Get the angle right, or 7 ways to improve your wildlife photography

We have talked in the last article about post-processing, so let’s talk this time about what comes before that: about how to create interesting wildlife photos. Most of us know it already, but yes, there is more to it than pressing a button on top of your camera and running the results through Photoshop. When I wrote «create interesting wildlife photos», as opposed to «take a snapshot of some creature», I meant that there is actually a difference between the two. 

The later is what most of us do most of the time, for example when we photograph birds from a car. In this situation we can often not do much in order to alter the angle of view, distance, or the background in the photo. Whatever animal will get into the field of view of the car window will be photographed, at whatever distance it is, from whatever place our car stands, with whatever background there is. If we are lucky we can move the car a bit more forward or backward along the horizontal axes, in order to change our angle of view a little bit, but that’s about it. Of course this doesn’t mean that shots made from a car are less good than others, it just means that the ability of the photographer to influence the outcome is relatively limited. 

Not so in macro-photography: Here we can often get all the freedom of the world in order to move around that grasshopper sitting on a branch - until it jumps off, of course. But with our endless freedom of mobility, we’ll just go after it and photograph it again, this time sitting on a pepple on the ground.

So what I am trying to get at is one of the most important aspects in wildlife photography, much like as in common photography: The importance of the angle of view. And of course two things which are directly related to it, the subject distance and the fore- and background blur. So let’s see a bit some basic rules here.

Birds from the car - not always easy to get closer:

While this Circus macrourus presented some nice poses when I first saw it...

... it was only after moving the car very slowly closer to the bird, that I got some usable shots

Rule No 1: Try to capture your subject at the hight of it’s eye level, not of yours

Yes that’s right, even if it’s a snail on the ground. It means that in order to create a more interesting perspective, we will have to sometimes do something else than stand upright and press the big button. Like for example, lie down flat on our belly into the dirt, with our nice clean pants. Of course we could also pick up the snail and put it on the leaf of a tree, but that would be against our ethics, so let’s quickly abandon this dishonorable possibility. (I mean it!) Good photos have their price, and if some dirty pants are too much to pay for, then one should maybe look for another career than in the field of wildlife photography.

Of course, getting to the eye level of your subject isn’t always easy, especially when that raptor is circling 200 meters above your head. But that’s why bird photos from below against a blue or grey sky are rarely the most interesting ones, while the ones with a bird flying in front of a nice blurry green or brown background are likely to get more attention. Naturally such photos are also more difficult to be captured, because of difficulties with the autofocus, slower shutter speeds (less light because of darker backgrounds), and the difficulty to actually even see a bird in this situation. There is sometimes a good portion of luck needed in order to capture good B.I.F. (birds in flight) in front of any other background than the sky.

It's not always easy to capture your subject at eye level...!

Rule No 2: Present your subject from the most interesting angle

We wouldn’t want to photograph any people from behind, so why should we capture animals from behind? Yes, wild creatures more often run away from our cameras than domesticated humans (although some of those behave similarly), but it is generally recommended to pull the trigger before anybody runs or flies off. As to every rule, there are exceptions: A butterfly might have it’s best angle rather from the top, side, or slightly from behind, because we want to see its wings in all their colorful delight. (One might argue that some human beings also have their best angle from behind, but let’s skip the boring humans for now.) 
Photographically speaking, you’d much prefer facing a male wild boar right from the front, because it will make your spectators tremble (but not you obviously, for otherwise there will be motion blur in the picture), and that’s what will keep them looking at your photo. If you only show them the animal’s tail disappearing in the bushes, they will tremble because of laughter, and you’ll be the subject of it. Not strictly photographically speaking, you might also content yourself with a side view, from at least 200m away. 

There is another exception however: If the subject turns it’s head, the situation changes. A beautiful back, for example of a bird with its wings open, has a whole different dimension when we can actually see the bird’s eyes, because that’s what we mostly want to see from any creature, wild or human.

The Reed Bunting is a beautiful bird, even from behind, but for the photo we want to see its eyes

Rule No 3 : Be patient

The temptation is big: We see something, rattle it to pieces with our 8fps machine gun, and create 40 times the same photo. After that, unless the animal starts doing something crazy within the next 10 seconds, we move on in order to search for something else to machine gun. I call it lack of patience, and I admit that I suffer from this desease as well. Ok, it might be only a boring Magpie sitting on that branch, but mind you, boring Magpies are actually beautiful creatures, and have already won at least one gold medal in our wildlife photo competitions. And since there is often not much else around to photograph, why not spend a little time with that bird and try to get it in flight, or sitting in a different place, in better light, or with a more pleasing background? Good wildlife photos are often realized with much, much patience and thought, and if someone doesn’t have it (like myself), he’ll be likely to miss the best shots.

The same Crab Spider 20 minutes appart:

This is how I found the spider first: in full "attack position", but with a rather busy fore- and background

Twenty minutes later it had moved a bit furhter: Much more quiet background and better contrast between spider and bg. 

Rule No 4 : Try different angles

As we have learned in rule No 1, being at eye level with the subject is good, but should not, and cannot, be applied strictly every time. One should always move the camera around to try different perspectives and angles, in order to find the point of view that works best. It isn’t just a matter of getting the creatures most appealing angle, it’s also about the best fore- and background. Whoever has photographed some butterflies with a tele-lens, probably knows what a difference a few centimeters to the left or right can make. The more the subject and the background differ in brightness and color, the more the subject will stand out from the background. Which leads us to the following rule:

The typical snapshot...

