How to take winning photographs of wildlife

We asked top wildlife photographer Chris Gomersall to reveal his surefire ways to shoot breathtaking images of birds and animals.

 

5th July 2017
©Chris Gomersall

Images of wildlife always feature heavily in the Countryfile calendar photo competition – the natural world has instant appeal. But capturing images of elusive animals is tricky – and even when you have a wonderful subject in your sights, how do you fashion something a bit special that will capture the judges’ attention? Here, award-winning wildlife photographer Chris Gomersall offers his advice on how to improve your chances of taking that great wildlife photograph. Here's how to enter the Countryfile calendar competition 2018 with the wildlife snaps you take.  

Photo in focus: Common whitethroat

“There are no heroics, epic travels or terrible hardships behind this picture. It’s simply the result of knowing my local patch, patient observation, and repeat effort. Whitethroats are common summer visitors throughout the British Isles, often associated with farmland and hedgerows. The males tend to return to a few favourite song perches and, as long as they feel safe, they soon ascend to a high vantage point to proclaim their territory. Once I’d identified the best spot, it was just a matter of waiting quietly for normal service to resume. And then doing it again and again until I was happy with the light and composition.

“My favourite photographs are those made from ‘basic ingredients’ and commonplace situations, where I’ve been able to imagine the finished product and then achieve something approaching that ideal. The goal is to capture the essence of the subject in a way that will resonate with the viewer. I want people to say ‘Yes, that’s exactly how I remember a whitethroat’.”

Key points:

1. The bird is positioned at a compositional power point,
roughly at an intersection of thirds (right).

2. Its singing references seasonal behaviour and adds interest.

3. The image is framed wide to incorporate key elements of the environment.

4. Inclusion of oilseed rape at bottom of the frame suggests lowland arable habitat.

5. Complementary primary colours (blue/yellow) says spring.

 

8 STEPS TO GREAT WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY

1. Eye contact

“Eye contact can make your pictures more compelling, provided the animal doesn’t appear startled. Watch for that slight turn of the head and a ‘catchlight’ reflection in the eye to bring the subject to life.”

2. Backdrop

“The background is every bit as important as the subject. It should complement but not compete with the animal you’re photographing, and if you can evoke the season, habitat or weather, so much the better. You might need to zoom out or change lenses to achieve the most sympathetic proportions.”

3. Repeat actions 

“Watch for repeat behaviour, which will allow you to plan more ambitious shots. You’ll need a fast shutter speed to freeze this sort of action – this leaping red squirrel was shot at 1/8000s. If your camera is set to a simpler mode, then select the ‘sports’ option for dealing with wildlife action.”

4. Close up

“We’ve already talked about framing wide to show an animal in its environment but sometimes it’s good to do the opposite: get in close and frame tight. Strip away all those elements that aren’t adding anything to the photograph and concentrate attention on the interesting bits. Often that’s the eyes of the subject, but there’s no harm in introducing a little mystery by looking elsewhere.”

 

5. Light direction 

“Try to be aware of light direction and how it can affect the mood of a photograph. Side lighting helps to show modelling and reveal surface texture, while back light can introduce drama or romance. Make the most of low sunlight at the beginning and end of the day for long shadows and warm glows.”

6. Focal point

“Consider subject placement carefully, don’t just default to the centre point out of convenience. Master the art of ‘focus, lock, compose’ to break the habit of cross-hairs targeting. Generally speaking, it’s best if the animal is looking or moving into space within the shot, rather than out of the frame.”

7. Stand back 

“You don’t always need a monster telephoto lens to make great images of wildlife. For example, with murmurations of starlings at dusk or wading birds at their high-tide roost, it’s the shape of the flock that’s most interesting – it’s not important to see plumage detail – and a standard kit lens is often sufficient for this.”

8. Bad weather

“Don’t give up when the weather turns bad. Hostile conditions frequently give rise to the best photographs, so long as you can keep yourself and your equipment protected from the elements. Vary your shutter speed during rain and snow, using slower speeds for longer streaks.”

 
 

10 quick tweaks for better wildlife shots

 
 

1. Experiment with viewpoint

Compact cameras and phone cameras, in particular, can get into really tight corners for quirky views.

2. Know your local patch

Don’t neglect the wealth of subject matter on your doorstep (and this applies to city dwellers too).

3. Use a monopod

If you’re stalking birds and animals with a long telephoto lens, a monopod is much quicker than a tripod.

4. Bring your subjects to you 

Make your garden wildlife-friendly.

5. Use your car as a hide

Birds and animals don’t usually associate vehicles with people, so they don’t see them as a threat. Use a bean bag on the window ledge to support a long lens.

6. Pack shower caps

They make great see-through waterproof covers for your camera when it rains.

7. Motor drive

Use a continuous shutter-release setting to capture sudden bursts of activity.

8. Turn the camera on its side

Remember to take upright photos from time to time – although this isn’t recommended for shooting video!

9. Black and white

Converting pictures to black and white can help draw attention to pattern and form.

10. Learn bird song

It will help you identify and locate subjects (you can cheat by referring to a sound guide app).

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