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Adrian Hatwell talks to pho­tog­ra­pher Evan McBride about how you can pre­pare your­self to cap­ture strik­ing wildlife shots

Although wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy has be­come much more ac­ces­si­ble, thanks to the ever-im­prov­ing world of dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy, not all wildlife images are equal. Adrian Hatwell talks to pho­tog­ra­pher Evan McBride about how you can pre­pare your­self to cap­ture strik­ing wildlife shots

Ever since the boom in dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy be­gan, wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy has be­come one of the most pop­u­lar gen­res among pho­tog­ra­phers, pro­fes­sional and en­thu­si­ast alike. Once the prove­nance of spe­cial­ists with ex­trav­a­gant equip­ment, the teem­ing wilds of this green earth be­came ac­ces­si­ble to a far wider ar­ray of ap­pre­ci­a­tors thanks to the rise of pow­er­ful yet af­ford­able new imag­ing tech­nol­ogy.

So, too, has the au­di­ence’s ap­petite for pho­tos of the world’s weird and won­der­ful an­i­mals be­come ever more rav­en­ous. And it’s not hard to see why. A pris­tine wildlife cap­ture not only has the power to take the viewer to ex­otic en­vi­rons to glimpse un­fa­mil­iar beasts but also af­fords us a wider per­spec­tive of the world, chal­leng­ing our hu­man-cen­tric ways of think­ing. Great wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy helps to re­mind us that we are not the cen­tre of the world, and that this planet does not ex­ist for us alone.

But, with the pro­fu­sion of wildlife im­agery flow­ing freely through dig­i­tal chan­nels, it’s pain­fully clear that not all an­i­mal im­agery comes close to these lofty ideals. To help elu­ci­date the path to stun­ning fauna pho­tog­ra­phy, D-Photo has en­listed the help of wildlife-pho­tog­ra­phy afi­cionado Evan McBride. McBride has been a ded­i­cated wildlife shooter since he in­her­ited a cam­era in 2008, and quickly es­tab­lished him­self as an artist with a preter­nat­u­ral eye for com­po­si­tion and a knack for tim­ing. In 2011, he picked up the top hon­our in the D-Photo Am­a­teur Pho­tog­ra­pher of the Year awards, be­fore go­ing on to cre­ate a port­fo­lio stuffed with some of the world’s most pres­ti­gious pho­tog­ra­phy ac­co­lades. He has notched his belt with nods from the Paris Pho­tog­ra­phy Prize (PX3), In­ter­na­tional Pho­tog­ra­phy Awards, Pho­tog­ra­phy Mas­ters Cup, Black and White Spi­der Awards, B&W Port­fo­lio Con­test, In­ter­na­tional Travel Pho­tog­ra­pher of the Year, Bet­ter Pho­tog­ra­phy Awards, and In­ter­na­tional Mono­chrome Awards.

As well as shoot­ing the unique wildlife of home, the New Zealand–based pho­tog­ra­pher has roamed the reaches of the globe — Africa, Asia, Scan­di­navia, the Mid­dle East — to cap­ture strik­ing in­stances of the nat­u­ral world in ac­tion. Here, he shares some of his most es­sen­tial tips for cre­at­ing wildlife im­agery that sinks tooth and talon into view­ers.

Be­fore you leave home

One of the big draws for the would-be wildlife shooter is the chance to get out to see parts of the world hith­erto un­ex­plored. But, though

wan­der­lust might be a great mo­ti­va­tor, a lot of work needs to be put in be­fore you even set foot out the door if you hope to see the best the nat­u­ral world has to of­fer.

First, the bud­ding wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher will prob­a­bly want to choose a sub­ject. There’s some merit to sim­ply strolling about and leav­ing your sub­ject to chance; how­ever, the safer money is on pick­ing a par­tic­u­lar an­i­mal, en­vi­ron­ment, or theme be­fore set­ting out, cam­era in hand. For McBride, these de­ci­sions are best made from the heart: “Pho­tog­ra­phy is very much an ex­ten­sion and re­flec­tion of our­selves, and the choice of sub­ject will al­ways be some­thing I have an affin­ity with, so this is usu­ally my start­ing point,” he ex­plains. “Then it comes down to the type of im­age I am af­ter — I love black-and-white, so a less-clut­tered en­vi­ron­ment and shoot­ing in the snow tend to be themes I en­joy.”

