Circle of Fear
Animals, including ourselves, have a natural circle of fear. As you approach an animal it will normally watch you getting closer and gradually becoming more afraid and at some point will either run/fly off or attack you. You have just stepped inside its circle of fear. The size of this circle is very variable and depends on the attitude of the animal at that moment, is it aggressive by nature? Is it timid? Is it hungry or injured? Etc.
If you sit quietly and let the animal approach you this circle of fear becomes much smaller because the animal has more control of the situation. Taking advantage of this will allow you to take photographs at a much closer distance giving you higher quality images.
Fill the Frame
Try to always frame the subject in the camera so you do not have to crop the image significantly. In order to do this you may have to move closer to the subject or wait for the subject to come closer to you. Moving closer will increase the likelihood of disturbing the subject so waiting for it to come to closer to you is always better. Please remember we should all coexist with wildlife and should not disturb them just for the sake of a photograph.
Camouflage doesn’t necessarily mean wearing full-on camo gear from head to toe. What camouflage does is minimise the impact your presence has on an animals behaviour by either reducing your visibility or breaking up your outline. Wearing drab coloured clothing can be just as effective as a camouflage outfit. I would recommend wearing gloves as the white flappy things on the ends of your arms can cause animals to react instantly as you move them around. Think about carrying around some light weight scrim netting that you can throw over yourself and camera gear.
Predicting a Birds Flight path
Birds hate to stand or fly at low level with the wind behind them and will naturally land and take off into the wind, they will also perch facing the wind. You can use this behaviour to position yourself relative to the birds you wish to photograph and improve the chances of getting the image you want.
To help you get good in-flight bird photographs it is important to consider the flight path of the bird. If the bird is coming towards you the auto focus or manual focus will need to track the bird whilst you take your photographs. Again it is important to at least focus on the birds head to get the best image. A better option can be to position yourself so the birds are flying across in front of you so that the distance isn’t changing dramatically.
You don’t need to use a very high shutter speed for photographing birds in flight unless you want the bird to appear very static in the image. Some motion blur on the wingtips will give the viewer a sense of movement. With a good panning technique it is possible to get very attractive flight images with shutter speeds below 1/30 second.
Correct Exposure for In-flight Birds
If the background is constantly changing from land to sky using an auto exposure mode will result in poor incorrectly exposed images. Try switching to manual mode and taking an exposure reading off of a neutral grey subject which is in the same lighting condition as the subject you want to photograph, something like grass is always a good choice.
Then shoot in manual mode rather than use Av or Tv modes and the EV compensation. If the subject is lightly coloured manually reduce the exposure by 1/2-1 stop, if it is dark coloured then increase the exposure by 1/2-1 stop. Using manual mode in this way will give you better control over the exposure of birds in-flight. Remember the underside of a bird in flight will normally be in shadow so an increase in exposure is usually required.
Catch the Light
The best photographs of wildlife are rarely taken at midday with the sun directly overhead. At noon the sun throws harsh nasty looking shadows that spoil most photographs.
Early morning or late afternoon with the sun lower on the horizon provides the wildlife photographer the opportunity to take beautiful warm images with attractive lighting.
Slightly overcast days with high cloud are good for photographing animals that have a high contrast.
Dead or Alive?
Without a catch light in the eye an animal photograph appears lifeless. A catch light can be natural or generated by the careful use of flash or it can be photoshopped which I personally hate! If there isn’t a catch light in the eye I typically throw the image away.
Most wildlife photography is taken with long focal length lens from 200mm up to 600mm or greater. The depth of field with the magnification produced by these lenses is very limited so the point of focus is critical. The eye of the subject is, with very few exceptions, the critical area to focus on. If you allow the lens to auto focus on a subject it will typically focus on the chest or side of the subject which means the eye isn’t pin sharp. If you can, either use manual focus or auto focus on the eye and then use focus lock so you can recompose the image. If the eye isn’t sharp then bin the image.
To Flash or not to Flash?
Used correctly the effects of using flash shouldn’t be noticeable in the final image. What you can get from using fill-in flash is a catch light in the eye and a localised edge contrast boost which gives a perceived increase in image sharpness. It can also be used to balance the exposure of a back lit subject.
Get Up Early
Most flying insects cannot fly until they have warmed up. Take advantage of this fact by getting up very early and find your subject before they can fly away. It is possible to get extremely close when the insects are still too cold to fly. Cold mornings can also bring dew which can look very attractive on a dragonfly or butterfly.
Low and Slow
Approaching insects very slowly and crouched down or even crawling can get you into position close to the subject. It isn’t easy to achieve but with practise it can be done and the rewards are great if you keep trying. Remember, do everything slowly, move your hands, arms, legs body and head very slowly and you will get some great images. Also ensure that your own shadow never moves over the insect or it will be gone before you can even blink.
Shoot at Eye Level
Get down level with the subject. This view point is much more appealing photographically.