Articles

How To Make Common Animals Interesting In WIldlife Photography

Two Cream-coloured giant squirrels or pale giant squirrels (Ratufa affinis) inspecting each other on a tree branch in Borneo, Sepilok, Malaysia.

Two Cream-coloured giant squirrels or pale giant squirrels (Ratufa affinis) inspecting each other on a tree branch in Borneo, Sepilok, Malaysia.

Many of us don’t have access to a jungle, desert or remote forest teeming with rare wildlife except during short vacations. And that’s only if the rest of the family wouldn’t rather go to a beach resort in Fiji - which, let’s be real, they would. So, we end up taking lots of photos of squirrels, deer, robins, and rabbits. There is nothing wrong with this, but as everyone else also has the opportunity to get these photos, the market is already saturated with photos of them. Here are a few tips on how to make your photos of common animals stand out.

Behavior

I believe this is the easiest way to make an image of a common backyard animal stand out from the crowd. Like the photo at the top of this post, getting a shot of cool behavior that is rarely witnessed by passers-by will likely make people feel some emotion or connection to the animal.

I have seen great photos of squirrels that could compete with some of the best lion photos. Pictures of squirrels jumping over something, leaning from a stone into a puddle of water for a drink, or a mother squirrel feeding her young, would all make me stop to get a second look.

Light

There is a park I like to visit near my house that gets some of the most amazing golden light I have ever witnessed glinting off the surface of the bay every morning. The problem is that light usually only lasts about five to ten minutes if it appears at all.

The secret to getting great light is to be there when it strikes an animals face. This means you have to be there every day, positioned perfectly, waiting and hoping. Sometimes you will be wet, other times cold, and other times still far too hot. But if you are there, every day, it will happen. It may be days, weeks, months, or even years. It will, however, be worth the wait.

Place

Think about the animals you typically photograph and do a Google Image Search of that animal. Where are they usually photographed? If it’s a Great Blue Heron, it’s probably standing in the shallow water of a marsh. A squirrel will probably be in the grass or on the side of a tree. Think about where you can photograph that animal that will make it more interesting.

For example, can you get a squirrel peeking out of its nest at dawn? Or maybe carrying its babies to a safer location? How interesting would it be to get a photo of a squirrel swimming?! Think outside the box. Photography is a creative art, and great creative arts take a lot of time spent inside your imagination.

Composition

The easiest way to photograph an animal, whether common or rare, is to stand straight up with a telephoto lens pointing at it. Therefore, this is the photo most people take. If you want your photo to be different, you have to be different. Get your belly down on the ground and take your photo from the animal’s eye-level or lower.

One of the most important things to me in my photography is removing distracting elements. For me, this typically means backgrounds and any man-made items. This is one of the biggest reasons I bought an f/2.8 lens - I love the blurred out, buttery bokeh look in a photo. When I shoot at f/2.8 I can get my subject’s eye pin-sharp, while having one or two blurry colors swirling in the background. This is a great way to make your subject stand out. If you don’t have an f/2.8 lens, not to worry, you will just need to get closer to your subject and choose a location where the background is further away.

That’s about it. If you have three out of four of those elements you will have a good photo. If you have all four, I can nearly guarantee your photo will turn some heads and stick out from all the other squirrel photos out there. So don’t wait for your next safari; get out in your own backyard at the break of dawn tomorrow and be there when the light strikes.

BlackRapid Sport Breathe - How I Easily Carry A Telephoto Lens

Wallace's hawk-eagle (Nisaetus nanus) perched on a tree branch in Borneo, Sepilok, Malaysia.

Wallace's hawk-eagle (Nisaetus nanus) perched on a tree branch in Borneo, Sepilok, Malaysia.

I’ve been using the BlackRapid Sport Breathe strap for about a year, and it’s been a lifesaver. It is the best option I have found to comfortably carry a heavy camera and lens. It’s also secure and, with a small modification, incredibly fast and easy to attach and remove. Add in the fact that it is compatible with any Arca-Swiss plate, and it’s a real winner.

I have an incredibly bulky eight pound Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 lens that I carry around while photographing wildlife. I’ve tried hooking my Peak Design Slide strap to it, but it was never very comfortable, as my camera would just hang vertically on my hip. I tried holding the lens foot in my hand, but that made me uncomfortable, as one slip would turn my $3,000 lens into a paper weight. I looked at those chest clips that you can clip it into and then it stays steady and vertical on your chest, but with the size of my lens I would be resting my chin on the back of the camera. None of these were very good options.

After continuing my search I finally came across the BlackRapid Sport Breathe and a simple modification. Many photographers with large lenses had attached a Kirk QRC-1 quick release clamp onto the screw on the end of the BlackRapid strap using a little Loctite to keep it held on safe. This allowed the strap to quickly and securely clamp onto any arca swiss plate, including my lens foot or camera’s L-bracket.

