Want to try your hand at wildlife photography? Good photo opportunities are all around us and there is no better place to start than a zoo or wildlife park. Make the most of these local opportunities and shoot like a professional from the start.
Choosing your Location Professional wildlife and nature photographers spend weeks researching locations before they even pick up a camera and shoot. To copy their approach you'll probably find a quick search on the Web will reap dividends. For example check out the excellent Wildlife Trust site which details top locations for wildlife throughout the UK. Or alternatively try the RSPB site for details on their reserves. Both sites provide links for more information and some sites even give free fact sheets on particular species. Armed with this information simply pick a location that interests you and that is not too far away from home. Alternatively a nearby zoo can be an excellent venue to take stunning wildlife shots. What these locations have in common is a wide variety of species that are used to seeing people. This means you can get close to the wildlife without using huge and expensive telephoto lenses.
What Equipment do you need For your first visit try to keep your equipment choice as simple as possible. A lens of 100mm and 200mm is ideal, better still a telephoto zoom that covers the same range is all you need. For vivid colours on print film try Kodak Gold 200, or for slides try either Fuji Provia 100f or 400f (both these slide films are becoming a favourite among the pros). Kodak Ektachrome 100VS is another useful slide film for dull weather if you want to boost colour saturation. Take a flash if you have one and a luxury you may want to consider is a monopod or beanbag to help steady the camera.
Animal and Bird Portraits The key rule is to fill the frame with your subject. A good starting exposure is a shutter speed of 1/250sec (or faster) with an aperture of around f/5.6. If your camera has an aperture-priority setting, simply set the aperture to f/5.6 and let the camera handle the shutter speed, just checking that it does not fall below about 1/250sec. With a 100mm lens this will give you enough depth-of-field to keep the eyes and most of the face in focus. For larger animals try stopping down to f/8. An example of this technique is shown in the profile shot of the owl. Centre your focus on the eye for the most powerful portrait. Also at f/5.6 backgrounds that are more than about one metre away are thrown out of focus making your picture literally leap of the page, or in this case screen!
Feeding time can give you some interesting images. See how different the owl portrait is from this shot of the baby owl gulping down its breakfast! It was taken with a 180mm lens set to f/4 and a shutter speed of 1/250sec.
Shooting through a Cage and Glass A lot of wildlife parks keep their animals in open mesh cages. You can make the cage literally disappear by pressing your lens against the mesh (rubber lens hoods or skylight filters are great for making sure the lens is not damaged in the process!), making sure your lens is positioned so the wire of the cage is not in the centre of the frame, and setting an
aperture of f/5.6 or f/8. Then focus on your subject and shoot.
This picture of the Scottish Wildcat was taken in this way using a 100mm lens at f/5.6. These rare wild cats look tame but have been known to bite through the steel and leather protective gloves used by the keepers!
You can use the same techniques for shooting through glass, although this time you may need to use flash as most subjects will need the additional light. The lens can be stopped down in this technique (try f/5.6 to f/8), and the lens pressed against the glass will eliminate unsightly reflections. If you have an auto exposure sensor on the flash you may have to set the thing manually as the glass can cause the flash to cut off too soon. A word of warning - many zoos and parks do not like people touching the glass on their enclosures so please check first before you try it!
Creative Portraits Try looking for a different angle on your subject. The shot of Swan with its signets, taken at an RSPB reserve, shows what can happen if you shoot against the light. This portrait has a slightly surreal effect and differs from the many 'postcard' type shots of birds that can be taken at these resorts.
Next Steps Once you have had your pictures developed examine them carefully. Are the eyes sharply focused? How does the composition look? Is everything in focus that should be? And so on. In later articles we will describe more advanced techniques such as using flash to lower contrast and add interesting highlights to your subjects eyes. For now though just 'get your gear to the wildlife' and have fun!
Research your location.
Equipment - choose 100 or 200mm lens and ISO 100/200 film for your first trip.
Use a guide exposure of 1/250 second (or faster) at f/5.6.
To shoot through cages press your lens right against the mesh and set the aperture to f/5.6 to f/8.
To shoot through glass press your lens against the glass (check for permission first) and use flash.
Fill the frame with your subject for stunning portraits.
Focus on the eyes of your subject.
Try creative or different shots that appeal to you.