great blue heron taking flight at sunrise with orange water marshall point lighthouse sunset bald eagle in flight photo colorado fall aspens photo bald eagle in flight photo
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With the age of digital photography arriving in the late 1990s, more and more photographers are getting into wildlife photography than ever before. There is hardly a time when going to a top wildlife / bird destination without seeing loads of photographers there. Anyone who has gone to Yellowstone or Rocky Mountain National Park during the elk rut or Bosque del Apache for wintering birds can attest to this. Each year it seems like there's more people out there taking wildlife shots whether as serious hobbyists or budding professionals.

Take a look at the different wildlife forums on Facebook, Flickr, Instagram or any other photo sharing site and there are tons of images in these categories. Looking at the images it's also noticeable that not all of the images resonates with the thought that this is not a great photograph. The maker might think it's a great shot and for them it is compared to what they took before but many times it just doesn't do the subject justice. But, with a little work and knowing what to do any photographer can thake their images up a level. No matter how many years a camera has been pointed at a particular subject.

To take that next step, whether just starting out with wildlife / bird photography or been at it for years, here is a Top 10 Tips to making (not taking) better wildlife / bird photographs.

moose standing in willows
Charge on in to get the best wildlife shots possible

1. KNOW YOUR EQUIPMENT - Buying the biggest, fastest and most expensive equipment is not going to make for better images that will result in winning your local camera club competition or any of the major competitions. Learn what the equipment is capable of doing and what the settings, modes and buttons do so they become second nature when taking a shot. You also need to know all of the basics such as aperture, shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation, drive modes, focus point selection and more. You need to know when it's time to change these settings depending on the conditions and be able to do it quickly, otherwise the shot will be missed. Read the manual with the camera in your hands and then go out and practice changing settings so you know what to do when a situation arises. This one item is about a dozen different articles to explain each of these. Just realize that the more you know youur equipment and techniques the btter you will get.

2. USE AN ADEQUATE TRIPOD - Better yet - use a tripod. Too often on a photo workshop I see people with a tripod that is not sturdy enough for the equipment being used or is very unwieldy to use. Many of these have said the first thing they're going to do when they get home is to get a new tripod. Trying to save a bit of money on a very inexpensive, small, light tripod is only going to result in frustration and potentially out of focus shots due to the camera moving when the shutter button is pressed. Some people tend to not even want to use a tripod because theirs doesn't work well with moving objects. That's a sign the wrong tripod / head has been purchased that's good for the job. A mechanic isn't going to use a hammer to loosen a screw so why should a photographer use the wrong equipment for the job. Yes, a good tripod / head combo cossts a lot of money, but so does all of the other equipment so ojust budget for it.

3. KNOW YOUR SUBJECT AND ITS BEHAVIOR - This includes knowing where to go. By knowing spots that are sure to have a particular animal, the chances are greatly increased on getting good shots. There are no wild polar bears in Florida. Each animal has their particular area they can be found, times of day they are more active and what conditions are best for mating, nesting and feeding behavior and when they usually go somewhere to hide and rest. First find out about the subjects close to where you live and go and watch them to learn their behaviors and habits. If you do your homework you'll be rewarded with better images. Use bad weather days in the field to just sit and watch. The animals are still going to do their thing so watch what the do first before they do something else.

baby mountain goat jumping
Knowing that when a baby goat gets up on a rock facing one direction where others are leads to being able to get a shot of it leaping off

great egret with sand eel
Make sure the eye is sharp if it's prominent in the image

4. THE EYES HAVE IT - If nothing else, make sure the eye is in focus. Just like when you are talking with someone you make eye contact, when looking at an animal image you typically look at the eye first if it's able to be seen. If it's out of focus, the shot just doesn't seem right. It's how we connect with the subject. Use whatever technique you can to get the eye in focus. This might mean changing the focus point to on or very near the eye or setting a fast enough shutter speed to freeze any movement of the head. Sometimes there is enough action going on with the subject the eye is not as important, but whenever possible, make sure it's in focus. Dark animals with dark eyes, like a bear, make it hard to pick out the eye so it's not as important with these and other animals. The close they are, though, the more the eye can be seen.

