As the (insert amazing wild animal of choice here) steps out of the edge of the woods into view and you imagine getting award-winning images of it, countless choices face you for how to make those images.

“What aperture should I use…what ISO…should I try to move closer…should I shoot it as a vertical…should I put on a teleconverter…should I take off the teleconverter… should I switch my car insurance to that company run by a lizard…?”

In wildlife photography, things happen fast.  Deep, right?  You can quote me on that.  When things happen fast, we have to react fast.  Every extra item on our to-do list for how to create the photo you want adds to the time between when you register the action and when you press the button.  Sure you can skip all that and just “spray and pray”, hoping to get a decent shot.  But, if you haven’t made the right choices before you press the button, you probably haven’t got the shot you truly wanted.  In this article I’ll share tips on how to prepare for those fleeting photo opportunities with wild animals and help you capture great images of them.

I spotted this great blue heron hunting eels in a saltwater grass flat. Once caught, the eels would twist wildly in the egret’s beak, escaping about half the time. This was the third eel it caught, watching the first two times let me figure out what was happening, and how best to capture this moment of predator and prey. Anytime an animal gives you a repeating opportunity, learn from it!

Know Your Critters

From earthworms to eagles, two things motivate most animals: food or sex.  I know the jokes going through your head now, but let’s keep this PG rated folks!  Keeping this in mind, ask some basic questions about the wild animals you want to photograph.  How do they feed and what do they eat?  Do they migrate?  How do they attract a mate? When do they mate?  What, if any, courting behaviors are there? How do they raise and protect their young?

Knowing the answers to these questions helps you build a list of the hidden moments you can capture in an animal’s life that people rarely see.  This will help you not only find the animals, but also help you take more interesting and dynamic photos of them, even the earthworms.

After finding a pair of sandhill cranes building a nest, I set up a blind nearby and visited daily to photograph them. Doing a little research into incubation times, behaviors, and habits enabled me to previsualize a variety of shots. Of the many images I wanted to capture, one in particular was of the moment right after a chick hatches, when the parent breaks off pieces of the eggshell and feeds it to them. Previsualization and knowing as much as I could about sandhill cranes, (along with sitting in a blind everyday for 32 days! ) made the idea a reality.

See It Before You Shoot It

Previsualization, being able to see the image in your mind before you press the shutter release, is a tremendous asset for making the right choices behind the camera. When working with wildlife, it may seem I am purely reacting to what the subject is doing. In reality, I usually have many images in my mind’s eye that I want to create, and am proactively taking actions to make them when the right moment occurs.

Start with defining the story you are trying to tell about each animal you photograph. Then think through what you are trying to capture in each image. Are you photographing wildlife that will be moving, where you want to freeze the action while having a clean out of focus background? Or, are you imagining a natural history image where you want everything in focus from your toes to the horizon? By knowing your subject and their behavior cues, you can previsualize a gallery of photos capturing various natural behaviors and interactions. Seeing it before you shoot it prepares you to capture the “shot in your head” when the action unfolds.

Golden Wing, Egret Preening at Sunset
This is one of the “shots in my head” I had wanted to capture for some time. Great egret wings when back-lit take on a beautiful glow. But I had yet to see this in late day golden light. As this egret started preening, I composed my background, framed to allow space for the outstretched wing, selected my settings, and patiently waited for the wing stretch. Okay, maybe not so patiently, I kept muttering under my breath, “Lift your wing, lift your wing…!” Then it happened, very close to what I had imagined months before, captured now in this image!

Be a “Ready” Photographer

To be a “ready” photographer, prepare for the things that will give you the least time to think when you see them.  For example, when I am driving to a place or around a park, I have my camera ready and within easy reach.  There is a freshly formatted card in it, my longest lens on, and the windows down.  I have preset my camera to aperture priority, with an aperture of f8.0 or so, an ISO of 400 if daylight or 800 or greater if darker, and the exposure compensation set at 0.

Since I don’t know what I will find or what the light will be like, I select gear and settings that give me the most flexibility.  If I am switching settings and lenses, or worse, having to retrieve my gear from the trunk, odds are I am going to miss the opportunity.  Landscapes are not going to walk or fly away from you, if they do that will be one heck of a photo-op!  Being ready for any wild animal before you see them vastly improves your odds of getting great shots of it.

Wild Horse Stallion and Mare Nuzzling
We spotted this pair of wild horses in Teddy Roosevelt National Park, while driving and scouting in search of wildlife. For a fleeting moment, the stallion and mare began nuzzling each other. Having a ready camera and an open car window made this shot possible!

