Guest Photographer: Chris Gamel – Better Wildlife Photography

I am kicking off a new segment on my blog in 2014 for guest photographers with whom I have travelled before to share some of their own writing and photography. The first to do so is wildlife photographer and biologist Chris Gamel. Chris accompanied me late last year on my expedition to Antarctica is an accomplished wildlife photographer in his own right. Today he shares five useful tips for better wildlife imagery.

Better Wildlife Photography

I want to begin by thanking Josh for letting me write this guest blog post.  I have learned quite a bit from Josh and I appreciate the opportunity to give something back. This past November, I joined Josh on his Antarctica photo tour.  As would be expected, the photographic opportunities were amazing.  Our days were filled with giant icebergs, playful penguins, slumbering seals, and dramatic landscapes.  Interestingly, one of the most rewarding aspects of attending such a tour is the opportunity to interact and share with other photographers. Over time, photographers tend to develop niches, specialising in a particular type of photography.  Each is an expert in his or her own niche, and serve as a ready source of information about that niche.  Attending a photographic tour provides a wonderful opportunity to plug into that expertise and improve your own photography. Despite the benefits, not everyone is able to attend a photographic tour.  In the spirit of photographic tours everywhere, I would like to share some tips that you can use to improve your wildlife photography.

Tip #1: Alter the PerspectiveWe spend most of our lives viewing the world from five and a half feet (more or less).  It is what we see every day, and after the first few years that view begins to lose its charm. Show your viewers something different!  Challenge their perspective!  Climb up a tree, crawl through the mud, or simply kneel down to capture a penguin’s view of the world.  With that in mind, a good rule of thumb for photographing living creatures is to capture the image from the subject’s eye level.  If the subject is shorter than you, drop down.  If it is taller than you, find a way to get higher. Take the penguin image above as an example.  It was the first penguin I photographed in Antarctica and I took it while lying on my stomach in the snow.  The low angle provides a different perspective then is usually seen and it helps to emphasise just how large these birds are.

Tip #2: Eliminate DistractionsToo often we try to include too much in our images.  Amazing events are unfolding in front of us and we want to capture everything.  The problem is that while our eyes are great at ignoring visual distractions, our cameras are terrible at it.  To greatly improve your images, try this little trick.  Ask yourself what you are taking a picture of.  The fewer words you use to answer that question, the better.  Once you have identified your subject, fill the frame with it.  This might mean getting closer, or using a longer lens. For example, look at the penguin image above.  The subject can be easily summarised: “jumping penguin.”  Once that subject was clearly identified, I did everything possible to remove any distracting elements.  The only things included in the frame are the jumping penguin and the ice it is jumping on.  The result is a clean image showcasing an animal’s behaviour.

Tip #3: Get the Eye in FocusWhen photographing wildlife, what part of the animal should be in focus?  The obvious answer is all of it, but that’s not always realistic.  Long telephoto lenses produce a very shallow depth of field and there are times when either equipment limitations or creative choices means only part of your subject will be in focus. The general guideline when dealing with wildlife and select focus is to make sure the animal’s eyes are in focus.  If only one eye can be in focus, focus on whichever eye is closer.  As long as the eyes are sharp, the viewers will accept that the image is sharp.  This is true even if other parts of the image are out of focus.  If the eyes are out of focus, the perception will be that the entire image is out of focus.

Tip #4: Watch the BackgroundBackgrounds can make or break an image.  As wildlife photographers, we often get so excited about the subject in front of us that we forget to consider the background.  Sometimes an image calls for a clean background.  Other times, the background will contain elements that complement the subject.  When composing the image, slow down and look at each element of the image, including the background.  Ask yourself these questions.  Does the current background add or detract from the image?  Will moving the camera help to improve the background?  Will a different lens produce a different result? The image above is an example of a simply, clean background.  During a landing in Antarctica, I observed penguins walking through a ray of sunlight as the crossed a small ridge.  The warmth of the golden sunlight created a beautiful contrast against the blue wall of ice behind the ridge.  By moving a few feet to my left and dropping onto my stomach, I was able to remove all distracting elements from the background.

Tip #5: Wait for the BehavioursOne of the joys of wildlife photography is that you never know exactly what your subject is going to do.  Sure, a knowledge of animal behaviour helps, but if you want to capture images of animal behaviour, you have to use the most important tool in your toolkit: patience. Wildlife animals don’t perform on command.  They rarely do what you expect, and if you want to capture behaviours you need to be ready to press the shutter at a moment’s notice.  I regularly sit and watch wildlife through my lens with my hand on the camera’s shutter button.  I might have to wait for minutes to hours, but when the action starts, I am ready. The image above demonstrates the rewards that come from patiently waiting for animal behaviour.  By composing the image and waiting, I was able to capture this brief moment in time when the penguins looked up at the full moon. While this post is not a comprehensive introduction to wildlife photography, my hope is that these tips will provide a little guidance the next time you try your hand at wildlife photography.

Chris Gamel is a storyteller who combines photography and filmmaking to tell stories about the natural world. His wildlife research and award-winning photography has taken him to all seven continents as he shares the beauty and biology of the natural world.  To see more of Chris’s wildlife images, and to learn more about wildlife photography and filmmaking, visit his website at www.ChrisGamel.com.  Sign up for his free newsletter and receive a free copy of Transitions: 10 Tips for Transitioning from Photography to Video.

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