Sunday, November 29, 2009

Wildlife Photogaphy; Tools of the Trade

Your success in taking great wildlife pictures begins with the right equipment. 

 I still remember being on holidays years and years ago. We are in kayaks in the ocean. The water is crystal clear without so much as a ripple. The sun is just barely peaking out from behind the clouds. The light is soft and I see an eagle in a tree staring down at the water. I get my camera ready and focus on him. He swoops down right in front of us to pick up a fish. Now most shots you see of eagles picking up fish out of the water are shots from the side. Intresting, but not dramatic. This eagle was facing us as he dropped down out of the sky to grab this fish. I had perfect timing. his talons are sunk into the fish, wings spread wide, you can see the splash and water droplets from his wings and talons leaving the water. I could see his eyes as he was looking up as he was taking off from the water with his prize. It actually looked like he was looking right at me! Absolutely perfect timing. Perfect picture. Exciting, interesting, dramatic. A picture that you coud hang on your wall and spend hours looking at it in awe. Literally one of those once in a lifetime shots...

The result? A somewhat blurry picture of a perfect opportunity. I was so crushed! I knew right then what my problem was. I bought a crappy lens and ended up with a crappy result. If I had the camera equipment that I have now, the picture of that eagle would have been enlarged, framed and the center piece of my livingroom as it would still be hanging over my fireplace to this day. Instead I have a picture of a cougar in that spot. I love my cougar, but that eagle picture would have been truly amazing.

So, a few tips, so you don't miss out on your once in a life time opportunity. If you haven't decided on which camera equipment to buy here are some tips for you.
  1. Research the lenses first. Photography equipment has come a long way in recent years. Your lens is going to be your biggest asset. Don't make the mistake of rushing out and buying the first camera that is on sale. You can't put canon lenses on a pentax camera.
  2. The leaders in the industry are canon and nikon cameras and lenses. Some people like one, some like the other. When on safari, I notice that most wildlife photographers use either one or the other. Personally I think Nikon cameras edge out Canon in some ways, and canon cameras edge out Nikon cameras in some ways, but at the end of the day, I prefer the "L" series glass of the canon, so that is my camera of choice. Choose the lens, then buy the camera and build your lens collection around your brand of choice.
  3. Wildlife isn't usually fond of close human presence, so the longer the lens the better.
  4. The best wildlife light is dim in the morning and dim in the early evening. To take advantage of that soft light, buy a lens with the smallest aperature you can buy. A zoom or long lens starting at an aperature of f2.8 with image stabilization will go a long way to assist you in taking those amazing wildlife pictures, so spend as much as you can afford on each lens. If anything, scrimp on the camera. Camera technology changes yearly. The technology in my lenses hasn't changed since I bought them ten years ago. You will upgrade cameras every few years, but you will use those same lenses on all of your cameras throughout the years. I can't stress it enough. Spend the bulk of your photography budget on the best lens you can buy!
  5. To reiterate; you need to bring your subject in closer, with the smallest aperature, so you can use faster speeds to stop the blur of the action with lower ISO's. Simple principle, expensive lenses to get the results you are looking for.
  6. Learning photoshop and lightroom are a must whether you use Nikon, canon, whether you have a pc or a mac. Spend lots of time learning the in's and out's of photoshop and lightroom. These programs can be intimidating, so get some Scott Kelby help. His books and website will help you with any question that might arise with the latest in photoshop and lightroom products. His tutorials are easy to follow and written so even I can understand them.
  7. Where to buy? Here are a couple of my favourite spots. In the states I like to go to B and H Photo: or in Canada I like: Don's Photo at or sometimes: McBain's at: I usually prefer Don's or B and H Photo. Sometimes one edges out the other, but they are both great companies!
Remember to respect nature and respect wildlife. Nature and wildlife can and will cause injury and or death to those who are arrogantly disrespectful. If you can't be respectful, inevitably one day, a guy like the beast below will teach you a lesson that you may never have the second chance to learn from. The picture below illustrates one more reason why you need to buy a long lens. This picture was taken with a 600mm lens with a 1.4 teleconverter. It is cropped a little bit, but shows the intimacy of this beast while living to talk about it because we are not invading his personal space..
'The Beast'

Check out more grizzly bear pictures at our Harvey Wildlife Photo Gallery

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Wildlife Photography; Focus On Good Light.