Wait For It…

I know from experience when you find an animal it’s tempting to start blasting away with your camera. We naturally want to capture any moment we can with this creature. But, the sudden sound or motion may spook or stress the animal. You also may not have thought through your settings and composition in your excitement. Instead, take a few moments and just watch them. Pay attention to what they are doing and how they react to their environment. The more of these behavioral cues and body language you pick up on, the better you will be able to predict their next move and capture it in your images. You’ll find your photos are more composed, less rushed, and you can enjoy encountering and observing some amazing creatures. After all, that’s why we are out there as wildlife photographers!

Crop, Don’t Clip!

Anyone who has been on one of my photo workshops has heard me say this a million times (right along with “how’s your histogram look” and “now, where did I leave my coffee mug?”…). Cropping is a conscious choice in your composition, you decide whether to include the entire animal or just a part. A “clip” is when a part of the animal is out of the frame and it looks like a mistake. For example, if I frame an image to include the full body of a deer, but the edge cuts off a hoof, antler, or tail tip. That’s a clip, not a crop.

If showing only part of an animal be careful where you choose to “crop”, this will avoid compositions that look like you made a mistake. Generally I like to have the edge of the frame above or below a joint, not right through it. To avoid clips, do a quick “perimeter scan” of your frame edges through the viewfinder. This will also help find any distracting elements intruding into your frame which small changes in your position may remove.

Give Your Subject Room to be Alive

Whether it is people or animals, include space for your subject to be alive in your frame. One of the most powerful tools a photographer can use is the viewer’s imagination. When you give room for the action to unfold, people will play out the scene in their mind. When the story can’t play out, it can cause disharmony for the viewer.

If an animal is moving, give them space to move into. If they are looking to one side, give them space in the frame to look into. Giving your animals space in your photos will make them come alive in your viewers’ imaginations.

When birds land, like this roseate spoonbill, they generally do so into the wind, and flare their wings to slow down. With BIFs (Birds in Flight) I usually want to see a shutter speed over 1/800th, but this will vary a bit by species and how fast they fly. If you are near a place birds congregate, try to have both the wind and sun at your back, and shoot a little wide. This will give you the best chances of birds landing facing you and getting their wings fully in frame. Surprisingly, there is just not much of a market for bird backsides and clipped wing shots! Settings: Manual Mode, 1/2000, f8, ISO400

Get Down Low…

Eye contact in a photo engages and draws the viewer into the image, but it is most effective if you are at the same level as the subject. So the smaller the subject, the lower you have to go!***

Changing your elevation draws your viewer into the animal’s world and can make them feel a deeper connection with the subject. It also changes your perspective, and makes you think in different, more creative ways. Instead of taking a shot at the beach standing up, lay down in the sand and take at shot at water level. Change your viewpoint, and you will produce something unique and engaging!

***Bonus Tip: Do your own laundry! As wildlife photographers we often ask our loved ones to put up with a lot; travel, expensive gear, smelly hiking boots, etc. But there is a line I don’t cross, I never ask my wife to clean my nasty swamp clothes. I have laid down in some truly funky stuff to get my photos. Not asking this of your significant other is key to a good marriage as a nature photographer!

Compare these two images taken moments apart. In the first on the left I am standing, in the second I am on the ground shooting just above eye level (don’t worry, I was at a safe and respectful distance!). Not that one is “right or wrong”, just notice how the background changes, from orange to black water as I get lower. The eye level angle creates more direct eye contact, a more distinct reflection, and makes the ripples in the water disappear. If you are wondering about the blue eye, she is blind on that side, probably from being injured by another ‘gator. Alligators are often aggressive with each other, something to watch for when creating images of them!

… But Maybe Not That Low!

Having told you to get low, now I am going to tell you not to. Confused yet? While I usually preach to get eye level with your subject, there are times where this doesn’t work for your composition. Sometimes going too low may pull things into the background that distract the viewer from the subject of your photo. You may also suddenly find you can no longer see your subject due to foreground objects getting in the way. Find the right height that gives you a pleasing background, lets you see your subject through any foreground elements, but still has that eye level feel.

Changing your angle isn’t always about getting lower, sometimes it’s about getting higher. As with many things in photography, you may have to make compromises. While the first two images (eastern chipmunk, and snapping turtle) required getting right on the ground, the white squirrel was up a tree. Since I find it hard to cling to tree branches with my toes, I chose to back up and use a longer focal length lens to decrease the angle between us. While it may look like I am in a tree, I am safely on the ground where I belong.

Last, But Most Important, Have Fun!

Have fun! Too often we get so caught up in technical settings and fear of missing a shot that we get tunnel vision, forgetting to enjoy our photography adventures in the great outdoors. Get out there, relax, take some shots, and have fun doing it. When you love what you are doing, it will show in your work!

Sandhill Crane and Chick at Nest
My last shot of this sandhill crane family on their nest, after sitting in a blind in the Florida sun every morning for 32 days straight! Sure there were many hours just sitting waiting for something to happen, but if I had to do it all over again, I would in a heartbeat. These moments make it all worth it, I love my job!