Whether you’re just interested in capturing some remarkable images of your beloved pet to share with your friends, or eventually in turning your sights toward an animal photography career, we hope the animal photography tips and tricks presented here will prove useful to you.
Try to shoot at high shutter speeds — 1/250 sec or faster. Most unsharp pictures are caused by camera, rather than subject, movement. Camera movement is likely to occur at times when something especially interesting is happening. in your excitement to get what appears to be a sensational picture, you may jiggle the camera. Result — a blurred picture. Learn to squeeze off your shots with a minimum of camera movement.
The angle for animal photography is usually at the animal’s eye level. You can and should sometimes shoot down or up on the animal for a different effect, however. Be flexible — change angles frequently. But, remember the power of shooting at the animal’s level. People are used to seeing animals from the perspective of the human world. In your pictures, show people animals from the perspective of their own world.
Use an assistant. This could be your spouse, a neighbor, or anybody who like animals. I’ve even used art directors on several occasions. Your assistant’s job is to keep the animal in the picture area while you concentrate on the image in your viewfinder.
Shoot a lot of pictures each session. Slight nuances of expression or position make or break animal photography. Watch for off-beat grimaces, odd postures, changing poses — and vary your camera angle. When something good seems like it’s about to happen, or is happening, shoot and keep shooting.
Concentrate on close-ups — especially with small animals. Big heads of cats or dogs are especially effective. Use a supplementary lens or extension tube is necessary.
Animal photography is most effective when the images are well exposed and sharp. The best way to achieve this crispness indoors (or out) is to use flash. Try to favor bouncing the flash if you can. Direct-on flash will often not look appealing in your final images.
Fill the frame with your subject. If shooting animals outdoors, say, at a zoo, this may require the use of a telephoto lens. Poking the lens through wire fencing and between bars can eliminate these nuisances and sometimes help to steady your shot.
Ask for help when shooting at zoos. Attendants and guards can sometimes get an animal to grimace or do a stunt — or the guard can make the animal come closer or move farther away, as required. Or, they may be able to advise you how to act, or what to do, to elicit certain behavior from the animal. They work with the animals every day, are familiar with them, and often times have learned how to effectively persuade the animals into doing certain things.
Be patient. Patience is a big part of animal photography. If you aren’t a patient person by nature, you’ll have to learn to be in order to have any hope of capturing the truly spectacular shots. Animals aren’t always doing something of interest. Sometimes you might have to wait all day for something good to happen. But if you don’t wait, you may not get any really interesting photos. If you don’t know what to wait for, however, there’s not much point in waiting — so prior to shooting, study the habits and routine of the animals that you want to photography. Get some idea of what they will do in a certain set of circumstances. A cat will always wash after eating — so if you want a picture of a cat washing, feed it — then wait. It will was in time. But if you didn’t study the animal’s habits, you might wait all day for the cat to wash.
Be alert while waiting — expect the unexpected. While I was waiting to get a portrait of a horse, a fly evidently buzzed his ear. As he shook his head to get rid of the fly I shot a humorous-type horse picture — and later I got a portrait, too.
Anticipate action before it happens. Animal action happens vertically or horizontally. If an ape in the zoo is sitting in a tree and people begin throwing peanuts into the enclosure, you should expect the ape to come down. So don’t focus where he is; focus where he will be when he starts to descend.
Develop a quick “trigger” finger. Success in animal photography largely depends on being able to shoot quickly when expressions and poses are right. You have to shoot without hesitation. You can develop this technique without a camera — anywhere, anytime. Say you’re watching TV and an actor is about to walk out of the scene by exiting through a door. Tell yourself to shoot the instant the actor places his hand on the door knob. A clicking ballpoint pen can be a good substitute for an actual shutter release. Another scene wherein the actor goes for his gun — try to get his picture the instant he fires. Get the idea?
For fast action — pan the camera. Shutters can stop only a certain amount of action without blur. You can help the shutter along by panning the camera, i.e., moving it in the same direction as the subject moves. By ‘tracking’ the moving subject by moving the camera in this fashion, you can achieve a stunning effect that conveys a sense of vigorous motion to the viewer. Your subject will be sharp, but the background will contain excessive motion blur.
Avoid confusing patterned backgrounds. Say you’re going to shoot a cat on an easy chair and it’s covered with a flowered fabric. Not so good. Use a chair with a solid color or a small design that does not call attention to itself, and away from your subject.
Shoot animal photography frequently. The more you shoot, the greater your chances of getting good photographs. And, the more tuned your instincts will become. In the summer you have lots of opportunities outdoors — with pets and at zoos, dog shows, and farms. In the colder months the indoor displays at zoos are still available, as are the aquariums. More readily available are home pictures of pets. Winter is a good time to experiment with different lighting techniques — available light, bouncelight, flash and reflectors.
Confine the animal to a “stage.” The stage is the area where you want the action to occur. This could be a chair, a table, a corner of a garden. Your assistant will be helpful in keeping the animal in the desired area.
Cleaning up the composition is something I do automatically before even considering pose or expression of the animal. This is especially true when shooting on location. Let’s say I’m at a field trial and want a picture of a setter on point. After picking my setting I take a quick look through the viewfinder and see if there are any distracting elements in the picture. Maybe a crumpled paper coffee cup is on the ground, a dead branch in a cluster of leafy ones, a clump of weeds too near the lens. All of these can be eliminated in a few seconds. I put the coffee cup in my pocket, break off the dead branch and stomp on it, remove the clump of weeds, and I’m ready to shoot. When shooting at home you’ll have to do the same things. Maybe some toys are on the floor, or newspapers are scattered. Clean up what’s in the viewfinder and you’ll get more effective pictures.
A fast shutter speed and small lens opening are recommended for maximum sharpness, but there are occasions when neither is possible. Low-light situations are a good example. To use flash would kill the beauty of the natural light. Use a slow shutter speed and open up the lens to its widest. You’re likely to get excellent results, providing you have focused properly.
With cats I like to focus on the eyes for a front shot and on the nose for a side shot. With dogs the nose is usually the best place to focus. With other small animals the eyes should be sharp. With larger animals such as horses, elephants, and gorillas, focus on the point nearest the camera. Usually your distance from large animals is far enough so that you will have sufficient depth of field to get the entire animal sharp when focusing on the point closest to you.
Outstanding animal photography often results when you combine two different species, especially the young of each. For instance, a baby and a kitten, or a kitten and a puppy, a calf and a child. In zoos the baby animals with their parents can be counted on to do something that is photogenic. A baby giraffe will go under its mother’s body as though going under a bridge, a lion cub will nuzzle up against its father for reassurance and affection. Where animal young are present wait for something to happen — it will, and you’ll get topnotch photographs.
When shooting with flash indoors, keep your animals far enough away from the background so that the subject’s shadow doesn’t fall on the backdrop. With a dark to black background, shadows are not much of a problem, but with a light background shadows can be a distraction.
Outdoor backgrounds include two excellent possibilities. One is the sky — it’s particularly good with a dark colored animal, especially if you’re shooting black-and-white. The other is a dense evergreen tree or hedge, which will yield a dark background. The dense foliage provides good contrast for back-lighted subjects.