Discover how to get started in wildlife photography, and how to become an expert, with tips and tricks from our Nature’s Home photography columnist Ben Andrew. Over to Ben…
Ben got this shot of a secretive bittern by using a fixed-place hide, and a lot of patience. Photo: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
How to use hides
The benefit of a fixed-place hide is that the birds have become accustomed to it, they learn to accept it and any noise and movement within the hide inevitably becomes accepted.
In some habitats a permanent hide isn’t always possible, either because of dense vegetation, species not always appearing in the same spot, or simply because the site won’t allow it. Portable pop-up hides are useful as you can move them to different locations. They can be set up in advance and taken away with you, plus they’re often camouflaged so birds accept them as part of the woodland. Get your own portable hide in our shop.
Sometimes not even a pop-up hide will do. Brown hares, for example are always on the move, so you will need to use a bag hide – a piece of camouflaged material that you just throw over yourself, with holes to push your camera lens through. You’re then not recognised as a threatening shape, but are also free to re-position yourself.
Early morning mist can give your photograph an ethereal quality. Photo: Ben Andrew
How to use light and weather
How to take photos at dawn
Use mist. There's often a magical element to mornings – head to any woodland, heathland or grassland (even your local park will do!) and, if the conditions are right, you could be welcomed by a stunning misty scene. The best chance of a misty morning is when a cool night with clear skies follows a mild day. Mist can really transform a photograph; your local forest can take on a magical and spooky feel, and even wildlife can be photographed to take on a whole different look and feel.
Wait for sunrise – When a misty morning combines with a sunrise you get even more amazing conditions. The clinging mist is slowly burnt off by the rising sun, resulting in a hazy but wonderfully warm and colourful scene. These conditions are great for capturing images of wildlife.
Using a different shutter speed to capture the elements can give your photos more atmosphere. Photo: RSPB (rspb-images.com)
How to take photos in bad weather
Use artificial light. Despite the potential for beautiful white conditions, I’ve often found that many winter days are gloomy and grey. Even if you are lucky enough to have snow this season, you may have a great setting but a lack of light. Obviously, not all photographic subjects can be lit artificially and you may simply have to work with what you have, but a flashgun or a small LED light can give small subjects a bright effect.
Shoot in a high key style. A complete “white out” snowy setting can often be ideal for trying a simplistic and eye-catching high key style image, but even an overcast day with white clouds can work. High key photography can be achieved by exposing to create a bright image – so that some elements of the image may even be pure white. My advice with high key images is expect trial and error; you often have to play around with different exposure levels and repeatedly check your camera to see if you are getting it right but don’t be afraid to use some digital processing once you’re back home.
Use the right shutter speed for the weather. It’s inevitable that during winter you will encounter some rather inclement weather. Ensure all camera equipment is covered from the elements – you’ll need waterproof bags and cases. Once out, simply embrace the bad weather, as it can often result in some of the best images. If you encounter falling rain or snow, ensure that you use a shutter speed that captures it properly – the slower the shutter speed the longer the streaks, but the risk here is that the subject will be less sharp. Practise with a number of shots and keep making small adjustments until you have an image you are happy with.
How to photograph different species
Ben got this amazing shot of a seal pup by getting down low to his subject. Photo: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
How to photograph seals
Get low to the ground to capture action shots. October to January is the best time to observe some amazing seal behaviour. Usually solitary animals, this is the time of year when seals gather in good numbers on shorelines to take part in ritualistic activities. Common seal pups born in the summer are striking out on their own, playing around in the surf, while “teenage” grey seals are socialising and learning future behaviours, with the males courting females and arguing with rivals. The large adult bull seals will also be out, patrolling their territories and watching their harems.
Grey seal pups start to be born from September onwards, but as you move around the country anti-clockwise it peaks in December. The pups are born white and fluffy and have to remain on land with their mother for around three weeks. They spend lots of time sleeping and, if you use sensible fieldcraft, you can often get intimate shots of them at rest or interacting with their mothers.
This is a very important season for seals, so being respectful and putting your subject first is paramount. Many seal colonies have visitor guidance on how best to view and it is always best to follow these rules to avoid disturbance.
Ben got up early to capture this shot of a wasp spider, sat in its dew covered web. Photo: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
How to photograph insects (from spring onwards)
Look for them sleepy and covered in dew. Raft and wasp spider, dragon and damselflies and great green bush cricket, among many other species, are at their biggest around September – making them easier to spot. They will also be active at this time of year, laying eggs or guarding egg sacs. If you can spot them before the sun rises fully, then you can often find them covered in dew. Species such as wasp spider will also have a dew-covered web, which looks amazing twinkling in the morning light and, as it’s still warming up, they will often be stationary.
In wildlife photography, some species are more sensitive than others. To ensure you don’t disturb them, and get the best shots, go beyond wearing some subtle clothing and physically hide yourself.