Now, when I’m in the field, my lens hangs horizontally at my side, right where my hand can easily rest on it or pull it up at a moments notice if an animal runs across my path. I’ve hiked eight miles at a time up and down hills in the jungle of Sumatra with this setup, and even with ten pounds hanging on it it was never unbearable. Most importantly, my camera stayed safe from drops and bangs.

If you’d like to see a visual of how I attached the Kirk clamp to the BlackRapid Sport Breathe strap, you can check out the video below.

Camera Settings For Wildlife Photography

Thomas's langur (Presbytis thomasi), or leaf monkey, mother breastfeeding her infant in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia.

Thomas's langur (Presbytis thomasi), or leaf monkey, mother breastfeeding her infant in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia.

The following are the settings I use on my Canon 6D Mark II for wildlife photography. I have these settings saved into Custom Shooting Mode 1 (C1) on my camera. That way, all I have to do is turn the Shooting Mode dial on top of the camera to C1 and all of my settings are loaded and ready to go, including the starting aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

This article will start from Menu 1 (the red menu) on a Canon camera and go through each setting I have altered and consider important for the purpose of this article. If you do not have a Canon camera you should still be able to follow along, but you will need to find the corresponding setting name as it may be different on your camera.

The Settings

Image quality - RAW

Image review - Off

Release Shutter without card - Off

Lens aberration correction - All Off

ISO speed settings:

  • ISO speed - Auto

  • ISO speed range - L-12800

  • Auto range - 100-1600

    • *This is important because I don’t want any photo to be above 1600 as it gets too “noisy”.

White balance - Auto White Balance

Color space - sRGB

  • This is up for discussion. I choose to shoot in sRGB despite it being a smaller color spectrum because I found that when I edited in AdobeRGB my images would be converted to sRGB anywhere that I shared them (Instagram, etc.) anyway and then they would look different from what I intended. By starting in sRGB my images always look as I intended, no matter where they are shared.

Format card

  • Always check the box for Low Level Format when formatting your SD card as it provides the best and most reliable format

Exposure C.Fn I menu

Meter mode - Select only Evaluative Metering and Spot Metering

Autofocus C.Fn II menu

Tracking sensitivity - 0

Accel./decel. tracking - 0

AF pt auto switching - 0

AI Servo 1st image priority - Release

AI Servo 2nd image priority - Balanced

Lens drive when AF impossible - Continue focus search

Select AF area selec. mode - Select only 1 pt. and Zone AF

Initial AFpt - Manual AF pt

AF point selection movement - Stops at AF area edges

AF point display during focus - Selected (constant)

VF display illumination - Enable

AF Microadjustment - See my adjustments for the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8

Warnings in viewfinder - When monocrhome is set, When NR is set, When HDR is set

Custom controls:

  • Shutter button - AF

  • AF-ON - ISO

  • * - AF-OFF

  • SET - Exposure compensation

  • Top dial - Av (Aperture)

  • Back dial - Tv (Shutter speed)

What I keep in my favorites

Page 1:

  • Long exp. noise reduction

  • Interval timer

  • Info button display options

  • Image review

  • Highlight alert

Page 2:

  • ISO speed settings

  • Time-lapse movie

  • Movie digital IS

  • Remote control

  • Wireless communication settings

Page 3:

  • C.Fn I: Exposure

  • Mirror lockup

In addition to these menu settings I have the following settings set as a starting point:

  • Shutter speed: 320 (this is because I use a 300mm lens with IS)

  • Aperture: 1.8 (the lowest on any lens I own. This makes every lens start at its lowest aperture)

  • ISO: Auto

  • Other: AI Servo AF, Manual selection: 1 pt AF, Evaluative metering, High speed continuous shutter drive

Las but not least, I use a Battery Grip. The extended battery life is nice (it holds two batteries), but what I really love about it is the comfortable placement of secondary shutter and AF buttons while shooting in portrait orientation.

There you have it. Those are the camera settings I use when I’m out in the wild taking photos of animals. You can plug all these settings in your camera to try them out, but keep in mind, everyone is different. If you don’t like something, if you prefer back-button autofocus, or if you ate Auto ISO, don’t hesitate to change them to your liking. I won’t get too offended.

What kind of camera do you use? Which of my settings would you change? Let me know in the comments.

Standing Out

Wallace's hawk-eagle (Nisaetus nanus) close-up, perched on a tree branch in Borneo, Sepilok, Malaysia.

Wallace's hawk-eagle (Nisaetus nanus) close-up, perched on a tree branch in Borneo, Sepilok, Malaysia.

