Wildlife photography tips from the masters

October is a highlight of the wildlife photography calendar. As some of the world's finest photographers descend on London for Wildlife Photographer of the Year, we invite 10 of the big names speaking at WildPhotos to share their top tips.

 

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The ultimate photography masterclass

October is a highlight of the wildlife photography calendar. As some of the world's finest photographers descend on London for Wildlife Photographer of the Year, we invited 10 of the big names speaking at WildPhotos, a unique nature photography event, to share their top tips.

 
 
David Doubilet's top tip: Lighting is crucial for spectacular underwater shots
 
Underwater photographers are, in essence, working in a liquid studio where light behaves very differently from on land. Water absorbs much of the colour spectrum, leaving a monotone blue world. To restore the full range of colour, we use strobes that we carry around like bottles of light in the sea.
 
In this constantly shifting, fluid world, the strobes must be attached to the camera housing by long, instantly adjustable aluminium arms that make the entire package look like a giant spider crab. It is important, though, not to direct light straight at the subject like a paparazzo.
 
One of my favourite images shows a group of Australian sealions playing in a seagrass meadow on a calm, clear day off Little Hopkins Island, South Australia. I angled the strobes so that they cross-lit the animals’ faces, and I exposed to balance the backlit surface sunlight. The key is to paint with light, not just fill in the shadows.
 
I have one other tip: if all of the sealions suddenly leave the water, do the same. Great white sharks patrol these waters and are often attracted by the sealions’ presence.

 

 
Karen Glaser's top tip: Let your senses go into overdrive
 
Trust your heart and allow yourself complete freedom to interpret your surroundings. The experience is very important to what I do: I love being in wonderful natural environments.
 
When I am in the field, I feel all my senses heightened and don’t over-think my pictures. Rather, I photograph viscerally and instinctively, using only exquisite natural light to illuminate the images.
 
‘Green Gator’ is part of my ‘Springs and Swamps’ series, which I produced in Florida’s unique and delicate freshwater habitats, working both at the water’s surface and beneath it.
 
My photographic series often culminate in exhibitions of large, enveloping, finely printed photographs. When you are in a room filled with seductive prints, it helps you to understand the feeling of being in these magnificent wild places.
 
 
Laurent Geslin's top tip: Low light isn’t a disaster
 
Even if you think that the light is too low for photography, persevere – you may well find a way to make an atmospheric, original shot.
 
While on an assignment photographing urban foxes in London, I followed a vixen with cubs. I usually located her in the late afternoon, when I could shoot in warm light. But even when the sun set, I pushed my luck.
 
Normally, the resulting pictures were too dark or blurred, but one evening, as I was about to give up, the vixen went down to the canal to drink. The sky reflected in the water gave me just enough light to take a few frames – indeed, I got my favourite picture of the entire assignment.
 
It goes to show that, even in poor light, it is possible to turn difficulties to your advantage.
 
 
Joe Cornish's top tip: Make use of the way the camera sees light
 

My favourite image is a study of the colour of light rather than of geology. The golden reflections are from a cliff illuminated by the setting sun, and the limestone – which my eyes saw as a cool grey – has been rendered blue by the film’s daylight colour balance.

The result is much more striking than an alternative photo I took using a filter to eliminate the blue cast: ironically, the expressive potential of colour photography can arise due to its comparative limitations.

We talk about our eyes ‘seeing’, but the way we view the world is governed by the brain, which translates light into colour for us. While I believe that photographers should be honest eyewitnesses of nature, it can be anomalies of colour and light (due to the exposure, focus, colour rendering, etc) that make pictures memorable.
 
Understanding and embracing these limitations helps us to realise the potential of photography.
 
 
Charlie Hamilton James's top tip: A little flash can go a very long way
 

If you get the balance right, you can have the best of both worlds – a slow shutter speed to add movement, together with a quick burst of light to grab your subject and sharpen it. It took me months, though, to create this shot. The stretch of river where it was taken is a popular kingfisher dive spot and my favourite photography location.

