I gotta say, the last two days have held some of my most exciting and best photographic moments. What’s the secret? Getting out there! As a photographer, if you don’t make the effort, you don’t get the shots. To shoot an animal truly as it is, to capture its essence or some fantastic behaviour in a photograph, you have to have two key skills:
The first, is to know the animal. Without knowledge of the animal, you will not be able to find it, and capture it on digital film. This isn’t something that you just have. You have to go out there, be with the animal, in its habitat, follow it around, learn, study, watch.
I have so little experience, but by just following pheasants for hours at a time, I learned to watch for behavioural patterns.
I learn something new with every minute spent with these fantastic creatures. I learn to push boundaries, to recognise something before it happens, and, most importantly, I learn what makes these birds what they are – something about their character.
So what does it take to learn the behaviour of an animal like this? To be able to take shots that capture it? Time, patience, and a keen and observant eye. You have to know when not to click – a growing issue with modern digital film, and one that I am still working on. And most important of all, you’ve gotta wanna. Without the wanna, you won’t be able to have the patience. It’s the drive that pushes you to get that picture, and to push those boundaries, and learn from your mistakes. If you’re too hasty, you lose the shot. If you’re too slow, you miss the shot. Either way, you learn.
Remember also, as a wildlife photographer, you are a biologist and a lucky observer before – and I stress this because it is an important issue to me – before you are a photographer. Relish in the priveledge of observing the wildlife, and do your utmost to avoid undue disturbance. This not just because a disturbed animal will not behave naturally, but also because you are intruding on its home, and that demands respect.
What then is the other element? Well, I would call it “conditions”. Without the light, you miss the shot. Without a nice background, the shot is crummy. With a messy foreground, you might as well forget about it. But there are things about the conditions that are dependent, not on Mother Nature and Her love of screwing with things, but on YOU, the photographer. If YOU know your gear, know how to wield it well, you can make the most of conditions that are against you.
Now you know I’m a gearhead – I will freely admit that I have a problem with that, but that does not at any length mean that I don’t know my gear and how it works under different conditions. Granted I learn every time I’m out, but that never stops me from knowing when to use what.
I know, before I walk out the door, whether or not I should have a teleconverter on, just by looking outside. When I get to shooting the animals, I know immediately if it was a mistake to put it on, and, if possible, I’ll take it off – and I learn. I know immediately if I have the wrong lens for a task, and, weather permitting, I will change it to get the shot. I know what angle I can push when shooting against the sun with the 300mm VR, and I know how it behaves when I’m panning on a flying bird. You have to know what your gear can deliver under every set of circumstances, and how it will respond to you pushing it to get that shot.
Again, what does it take to do this? To learn to use your gear as an extension of yourself? Time! Time behind the lens teaches you more about it than any other activity can. I read blogs obsessively (and I encourage you to do so too), and I learn everything I can about a lens before I take it out – but that’s a bad habit! There is no substitute for practice when it comes to your photography. Remember that your camera is like an instrument. Push the buttons right, and you get a beautiful image; push ’em wrong, and you get squat. It comes down to you producing the images, and if you get an amazing opportunity and screw it up, you have only yourself to blame.
Make an effort, go out, sit down at the side of a lake with your camera – I did yesterday, and in the two hours I was sitting there, I got several hundred shots, and of those, only a handful were keepers. But of the keepers, some of them were just magestic.
The rewards, well, they speak for themselves really. So go out, sit down, and learn something about your local biology. Study a rabbit community, learn to recognise bird song, follow a pheasant, and you’ll be surprised at how it improves your photography.
And when you’ve done that, share them! I’d love to hear about what you’re shooting, see your images, and help with anything I can! I’ve got a flickr account (over on the right bar) and this website has it’s own Facebook Fanpage where you can follow the blog and hear from me. Finally, I’ve also got a Twitter, where you can hear more about what’s going on in my photography. You can share your work through any or all of these!
I look forward to hearing from you! Go shoot!