World-renowned naturalist, TV presenter and photographer Mark Carwardine explains five simple rules to take great wildlife shots
There is a saying among professional wildlife photographers that you’re not taking great pictures unless you’re lying down. If you get down to eye level, or lower, magical things start to happen – you make yourself a more intimate part of nature rather than simply an outside observer, and it gives your subjects more impact and dignity. Shooting from a low viewpoint has other advantages too: in particular, it helps to throw foregrounds and backgrounds out of focus.
Remember the acronym KISS – Keep It Simple and Sweet. Simple images tend to have greater impact than ones that are bulging at the seams. Begin by asking yourself: what am I trying to convey in this photograph? Then remove anything you don’t really need. Moving the camera just an inch one way or another can make a mile of difference. And don’t forget to simplify the background by making it blurred (shoot with a narrow depth of field).
Lift your wildlife images to another level by capturing a ‘decisive moment’ – a second that sums it all up or captures a pinnacle of behaviour.
First, get to know and understand your subject, to increase your chances of predicting such a moment. Then be prepared to wait. Finally, be ready to start shooting as soon as there is any hint of the moment approaching.
Placing your main subject slap-bang in the middle of the frame usually makes the picture feel awkward, unbalanced and uninspiring. Instead, try placing it off-centre. Photographing an entire herd, a single animal, a close-up of its head or just an eye – chances are it will look better if you place it away from the centre.
Don’t forget to make sure it is gazing, running, flying or swimming into the frame, because the space in front is effectively ‘live’ space, and adds to the overall impact, while the space behind the animal is ‘dead’ space and usually detracts.
Most photographers have an overwhelming urge to fill the frame with their subject and, yes, getting in close for intimate portraits is a sure way of grabbing the viewer’s attention. But some of the most memorable and powerful wildlife images show the main subject very small in the frame. The problem is that many pictures fall somewhere in between these two extremes, where the subject is small but not small enough or big but not big enough. So decide if you are going to shoot wide or tight and then adjust your composition to suit.
Mark Carwardine is a world-renowned naturalist, TV presenter and photographer; his latest book is Mark Carwardine's Ultimate Wildlife Experiences (£16.99; Wanderlust). He also runs a variety of wildlife photography tours and workshops, ranging from one day in the UK to two weeks in Antarctica.
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