography. A part of this self-awareness is understanding what it takes to get the photograph you want ethically. As it is said, there are no shortcuts, and good wildlife photography takes effort and time, patience and stillness, and a willingness to be uncomfortable. Embrace that, find ways to make it enjoyable, even consider photographing with a partner if that might help. If you want to be a better photographer, push yourself to be.