 
For the picture to work, I needed the bird to be lit by the sun from behind, leaving the background in shadow – these conditions occurred for only an hour or so in the morning. In order to simultaneously blur the action and freeze it, I selected a quarter-second exposure and set the flash to fire at the end of it.
 
I was pushing the boundaries of what my camera could achieve, but with a little help at the processing stage, I finally got the shot.
 
 
Sandra Bartocha's top tip: Open up your aperture

 

Photography is painting with light. The lighting you choose depends on the situation and also the message that you want to convey. There’s no such thing as good or bad light in nature – just the way you use it and how you adjust your shutter speed and aperture accordingly.
 
If I had shot this sundew in bright sunlight, the tiny, glistening drops of mucilage at the tip of each tentacle would have been overexposed, and the rest of the image would have suffered from harsh shadows.
 
The best way to capture the full range of detail and colour was to shoot in shadow. By ensuring the background was lit by the sun and thrown out of focus by using a wide-open aperture, I made a single plant stand out, creating a dramatic scene.
 
 
Tim Laman's top tip: Think about the background
 
The background can make or break an image. Here, it is sufficiently out of focus not to be distracting, yet with enough form to provide context. The key was finding a line of sight with no distracting elements. It took several days to locate trees frequented by male blue birds of paradise during my expedition to the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea.
 
I chose this one partly because I could build a hide opposite, with an uncluttered view of a branch on which I hoped the bird would come to feed. I included the trunk on the left for context.
 
It may seem counterintuitive to shoot ‘wide open’ in aperture-priority mode when you’re using a long lens and need to freeze the action. But this will give you the most background blur while maximising the shutter speed – ideal when shooting in rainforests where there is little light.
 
 
Stefano Unterthiner's top tip: Make the habitat part of the picture
 
In early 2009, I spent six weeks on assignment in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. I travelled widely, searching for the right conditions and locations. Then one afternoon, while looking for swans on Lake Tofutsu, I spotted this fox on the ice, marking its territory and probably looking for food.
 
The whole scene was breathtakingly beautiful. So, though the fox was the focus of my photo, I composed the picture more as a landscape. I closed down the aperture to get all the details of the habitat in focus, but used a low shutter speed so that the fox wouldn’t be completely sharp, thus adding a sense of movement to the frozen shot.
 
I love creating this kind of image, where the subject is just a tiny part of the composition – part of its environment.
 
 
Klaus Nigge's top tip: Study your subject
 
To produce winning wildlife photos, you need to know your subject inside-out, and that takes time. Unless you understand an animal well enough to predict how it will behave, you don’t have a chance of getting the perfect shot. You need to read widely and then spend hours in the field, watching and learning.
 
It took me many months to complete a photo story about whooping cranes, which required numerous trips to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, where these endangered waterbirds winter, and to Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park, where they breed. I had to learn their body language and how to recognise when something was about to happen.
 
This crane is stretching its neck forward, which I now know means ‘I’m about to take off’. It’s also a posture that other cranes know means ‘come fly with me’.
 
 
Peter Cairns' top tip: Work locally with subjects you know
 

If ever there is a hazelnut shortage, I may well be implicated. I buy these squirrel snacks by the sack-load and have done so for more than 10 years. Each day, I place a handful of nuts near my hide in a local forest.

 
I don’t take photos every day, but feeding the red squirrels ensures that they will be there when conditions are ideal for photography. In this case, the squirrel has newly sprouted ear tufts and a new thick red coat and tail, complementing the autumn colours.
 
By returning to the same location over many years, I’ve become familiar with squirrel behaviour, which I hope translates into better pictures. So, is there a limit to photographing a single species? No. Keep at it.
 
Visit at different times of day and year. And when you think you’ve exhausted all possibilities, go back and experiment some more.
 
 
To see the stunning images that accompanied this feature, why not order a copy of the Autumn 2010 issue here.
 
To learn more about WildPhotos, click here.
 

 

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