Like every person that has a burning passion for wildlife photography, I have a desire to travel and visit some of the greatest places on earth. For me, my dream destination is a place where there is an abundance of not only wildlife, but landscapes and incredible people: Africa - but plane tickets are not cheap and, when you throw in food and accommodation, that sort of money can be hard to come by.
However, the greatest thing about nature and wildlife is that it is all around us. Be it through the towns and cities, countryside, local ponds, lakes, rivers, streams, woodlands, marshlands and the coastal areas, it is there - including in your back garden or right on your doorstep.
Before we roll the shutter button
Since the early days of photography, the subject of planning and preparation has been well documented (a million times or more), but I cannot over emphasise its importance. A great place to start is to research on the internet. There are many great websites where fellow enthusiasts readily write in abundance about their latest wildlife sightings. There are also many animal and bird hides scattered throughout the land, which offer a fantastic opportunity to get close to the wildlife and observe their natural behaviours.
If you simply wish to shoot birds in your back garden then look no further than buying yourself a nice selection of feeders that will attract many feathered friends. Simple but effective. A great idea is to visit your local woods and collect a few branches which you can strategically place near the feeders, as there is a great chance that some of the birds will land on the branch momentarily before they hit the feeders. Capturing birds that are placed on a branch looks far more pleasing and natural compared to your subject on a bird feeder. Many photographers have great satisfaction, as well as exceptional results, using this method. You can also go one step further by constructing a small reflection pond in your garden which birds (as well as other wildlife) will readily visit. There are so many endless options to create an area of interest for wildlife that will raise the odds in your favour of obtaining exceptional quality shots.
Investing in your kit
All the images here were taken with a Canon 5D Mk II and a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports Lens. If like me, you can only justify owning a limited arsenal of kit, each purchase has to be carefully considered. While this year I hope to upgrade my camera body to a 5D Mk 4, I have owned the 150-600mm for almost two years now and use it 99.9 per cent of the time with great results. For bird hides and ground floor shooting I place the Sigma (or The Tank as I refer to it) on a small bean bag for support.
Back button focus - This is my preferred way to set my focus, as I like to keep my shutter button free to simply just take the exposure. My focus button is switched to the AF – ON button at the back of my Canon as I can then focus more accurately and with confidence. Once the focus button is pressed, I can take many images without having to refocus on my subject. Not using the back button and keeping my finger half-pressed on the shutter button to keep focus is a slight disadvantage for me personally, compared to back button focusing.
AI - Servo - Having my camera set in this mode aids my focus on moving subjects. If I am tracking a moving object all I need to do is keep my thumb on the back button focus (AF-ON) and, in most cases, the AI – Servo will do a great job to help maintain good focus.
The Red Deer Stags of Bushy Park, Teddington, UK
This beautiful red deer stag was originally spotted lying low amongst the bracken with only his protruding large antlers giving away his presence. For well over an hour, keeping as low as I could (gaining wet muddy knees in this scenario), it became a game of waiting patiently for the right moment at a range of 15-20 metres from the stag. I was finally rewarded when the stag slowly moved into my preferred background area (with an element of luck thrown in for good measure) for the full portrait. I knew only too well that the stag was aware of my presence but I managed to creep up closer, keeping low, until I got in range to roll the shutter button. I captured around six to eight images in total using continuous mode. Rolling out a sequence of shots can pay great dividends by narrowing the odds on getting a great shot. Using the Sigma 150-600mm with a simple monopod enables me to play the waiting game and concentrate on the shot.
An important factor to gaining better images is to also concentrate on your backgrounds. A good background is more pleasing to the eye compared to a background that is cluttered with objects that will distract the viewer's eye from your chosen subject so try and bear that in mind in your compositions.
The deer image above was taken primarily for a close encounter head shot. If I can get close enough to my subjects I always try to obtain a head shot, as I like to shoot as much as I can of whatever creature is in front of my lens. Classic case scenarios include zooming in tight for the ‘big cat’ snarl or yawn where the jaws are wide open, giving an impressive display of those huge teeth which make for such stunning imagery. Even the slightest frown or tilt of the head will make images stand out more from a straightforward portraiture head shot. Using the 150- 600mm lens gave me a real advantage when getting these types of shots, while not disturbing the deer, or compromising my safety.
Just remember that if you wish to photograph deer please pay these magnificent animals the utmost respect and research the behaviour of your subjects in advance. They are wild animals, after all, and must not be taken lightly. During the autumn months, males will compete with other males for the hinds and can become highly territorial, so be careful on your quest and try not to get too close.