... and a slightly more impressive angle of the same animal

Rule No 5 : Pay attention to the surroundings

We all know it, and it is almost always there: That disturbing little branch, reed, leaf, grass, spider web, or piece of plastic litter that sneaks right before or behind our subjects into the image. Not only are these things very annoying when they distract the focusing abilities of our cameras, but very often they will literally destroy an otherwise good and usable photo. For our competitions it is forbidden to remove any of these nasty beings in post processing (yes yes, go and read the rules), and therefore we highly recommend to actually pay attention to them before you look at your photos at home on the computer screen. On a windy day in a wetland, this can mean that one has to shoot at least 50 photos of a Reed Warbler in between the reeds, of which only a few of them will be usable because of the constantly moving obstacles. Or more often, we’d have to wait until the animal changes its position or moves to a different location, so that the little disturbing branch becomes a non-issue. But even more difficult to see than the obstacles close to the subject are the ones close to the camera. Be aware that a branch or a reed stick close to your camera can become «blown up» in size, so that it doesn’t obscure just a small part of the photo, but actually a very large part of it, and you will hardly notice until you’re home. On the other hand, an otherwise disturbing foreground branch can at times create a welcome «frame» around the subject, in particular if it is mirrored by another branch on the opposite side of the subject.

The famous little branch: 

The famous little branch (or rather two of them), in an otherwise usable photo

Rule No 6 : The further the background the better

We have already mentioned the importance of the angle of view in relation to the background. Another reason to try out different angles, is that usually your subject will stand out better the more blurry the background. This can be best achieved by diminishing the distance to the subject, and/or increasing the distance between the subject and the background. How could the later be achieved, I hear you ask? Isn’t it sort of ethically forbidden to move a wild animal in order to get it further away from the background? Yes it is, but there is another way.

Ok, let’s say you want to photograph a turtle crossing an asphalt road. The road is as ugly a background as you can think of, and when you are standing there upright in front of it, three meters away, the ugly road is all around the turtle. Not a pretty sight. But you have heard somewhere that one should use a low angle for animals on the ground, and so you go down on your knees, even though it hurts a bit. The result will already look a bit better, but there is still that ugly grey asphalt all around the turtle. Let’s do something crazy today, you think, and since you’re not wearing your sunday clothes and no car seems to be approaching at 120 km/h, you risk it and put your camera down, as low as it gets... right there on the ground. If the camera has a swivel screen and quick phase-detection focus in life view, you might not actually have to put your ear down on the hot asphalt in order to see what your photo will look like, but if your camera doesn’t have these features, there might be no way around using your viewfinder (and burn your ear on the asphalt). But by doing so you will find out very quickly: It is well worth going through that hassle! (Unless of course, you got run over by a approaching car, but let’s assume that you won’t do this on a major highway.) 

The difference in the results compared to the previously taken higher angle photos will make you speechless, because all of a sudden your photograph will resemble those in National Geographic instead of those in your holiday album. (And for that, Sir, we will take a burned ear any day!) The ugly grey asphalt will have magically diminished into a thin in-focus line, while the background has become a beautiful grey-green-blue gradient, which makes the turtle stand out from that road like a Ferrari on a dried-out salt lake.

Stationary animals, and water- and shore birds: what a difference a lower angle can make!

When I slowly approached this juvenile Flamingo by foot, this was the view I got

After crawling on all four to the water's edge, the angle was definitely better with my elbows in the water

Rule No 7: Surprise yourself, and us!

This one is a difficult one to explain, and an even more difficult one to put into practice. In short, it means: Forget about all the other rules mentioned above, and use your own creativity. Or rather, keep the above rules in mind, take everything a step further, and create a surprise to the viewer. Play around, move your camera like a fashion photographer around his model, create unusual effects, cut off parts, turn it at 45 degrees, do what others don’t do. Try to capture the magic moment when the animals do something else than just sit there. Make your photography stand out from the crowd by doing something different, even if it means disregarding the basic rules. Be the punk of nature photography, come up with something we haven’t seen yet! Reduce your images to the basics, try black and white, use the grain as an artistic part of the image, shoot your subjects from where you shouldn’t, overexpose, underexpose, create some motion blur. Put your shutter speed to the maximum speed despite the high ISO, and see what difference it makes in action shots. Lower your shutter speed in order to try out panning as a technique for moving animals. Use a wide-angle lens instead of a tele or a macro lens, photograph your subjects as a part of the landscape. Try out backlighting, front-lighting, side-lighting, moonlighting, candle lighting, shoot in the rain or the fog or the hail, use reflections and shadows and twilight. Be crazy and use a tripod for once, and experience the limitations, the image quality, and the back pain and it will give you. Then print your favorites out as a 2 x 3 meters poster, and listen to your own jaws drop, before a big grin of self-satisfaction sneaks into your face. Hang the photos into your living room, your bedroom, your bathroom, and be proud of it every time you see them. You might have gotten yourself a few bruises in the making, but hey, you can call yourself a wildlife photographer now.

A cheap macro-lens on a little super-zoom camera (here a Raynox DCR-150 on a Canon SX40) helps getting close, and a bit of over-agressive post-processing can change a housefly into a monster

Most of all though, take your time when photographing those delicate creatures, look at your subjects not only through the viewfinder, and try to capture their very existence as a piece of art, because maybe that’s what they are. And as with every craft, creative nature photography makes no exception: The more time spent, the more practice, the better the results.

Felix Rehsteiner

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