Just over eight years ago I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of a photographer by the name of John Timmis. John is not one of the “big names” but he likely should be. He is a regular contributor to Outdoor Life and Field and Stream magazines, his images adorning multiple covers. He is also a videographer; much of his work has been featured on PBS Natural World documentaries. John is a New Yorker, he is extremely verbose and there is never any doubt as to what is on his mind. For four years I was “blessed” to have had the privilege of mentoring under John, my growth as a photographer was exponential. John has a very unique style of teaching, and well, some may not thrive under his tutelage as I did. You see, I grew up as a coach’s kid, my father was demanding and if you didn’t get it the first time, you heard about it the second; John has the same approach in his instruction.
“What were you thinking?”, was a phrase I heard often. “Lad”, as I was to become known, “you have to have these five things on your mind at all times”: Shutter speed, Aperture, ISO, Composition, and Exposure Compensation. I will go into each briefly, but I wanted to share that initially this concept, to me, was overwhelming. I would get home, download images and begin my initial edit only to find that one, two, and sometimes three of these elements had been overlooked. As time went on, a one percent keeper rate grew to ten, ten to thirty, thirty to fifty, and as my eye became more critical, fifty went back to ten, but those ten… It wasn’t always negative feedback with John, I remember how over the top excited he got the first time I nailed every element and had a tack sharp image to show for it. That type of elation is what I had been longing for, it’s what I sought from my Dad as an athlete growing up, and it made listening to the “not so small voice” in the back of my head a much easier task.
Of the five, shutter speed may be the most critical to wildlife photography. Landscape photographers seek to capture light and mood. It is what makes a landscape image grab the viewer in the deepest parts of their soul, but their subject is typically still. Wildlife photography is all about capturing the moment. Behaviors sometimes trump light, if they are rare or emotional enough. Don’t get me wrong, photography literally is all about the light, look up any definition, light will be at the forefront. Light is critical, but capturing the moment, most of the time sharply, is critical to a good wildlife photo. Advanced techniques like spot metering can add an incredible amount of drama to a photograph with its effect on visible light, but dropping the shutter speed adds a drama all its own when capturing motion (i.e. pan blurs).
You are in the Rocky Mountain woods in late September when the forest around you erupts in an eerie, high pitched scream that sends shivers down your spine, a majestic bull elk emerges from the tree line fifteen yards from your position. He turns toward you and bugles again, steam following sound as his heated breath meets the cool mountain air. “f/8 is not f/8 is not f/8 Lad”, and as usual, John was right. At that range a zoom lens will compress the focal plane. To get that entire scene, the sweep of the antlers and the visible breath all in focus, you would likely need to be at f/13-f/16, while the same scenario unfolding at 50 yards may be captured sharply at an aperture of f/6.3-f/8. Rarely does a wildlife photographer walk around with an aperture of f/13. You, as the photographer, will have to recognize the hazard as it unfolds in front of you. The adjustment will be made on the fly, within a second if you hope to capture this awe inspiring moment.
As the third part of the “exposure triangle” ISO helps you balance the shutter speed and aperture by allowing you to dictate how your camera can manipulate light. Shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second, aperture F2.8, those are your settings while photographing a Stellars Jay as the scenario above unfolds. You attempt to increase depth of field or close down the aperture but your camera’s meter tells you that there is not enough light to capture a properly exposed image. By increasing the ISO you allow your camera to absorb enough light to capture the full depth of the image as you intended. How high you can take your ISO and still have a usable image depends largely on the limitations of the equipment you are using.
Composition is, at times, part of the photographer’s style. The individual’s interpretation of that portion of the scene which he or she chooses to capture. There are, however, things that should be considered. Where a subject is placed in a scene can be the difference between simply capturing an image of an animal and telling the full story of the moment. Typically, you want to leave room in front of your subject, give them room to travel or look into the image. A subject walking right to left would typically be placed on the right third of the image, giving him or her “room to roam”. Placing a subject on the top or bottom third of an image may be the difference between bringing the viewers eye into, or forcing it out of the frame. Never miss a perfect reflection, but that’s a story for another time. If a picture truly is worth a thousand words, composition makes it so!
Overly simplified, your camera tries to make every image captured into an 18% or neutral gray exposure. If the majority of your view is black, your camera will compensate for the darkness by lightening the subject, often resulting in the subject being “blown out”, data lost due to over exposure. To compensate for this tendency, the photographer would manually darken the exposure by adjusting the exposure compensation -2/3 to a full stop of light (adjusting to the left). The black portions will still be black, but the subject will be properly exposed. Conversely, a subject on a snow field will be darkened by the camera as it attempts to turn the pristine snow into a dull neutral gray. Light must be added by compensating +2/3 to 1 1/3 stops (adjust to the right) to keep the subject properly exposed. Proper exposure of your subject (not your background) is your objective.
This is what should be on your mind while taking any photo. While most of these things can be compensated for in post processing, the camera is our primary tool. The less work we leave ourselves in post, the more time we will have to shoot. Good light to all!
I want to thank Kathleen for allowing me to be a guest in her post. I met Kathleen at her winter wildlife workshop at Triple D Ranch in Montana. I have to admit, I was skeptical about the idea of photographing captive animals as my time is generally spent on the plains and in the mountains of the Western United States. Kathleen and the others at Triple D quickly put that thought to rest. Kathleen’s easy going temperament, patient persona and knowledge of photography translated into a fantastic learning opportunity for photographers of all levels. If you are looking to improve your photographic skills, I would strongly encourage you to take part in one of her workshops. I look forward to partnering with Kathleen on future workshops and as opportunity allows, in her posts as well.
About Ron Hayes
Ron Hayes is a 4th generation Wyoming Native. His outdoor roots in his native state run deep as his Great Grandparents began living off the land shortly after Wyoming became a state in 1890, and that tradition continues with he and his children still today. Ron has won multiple awards for his work including being the first ever “Featured Artist” in Wyoming’s “Wild West Photo Fest”; an event that takes place each fall in Casper, Wyoming, and which Ron won for the previous three years. He was featured on the TV Series “Wild Photo Adventures” where he was blessed with the opportunity to Co-Host the show with TV Personality, professional photographer, and videographer Doug Gardner. If you ask him though, he will tell you without hesitation that the most rewarding days in wildlife photography are the ones when your subjects, not your peers, accept you into their lives and allow you to share their behaviors with a world that may not know that they exist, and most of all, when he gets to share those days with his family. You can see Ron’s images at westernwildlifeimages.com or follow him on Facebook.