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Shooting roar! Five top tips for photographing wild animals

The team behind the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards 2018, sponsored by Affinity Photo, share their five tips for getting great wildlife photographs.

The aim of the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards is to use humorous animal photography to help convey a serious conservation message.

As well as being award-winning photographers in their own right, Paul Joynson-Hicks and Tom Sullam are the co-founders of the awards. Here, they give their top five tips for taking great wildlife photography…

1. Know your gear

Before you get out into the wilds, make sure you know how your kit works.

It sounds obvious, but understand about changing shutter speeds and ISOs, so if a situation develops quickly you can go with the flow.

A cheetah can go from lounging around under a tree to 90kph in a jiffy, and you need to know what to do! Also, make sure you can change lenses quickly if needs be.

2. Look for light

Always know what the light is doing, where it is coming from and how it’s going to affect your image. This is pretty much the same for all photography but in wildlife photography you can’t control it.

If it’s sunny, make sure you are out and about before the dawn so that you can find yourself something to shoot as the sun rises as well as hoping for some glorious animal to be sitting there with its face bathed in that early morning glow.

“The eyes will light up, no big black holes and a wonderful warmth which you can’t replicate. Your ISO, aperture and shutter speeds can all work magnificently together to get some great images.”

3. Care about composition

You may well know about the basics of composition, the Rule of Thirds (if not look it up!). But remember when shooting wildlife if the creature is sitting/looking/walking/running/flying from right to left, leave enough space in your composition on the left hand side so it has room to walk, look or fly into.

The other most important compositional mistake we all make from time to time is too much foreground. If in doubt leave the empty space at the top of the picture.

For wildlife portraits remember that you want to focus on the face of the creature.

This means you really want to try and blow out the background with a shallow depth of field, i.e. a big wide-open aperture, depending on what your lens can go to something like F4 or F5.6 should do the trick.

If you want to catch wildlife in action, such as lion cubs jumping, cheetahs charging about, or birds in flight, then remember you need a superfast shutter speed. Use your ISO to achieve that, don’t be afraid to pump up the ISO to 3200/6400 and above depending on your camera body.

You can’t make blurry, soft pictures sharp, but you can reduce noise in images.

One last thing on composition, always remember that there is more than one way to photograph any particular scene, so shoot it the way you feel instinctively first and then shoot it the other way.

For example, if it’s a lion in a tree, shoot a fun close up and then perhaps shoot a wide option with the whole tree in.

Panning definitely comes under composition. We absolutely, totally and utterly love this technique, it’s all about having fun and creating something a little different and creating a sensation of movement.

You are looking at moving the camera in the same direction and at the same speed as a walking or running animal whilst taking slow shutter speed pictures.

I tend to start at 1/10th of a second and work from there, that may be too slow for a running cheetah and all you’ll get is a blur, but it would work for a trotting elephant for example.

Try it, it’s great fun and broadens your photographic scope.

4. Know your wildlife

Ok, so you have got out there into the wilds, and you have established the best light and the best composition, but do you know what’s going to happen next?

In order to maximise your photographic potential and opportunities talk as much as you can to your guide, read books, research online so you can try and predict (ok, so let’s say ‘guess’) what’s going to happen next, where certain animals are going to be at what times of day and so on. Knowledge is power.

5. Point of view

Remember when photographing wildlife that ideally, you want to be as low as possible to the animal. In a perfect world we would all be on our stomachs in the grass, but rather you than me facing up to a grumpy buffalo! So if you are in a safari car, shoot from the roof hatch, but also the window.

You could even try holding your camera out of the window, if it’s safe to do. Shooting jaguars in Brazil we were lucky enough to be in a boat, so we had a wonderful low point of view.

“Finally: always enjoy the experience … and make sure that you do what you can to contribute to the conservation of the area you are in.”

Are your animal photographs award-worthy?

The Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards is an annual contest that combines amusing animal photography with a serious conservation message.

Your wildlife photographs don’t have to be shot in the Serengeti, like Paul’s. The only rules are that there should be no pets or captive animals (so definitely no zoo animals).

Top prize for the overall winner is a one-week safari in Kenya, and there are other prizes for individual category winners, including the Affinity Photo People’s Choice Award.

Judges include TV wildlife presenter Kate Humble and Will Travers OBE of the Born Free Foundation, which is supported by the awards.

A version of this article was published on Creative Bloq in April 2018.

PR manager

John heads up our public relations and is co-editor of Affinity Spotlight, as well as being responsible for a lot of what we post on our Facebook page and Twitter feed. When he’s not trying to charm journalists into giving us more great media coverage, or serving as butler to an elderly cat, his interests include music, Cuban cigars and American whiskey. Get in touch with John if you would like to contribute to Affinity Spotlight or have any press enquiries.

Credits & Footnotes

All images used with permission of Paul Joynson-Hicks.