Look for spiders in webs. In recent years a new spider species has made its way over to our shores and can now be found in various habitats, including our heathlands. With its exotic black and yellow abdomen, the wasp spider (Argiope bruennichi) is easy to spot in late summer and early autumn. The large females sit spread in their webs between the heather waiting for prey to wander unwittingly into their traps. Look carefully in flowering heaths, and move slowly and cautiously around the spider if you spot one in situ. The shape of the wasp spider lends itself well to frontlit, backlit and silhouette images.
Look for reptiles at regular basking spots. Photo: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
How to photograph reptiles
Catch them when they’re basking. In the UK we’re lucky to have six native reptile species (three snakes and three lizards) and they’re all different. But they all give photographers a unique challenge: that is, once they’ve gone through their thermoregulation (basking) process in the morning, then as long as the day stays fine they’re either warm enough to disappear from the open, or they’re more active and can move off before you’ve had a chance to take a shot! Basking is simply something that reptiles have to do in order to function – and that helps us as photographers. The best time of day to snap them in the UK is around an hour after sunrise in spring. At that time of year, the mornings are cool but when the sun hits their dwelling-places, they’ll come out to bask and are more likely to sit in one place.
Use a lens with close focusing. Reptiles are often small but sensitive subjects, so do you get closer with a macro or wide-angle lens, or stay further away and use a longer lens? I prefer a lens that allows for close focusing, so with care and good fieldcraft you can use a macro or wide-angle and get close without disturbing them, or use a close-focusing zoom such as 100 mm–400 mm. A macro can highlight intricate skin patterns while diffusing messy backgrounds. Using a small LED light can also help.
Many UK reptile species are heavily protected and reside on sensitive sites. Adders are venomous so treat them with care, do not handle them and follow the law regarding disturbance.
Here Ben used background heather to create a soft backing colour for his photo. Photo: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
How to photograph plants
Focus on one plant among many. Heather only flowers for a few weeks a year, providing a carpet of stunning colour. Sunrise or sunset is the best time to photograph this gorgeous landscape as the soft light helps add a warm pink hue to your images. A landscape shot can look amazing or try focusing on one single plant, using the swathe of heather behind it to create a uniformed and out of focus complimentary background colour.
Look for unusual conditions, such as morning frost or late snow. As spring turns into summer, you can never quite be sure what the weather will do. Take full advantage of this and capture some interesting shots. Try to get out first thing on a frosty morning and you might find flowers in full bloom coated with a layer of frost. So often flowers are photographed in more “normal” spring conditions so these frosty mornings really added an extra dimension to the final images.
Capturing spring flowers coated in frost can give your wildflower pictures an extra dimension. Photo: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
Try rim lighting. As with any subject in photography it is always worth exploring every possible opportunity to capture it in interesting lighting conditions. With delicate outlines and a variety of interesting shapes, flowers are no different, and sometimes a more creatively stunning image can be created by simple rim lighting. Rim lighting is where you shoot slightly into the sun creating a rim of light around every part of the subject – this accentuates the intricate details and creates a pleasing shape.
Try different angles. It could be very obvious to focus on macro photography when creating images of flowers, but sometimes it pays to think outside the box. Using a wide-angle lens, or even positioning yourself in a completely different way, can result in a fresh and exciting take on a familiar subject.
Ben got below Aberystwyth Pier to take this stunning shot of starlings returning to roost. Photo: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
How to photograph birds
Look for roosts. Roosts are great because they usually appear in the same place each evening. Work out what time the birds start arriving, how to access the site, where’s the best place to stand – and whether you’re even allowed to be there! Many urban birds will arrive at the roost at dusk or even later, when all natural light has gone – which pushes camera settings to the limit. Use a tripod – but also be creative. Can you illuminate your subject using artificial lighting?
You might need to take a few shots to capture swifts in flight. Photo: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
How to photograph swallows, swifts and martins
Location, location, location! In most cases these species nest in and around human habitation. Swifts will nest in our roof spaces, house martins under the eaves and swallows anywhere from out-buildings and stables to under porches. This means you need to be extremely careful that if photographing them you seek permission from the relevant people – you do not want to get into trouble by pointing your lens at a house or at people! Be careful, respectful and if people do question what you are doing engage them in conversation and show them what you are doing; they may fall in love with the birds through this!
Photograph behaviour. Much of the behaviour of these species can occur out of sight so, unfortunately, observing let alone photographing behaviour can be challenging! However, the birds do still undertake activities such as swooping down to rivers or water bodies to drink, stopping to perch and preen, catching insects mid-air and swallows and house martins will often land on the ground near mud-filled puddles to collect nesting material. If you can identify suitable puddles then get low down to the ground, use a hide or even lay underneath a car and be patient, eventually you should be rewarded with a great photographic opportunity!
Aim for the head. These species are some of the fastest birds you are likely to photograph in the UK, so tracking them in flight can be extremely tricky, but obtaining flight shots is possible. First, pick a spot where you know the birds regularly commute between – maybe a popular feeding area or where you can watch them regularly returning to their nest. Make sure you have the best natural light conditions you can get; ideally have your camera and lens on a tripod so you can pan smoothly; and use a fast shutter speed and a relatively small aperture between f/5.6-f8. Then all you need to do is make sure you try and focus on the bird’s head and keep plugging away. Take as many shots as you can, keep perfecting your technique and the results will come!
