Acclaimed wildlife photographers Jo Van Rossem and Karin De Winter and are a husband and wife team based out of Belgium. Their outstanding cultural and wildlife photos have won numerous awards and have been published in various magazine all over the world. We were thrilled when they volunteered to share some of their wildlife photography secrets with Visual Wilderness Readers.
Equipment for Wildlife Photography
Jo and I are Canon shooters, but we did not choose this brand specifically to shoot wildlife. It just grew naturally when we first started photographing many years ago and we gradually built up our range of equipment. Both of us carry a Canon 5DIV as our main camera and a 5DIII as a backup camera. We have the classic range of focal lengths from 16 to 560mm. It is not so unusual for us to shoot wildlife with shorter focal length as long as the circumstances allow it regarding to personal safety.
For wildlife photographers who want to portray animals in their own habitat and include their natural surroundings, shorter focal lengths are perfectly usable. But for large predators or shy animals that you do not want to disturb, telephoto lenses are a necessity. Purchasing good quality telephoto lenses is indeed expensive. But for wildlife photographers who are just starting out, it is important to know that renting a specialty lens is also an option to cut down the cost and familiarize yourself with the equipment.
Light and Time of Day
Light is important indeed. The best times of the day are in the early morning hours around sunrise and late afternoon around sunset. During those times, light is much more subtle. Sidelight can also help in creating images with a nice warm atmosphere. In tropically warm countries, this time of the day coincides with most wildlife activity.
During midday, the light is very harsh and results in washed out colors. Because of the heat, animals often rest and retreat to the shade so not much action is expected to happen during this time. In colder areas or on overcast days, animals may be more active during the day. Because clouds act as a nice softbox and disperse the harsh light, cloudy days are also nice photography days.
Photography Composition for Wildlife Photos
There are several things you should consider when creating your photography composition for wildlife photos.
It is important to not only consider the wildlife subject you want to photograph, but also pay attention to the background. Especially with exotic subjects, it’s easy to get excited and carried away. When that happens, you may not notice that some background elements may be distracting.
Of course, you could use a wider aperture to blur the background, but this may not always be an option. And you may want to include the natural background in your composition. For these situations, try to scan the image in the viewfinder to check for unwanted elements such as a branch “sticking out” of a subject’s head. Then adjust accordingly by moving yourself or waiting until the animal moves a bit.
Spacing should also be considered in your composition. You don’t exactly have to apply the rule of thirds (rules are made to be broken). Try to position the animal on one side and allow it some space to wander naturally inside the frame of your composition. By doing this, the surroundings remain visible and you capture the ‘wild’ in wildlife.
Close-up photos are certainly nice, but they can also be accomplished in a zoo. With true wildlife photos, you always want to capture the natural surrounding in which the animal lives.
Point of View
Last but not least, wildlife photographers should try to be eye-level (or a bit lower) with the animal for an original point of view. In this way, a better connection is made with the animal. Viewers will be able to better relate to the living circumstances of the wild animal, because they are more easily drawn into the wildlife scene.
Of course, this is not easy. The circumstances do not always cooperate with you during wildlife photography. When in a vehicle during a safari, for instance, try to be as low as possible. It has happened that one of us is lying flat on our belly between the front and the back seats just to get that lower angle. This gives you an idea of the kind of morning gymnastics that can be involved here :).
Capture Wildlife in Action
When trying to photograph wildlife in action, there are basically two sort of things that you must take care of. Of course when the action is happening, be sure to have a high enough shutter speed as to not blur the subject. In low light, this means cranking up the ISO to have a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 or even better 1/1600 of a second.
Luckily, noise due to higher ISO is not a problem anymore because you can use excellent de-noising software in post-processing. For example, for a nicer result, use a shallow depth of field with an aperture of 5.6 to 6.3 to have the subject a bit isolated from the background. Put your focus on the eye(s) of the animal.
Secondly, it is important to understand and properly use your camera’s settings so you can adjust accordingly for tracking fast-moving subjects. Every brand of camera has its own specifics so it would be too much to get into those details here.
Travel for Wildlife Photography
For wildlife photographers who want to maximize their chances for success, it comes down to the following three P’s: preparation, practice, and patience. Prepare your gear taking into account the above. Maybe you want to rent a lens for a weekend and take it outdoors to get the look and feel of it. Choose a trip that does not involve too many locations, maybe two or three, depending of the length of your stay. The more you are traveling during the trip, the less time you have for photography. Practicing beforehand is paramount.
Exercise in your own environment with your pets, go to a game reserve or a zoo. Try out some settings and practice adjusting the camera during the action. It is important for wildlife photographers to really know their camera, so don’t be tempted to go for a wildlife trip with a new camera you are not used to. If you do this, you will likely miss a lot of shots.
When you are on location, be patient and immerse yourself in the situation. The moment you find an animal in an interesting spot, stay there a while quietly and observe its behavior. Very often things will happen. A good guide can help a lot in anticipating action and helping to position you at a good angle, of course with keeping a respectful distance to not disturb the animal.
You can see Karin De Winter and Jo Van Rossem’s outstanding work on their website below.