In order to create good wildlife images you need to…

Gerry van der Walt All Authors Leave a Comment

In order to create good wildlife images you need to:

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  • Know your equipment
  • Appreciate, know and respect your subject
  • Understand light
  • Try different things
  • Do it for yourself
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Sounds kinda obvious but sometimes it’s worth reminding ourselves why we do what we do.  And how to do it.

As a quick exercise let’s take an image and check it against the list above.

Gerry van der Walt © 2012 - Lion Shaking

This is am image I shot back in January 2010 and quickly reprocessed this morning.

So, let’s look at each of the items in the list above:

Know Your Equipment

This kinda goes without saying but I am always amazed to see how many photographers don’t know their equipment well enough in order to optimize their photographic possibilities.

You need to know what your camera is capable of.  You need to know how the aperture of the lens or the high ISO settings on your specific camera make and model will affect the overall look and feel of your images.

For this image my settings were:

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  • Camera:  Nikon D300
  • Lens:  Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR
  • Aperture: f/6.3
  • Shutter Speed: 1/80
  • ISO: 1,600
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I knew, when shooting this scene, what I wanted to achieve.

I knew that in order to capture the lion shaking the water of his head – something he was doing again and again – I would need a slow shutter speed.  I also knew that I wanted a shallow DoF to try and throw the background as out of focus as possible so I needed a lower aperture.  By shooting in manual mode I was able to dial in the settings that would allow me achieve my results.

With it being rainy and overcast it was quite evident that the light was pretty soft and dull so I knew that I had to up my ISO in order to make my camera more sensitive to light.  The D300 is not the greatest camera in low light / high ISO situations but knowing the camera very well and kn0wing what I could do in post processing, by removing the noise, I was quite happy to push the ISO to 1,600.

The Nikon 80-400mm lens has VR but I knew that with a slower shutter speed I would need to hold very still so a folded up jacket on the side of the game drive vehicle made for a great bean bag alternative.

Knowing your equipment and what it is capable of is, and always will be important in wildlife photography.

Appreciate, know and respect your subject

I am still appalled and shocked to see some photographers shouting, screaming and throwing things at their subjects in order to get them to do something.


What is the point of getting an image of a wild animal in it’s natural environment looking at you with fear in his eyes or his ears pulled back showing you that he is about to get the hell out of there.  You think that makes you a good wildlife photographer because you got the shot?  Think again.  Moving on.

In this particular sighting we sat for a while and watched.

As the rain came down I knew that the lions will shake the water off – cats being cats and all – so all we had to do was wait.  We watched once or twice as they did exactly that and this confirmed the cues we would need to get the shots.

Every time just before the shake the cat would lift it’s one ear towards the sky, almost as if mommy grabbed his ear and pulled him on it due to doing something bad. From there he would drop his head into the shake.

From then on the game was simple.

Watch for the sign, identify the sign and fire away.

Knowing your subject, and even more importantly, respecting and appreciating your subject will shine through in your images.  Keep it real!

Understand light

I know that I wanted to capture the drops as the lion shook his head.

The sky was pretty overcast but you could still see where the sun was through the clouds.  It was one of those amazing African afternoons where you had massive, dark thunderclouds on one side and light, bright clouds on the other side.  Love it!

We positioned ourselves so that the brighter part of the sky was, as you look at the lions, to the back and left of them.  This would allow whatever bright light was coming through the clouds to light up the drops from the back.

Patience and positioning paid off.

Try different things

As with not knowing their equipment properly a lot of wildlife photographers shoot the same images.  All the time.

The reality is that there are hundreds of thousands of people out there with cameras and everybody visiting a game park will have images of a lion sleeping, a lion standing, a lion yawning, etc, etc.

What will make your images stand out is a unique perspective, a slower shutter speed, amazing content – something different!

When you are out in the field try different things!  Again and again!

Do it for yourself

This is, I believe, the most important thing that will make your images stand out.

The moment you start doing wildlife photography for other people you are doing it for the wrong reasons.  Full stop.

The last while I have been amazed at how many photographers create pages on Facebook – which is great and a fantastic platform – and then daily, literally, beg and plea with people to like their page.

Seriously, if you have to keep on asking people to like your work don’t you think you need to look at your approach?  Are you adding value by sharing information or do you just want people to like you page and images so you have the most followers?

So you have 3,000 plus likes on your page.  So what?  Does that make you a better photographer?  Do you really think that every one of those people look at and appreciate your images every day?  You think they see you as a better wildlife photographer because of the numbers on your Facebook page?

I strongly believe that if you focus on your own photography, do it for yourself and add value through your work people will be drawn to your page and your images.

Adrian Stern, a great photographer, posted this on his Facebook page yesterday:

Adrican Stern

That’s what it’s about.  Doing what you do, because you love what you do.

People are drawn to passion and “if you build it, they will come”.

Don’t waste your time begging for the approval of other.

Stick to what you do well and enjoy it!

So let’s recap.

In order to create good wildlife images you need to:

[list type=”bullet”]
  • Know your equipment
  • Appreciate, know and respect your subject
  • Understand light
  • Try different things
  • Do it for yourself
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Until next time.

Gerry van der Walt

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Comments 0

  1. Brad Leontsinis

    Really enjoyed this perspective. Couldn’t agree with you more about taking natural shots without disturbing animals. Nothing irritates me more when guiding then having a guest try get smart like that. Great post!

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      Thanks Brad! Definitaley one of the worst things when people try and ‘make’ wild animals do things for the purposes of getting a photography. Very sad.

  2. Joey

    I believe the worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt. – Wonderful wise words from you… thank you Gerry. You are truly an inspiration, not only as a photographer but also your zest for life.

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  3. Mark Needham

    Agree with all of these points, especially doing it for yourself and knowing the subject. I routinely see people (especially in Kruger NP) badgering and pestering animals to get “the shot” (whatever that is). Most often, however, this does not work, whereas being patient and simply watching things unfold reveals the best opportunities for photography. Nice blog post Gerry; well said!

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  5. sarel

    Hi Gerry.I am realy a new subscriber to wild eye ,to be presice two days.I am also a rookie in photography but I can not explain my passion for it.I just want to say that anybody that tamper with behaviour of wild animals is creating a problem for the next person on his way.Not only that but you are also steeling someone else’s joy too see it as natural as can be.

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