Widlife Photography can be very difficult and involves a lot of time, good timing and a lot of luck....and like anything else, the harder you work and the more shots you take, the luckier you get. Every photographer understands the benefits of the soft lighting of the early morning and late afternoon. Unfortunately, you never know when you are going to see wildlife. That is where the luck comes in. Hopefully these tips may come in handy.

  1. When on safari, increase your odds. Do your homework. Whether you are on your own or with a guide, try to figure out where the wildlife is going to be and get there early in the dark of the morning or the early afternoon and wait for that perfect light. If you are settled in and quiet, you have a better opportunity of getting some nice nature photography shots in the nice soft light than if you are just arriving to where the wildlife is as the light is softening. When you arrive where the wildlife is, the wildlife may run away due to your disturbing them etc. It is just easier to get there first, let them get a little bit accustomed to your presence ahead of time and hopefully your preperation will pay off. Not to mention, if you are there first and you are quiet, sometimes wildlife will almost come to you.
  2. Don't be afraid of an overcast day. Very often, you will take the best pictures on overcast days. There are no shadows, the lighting doesn't get so harsh that your photos are virtually beyond photoshop repair and you can take pictures all day long. I love overcast days.
  3. Use a long lens. If you want a deer to be a little more comfortable in your presence, it is a lot easier done with a 600mm lens, than a 300mm. The obvious problem with a 600 is the weight of the lens, but that is another issue.
This picture of a black backed jackal family is a perfect example of being in the right time in the right place and doing your homework. We knew this black backed jackal family was in this area; or hoped they would be as we saw them the day before. We had our guide take us to the same area again just before dusk. We parked the landrover in an open area. A hundred or so yards away, we could see an adult black backed jackal on the edge of the tree line. I focused my 600mm on him, a few minutes later his mate joined him. They made some sort of call, then shortly after that out popped a baby black backed jackal. He came out and greeted his parents. I took about ten shots as they were making their greetings. This was my favourite picture of the series.

In that situation everything happened perfectly.
  1. We did our homework and had an idea where the black backed jackals would be.

  2. We got there before the soft light of the afternoon so they could get accustomed to our presence.

  3. We waited 100 yards away so they would feel they were at a comfortable safe distance to go about their routine.

  4. I focused on them with a 600mm lens and waited and hoped for some action.

I got lucky that time. Wildlife Photography is just that though. Successful wildlife photography to me is defined as the moment where preparation and education meets luck.

With that, I wish you good education, good preparation and good luck with your wildlife photography

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Wildlife Photography; Get it clear...

Wildlife can be tricky to photograph. Your subjects rarely sit, pose, or look in the direction that you want them to, so you have to be ready for when they do. I have a couple tips that might help you with that.
  1. Animals move a lot. Use a high shutter speed. I usually use a shutter speed of minimum of 400. You never know when the wolf you are trying to photograph is going to walk, run, jump or swat at something. Nothing is more frustrating to me than a perfectly focused picture that has a lot of blur in the feet (or worse the mouth or head) because I wasn't expecting the action. Some photographers like blur as it shows action. I don't mind blur if it is done on purpose, but even then, to me the eye is drawn to the blur and not the head of the animal where it should be. If you are using a zoom lens that doesn't have image stabilization, it can be a little trickier to get that sharp shot. Your shutter speed should be at least be equal to the zoom of the lens. If you are zoomed out to 250mm, your shutter should reflect at least 250mm, or you may end up with too much camera shake and a blurry picture. I just use image stabilized lenses, so I have one less thing to worry about.
  2. If you are doing portrait shots, and your wolf subject is not moving much and you want a nice portrait of the wolf's head, I change my shutter to a slower speed and a higher aperature. If I am photographing a wolf for instance, because the wolf has a long nose, if I use a low aperature of f4 ish, the nose will be in focus, but the eyes will not be sharp. If the eyes are sharp, the nose may not be. This doesn't look very good. Use a small aperature i.e. f 12 or 14 or as high as you can get it, so you can get that sharp head shot. At the same time, if your portrait shot isn't very tight and you have a busy background, you may better off to keep the aperature large at F4, so that the background is blurred out.
  3. So, large aperature, fast shutter, or small aperature, slow shutter? What do you do? Well, like I said, different shots require different settings to get different effects. I typically carry two cameras. One remains set with a larger aperature and faster speed setting so if the animal is moving, I pick up that camera and fire off as many shots as I can. If the wolf stops moving and sits down and it looks like he is in more of a relaxed mood, I will switch to my other camera (it is usually the one with the larger telephoto lens), so I can do some portrait shots. As soon as he gets active again, I switch back to the other camera.
  4. Animal interaction is great and usually much more interesting than only having one subject. The problem however is for instance, if you are photographing foxes, one fox for can be ahead of the other one slightly, so more often than not, one fox is in focus while the other one is blurry. That doesn't very often make a good picture. Try to position yourself if possible so that both foxes are the same distance from your camera. I stole this picture from the links page on my website. It is a good example illustrating motion, both foxes are the same distance from the camera and the focus is good. Also, because there is interaction, the picture can become much more ineresting than if there was just one fox in the picture. This picture illustrates an adult fox disciplining a baby fox that has gotten out of line. I love this photo. You didn't have to be there to see what was happening in the picture. Like they say, "a picture is worth a thousand words," and that is certainly the case in this fox picture.
Yes, this picture was cropped and photoshopped for my website. If you want to see other pictures of foxes, check them out on my nature website.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Couple Wildlife Photography Tips

