10 tips from an expert

No, not me; I’m actually talking about an article by Andrew Evans called, “10 Tips for Photographing Wildlife in Galápagos.” Evans shoots for National Geographic Traveler, and thus has more cred than I’ll ever have. Definitely check out that article, because he’s got some decent points.

Of course, with a lead-in like that, it means the “but” is coming, and feel free to call me presumptuous. I’m not in radical disagreement with anything that he said, but there are some things that I think need some expansion or qualification – this is perhaps the curse of the word-limit and editor’s decisions, where the length of the article takes more precedence than treating the subject with vigor. I’m not limited by that here, for good or bad, so this might actually turn out longer than Evans’ piece. Inconceivable, I know…

Anyway, here’s a few comments. Under 1, Know Your Animals:

Before you start shooting pictures wildly, observe the animals closely.

No argument, except that I wouldn’t suggest you have to do this before you start shooting. Some behavior is sporadic, some appearances far too brief, as may be your time in that locale. Observation is a very important facet of wildlife photography, but if it takes the place of actually getting some shots, you may lose the one opportunity you had.

Tip 2 is Get Close, and this one definitely needs some qualification. Evans was speaking of photographing specifically in the Galápagos, which has conditions that aren’t found in too many other locations – it’s safe to say it’s an exception rather than typical. The animals there are both habituated to people and not terribly spooky to begin with – they’re also unlikely to display either dangerous territorial behavior or flee in panic. But getting too close to animals (Evans does qualify this, but only by stating the Galápagos Park’s 2-meter rule) can put the photographer in danger in many cases. Even more likely, however, is that the animal is simply scared off, and just their awareness of human presence is enough to change the behavior that may be seen. A better action is to go to places where the animals are used to close approaches, or to take advantage of situations where their reactions are different.

Adding to this, when you have a situation where a close approach is both safe and possible, this provides the opportunity to work on not just getting images of the animals, but creating the compositions and capturing the expressions that are so much harder in most conditions. Cooperative animals are very hard to find; use the chance to nail a better image.

Everything else he says in that tip, however, I am solidly behind, and I love the part where he says, “Good wildlife photography should make you sweat a bit.” Great thing to keep in mind.

Under 4, Be Patient:

Think, plan, get your camera settings ready and then go explore.

Emphasis on camera settings. Different conditions require different settings and approaches – even aiming from the ground to the sky means you should probably be changing at least exposure compensation. Most decent digital cameras have pre-programming functions, allowing the photographer to quickly change white-balance, saturation, contrast, etc. with just a click or three. Take advantage of these to cover the situations you’re most likely to find. And, know how to adjust for anything else you might encounter, preferably without having to refer to the manual.

And yes, 100% behind the bit about not rushing, and sticking around.

I have to add another perspective under 5, Show Motion. Evans suggests using rapid-fire shooting to capture action, which does have its uses – but it also suffers from gross misunderstanding as well. For instance, if there is a specific position or point of action that you want to capture, taking advantage of the camera’s frame-per-second rate and simply holding down the shutter release to fire off a bunch of frames isn’t likely to provide an advantage. Let’s say you have a high-end camera that can do 10 FPS, and you’re using a shutter speed of 1/250 second. That means, out of a second of action, you’ve captured only 1/25 of it. Hitting a baseball, or a heron’s fish-strike, takes up much less of a second, so even less likelihood of nailing the point you might really want to capture. Even if you want an image of a bird flying with its wings at their highest point, the wingbeat might simply match up with the frame rate and you capture the wings at the same point every time, and not a nice range of positions. So, there’s something to be said for being able to time just one frame for a chosen point of action.

Skipping down to 9, Don’t Multi-Task, we have:

Set specific photography goals—say, “This morning I’m going to try to capture a sea lion’s facial expression.” Then go out and get the shot.

Uhhhheeerrrmmnnn, yes and no. One of the surest ways to get frustrated with nature photography is to believe that not getting a shot means you failed. Too many variables are in effect that you have no control over, so not getting a shot can simply mean the odds didn’t go in your favor that day. There’s nothing wrong with staying focused and knowing what you want from an image, and avoiding distractions is good. But there’s also the idea of ignoring other shots in pursuit of the one you never captured, and this means your day’s yield falls to nothing. Some of the best frames that I have came from days when everything I’d planned went sour. Flexible focus is what I usually recommend.

And every time you miss a shot, learn from the experience, and try again tomorrow.

Once again, I consider the tips to be solid, and good advice overall. Nature & wildlife photography isn’t something to be learned from a checklist, but the right mindset can help a lot, and most of the tips apply to more than just the Galápagos. I’ve already expressed the issues I see with “eco” tourism and how the Galápagos would benefit more from staying away; there are plenty of places to find wildlife without contributing to negative environmental impact. But wherever you choose, the right habits are only going to help. Good luck!

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