7 Wildlife Photo Tips to Never Forget

This guest post by Jim Goldstein is sponsored by BorrowLenses.com.

I’ve always felt great wildlife photography mapped well to the Chinese proverb “the journey is the reward.” While I obviously enjoy seeing the end result of my wildlife photography outings I get a great deal of satisfaction in the crafting of those images. My best images often rise to the top because of one of the following maxims:

1. Backgrounds are Equally Important as Your Subject

Pronghorn Antelope (Antilocapra americana) Portrait. Canon EOS 1Ds III, Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS USM + 2x teleconverter, 1/250 sec, f/8, ISO 400
Wildlife photos can often be made better by including the environment of your subject. Doing so can enhance the story behind the behavior or physical traits of the animal(s) photographed. IF and when you do this, be sure to select the proper aperture and focal length to control depth of field.

2. Embrace Serendipity When Photo Editing

Arctic Hare
Arctic Hare. Canon 1D Mark II, Canon 500mm f/2.8 + 1.4x teleconverter, 1/640 sec, f/7.1, ISO 400
When behind the camera, focus carefully on your subject. But when photo editing look for unique and subtle differences that might enhance or transform the story within your image. Case in point: this example image of a mosquito biting the nose of an Arctic Hare. My attention was on obtaining a razor sharp image and composing carefully, but when photo editing I found a couple frames that captured the biting mosquito that had been invisible to me at the time I took the photo.

Arctic Hare Being Bitten By Mosquito on the Nose
Arctic Hare Being Bitten By Mosquito on the Nose

 3. Challenge Viewers with Anthropomorphism

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — Caribou Calf Under Watchful Eyes
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — Caribou Calf Under Watchful Eyes. Canon 1D Mark II, Canon 400mm f/2.8, 1/200 sec, f/8, ISO 200
While many naturalists shy away from ascribing anthropomorphism to wild animals, in the realm of visual imagery it can pull viewers in and tug at their heartstrings. For example, multiple members of this caribou herd are watching a young calf cross an arctic river. Was this just great timing to capture the posture of the caribou making them look concerned or were they really feeling concern at this moment? I don’t have an answer. It’s impossible for us to know which emotions these animals may display. But for many, the raw interpretation is the caribou herd being empathetic and worried about the calf and makes for a much more engaging image.

4. Employ Non-Standard Compositions

Sleeping Grizzly Bear
Sleeping Grizzly Bear. Canon 1D Mark II, Canon 600mm, 1/100 sec, f/8, ISO 200
Experiment with nontraditional compositions to give your wildlife subjects a unique and stylized look. In this vein I would also suggest challenging your existing compositional biases. Try cutting off portions of your subject, have broken leading lines versus continuous leading lines, and other techniques. By experimenting you’ll not only have alternate images to choose from, you also might just find a new way to look at your subjects.

5. Capture Your Subjects at Their Eye Level

3 Amigos — Arctic Prarie Dog Pups
3 Amigos — Arctic Prarie Dog Pups.
Canon 1D Mark II, Canon 600mm, 1/800 sec, f/8, ISO 400
Photograph your wildlife subjects at the same level as their eyes. This helps include appropriate background, gives the viewer a feeling of eye contact and conveys the world as your subject(s) might see it. Most importantly, by doing this, you take yourself out of the photo and viewers will focus on your subject versus you towering over your subject.

6. Factor in Form and Pose

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
Canon EOS 1Ds III, Canon 600mm + 1.4x teleconverter, 1/1000 sec, f/8, ISO 400
Capturing your subject in an compelling pose can be tricky, especially considering how fast wildlife can move. Using the correct capture rate and exposure settings, you can document the movement of an animal with several exposures. With some luck, one of those exposures will show your subject in an optimal position to highlight its form and characteristic traits. Note these days a Canon 1D X or Nikon D4 will provide the highest frame rate so as to never miss that killer pose.

7. Utilize Negative Space

Alert Sea Otter and Pup
Alert Sea Otter and Pup.
Canon EOS 1Ds III, Canon 600mm + 1.4x teleconverter, 1/1000 sec, f/8, ISO 400
Don’t have a long lens? Fear not as images taken with shorter focal length lenses can help capture areas of negative space. By employing negative space you can enhance your subject by highlighting its place/scale, its environment and/or leverage contrasting color and textures to make your subject stand out.

Enter the National Wildlife Photo Contest – Updated for 2015!

Be sure to read Jim’s previous post about selecting the right gear for spectacular landscape photography. And, after you’ve rented your gear, planned your trip, and taken your wonderful nature photos, remember to enter the National Wildlife Photo Contest. You could win part of over $10,000 in prizes, including a Grand Prize trip for two on any tour offered by Caravan Tours. There are wildlife and landscape categories, but the deadline to enter is July 1, 2015 so enter soon!

About Jim Goldstein

Jim Goldstein is a San Francisco-based professional photographer and author who has been in numerous publications, including Outdoor PhotographerDigital Photo ProPopular Photography and has self-published a PDF eBook Photographing the 4th Dimension – Time covering numerous slow shutter techniques. Follow Jim Goldstein on Google+ | Twitter | Facebook | 500px