Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

March 2002

Question of the Month

How do you 'Make things happen' in
wildlife Photography?


Some photographers seem to have all the luck. They go out time and again and return with consistently good or even outstanding results. They seem to capture the crucial 'look' or the peak action or the interesting behavior, creating images that seem to elude other photographers. One might think this is the luck that helps make a professional photographer a pro, but in our Nature Photo Courses and photo tours, where we see our participants work, we often see these types of photos from amateurs and hobbyists that just love what they're doing, and are dedicated.

Recently I had a conversation with a professional photographer about how a person's attitude and sense of enjoyment affects their photography, and about the importance of 'getting the shot.' While the conversation was far ranging, it boiled down to this: Many pros love what they're doing because of the life-style (freedom, not money) they enjoy, and the opportunity they have to see and experience things. For some, the seeing and doing and living is, ultimately, more important than 'getting the shot,' as the whole experience is the rewarding aspect. Granted, professionals need to get the shot or they don't make money, but 'getting the shot' should not be the only goal.

What does 'getting the shot' have to do with 'making things happen' in wildlife photography. This. You can't force nature, you can't coerce wildlife, you really can't 'make things happen.' It either does, or it doesn't, and no matter how much you may want something, you -- the photographer, the observer, the naturalist -- do not have any control over whether it happens or it does not. But you may 'get the shot' if you simply 'let things happen,' by simply being the patient observer, watching for clues that may alert you that something great is about to occur.

On our recent Falklands Island photo tours (see our Falkland Island Trip Update) we continually preached the mantra -- let it happen. Personally, Mary and I found that if we simply sat and waited, allowing the birds or seals to become accustomed to our presence and, perhaps, to accept us, we were treated to wonderful examples of natural behavior. A few examples will illustrate. I spent an entire morning on my belly (a comfortable position for ground-level shooting) working a family of skuas. While there, one of the adults flew in with a petrel or prion, joined its mate, and tore the prey item literally in half as they continually offered, or teased, one another with the dead bird. Sure that sounds grisly and perhaps morbid, but the images were exciting ones -- frame-filling shots of two skua heads with a stretched carcass between them, or full-body shots with skua wings outstretched, again tugging at their prey. Later, after dismembering the bird, their tiny fuzzy chick attempted to feed upon the bird, an impossible task as the prey was larger than the chick. In the course of the 5 hours I spent with the birds I photographed this food transfer, several feedings of the chick, wonderful, cutesy shots of the chick tucked under the mother's feathers, and the hatching of its brother -- right before my eyes! On another island three of us patiently waited on a group of black-crowned night herons that had gathered along some shoreline rocks as the tide receded. In the two hours that we watched the birds captured several fish, and, because of their innate tameness here, and the fact that we were still and accepted, the herons often walked within head-shot distance of us to subdue and to swallow their catches. One day, toward the end of the trip Mary discovered a dead baby elephant seal on the beach. Her attention had been drawn by a flurry of activity, the swirling wings of gulls and the huge shapes of giant petrels gathering at the carcass. As she approached, the wary and frequently elusive giant petrels flew off. Mary sat on the beach and waited, and after twenty minutes the first of the petrels returned. Soon as many as a dozen giant petrels had gathered, creating an exciting squabble of fighting, tearing, ripping birds.

These examples are merely the most current, since we just returned from the Falklands and the lesson is so fresh in my mind. But all of our trips and all of our outdoor photo shoots have similar examples. So too with the work we see. When we asked a photographer at one of our courses or tours how they got the shot, the explanation often involved the amount of patience or observation or dedication that was required. Only rarely was the shot just 'luck,' but the photographer had 'luck,' if you will, by being there, waiting, and letting it happen.

Knowledge of animal behavior helps here, as does the occasional use of lures or foods to draw in subjects. But even then, the best shots are ones that ultimately evolve as the photographer lets things happen. You might feel like you're wasting time just sitting and waiting, but chances are, when the shots are made, you'll find that indeed you had not. When do you know if you're wasting time and when is it productive to wait? That can be a tough one, answered perhaps by saying that sometimes it is a matter of intuition, sometimes of experience. But both of these are a product of experience, and experience is garnered by putting the time in, perhaps just by waiting, and from this experience you may get a feel for when you should still plan to stay and when it is time to move on.

I jokingly often say that my Maasai nickname is 'O WAPO,' a word I invented that stands for Oh Wise And Patient One, because I've found that if there is ever a question of staying or going, chances are if you stay, if you are patient, things will eventually happen. The more I shoot, the more I've become convinced of this, and the more patient and laid back I've become. Friends and acquaintances of ours who live in Kenya or who shoot for the BBC certainly have taught us this, as well, as they are dedicated to getting the shot by being there and being ready as they just let things happen.

So, the answer to the question, 'How do you make things happen in Wildlife Photography,' is simply this, by 'letting it happen!' Be patient and enjoy, both the experience and, ultimately, the fruits of your labor!

Do YOU have a Question you'd like addressed? If so, please forward your question to our email address, below, and title the subject of your email (in the Subject field) 'Proposed Question of the Month. Can't promise you we'll address your particular question but we'll do the best we can do.

Previous Questions of the Month

 Why should you know Manual Mode?   Flash and Tele-flash Techniques
 What is the best flash for closeup and
macro photography?
What is the Best Composition?  The Sunny 16 rule -- is it worth knowing today?
 What the heck is the Scheimpflug Law?   How do you shoot silhouettes?
 How would you meter these challenging images?  Using Zoom lenses with tele-converters and extension tubes -- can you use both together?
 What are our Five Favorite Shooting Locales? What is our Favorite bird-shooting location?
 How Easy is Whale Photography?  Is NANPA for you?
 What do we think of the Canon D30 digital camera?  What is NANPA and how will it benefit me?
 Are Image Stabilization Lenses Worth the Money?  How do you shoot high-speed action images?
 Reciprocity Failure  Hyperfocal Distance

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