I recently listened to an excellent interview of Ramit Sethi by Mat D’Avella. During the interview Sethi spoke about wedding photographers and how, when he was looking for one for his own wedding, it was nearly impossible to find one that wasn’t the same as all the rest. He mentions how few people in the industry stand out, and we should be looking at those who do to see why.

It seems when people start a business (myself included), we look at the websites and social media of other photographers we know, popular or unknown, and copy some bits from this one and some from that one. Not sure how much to charge someone who wants to hang your fine art photo on the wall? Google “average price of fine art photo”. Then you can be average.

But we don’t want to be average. At least I don’t, and I can’t imagine you do either. I want to be extraordinary, a top performer, an industry leader. I want to be the Ferrari of wildlife photography and demand a price that matches my quality. But how do we do this?

The short answer is, I don’t know. A longer, more thoughtful answer would be to start looking at high-end photographers demanding seemingly outrageous prices, like Peter Lik. Except these prices are not outrageous, they are just high. Many people are willing to pay them. And if your work is good and you put a lot of time into your art, then you deserve that price.

This is what I am working on now, and I thought it might be helpful for you to work on it with me. I am looking at high-performing photographers and their websites, marketing, physical stores, etc. to see what makes them stand out. One thing I’m not looking at much is their photos. I don’t think it necessary to copy their art. If people pay a lot of money, it’s because what they are paying for is original, not the same as what they can get at the thrift store.

So get out there and start writing down things you notice and new ideas. Try them out and if they don’t work, scrap them and go back to the drawing board. I’m going to be working on it right along with you, and I’d love to hear any ideas you might have in the comments below.

Don't Throw Shit Against The Wall To See What Sticks

Yellow-eared spiderhunter (Arachnothera chrysogenys) perched on a twig in the jungle of Sumatra, Indonesia.

Yellow-eared spiderhunter (Arachnothera chrysogenys) perched on a twig in the jungle of Sumatra, Indonesia.

There is a saying many creatives and entrepreneurs use when giving advice to “wannabes”. They tell them to throw shit against a wall and see what sticks. I would say that this is actually good advice. Throwing shit against a wall means you are doing something productive rather than binge watching Netflix, and eventually it is possible that something will stick. But you could get something to stick much faster and feel prouder if you think about it another way.

I would say rather than throwing shit against a wall to see what sticks, hang great art on the wall (it doesn’t matter if it hangs a bit crooked) and one of those pieces may just attract a crowd. The difference in these two sayings is that one means, “just do something and put it out there” and the other says, “do something you are proud of and that you worked hard on and then put it out into the world”. If you do the latter, you are far more likely to attract a crowd quickly. After all, would you want to join a crowd that is looking at shit on a wall?

On my task list every day I have two tasks that appear at the top (I use todoist so this is completely automated everyday). These two tasks are Make and Share. Every day I must make something and I must share something. The “make” does not have to be something new - it could be continuing an article like this one that I have been working on for a while. It just means I have to do some type of creating every day. The “share” also doesn’t have to be anything crazy. It doesn’t mean I have to set up an art show on the street. It could be as simple as sharing a slideshow of my photos from a recent trip with a group of friends, but more often it is entering a photo competition, posting an article on my website, or posting a photo on Instagram.

As you can see, my average “share” methods aren’t making one-million dollars each. They are simply one more way that my work could get noticed. With 365 ways to get noticed each year, eventually one of these “makes” are bound to attract a crowd. Even if it takes fifty years, something will be noticed.

This small set of two tasks per day has gotten me articles in Destination’s Magazine, reposted on National Geographic, and had my photo reviewed by Elia Locardi on an Fstoppers “Critique the Community” video. Each of these has led to a few more followers, a few more emails, and a little bit more interest in my work. Alone, each one is not going to change my life. But together, these and those that are to come easily could.

One of the most important things I have noticed about the pieces of work that have gained a little bit of traction is that each one is something I spent a lot of time on and put a ton of work into. Almost nothing that I quickly wrote and posted or snapped and shared without any thought behind it, just to complete the task for that day, has gained any extra viewership.

When you decide to create something, put everything you’ve got into it. It’s not just about finishing (although, you also should not let yourself get stuck in the pit of perfectionism), it is about making something you can be proud of. Even if you look back on it in a year and think, how could I have thought that was good?!, you can be proud knowing that right now you put your heart and soul into it. People will notice and be drawn to it.

So get off your ass and start creating. Pour yourself into something and have the courage to share it with the world. If you haven’t shared your work before it is difficult at first, but it continues to get easier. Friends and family might make fun of you a bit, but eventually people will start telling you how much they love what you are doing. And that little bit of affirmation will give you the power to do more. Start with a little “make” and then post a small “share” and eventually, whether in days or years or decades, your creative goals will be attained.