5. ANTICIPATE BEHAVIOR / ACTION - By knowing your subject, tip 3, there's a much better chance you will know what will happen next. Knowing what a bird does just before it takes flight, such as bending its legs, will help in getting that shot of it launching into the air and getting a nice behavior shot rather than a static portrait of it just standing there looking at the camera. Behavior, interaction, and action are key elements to capturing that special moment. By keeping in mind that when two animals are approaching each other that something is likely to happen, get a focus on them and wait for the action - be it a tender moment or confrontation. If a bird is feeding in the water, watch it to learn what it does before it strikes to be ready for one or more images with impact. There are more tell-tale signs for action than you might otherwise realize.

snow goose taking flight
When two subjects are moving towards each other something is going to happen


6. USE THE LIGHT - Like with landscape photography, the best light for shooting animals is that hour or two after sunrise and before sunset. Luckily, this is also when animals are most active. Low light angles put some soft light on the subject and helps accentuate their colors. This isn't true for every animal and if having to shoot when the light is not optimal try to get the subject in a position where harsh light does not take away from the subject. Also consider the angle of light. A backlit subject can either create a nice silhouette or put some good rim lighting on them while strong side lighting can allow for some nice shadows both on the subject and on the ground around it. If it's a cloudy day, take advantage of the even light but know that the ISO will need to be bumped up to get fast enough shutter speeds. Cameras today allow for some very good quality at high ISOs. Don't be afraid to increase it more than you think you can. Try it at 4000 or even more.

7. USE OF SHUTTER SPEEDS - Work with a fast enough shutter speed in order to freeze the action and pick up the details of the subject. If hand-holding the camera, a good rule of thumb is to use the double-double ratio. This is where the focal length of the lens is doubled twice to determine the slowest shutter speed to us. Say you have a 400mm lens - doubled once is 800 and doubling that is 1600. Try not to use less than 1/1600th of a second so there is good detail in the subject. With how the cameras handle higher ISO much better than in the past, I tend to want to do most of my wildlife / bird photography at 1/2000th as a minimum. Depending on lighting and how much movement there is to the subject, I'll let it drop to 1/1000th. If wanting to create abstract, shutter speeds of around 1/4 second can be used.

Going hand in hand with shutter speeds is the use of exposure compensation. Understanding this is key to capturing good images of certain subjects due to their color. It's hard for any camera to correctly determine the exposure for every setting based on what you want the result to be. If shooting a white bird, the camera will try to make it neutral so you have to tell the camera to give more light than what the meter says it needs (plus compensation). For a dark subject like a moose or bear under-exposing is needed (minus compensation on the scale). If for some reason the meter gives a shot that seems too dark, you have to tell it to give it more light, i.e. +2/3. Conversely, if the shot is too light, under-expose it manually (- compensation).

bald eagle flight
To get great detail in a moving subject you need a fast shutter speed, in this case 1/3200 at f/7.1 to give more DOF

8. WATCH THE BACKGROUND - Nothing can take away from a wildlife shot more than a bad background. Always look at the background and see how it interacts with the subject. The closer the animal is to the background, the more prominent it will be in the shot. Birds nesting in trees can't have much done to them except try to move to an angle so the background is not too distracting. The use of a shallow depth of field (f/4, f/5.6) will soften the background a bit as long as the animal is not standing right in the trees. Look at most images that win contests and are in magazines and calendars and notice the background to see how clean it looks. Watch around the edges of the viewfinder to make sure there are no distracting elements to take the viewers eye from the main subject as well. A poor background is one of the biggest issues I see when judging photo contests.

baby foxes playing
A clean background keeps all of the attention on the main subjects


9. PATIENCE, MY DEAR WATSON, PATIENCE! - Every photographer would love to show up at a spot and have all the wildlife start jumping around and being active but that simply is not the case. Some times, it might even take hours to even find the subject even at places known to have quite a few animals. I made the journey to Rocky Mountain National Park while living in Colorado countless times for a day of shooting without ever touching the camera because no wildlife could be found. Some days are going to be better than others as nothing is 100% predictable when it comes to wildlife no matter how much we want it to be. There are things you can do to help the probability of seeing wildlife: go to places the animals are sure to be at a given time of year, check tide tables for the right tides for birds feeding, find accessible rookeries and visit at the right time, learn moon phases and when mating and birthing seasons occur.

10. SHOOT, SHOOT, SHOOT - Get out there, put the motor drive on high and take lots of shots. The more images you take the more you learn about what needs to be done to get that perfect shot and the more shots taken the more likely to get that shot. Digital is cheap once you have all the gear and the delete button is one every photographer uses a lot. Use it as a teaching tool and who know, you might get lucky and capture that once in a lifetime photo. I take lots of wildlife / bird shots and might only keep a small percentage but all it takes is one. Over time the percentage rate gets higher and what you show to others gets better and better.

BONUS TIP - HAVE FUN - Take time to enjoy where you're at and what you're seeing. Remember that most people will only see what you're taking pictures of on tv or in a magazine. Have fun with what you're doing and that is a great reward in and of itself. When you stop having fun in the field it's time to sell your gear and find a new hobby. It will also show in your photographs.

wild horses interaction
By keep going out and shooting - with the motor drive on high - you're bound to get the shots you're hoping for

moose standing in willows
If the subject is buried in the trees or bushes, use it to help tell the story of its environment