Following a visit to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibit at the Iziko Museum in Cape Town

Following a visit to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibit at the Iziko Museum in Cape Town, I was inspired to write a post about getting started as a wildlife photographer. As South African residents (for the most part) subjects to photograph are plentiful. Photographing wildlife is a demanding speciality, but the results can be highly rewarding when you capture a moment for posterity. You can check out some breathtaking examples in the Orms Connect Galleries.

The first and most important rule of nature photography is respect for the plants, animals and ecosystems you will be photographing. Respect has many aspects, first off you don’t want to disturb the animal and plant life. The upshot of being careful when shooting in nature is that animals behaving naturally are likely to make for better photographs. If you choose to take pictures of animals, no matter how careful you are, you will have to learn how to shoot subjects on the move. Accept this, and train yourself accordingly.

One of the greatest challenges of wildlife photography is the need to take pictures of subjects on the move. If you develop a keen interest, you will soon tire of taking photographs of stationary subjects, as zoom lenses and tele-converters are widely available, and the eagle perched on a branch isn’t as spectacular a shot as it once was.

Taking photos of moving targets presents a whole new set of challenges. The first thing you will need to do is make sure you and your camera are as stable as possible to avoid taking blurred photographs. A tripod is probably the best way to guarantee that you are not negatively affecting the shot you are trying to take. If you are holding your camera, hold it as close to your body as you can, this will help stabilise the picture. If you can still get a good view of your subject, lying on the ground is also an excellent way to increase your stability.

Another aspect of respect is knowledge. If you know your subject you will be better able to predict how they will behave. With patience and research you will discover which watering holes and hunting grounds your subjects choose to frequent, resulting in better shooting opportunities. If you are photographing birds, finding out about their mating and migratory patterns shouldn’t be too difficult and will guarantee better opportunities for photographs. You will soon learn tricks like small animals should be shot from a low angle to make them seem larger in the photograph.

If you would like to take photographs about wildlife but want to get experience before you book that expensive trip to the game reserve or take a long drive out into the bush, your backyard is an excellent place to start. You can set up a feeder on your own property, as long as the feeder looks natural, and you’ve erected it in a spot with good light, you should be able to take photographs of reasonably tame birds from relatively close-up, eliminating the requirement for expensive zoom lenses while you learn.

Cameras and Equipment:
Nature photography can be spectacularly rewarding as it enables the photographer to interact with plants and animals in an invigorating environment, but the drawback is that in order to capture most of the truly dramatic pictures, you need to make an investment in a good DSLR camera, even better lenses and a truckload of accessories. Then you have to lug the whole shebang around, while you try to sneak up on your subject, hoping not to send them scurrying off in fear as you smash your tripod against a rock as you make your progress.

The first thing you need is a decent camera. It is not worth going out into nature to take pictures unless you have a camera that allows you to manually override the automatic functions. In order to capture great nature photos you will need to be able to focus your own camera. The camera must also be compatible with a wide range of lenses and extras as you’ll want to add to your gear when you start making money from your breathtaking wildlife shots. Make sure your camera offers depth of field preview, and mirror lock-up is a non-negotiable feature if you want to get those all important action shots.

For wildlife photography, you don’t really want to go shorter than 300mm in focal length, with 75-300 or 100-300mm zoom being a good starting point.

When shooting in Africa, sunlight will always be a consideration. You will need to purchase a lens hood. This will help prevent lens flare. Lens flare can spoil your photographs by creating red circles. The more insidious side-effect of lens flare is a general reduction of contrast in your pictures.

The greatest challenge facing a keen wildlife photographer may be how to take all the equipment they feel they need into the bush to take the photographs they want. The photographer will have to trade mobility for extra equipment.

A good way to prevent losing an excellent shot because you either scared the animal away as you came lumbering and clanking along with all your equipment, or taking a poor shot because you didn’t bring a tripod with you, is to plan beforehand. Make use of the knowledge of game rangers, nature conservationists, guides and animal experts beforehand, so you can plan your trip accordingly.