I learned so much at the NatureVisions photography expo in Virginia last weekend that I can’t imagine how I would summarize it here. But I thought it might be helpful to share just a sampling of the wisdom I heard from the photography pros who spoke. Some of the items on the list below represent a theme that I heard over and over throughout the weekend; others are just random interesting bits of information that jumped out at me.
Action is the holy grail. Nikhil Bahl talked about three kinds of wildlife images: portraits, the animal in its environment, and action shots. In some ways that represents a common progression in a photographer’s learning, and it’s certainly true for me: I’ve gotten to be pretty good at still portraits of birds sitting on branches (what Nikhil and other photographers refer to as “a bird on a stick”), but I have far fewer images that show the bird or other animal doing something.
Nikhil wasn’t dissing portraits: “Everyone should take these, and every time I have a chance to take a portrait, I do,” he said. “But I’m always looking for something else.” A hawk with a little bit of blood on its face, suggesting that it’s just eaten. A fox licking its chops. Those tell a story, and are more engaging than a simple portrait.
My pal Lee Anne, whom I met on a Costa Rica photography trip, has lots and lots of action photos of birds. And by “action photos,” I just mean that she’s good at capturing them doing something, whether it’s singing or jumping or eating or whatever. Here’s just one example of what I mean, an image she took of a brown thrasher in mid-hop:
By the way, you totally should follow Lee Anne on Instagram (she has 45 thousand followers!).
Good nature photography takes time and devotion. Many of the killer images I’ve seen of birds and other wildlife didn’t happen by chance—more often, the photographer spent a lot of time to get the shot. Joe Subolefsky, for example, has some outstanding photos of wood ducks (a bird I’ve only ever gotten a glimpse of, let alone tried to photograph), and in part that’s because he’s been working on them for years. He has a spot somewhere on Maryland’s Eastern shore where he knows they tend to be, and he’s set up nest boxes for them as well as a photography blind where he waits for them. You can see two of his many wood duck images here and here.
Likewise, Nikhil Bahl told of being on a trip in Africa where the safari vehicle parked next to two young male impalas play-fighting—something that they do in order to develop the skills they’ll need for survival. The people in the vehicle shot for a while, then put their cameras away … and not long after that, the impalas started to get much more aggressive. Nikhil, who had kept his camera ready and waited patiently, got great shots; the people who had given up early didn’t. “If there’s action happening,” he said, “don’t put your camera down.”
Nikhil is like most really good nature photographers in that he doesn’t mind plunking himself down in a spot where there’s wildlife and waiting for them to do something photogenic. He showed us a photo of some Atlantic puffins lined up perfectly—an image that he had to wait a long time for.
(This reminds me of an article I saw about the difference between birders and bird photographers. Birders like to find a given species of bird, check it off their list, and move on. Bird photographers like to settle in for a while and spend time photographing. The article has an apt title: “Birders are From Mars; Bird Photographers are From Venus.”)
A little homework can pay off. A few months back, I wrote about the usefulness of doing a little Googling before a trip, searching on phrases like “best places for photography in Santa Fe” or “Prague photography tips” or “a photographer’s guide to the Beijing Zoo” or whatever. At NatureVisions, Joe Subolefsky mentioned an idea related to this that I hadn’t thought of: Facebook location groups. There’s one called Maryland Birding, for example, and another called South African Wildlife Photographers. Just now I tried to see what I could find for Antarctica, since I’m going there in January; the best I could find was a Facebook group called “I’ve Been to Antarctica!”—which, judging from the photos, doesn’t look too helpful. Oh well.
Time of day matters a lot. Roman Kurywczak talked about the importance of getting up early if you want to do bird photography. “I hate mornings,” he said. “But I never miss a chance to shoot in the morning. That golden color, you just can’t fake.” An added advantage is that the sun, when it’s low on the horizon, also casts a nice light into the bird’s eye; it also really brings out the color in the feathers of a subtly colored bird like the tricolored heron.
There’s also good shooting to be had late in the day—even after the sun goes down. You might not think there’d be much to photograph after sundown, but the skies can sometimes get amazing then. Joe Subolefsky showed a stunning image of birds at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, a photo he took well after sunset. (There’s a good article at Digital Photography School about shooting at twilight.)
Head position matters. No, not the position of your head, but rather the head of the bird or other animal you’re photographing. This was a theme I heard a lot over the weekend: The best wildlife photos are either of the animal in profile, or looking right at you, or anywhere in between those two endpoints. If the animal’s head is turned even the slightest bit away from you, the photo loses its impact. As Roman Kurywczak put it, “You wouldn’t shoot a profile of a person looking away from you; why would you with a bird?”
If you’re interested in attending NatureVisions next year, I’m told the dates are Nov. 2-4, and the location is the same: the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, Va.