While hav­ing a fo­cus is a good way to get started, the pho­tog­ra­pher also ad­vises keep­ing ide­o­log­i­cally loose — be­com­ing fix­ated on a sin­gle sub­ject of­ten makes one blind to the abun­dant nat­u­ral won­ders in the pe­riph­ery. The liv­ing en­vi­ron­ment has so much to of­fer; you can never be to­tally sure what the star at­trac­tion will end up be­ing. “An ex­am­ple of this was in Sri Lanka, where I went to pho­to­graph leop­ards — the images I en­joyed the most came from be­ing on a river shoot­ing water mon­i­tors and king­fish­ers,” he says.

What­ever you hap­pen to set your sights on ini­tially, one thing that will hugely im­prove your like­li­hood of sat­is­fac­tion is re­search. McBride cred­its around 90 per cent of wildlife-pho­tog­ra­phy suc­cess to the ground­work put in ahead of time. Es­sen­tials in­clude talk­ing to other pho­tog­ra­phers who have cov­ered sim­i­lar ground, re­search­ing an­i­mal be­hav­iour for the time of year you’ll be op­er­at­ing in, check­ing suit­able gear and pro­vi­sions, and sourc­ing lo­cal guides and lo­ca­tions. Ap­proach­ing a shoot with that work al­ready done will give you a def­i­nite edge in the wild.

Boots on the ground

With your home­work done, it’s time to get out into the field. Whether you’re delv­ing into the heart of an un­touched rain­for­est or wan­der­ing to the neigh­bour­hood na­ture pre­serve, there are key con­sid­er­a­tions to be made in any en­vi­ron­ment to make sure you re­main safe, re­spect­ful, and get the shots you’re af­ter.

En­sur­ing you are dressed and equipped for the con­di­tions is es­sen­tial, although what ex­actly is needed will de­pend on where you are go­ing. A foot trek through the jun­gle might re­quire dress­ing to pro­tect your­self from leeches, for in­stance, while travel in arc­tic con­di­tions re­quires pro­vi­sions to guar­an­tee nei­ther you nor your gear freezes. On sim­pler treks, it might just be a mat­ter of com­fort­able cloth­ing and sturdy footwear.

One of the best ways to be cer­tain you’re ready for what­ever the sur­round­ings might throw at you is to con­tract the ser­vices of a good guide.

Un­less you are truly shoot­ing your own back­yard, there will be lo­cals with bet­ter, in­valu­able knowl­edge of the sur­round­ings and an­i­mals within them. A savvy guide will be able to bring you to the best lo­ca­tions, nav­i­gate pit­falls, and help make the most of any wildlife op­por­tu­ni­ties that arise. But, as McBride re­calls with some cha­grin, not all guides are cre­ated equal: “I had one fel­low who, in the dense jun­gle in Thai­land, got so nervy any time he heard a sound [that] he thought might be an ele­phant he would lit­er­ally try to jump into my arms — he was not a great com­fort.”

Once the des­ti­na­tion is clear, one of the best things a wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher can do is keep their head on a pivot. Rather than sim­ply fo­cus­ing straight ahead, look up, down, and to the sides con­stantly — ev­ery as­pect of the en­vi­ron­ment has the po­ten­tial to play home to all man­ner of crea­tures (just be sure not to ne­glect where you are walk­ing, ei­ther). Prior re­search into an­i­mal be­hav­iour will pay dividends when stak­ing out a fruit­ful lo­cale to shoot from, es­pe­cially if you have timed your visit for max­i­mum op­por­tu­nity. McBride points to pho­tograph­ing tigers in Ra­jasthan, In­dia, as an ex­am­ple: “Most peo­ple go when the weather is not too hot, but, at this time of the year, the tigers can stay well hid­den in the fo­liage, and just see­ing them be­comes an achieve­ment. How­ever, go­ing at the height of sum­mer, though it may be well over 40 de­grees, means the fo­liage is burned off and the tigers need to bring their cubs daily to the water holes, which changes the whole com­plex­ity and means sight­ings are fre­quent.”