The Blue Tit image was a result of visiting one of the local bird hides in my local area using the tactic of shooting the subject before flying onto the feeders. In this case the feeders were to the right of the shot and an image such as this can easily be obtained directly from your back garden. Throughout the year, birds will often visit bird feeders for a quick meal or a feast of food. You can obtain quality feeders from a variety of good pet stores that will also supply food in abundance, such as peanuts, seeds, mealworms/dried insects, suet and fat balls and fruit, to make your garden a hive of wildlife activity.
Before you start going ‘guns blazing’ with your camera, locate a vantage point where you can produce a quality shot as well placing yourself out of view from the birds. If the birds are confident, then the odds for a great shot will be in your favour. If you don’t have a large telephoto lens then plan a way of getting closer to the action, such as strategically placing your feeders near to your back window of your home and shooting through a gap in the curtains. Another great investment is to purchase a small ‘pop up’ camo-hide to get close to the action. When you finally get frequent visits to feeders the action can become thick and fast, so my suggestion would be to shoot in continuous mode and start off using a shutter speed of 1/1000sec and then adjust accordingly to suit your requirements. Setting your shutter speed in manual mode or shutter priority is a must, as birds move very quickly at times. You can also put your lens into image stabilisation mode to help you to avoid a blurry image.
Using a tripod, bean bag or monopod will also enhance your chances of a tack sharp image. Camera stability is key and essential and a vital part of the equation into getting better/good results.
This shot of a Male Stonechat was taken during a visit to the wonderful Titchfield Haven Nature Reserve in Fareham, Hampshire, using a sheltered hide to obtain the shot. The area had nothing but natural surroundings and, after a while of watching, I noticed a male Stonechat who kept visiting a small patch of dried thistles, providing a background that was just perfect with no distracting objects behind the long stems. Here patience (and good fortune) was going to be key and the next step was to take one or two test shots of the thistle heads to make sure that my exposure was correct, anticipating that the Stonechat would return. He soon did and the image was captured.
Taking a few test shots of an area before you get your subject in front of the lens pays dividends, especially for hide shots. Once you have the camera in tune with the light you can concentrate primarily on your subjects rather than “chimping” (looking at your LCD screen constantly) which could lose you some great opportunities.
Male Mandarin Duck
The Mandarin Duck image is an example of a very simplistic shot and one which demonstrates the power of great available light. This image was captured during an early evening walk around Reading University, located right on my doorstep. In some areas wildlife can adapt to the presence of us human beings, primarily because they know we are a good source of food. When you discover such areas it is always worth bringing along your camera as it will be a fantastic chance to get really close to the wildlife.
Having a telephoto lens attached to your camera body will give you the edge as you can shoot your subjects from a distance without invading their space allowing them to feel more at ease which I guarantee will improve results. Another great tip is to always try and shoot your subject from their eye level. In the case of the Mandarin image I simply got my body as low as I possibly could so that my camera lens was as close to being level with the Mandarin’s eye. All guidelines of course are there to be broken. A quick example is to shoot your subjects with a lower shutter speed setting and trying to add some motion blur which is particularly effective when capturing birds in flight.
The Grey Squirrel
This shot is an example of looking for opportunities to capture a different and unique perspective of your subject. To get this image I had to hand-hold the camera and lens as the angle was too difficult to shoot with a monopod attached. A tripod mounted with a Gimbal head would have made the job a lot easier but this capture was shot the hard way.
Hole in my Life
Locating and finding holes in trees can often lead to a great wildlife shot. If you happen to discover a hole in a tree then the chances are that there is going to be a resident who has made a home inside the warmth and security of the hole. Once discovered, it is worth waiting a while or even returning frequently day-to-day to see if it is occupied. This was the tactic that I used to capture this juvenile Grey Squirrel after I had observed that it had made a residence there. When I returned with my camera I waited less than half an hour before I pulled off a series of images shooting in the continuous mode.
The Little Egret
The Egret picture demonstrates the use of negative space in a shot, something I like to use in a lot of my composites. This is easily achieved by using the back button focus to lock the focus on your subject and then moving your camera to the area (left or right) depending where your subject is facing to create the negative space in the frame. Both images were captured at Lymington Keyhaven Nature Reserve, one of my favourite destinations for bird photography. Nature on your doorstep is a great way to challenge and develop your skills and will certainly provide you with hours of fun which is what photography, in my opinion, is all about.