  1. Buy the best lenses that you can afford. You will often come across "once in a lifetime" photo opportunities." Every one of those instances will be different, but every situation will be just as exciting and just as important to you as the last one. If you have a lens aperature that starts at 2.8 as opposed to starting at 5.6 and you have 400-600 mm, you are much more likely to get a good shot of that grizzly bear and cubs that you may only get one chance at. Regardless of your photography abilities, a grizzly bear and cubs in low light and foraging for food, may only be three small fuzzy blobs on a grainy picture. With a fast lens and a good reach, your chances of capturing a great image is much much better!
  2. Try to get eye contact in your pictures if you can. People look at the eyes of a picture. A picture of a leopard in the bush is interesting. A picture of a leopard making direct eye contact with the camera is captivating! This picture was taken in the evening. Ten minutes later it was too dark for good shots. I believe I shot this with a 600mm lens. At that distance, the animal appears on the same level and brings the cat in to give an the illusion that the photographer is much closer than he really is. It also keeps you at a safe range from animals that might have you for lunch, while keeping far enough away from animals that may be uncomfortable with human presence. It is kind of hard to get a good shot when your subject is either eating you or running away from you. That brings me to my next point. Keep your focus on an animal running away. Animals are very curious and will often run a safe distance, then stop briefly for one glance back. That last glance is often on the edge of the tree line. They stop, briefly, look back and then quickly disappear into the bush. That last glance often makes great pictures.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Ten Tips For A Perfect Photo Safari

After years of photo safaris, I thought it might be helpful to organize a list of ten safari tips that can help make the difference between an okay safari and an excellent safari. I have been on everything from terrible safaris to some of the most amazing experiences I have experienced in my entire life!

