Free Content • Seeing The Picture

When it comes to seeing different image opportunities in wildlife photography, a combination of preparation, observation and a mental checklist of questions can help. Mark Sisson is offering a helping hand

Amongst the combination of trips and workshops that go to makeup that particular part of my working life, I run a couple of days that are geared very much towards the real novice; designed to get attendees off the “auto” setting and having confidence to take full control of their cameras. Most have DSLRs, but some arrive with bridge or even compact cameras. Although some aspects of the day’s technical training cannot be applied to their kit, the creative part of the day, designed to get them thinking about composition, most definitely does. It never ceases to surprise me just how good a set of final images I see in the roundup from those working with the more simple cameras. There may be many reasons why that might be the case; one of them is most definitely that a large part of the process of achieving decent images is the ability to ‘see the picture’, and this applies to whatever kit you may be working with.

There are no rules that can be taught easily in this domain, only pointers that can be given. This is the creative side of photography after all; the ability to spot a certain angle, a composition or a combination of elements, cannot be learned in the same way as can the understanding of aperture, shutter speed and ISO combinations. Instead, it has to come partly from within, building on prior knowledge of how the camera works and records the scene in front of you; partly from experience of light and conditions and what sort of images are going to be achieved best in the circumstances of the moment; also, partly in my particular genre of wildlife photography, from a good and intuitive understanding of the subjects that you are working with. That said, I believe there is a number of things you can do to help accelerate your learning and experience of seeing picture opportunities.

The first of these is to do your homework. There is nothing better in any walk of life than being as prepared as you possibly can, and this applies to wildlife photography just as much as to any other discipline.

Before you start working on any new species or groups of species to photograph, the wonderful world of the Internet is a good place to begin. Certain images can be achieved only in certain locations; I am a sucker for silhouettes and, as part of a long-term project on Puffins, I wanted to photograph this particular species in this style. That can be achieved only at colonies which face the right way at the right time of day, so doing the homework on ‘where and when’ to find this type of image is a sensible first step. Combine this with time spent looking through the array of images of the Puffin species in specialist image libraries or the showcase galleries and blogs of good photographers, and you will be ready before you head off with the camera in your hand.
Certainly, I am not condoning purely plagiaristic practices, but having a mental checklist of the type of image that you might try to work on has to be helpful.

I have long carried out quite a lot of woodland and garden bird photography at various feeding station setups over the years and, in this instance, doing your homework applies to another key element: the finding and use of an appropriate perch. Even then it is not just a question of finding a perch with nice flowers or leaves but one that will complement the colours of the bird species you are targeting. Hopefully, this small-in-the-frame Blue Tit on an autumnal Acer branch will demonstrate the point. Having ‘seen’ the picture in my mind when selecting the branch from my garden, it was only a question of waiting for the light to arrive in tandem with the bird sitting in the right compositional spot, for me to grab the image I had been waiting for.

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This leads on to the second consideration; plenty of patience, with your observational skills well and truly switched on and with a mind-set that is ready for whatever might happen. The mental side of wildlife photography has a large role to play when it comes to ensuring that you get the best out of any potential opportunities. Things do not just happen to order and, if the image you had in mind before you left home was well considered and thought through, then it ought to be worth waiting for; if needs be, either today or the next morning or the morning after that. Heaping pressure on yourself to achieve things on the first trip generally does not help; you make your own luck through hard graft and persistence. Equally, you may find yourself in a scenario where subjects are aplenty and you have done the obvious; you may have achieved your pre-visualised image and even gone through your mental checklist of image ideas, but, at this point, you need to let your subject reveal itself to you by being patient in a different way. Put the camera down for a spell and just watch what is happening. Pick on any of the subjects within your field of view and observe what they are doing; how they are arriving and departing, how they may be interacting; looking for patterns of behaviour that might be repeated and, if they are, they might just create that new angle to work on for an image.

On a recent trip to Bosque del Apache in New Mexico, I was there principally to photograph large flocks of Red-Winged Blackbirds in amongst the Geese and Cranes. Occasionally they would take off en masse, spiralling briefly upwards before heading off to a new corner of the field to feed. Switching to a wide-angle lens and waiting for this brief occurrence to happen, resulted in a very different image achieved and envisaged simply through observation.

The final advice I offer is to ask yourself a number of questions whilst it is happening about what you are shooting. Are you sure you are in the best possible position? Can you get a cleaner background by moving left or right? Can you get rid of an out of focus horizon in the background by getting a bit lower or higher? In spite of its tumbling returns, shooting for stock libraries or general end-usage is still an important part of many photographers’ income. Ask yourself just how you can make designer-friendly images, as these will be the ones more likely to be used. They will need clean backgrounds, space for text and copy, be of portrait and landscape orientation, and then maybe have something that breaks the rules slightly.

The final question then is quite simple, what else? Having addressed all the pre-planned and observationally driven questions when photographing a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker a few summers ago, the ‘what else’ question simply involved ignoring the obvious benefits of the lovely low evening sun I had been working in, and moving around to photograph the bird using backlighting. The result was a whole new portfolio of opportunities.

Sadly, there are no short cuts to ‘seeing’ images. As with any discipline, the more time spent taking images, looking at images and thinking about images, improves your success rate. However, you must be self-critical along the way and, hopefully, these simple suggestions may help you on that journey.

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About Author

Mark Sisson

Mark is a widely published and award-winning nature photographer. As a Director of Natures Images, the leading wildlife photography holiday and workshop business, he has many opportunities to travel with his camera, as well as the opportunity to share his passion and knowledge for nature photography.

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