Do You Love the Critters?

A reader sent a request for some animal photography tips.  I'm not really an animal person, and you will usually have the best results photographing subjects you find most interesting.  For me, that is people.  But I have seen some great animal photography, and, next week, I'll be shooting with one of those photographers who knows exactly how to get outstanding wildlife shots - Moose Peterson.  If you are a wild animal lover, Moose is your guy. His photos of wildlife in their natural element are awe-inspiring. Hmmm...I guess that doesn't really answer the mail.  I have taken some photos of animals through the years, and my approach is to photograph them with techniques very similar to portraits of people.  Some simple rules that work for both: keep the eyes in sharp focus; the face is the most interesting feature to most viewers; try to photograph them while they are comfortable and relaxed.

Most people have access their own or friends' pets with which to practice.  You can start with these critters without any major expense and in relative safety.  Take lots of shots, varying the background and your shooting position.  As always, you should fill the frame with your subject.  A good technique is to get down to the animal's level.  You don't want all your photos to be looking down at the animal.  Those kind of shots quickly get boring.  You'll find ardent pet owners very dedicated to their "babies," and there are plenty of pet photographers out there who fill this niche and make a good living.  They are always happy to have new photos of them.  Here is one of my mother's farm cats that found a nice place to pose for me.

Already got the pet photography merit badge?  Well, the next logical step is to head to the zoo.  The zoo provides more exotic animals in a safe environment for you.  Take your long lenses and tripod.  The long lenses get images that feel like you are nearby your subjects, since you usually can't get very close to these animals.  The long lens allows you to zoom in and crop out the enclosure.  If you can, use a large f stop (the lower numbers on your lens) to allow in lots of light and narrow the depth of field, blurring the background and focusing your viewer's attention to the animal.  I am lucky enough to have grandchildren who love to go see the animals with me at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.  The National Zoo does a great job of building enclosures that are as pleasant as they can make them, with a minimum of bars and cages.  I take the tripod for stability for my long lenses, and it has the added advantage of making my camera very obvious to the other visitors.  People seem to, politely, give me a little more room when I'm looking through my camera's viewfinder sitting on a tripod.

When you're ready to go out into the wild, look for places near home, maybe even your backyard.  If you put a feeder in your yard, the birds will bring themselves to your lens.  Most yards can produce quite a variety of species.  "Real" bird photographers go out into the woods to find birds in the wild, but don't let that keep you from practicing in your yard.  You can still get many agreeable shots there.

Ready to challenge the real wilderness?  You can find lots of local, state, or national parks with wildlife.  The rangers can tell you the best locations for viewing and the times most likely to produce animals.  They know their subject, and you should make sure you do, too.  Read books about your animals of choice to understand their normal patterns and environments.  The more you know, the more likely you'll find success. You have to be patient and very quiet.  Find a spot that allows you to be comfortable; blend in as much as possible; and break up your silhouette, so the animals will relax.  I've been told that it takes about 30 minutes of quiet before the animals relax enough to resume their normal activities after some noisy human goes crashing through the woods.  Early morning and evening gives you good light and fewer harsh shadows.

Remember to be animal-friendly and safe out there.  Never put an animal into a stressful situation or yourself in danger.  Don't ruin the experience for others by damaging the area or leaving your litter.  Most ardent nature photographers operate on very strict principles.  They don't want to see "the hand of man" anywhere in their photos.  They also take a very dim view of photographers who misrepresent their wildlife photos - don't shoot animals in zoos or wildlife parks and claim them as "natural" photos.  Besides being dishonest, photographers have been stripped of prizes and awards for this infraction.  But you already knew better than that, right?

You can have fun with animal photography and get some interesting shots.  One of my favorite images is the ferocious bull frog I shot at the National Zoo.  He was ready to hop out and chomp me to death! ;-)

Now, I'm off to Orlando for a week of Photoshop World.  Hope to see you there!