  1. Research, research, research. The internet is an amazing tool. You will need to know what you want to see and what your budget is. If you have the time, an internet connection, some persistence and a little work ethic, the internet will help you find the rest. For example, when I went to South Africa I started by doing a search for the best place in Africa to see the big cats. The results came back as Sabi Sands in South Africa. From there, I went to and read up on every safari company in the Sabi Sands (there are at least a hundred of them not including the adjacent Kruger National Park!)That didn't take long to research. Just eight months:). For a trip that took me 18 months to save up for, I figured eight months of researching every day after work was a small price to pay to for the perfect safari for me and vacation for my family. Trip advisor is an incredible tool. People who have been to hotels and resorts comment on their experiences. Not everyone is going to have comments that you agree with. You won't value the same things that other people value and you will notice the odd kook who is clearly impossible to please, but if there are 50 comments you will usually find a common theme. There are also safari travel consultants on trip advisor who have been to all of the safari resorts who can help answer your questions on which safari resort to visit that will best suit your needs.
  2. Whether you are an amatuer or professional photographer, you may want to consider paying the extra money for the private land rover and guides especially when travel all the way across the world!. When we were in Africa I made sure to book our own land rover in advance, so we didn't have some kid in the front who can't sit still or wants to go home early. Several years ago we were in BC photographing grizzly bears from a boat in the estuary. There was a lady in the boat who insisted that we go home early because we were too close to the bears. The boat we were in had a motor on it and we were in absolutely no danger, but of course we had to leave early without the pictures we came for. Bye bye pictures, time, money, etc. What a waste of everything thanks to some fool that shouldn't have been on that boat to begin with. I don't know what she thought a "grizzly bear safari" involved, but she sure wasn't impressed when she saw grizzly bears!
  3. Photo safaris with other photography professionals can be a great experience. The upside is everyone wants to see the wildlife, there are other people there who share the same passion as you, there are other people to talk "shop" to and you may pick up some great photography ideas from them. The trip also tends to have a great "vibe" as everyone is really excited when the wildlife shows up. The downside though can be huge. Somehow in every group, there will be one or two photographers who will walk out in front of your lens to get their picture, while you end up getting a great shot of his bald spot on the back of his head. If you are thinking this doesn't happen, don't kid yourself. There is always one jackass who won't think twice about this sort of thing. Some photographers can get awfully jealous. Not only do they want to get the best picture, but they certainly don't want you to get anything that they don't have. That downside has caused such grief that now I rarely photograph with other photographers. I know a few who I love going on safari with. If they get a nice shot, I am the first to congratulate them and ask to see their image. At the same time, they are happy for me when I get a good shot. When we go on separate safaris, we send one another our best shots. I love getting an email from a fellow photographer showing off his best images in low resolution. Seeing someone elses work motivates and inspires me while giving me the warm fuzzy "I'm proud of you" type emotions.
  4. Always book an additional day or two more than you think you will need. Mother Nature and or wildlife don't always cooperate, so it is wise to book in a rain day or two on every safari.
  5. Dress appropriately and carry extra clothing when possible. Be prepared for the elements. It is pretty hard to hold a camera still when you are shivering or take good pictures on day two when you have sunstroke from day one. Always bring a rain bag for your camera. Just because it's raining, it doesn't mean your pictures won't be spectacular, but you sure won't want to continue photographing if you are concerned about ruining your camera. has great camera rain gear. Worst case scenario, bring a garbage bag.
  6. When traveling across the world, give yourself a day or two as a buffer before you go on safari. Safaris can be very expensive. You likely won't get the images you were hoping for if you can't concentrate because you can hardly keep your eyes open because of the jetlag.
  7. Download and back up regularly and keep extra back ups. memory cards can become corrupt, external hard drives can malfunction. When we are on safari, after every drive, I back all my images up to one hard drive, then I back up that hard drive to a second hard drive. If I have time, I do a quick scan and back up the best images on my laptop. I bring extra memory cards and on the way back home, I carry one hard drive on my person and one in my camera bag. I went on safari once and my safari companion refused to back up her memory cards. Unfortunately, two memory cards went missing and somehow didn't make the flight back home. She was pretty devastated to say the least!
  8. Never lose sight of your camera gear. If you can't fit it on the plane as a carry on, you can carry it with you until the end of the ramp before you board the plane. Have a steward tag it so you can pick it up at the other end. This way you watch your equipment as it is stored under the plane and you can watch them unload it when you land. Your equipment is carefully stored with wheelchairs, strollers and other personal items that people need right up until they actually board the plane. Of course, too, this way your camera equipment can't accidentally end up on another airline somehow.
  9. Camera bags- Go to a company like They have bags that are specifically designed to fit in the overhead compartments of an airplane. They will fit exactly in those compartments. They are perfect for traveling. They have a combination lock to prevent anyone from breaking into your bag. They even have a cable with a lock in a zippered pocket. I use the cable to lock to my chair when I have long layovers in case I fall asleep by accident while waiting for my next flight.
  10. Remember your R and D ...which of course stands for rip off and duplicate:). You can get a lot of information on photographers websites (including mine) regarding what equipment they are using, where they go on safari, etc. Why learn the hard way when you can learn from someone else's experiences.