Try to get eye contact if you can. Photo: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
How to photograph birds of prey
Snap them in flight. With birds of prey, red kites included, the best place to start is in perfecting flight shots. These can help perfect your technique in general when photographing a moving subject. The good thing about kites is that they fly relatively slow and low, so try and pick a spot where you can get eye level with them swooping and banking, such as a hillside. Getting on this level will increase the connection between the viewer and the subject – there’s nothing quite like staring directly into the eyes of a bird of prey, and one of our most beautiful at that. Remember to keep taking photos and be prepared to delete a few rubbish ones along the way.
Use autumnal backgrounds. Once you have perfected photographing against a blue sky, manoeuvre yourself into a position where you can alter the background. Red kites are a beautiful russet red colour and so, in autumn, it makes perfect sense to try and create a photograph where the subject and background complement each other. Pick a spot you want the bird to fly against and try not to deviate from it or be distracted by other birds or you might miss that perfect shot!
Look for roosting birds. Like many birds of prey, red kites often need to spend time perching in trees – either during the day or pre-roosting before going to a communal roost for the night. While I wouldn’t recommend trying to get close and potentially disturbing a roost site, if you can find a spot where the birds rest between flying or feeding this can make for some lovely images. Here you can experiment with angles, position the birds against the setting sun for silhouetted shots or light them with the last rays of golden light.
Focus in on individuals in the flock. Photo: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
How to capture movement
How to photograph birds in flight
Show movement. When photographing anything fast-moving it can be tricky to get a sense of movement. With modern camera technology it is very possible to get a sharp shot freezing the movement of a bird in flight. However, a technique that can be adopted in the field involves using a slow shutter speed. Either by altering your ISO and aperture settings or simply shooting in shutterpriority mode you can reduce your shutter speed, allowing you to be more creative with movement. Try using a tripod for this, too.
Focus on an individual. In large murmurations or skeins of geese it’s almost impossible to pick out individuals, and the point of photographing them is clearly to show the spectacle. However, some gatherings are more sparse, even the large groups of red kites at feeding stations or overwintering flocks of migrant whooper or Bewick’s swans are not so overwhelming that you cannot target an individual or even a smaller group. Create an interesting composition by getting a few birds in complementary poses or photograph them all flying in the same direction to create something uniformed and symmetrical.
Use the light. The higher the sun is in the sky the harder it can be to capture detail. If photographing individual birds, do try and photograph them at either first or last light when the sun is low and soft. Most large gatherings of birds exhibit at either dusk or dawn, so often nature has already provided the perfect backdrop for you. This can often result in a wonderful silhouette against a golden sky or your quarry beautifully lit with soft, glowing light.
Have you got any great tips to share? Add them in the comments below. And don't forget to share your snaps with us on Facebook @RSPBLoveNature or Twitter @natures_voice, they could be our next photo of the week.
Keep an eye out for more top tips still to come from Ben. Ben writes a photography column in every issue of Nature’s Home magazine. Become a member to get your copy, or take a look at our image library for more stunning photography.
I have had many hobbies in my life, but nothing comes close to my love for wildlife photography. Over the years, I have made many wildlife photographer friends. Interestingly, many of them were competitive in one or more hobbies or were doing well in their professions before taking up wildlife photography. Some were successful commercial photographers, wedding photographers, graphic designers, bass fishing champions, hunters, birders, engineers, world-class professors, and researchers, while others were retired medical doctors, entrepreneurs, and even lawyers. With their talents and connections, these people could have chosen any fancy hobby they wanted. But once they tried wildlife photography, they never looked back.
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Ultimately, getting good wildlife images is heavily dependent on luck - but you can increase your luck by learning about the species you're interested in. That starts with the obvious - don't go looking for Wasps in winter or Bitterns on heathland - but the more you know about the bird or animal, the better chance you will be in just the right place at the right time to catch interesting behaviour. Learn about good locations - the Bitterns at Minsmere in Autumn are so notorious now we call them pesky (they come too close to the hide for the big lenses) and Brown Hare on Havergate Island are often so chilled out they will come and see who you are if you sit quietly.
Make sure you're a good citizen and ambassador for all photographers. Some people do get annoyed with big lenses and clicking cameras, so make sure to chat to other visitors if you're in a hide. Point out what's interesting, step back so others can see, don't ruin other people's chance to see or photograph something just so you can get yours (incidentally, that's a good reason NOT to use macro on reptiles when in well trodden areas: longer lenses means everyone gets a pic, invariably macro means just the original photographer gets one. If you want to practice fieldcraft for real close ups, get off the beaten track - that way the reptile isn't being constantly disturbed by people).
Don't get so fixated on the photograph you miss out on the experience either - put the camera down occasionally and just enjoy the spectacle in front of you
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