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© 2017 Les Zigurski   

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An Approach to Wildlife Shooting-Planning and Patience


The age of digital photography has brought with it many benefits to photographers. Not only do we have the ability to use great equipment, but shooting digitally provides us with many opportunities to learn about photography. We can take large numbers of pictures to experiment with different techniques, and we can immediately see the results to determine what works and what doesn’t. On the other hand, digital photography can also lead us toward bad habits. Since it is inexpensive to take photos, it can lead us to what I think is a bad habit of just taking photos without putting much thought into what we are doing. 


When I began taking pictures of wildlife with digital equipment, like many, I often went out, pointed the camera at anything that moved, and started clicking away. In recent years, however, I’ve tried to do my shooting with more planning and with a more deliberate approach. 


Now, when I got out to shoot, I start by thinking about what kinds of pictures I would like to take on that particular day. I think about any particular action or behaviors of the subjects that I hope to have an opportunity to shoot. I think about how to incorporate the most pleasing backgrounds that I can and about what kind of framing I would like to use. Then, I evaluate the light and try to decide what is the best location from which to shoot and that will allow me to use the light, that gives me the best chance of capturing the action that I want to capture, that gives me the best background, and that will allow me to have the framing that I want. 


I will explain further with a couple of examples from the eagle nest documentation project on which I recently worked.


When I was shooting the nest while the chick was still in the nest, for example, there were several days when my goal was to get shots of the adult birds feeding the chick. I began by picking the spot from which to shoot based on what location gave me a good, clear view into the nest, which spot gave me the best light, and what distance would allow me to include multiple birds in the frame. I then set up the manual exposure on the camera to meet the light conditions of that day. After that, instead of taking dozens or hundreds of pictures other than the ones I was looking to get and ones that I probably already had many of, I would often wait patiently for, perhaps, as much as 2 to 3 hours for one of the adult birds to return to the nest with food for the chick. Thus, I might have only been shooting for a few minutes in a 3 or 4 hour outing, but I was coming home with the pictures that I had gone out to get. 


Similarly, when I was watching and photographing the eagle fledgling after she left the nest, I would start out each day with a goal of getting a certain type of picture. On a number of days, I was looking to get sequences of shots of the bird taking off from a roost and moving into flight. I needed to start by waiting for the young eagle to land on a spot that was in the open and in good light. Then, I tried to anticipate the direction toward which the young eagle would be moving when she did take off. Next, I picked the location from which I would be shooting based on a number of factors. First, I wanted a spot where the light would be hitting the bird nicely and from which I could get a good angle on the take off and flight. Then, I wanted to shoot from a distance far enough from the fledgling so that, when she spread her wings, I was going to be able to get the entire bird in the frame. I also made sure that the spot from which I chose to shoot gave me the best background available. Next, I would set up the camera while paying special attention to making sure that my shutter speeds were high enough to stop the action. After doing my preparation, I waited patiently and quietly. I knew that, if any action that I took or any movement that I made caused the bird to fly, it is not going to fly toward me, and I would not get the shots that I was looking to get. As always, I wanted the bird to do exactly what it would do if I were not there. Like when I was trying to get the shots of the chick being fed in the nest, I might have waited for 2-3 hours for the bird to take off and to give me the opportunity to get the shots that I had set out to get. While I was waiting, I resisted the temptation to get closer and to take some close-up shots because I knew that, if I did so and if the bird decided to take off while I was closer, I would have lost my chance to get the shots that I really wanted to get. 


Somewhere along the line, I came to realize that I would rather come home from a day of shooting with two or three or four shots that I really like than to come home with dozens of shots that are “okay” or even hundreds of shots, most of which are not worthy of even keeping. At some point, I realized that posting on internet presentation boards can motivate one to substitute quantity for quality. When I did post on such boards, I often posted 10 or 12 shots from a day of shooting. Perhaps, one or two of those shots had genuine quality. Another handful might have been okay, and some were worthy of no other place than the trash bin. Further, I realized that the nature of internet presentation boards is that the slew of “great shot” and “great series” comments encourages this substitution of quantity for quality. Now, by taking a more purposeful and thoughtful approach to my shooting, I think I’ve moved toward being able to come home on most days with those few shots that I really do like.


Thus, by planning and by having a goal to get a particular type of shot, I take fewer shots, by a large margin, than I might have taken during an outing several years ago, but I get more of the shots that I really want to get. Before I started to take this approach, I would have been likely to come home with many shots that were little more than nice snapshots that happen to have been taken with very good equipment. Now, not only do I take pictures of the action and behaviors that I want to get, but I don’t come home and second guess what I did as much as I once did. I don’t look at my shots and wonder, if I had moved over 5-10 feet, could I have had the light hit the bird better, or could I have kept a building out of the background? I don’t wonder if the picture would have been better if I had boosted my shutter speed a bit more or if I would not have clipped the wings of the bird if I had moved back a little further from it. Instead of spending my time taking shots that are not worthy of being taken, I spend that same time planning how to get the shots that I want when the opportunity to get them does present itself.


Thus, while I’m sure that there are many approaches to successful wildlife shooting, if I start out with a plan and if I am willing to be patient, I can significantly improve my chances of getting those shots that I really want to get.