The purpose of this article is to show the thinking process involved in the preparation and pre-visualization of a wildlife photo session. These notes relate to the work in the field where the photo shoot will take place.
It’s assumed that the photographer will have done the research: visited the location if possible, studied maps/Google Earth of the area, studied the subject to be photographed, put together the necessary photographic equipment, and looked at the weather forecast.
For about two years I’ve been trying to photograph the lives of birds of prey.
The buzzard—a bit smaller in size than a golden eagle—hunts rabbits and other smaller creatures.
The red kite has long wings and a relatively small body, eats carrion although it can take small rodents.
The osprey is smaller than the majestic golden eagle, but if you’ve seen the osprey plummeting into the water to catch a fish, you’ll never forget it.
In photographing action shots, it’s best to pre-visualize the actual session. These questions will help the process:
- How should you camouflage and where should you position the camera?
- What’s the direction of the light and the wind?
- If there’s a choice of lens, which one is best for the task?
- Is there enough light to freeze the action? Is that what you want to do?
- What’s the background like, the texture, the color?
- Will separation between the subject and background be achievable?
- Can the background be made sufficiently blurred so as not to be a distraction?
I carry a homemade hide made up with camouflaged cloth; it’s lightweight and inexpensive. I also take along some refreshments—the wait may be a long one.
When everything is set up, I take my first shot with the camera to check the exposure looking at the histogram. My goal is to get the histogram lines as far to the right as possible without crossing over the right-hand side border.
Reviewing is an important step. Finding out what worked and what didn’t work is a valuable exercise and should be done at the end of every photographic session—the positives go forward, the negatives are corrected.
My plan was to photograph a buzzard hunting a rabbit. It soon became apparent that there were a number of constraints. The huge fields didn’t have much cover for the camera and myself. The farmer refused to allow me access to all parts of his land. I realized the task could take days, weeks, or longer.
I decided to compromise. To photograph these birds at close range I would have to attract them with bait. The owner of the land agreed to let me know when he next was going to shoot rabbits to control their numbers.
The Day of the Shoot
I arrived at the farm and was surprised to see about 12 red kites circling in a manner similar to vultures. Some buzzards were eating dead rabbits while others where taking off with small rabbits in their talons.
I was disappointed because I thought the farmer would collect all the dead rabbits—not leave them all over the land—and let me have a few so that I could position them as bait at my convenience.
Facing this feeding spectacle, I changed my original plan. I grabbed a couple of dead rabbits and rushed to another field. This was a mistake.
I selected a spot, placed the dead rabbits about 20 meters from the camera, and waited.
A few birds flew by ignoring the bait. Then a buzzard came very close to the rabbits but suddenly changed direction. Sometime later a kite circled the spot a few times then left.
After five hours I returned home without a shot.
Everything went wrong from the time I arrived. Preparation could not do much in this instance.
- I was unprepared to deal with the sight of so many birds feeding on the carcasses, leading me to make a rush decision.
- In preparing for the shoot, I found a good spot in the field where I could be well hidden, the camera would be facing south with the wind on my face.
When I changed my original plan, I didn’t give enough thought to the results of the decision. The camera was facing north with the wind from behind me. This meant that any birds landing would have their backs toward the camera.
I conclude that the birds didn’t take the bait because the exposed hide made them suspicious. Birds of prey have extraordinary sight, a movement or something unusual alerts them.
- Arrive at a location before the birds start flying.
- Stick to the plan—unless forced to do otherwise.
- If the plan is changed, study its suitability.
- Select a good camouflaged spot to photograph from.
This article focuses specifically on wildlife photography. However, with a few minor adjustments, the principles apply just as well to other types of photography.
About the Author:
Carlos Pereira received a qualification from the British Institute of Professional Photographers. He developed a successful business in the UK as a wedding and portrait photographer. He received further training in the USA from Monte Zucker, a master photographer. Website: http://www.mountain-light.co.uk. His wildlife and portrait photographs have been published in the UK and European photographic magazines.