I started photographing wildlife three years ago on my first trip to South Africa. I remember taking 3,000+ photos in the month I was there and only getting about 50 usable photos. I edited those photos and called it a day, but in reality I wasn’t really aware of what I was doing!. It’s incredible looking at my old work and comparing it to the results I get today. I used to make a few very common mistakes that stopped me from excelling and maximizing my potential.
The good news is… you don’t have to spend years making those same mistakes!
I’m going to share with you 5 of the most important things I’ve learned in the last three years that will help you take your photography to a professional level.
Tip #1: Move away from auto! Yes, DSLR cameras are so intelligent now-a-days! Yes, auto is quick and easy! Yes, I used auto for a long time! However, ideally the goal is to become less dependent on this setting and take control over your camera. Using auto limits your control and ability to create artistic effects. It’s a fantastic setting for beginners but if you want to become more professional you’re going to have to experiment with Manual.
Tip #2: Don’t over-edit. I was so guilty of this when I first started taking photos. I used to do some drastic editing in Lightroom and it made my photos look over-processed and fake. With time I learned that simplicity is important in wildlife photography. You don’t want to alter the colors of the background or the animals excessively because what you’re photographing is nature. Don’t you think it should look… natural? Yes! Do basic color correcting, removing objects that shouldn’t be there, or cropping! Just don’t over-do it.
Below is an example of the way over-editing can hurt you. The first image in the slider is edited minimally and the second photo was from my first trip to South Africa when I massively over-edited! The elephant looks discolored and the vegetation in the background is way too neon! Someone needed to take the Vibrance slider on Lightroom away from me!
Tip #3: Leave free space! This can make or break even a fantastic photo. If there isn’t any free space the animal will look trapped and confined within the photo. As a general guideline (for specific photo visions you can of course stray from this), it is a good idea to leave some free space in a photo around the animal. Wildlife photography is supposed to embody the vastness of the environment and wild nature of the animal. Photos shouldn’t make an animal look like they’re in a small space.
Tip #4: Don’t cut off body parts. Be mindful when you’re cropping! Don’t crop off an ear or a foot because that’s highly noticeable and distracting. If (while editing) you do crop a photo to exclude a part of the animals body make sure you do so in a place that looks natural and not abrupt. In some situations you may accidentally crop out a body part in the picture but still want to salvage the photo (I’ve been there, I know the struggle). This is understandable if the photo is fantastic other than a missing limb/tail/etc, but generally try to be mindful or not cutting out parts abruptly.
Tip #5: Live by the Rule of Thirds. I loooooove this guideline! This makes for such majestic photos! Basically, the rule of thirds relates to image composition. Imagine your photo as being broken down into thirds and made of 9 parts. Place the points of interest in your photo along the intersections or lines to cause your viewers to naturally look at those features. These lines are intersections are perfect places to put eyes of animals!!
Above is an example of a photo with the Rule of Thirds Lines on top of it (although the lines are lightly colored… this is just a screenshot from when I was cropping on Lightroom). You’ll see that I’ve put the mom’s face on the top right intersection of lines so that she is the main focus and source of power in the photo. Her cub is almost entirely in the far right section and my watermark is on one of the lines.
6. Emphasize the eyes. Eyes are infinitely important in wildlife photography as they are the window into the soul of an animal. Whenever possible, make sure that the eyes are extremely sharp, bright and beautiful! Yes, I know that it can be a struggle sometimes as some animals (such as elephants or antelopes) have dark eyes but even a little twinkle of light in a darkly colored eye adds some personality to a photo. Eyes are something you should always try to edit and brighten in Photoshop whenever possible (I’ll make a tutorial on how I do this). If it’s impossible to naturally make the eyes look brighter, then try your best to crop the photo in a way where the eyes still are the focus. This is especially important for animals such as big cats who have bright, beautiful eyes!
Well, those are my 6 general tips to better wildlife photography! Comment below to tell me what your favorite photography hack is below, even if it’s one not listed here! Happy shooting!