Amid the ac­tion

It might not im­me­di­ately seem so to the re­cently ar­rived city dweller, but the wilds are a busy place. An­i­mal life is plen­ti­ful, di­verse, and of­ten very fast-paced. Not many pho­tog­ra­phers need to be as quick on the draw as wildlife shoot­ers do to cap­ture the dy­nam­ics of an­i­mal in­ter­ac­tion, but it is no sport for adrenaline junkies — those bursts of ac­tion are in­ter­spersed with long pe­ri­ods of wait­ing and ob­serv­ing. Pa­tience is one of the wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher’s most po­tent tools.

How­ever, as im­por­tant as a med­i­ta­tive tem­per­a­ment and an itchy shut­ter fin­ger are, McBride also ac­knowl­edges that one of the key com­po­nents of most great wildlife images is a de­cent al­lot­ment of luck. Right time, right place, right light is some­thing that can’t be forced, but get­ting your­self in a good po­si­tion with the cor­rect cam­era set­tings can boost your odds.

“As wildlife is gen­er­ally more ac­tive in the early morn­ings and evenings, when the light is not the strong­est, hav­ing a cam­era body that can uti­lize high ISO is very im­por­tant,” the pho­tog­ra­pher ad­vises. “The key is to get an im­age with great tim­ing, in­ter­ac­tion, etc., rather than a pris­tine high-qual­ity one. Ac­tion

is more im­por­tant — set your cam­era set­tings ac­cord­ingly.”

He sug­gests shoot­ing in man­ual mode, with auto ISO set to the high­est rate that still pro­duces an im­age of ac­cept­able qual­ity (test this be­fore you ven­ture out). Wildlife pho­tog­ra­phers are of­ten pic­tured with great, whop­ping tele­photo lenses in or­der to shoot an­i­mal de­tails from afar — it’s an ef­fec­tive, but by no means es­sen­tial, way of go­ing about it. McBride prefers the mo­bil­ity of mid-range zooms (at least f/2.8 or faster), us­ing a 1.7x tele­con­verter on two al­ter­nat­ing bod­ies — a full-frame and a crop sen­sor — to re­duce gear while en­sur­ing va­ri­ety.

In terms of po­si­tion­ing your­self for com­po­si­tion, there are some rules of thumb that can be help­ful. Get­ting down to the eye level of the crea­ture you are shoot­ing, with fo­cus sharp on their eyes, will gen­er­ally re­sult in an en­gag­ing im­age. But that’s not al­ways pos­si­ble in some cases, nor is it guar­an­teed to be the best shot. McBride says there are lots of ways to cre­ate some­thing more dis­tinc­tive or unique. For ex­am­ple, “[l]ook­ing up with a wide-an­gle lens can cre­ate a greater sense of size and strength; shoot­ing into the sun with back­light through feath­ers or fur; look­ing down on large num­bers of wildlife can give a sense of size and en­vi­ron­ment,” he says. “I love to look at mark­ings on wildlife — es­pe­cially those that are not read­ily seen, such as mark­ings on birds, say, [on] the back of or top of their heads.”

Pay your dues

Get­ting great wildlife pic­tures can be a real thrill, but it should never come at the ex­pense of the an­i­mals you’re de­pict­ing, the en­vi­ron­ment you have en­tered, or your own safety. In terms of look­ing af­ter your­self, it’s largely a mat­ter of com­mon sense and not get­ting so caught up in your en­deav­our that you take silly risks. It can be dif­fi­cult to know what all the haz­ards are in an un­fa­mil­iar sit­u­a­tion, so, again, lo­cal knowl­edge can be a life-saver.

“Lis­ten­ing to ad­vice is a manda­tory skill, and tak­ing cues from those that can read their lo­cal an­i­mal be­hav­iour way bet­ter than we as vis­i­tors can is very im­por­tant,” McBride says. A good wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher will al­ways be aware that they are an out­sider, vis­it­ing a home that is not their own, so re­spect is a must. If we do not look af­ter the ecosys­tems and the an­i­mals they sup­port, wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy will serve only as a sad re­minder of what we al­lowed to be de­stroyed. McBride says that a re­spon­si­ble pho­tog­ra­pher is con­stantly mind­ful that the sub­ject is more im­por­tant than get­ting an amaz­ing im­age: “This is first and fore­most a state of mind — na­ture is God’s art and should be re­spected as such. We as wildlife pho­tog­ra­phers are am­bas­sadors for na­ture: we look only and do not do any­thing that would harm or al­ter an­i­mal be­hav­iours or the en­vi­ron­ment of the wildlife it­self.”

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