Shooting the Wild Side

The dictionary defines wilderness as:

"a wild and uncultivated region, as of forest or desert, undisturbed by human activity inhabited only by wild animals."

The definition above doesn't expose the emotion, the sense of peace, and satisfaction being in a mountainous or forested environment can achieve. It's common to find outdoor enthusiasts that visit these high-profile scenes, being in ecstasy at the beauty in front of them, yet it's challenging to put into words the sense of wonder that engulfs you.

The definition does instill the desire to pack your daypack and go explore, yet we often forget the most essential piece of gear, a camera! But why should we bring a camera and the added weight? It's because these new locations, in areas less traveled, are filled with far more interesting subjects and scenes than anywhere one can shoot from a road!

Photography in the Wild:

Tips & Best Practices.

The main advantages of kayaking, biking, hiking, and backpacking are not only to get away from the city and their crowded streets but also to see rare and unique scenery that is not accessible near roads and towns. Everyone has seen and photographed these familiar roadside sights as they are easily reached by car - blah, blah - blah!

Also, unless you travel well before dawn, it's unlikely that you'll be at a prime location when the best light (early morning or even late evening) enters the scene. Sometimes good light does occur during the day, but it's rare and not predictable. Spending two, or more days/nights in the outdoors, will give you more significant opportunities to be in the right place at the right time for the best light to capture that distant range, waterfall or lake you found during the day. And let's not forget, these "best light" conditions are also when the wildlife is most active!

Wildlife photography can be the most challenging and rewarding of all outdoor photography. Here are five of my top tips for taking better wildlife photos.

Photo Tip #1

Get to the subject's eye level. Wildlife photos are most effective if they create an intimate connection between the subject and the viewer. The best way to do this is to take your photo at your subject's eye level. This way, your viewer can feel like they are looking at the subject from inside its little world, instead of from the outside looking in.

If, for example, your subject is low to the ground (like a lizard or frog), crouch or lie flat, getting as low as possible so you can take your photo at the subject's eye level.

Photo Tip #2

It's All In The Eyes. The personal connection mentioned in tip #1 is really about eye contact, so it is essential to get the eyes right. If the eyes in your photo are sharp and clear, your viewer's attention will be drawn to them. If they are out of focus, lost in shadow, or if the subject blinks or turns away, the connection will be instantly lost. You don't need the whole subject to be in focus, your subject could be mostly hidden by leaves or in the shadow and out of focus, and as long as the eyes are in focus, you'll have your viewers attention. Get catchlight in your subject's eyes to add life. A catchlight is a glimmer of light in the eye of your subject that brings your subject to life. With the correct angle and sufficient zoom, you can easily achieve Catchlights.

Photo Tip #3

Look past your subject. If the background behind your subject doesn't help the whole composition, don't include it. Many wildlife photos are spoiled because the background is cluttered, distracting, ugly, or just plain inappropriate. For example, seagulls on a beach can be quite beautiful, but seagulls at the local fast food restaurant is a different story. Also, wildlife photos look far less natural if you can tell they were taken.

However, this does not mean you can't take a good wildlife photo, say at a zoo or anywhere else recognizable for that matter. You just need to manage the background or even the foreground and compose your shot so as not to be too revealing. If your background is spoiling your shot, zoom in tighter on your subject to eliminate as much of the background/foreground as possible. By zooming in, you will also reduce the depth of field to a minimum, so any background that does appear in your photo should be lost and out of focus, making it far less distracting.

If your background is working for you, use it. A wildlife photograph that captures the subject in a beautiful natural setting can be even more effective than a simple close-up. A photograph of a horse on a North Carolina beach, for example, show the main subject in an unexpected context, making for a more interesting photo than a close-up of the horse's head.

Photo Tip #4

Getting in close. You can get amazing results by getting in close and tight on your subject or if just part of your subject fills most of the frame. A lot of people assume that they must position their subject directly in the middle of the frame, most of the time, this is a bad idea. Don't be afraid of zooming so close that you can't get all of the body or even the whole head in the shot. Think about what's important in your subject, the eyes, and use the Rule of Thirds to align the eye(s) in your composition so that your subject in coming into the frame. There are circumstances where a centered position is particularly fitting, like when the subject is looking straight at the camera or if the subject is facing a little to one side or the other.

Photo Tip #5

Capture your subject in the best possible light. Even the most perfectly composed wildlife photo will fail because of bad lighting. Losing your subject in the shadows, glare reflecting off the water, and shadows across the face are all simple mistakes that can ruin a photo. Let's not forget that the harsh high-noon sun will desaturate colors and produce very hard-edged shadows.

There is no single rule for lighting in photography, but here are some common recommendations. For mid-day shots, I often find the best lighting results when the sky is lightly overcast with thin clouds. The clouds act like a huge softbox and produces light that is bright and evenly soft compared to full sunlight. 

Your subject will be well illuminated, but you avoid harsh contrast and heavy shadows that rob the image of extraordinary detail. If it is sunny out, try to take your photos early in the morning and late in the afternoon/early evening when the sun is low, and shadows are long. At these times the light is soft and warmly colored, and it is easier to catch the full face of your subject in sunlight, rather than half-obscured by shadows.

One final note: We are shooting digital photography, and taking 100 photos costs no different than taking just one. Animals twitch, flap their wings, blink, and generally find a way to frustrate even the most patient photographer. So set your camera to it's highest burst rate (frames/sec) and hold the shutter button down and take short bursts of 6-8 photos at a time. Even most smartphones have this feature, and this will give you the best options to pick from later.

Chris Sgaraglino

Over the past 37 years of my adult life, I have gained a very diverse portfolio of adventures from which I have been blessed to be a participant. This wealth of experience and knowledge has defined my character, my morals and values, and my healthy respect for people and the great outdoors. It is a true definition of an Outdoorsman!