Photographing Nature is indeed another very popular pastime. But here we are not addressing the family pooch or moggie, or for that matter any other domesticated animals.
Although, if these are the subjects you are wanting to photograph, then these guidelines will help with that too. But a true Nature photo competition will not normally include them unless it states otherwise, so please read the competition guidelines before committing yourself.
In photography, when we relate to Nature, it is only about indigenous plant, animal or bird species. Exotic animals from countries other than your own are also accepted, providing that nothing whatsoever to do with the hand of man is visible in the scene.
For instance, the obvious - buildings, fences and fence wires, power lines, bird boxes, bird baths, any cultivated or hybrid flora, etc. And the not so obvious - Freshly moved lawns, cleanly cut tree branches, bird leg rings, clipped wings, etc.
The only exemption, as far as I know, are Barn Owls. You are allowed to include parts of the barn as that is now accepted as part of the natural habitat of the species. (See “Bird Photography (made difficult)”)
Anyway, as I said in the beginning, we are not going to be discussing birds here - just animals. Although some animal competitions will include birds as part of that subject. Once again - check the guidelines.
So, photographing animals can be as easy or as difficult as photographing people. The main difference I suppose is that you can ask a person to stand still. Whereas animals are generally on the move and some can be pretty darn timid too. So in most cases you don’t have time to set up your tripod and adjust the settings in your camera. You just have to get what shots you can, while you can.
If, for instance, you are stalking a dear, you know how timid they can be, so you have your camera all set with auto focus and ready to shoot at a moment’s notice. With luck, you have seen the deer before it has seen you. Without taking another step, you slowly raise your camera, you have already adjusted the zoom to get as much of the subject in the frame as possible, preselected what you think is the right aperture setting and you now actually have the subject in your sights. You make a couple of adjustments with the lens, depress the shutter half way so that auto focus kicks in and….shoot!
Well what do you know? He didn’t here the sound of the shutter going off and he is still oblivious of you and continues to graze. So you slowly take another couple of stealthy steps forward and go through the whole process again.
That’s what it’s all about - patience and learning to accept what you get while you can. Even if it is just one far off shot. It’s still a wild deer. You could go to the local zoo and get a full frame shot, but then, the challenges aren’t so great are they?
You may be lucky enough to know someone who has a pet Grizzly Bear - hypothetically speaking of course, then you should have the ability of getting some full frame shots of an animal that most people could never get that close to.
But, if you can, try to make your animal portrait just as you would a human one. Get it doing something, not necessarily chewing the leg off its keeper, but you know what I mean.
Use a wide aperture of say f2.8 or 5.6 or go for “portrait” mode on the mode dial and focus on the eyes.
The wide aperture should allow you a fast shutter speed to cope with subject movement, depending on the quality of the light source.
If the light (we’ll say, the Sun) is low, try to get the sunlit side of the face. This will help enhance texture and form and possibly provide a glint of light in the animal’s eye - an important feature.
If it is a full body portrait you are after, use a slightly narrower aperture to lightly blur the background and try to include something that will provide a sense of scale in relation to the size of the animal.
I have seen images of baby lizards, but its babyness was only obvious to the photographer - to the viewer, they look to be exact clones of their parents. So you couldn’t very well put one in a competition where the topic was “New Life”, because without it sitting next to one of its parents, you couldn’t really tell that it was “New Life”.
Undoubtedly, this kind of photography is much simpler at a zoo or wildlife park, as the animals are more used to having humans around them and less likely to go scatting off into the brush.
But you really need to pick your times when entering these places. The animals seem to move about much more just prior to and during feeding. This, in my opinion, is the better time to photograph them, rather than later when they just lay about looking bored, as that’s exactly how they appear in print - boring.
Again, if you are photographing animals at a zoo or wildlife park, be sure not to include any man-made objects. I find it very difficult not to under these circumstances, but a wide enough aperture can disguise most backgrounds. If unwanted backgrounds are unavoidable, at least wait until the animal is doing something interesting or really funny and that should take viewer interest away from what’s in the background.
You have at least, in these places, time to be more selective with your shots and have patience to wait for that decisive moment, but by planning your shoot and by knowing what to expect, half your battle is won.