Ostrich & Sossusvlei dune, Namibia
Grizzly bear, Denali National Park, Alaska
Here are some useful camera technique tips that I’ve learned from photographing wildlife, landscapes, aerials and people in every conceivable environment in 50+ countries all over the globe. Though based for 40 years in the arctic (Alaska), I regularly visit tropical locations, unique, endangered animal and cultural destinations, and anywhere else that offers the rush of new experiences and images.
This page will be updated periodically. I will be posting more specific, focused pages on travel and wildlife topics as time permits. Both those topics can fill books, and most photographers looking online just want a concise field guide of tips rather rather than an encyclopedia of hundreds of pages.
As always, I encourage and appreciate any feedback. If you have any questions or suggestions for topics, use the reply form at the bottom, or the Contact us link in the menu.
This is worth an entire book, so I’ll be concise here and tailor some tips to bears. You’ll find some good general tips here that you may have seen elsewhere, but I also point out where and why I disagree with some popular ideas and/or myths propagated by others in the field.
Lens choice (telephoto vs super-long, zoom vs prime fixed) – if you have 2+ cameras, keep different lenses on each. If only one camera, decide if you want just closeups or perhaps some environmental shots showing a sense of place or other bears.Keep in mind that it’s better to use your best lens, even if not as long as a cheaper longer lens, to get closer. There is a lot of variability here, but the point I’m trying to make is that you can’t do much with a close-up but blurry shot, whether that blur is due to lens quality or operator error. Cropping up a wider, but sharper, shot would be your better choice. Plus you may determine later that the wider shot has more environmental character to it.
To a lesser extent, technological improvements in post-processing (e.g. Lightroom, Noise control, etc.) can mediate earlier shots that you just didn’t have the money to use better lenses at the time. This is not an excuse for better technique, knowledge or anticipation in the field. But if you took those earlier shots with a great lens, you’ll have more leeway in sharpness, depth of field, etc. to modify the image with later software technology.
Composition also includes elements such as Rule of thirds, leading lines, depth of field, horiz vs vertical, background elements, etc. These are important in any shot, and can be found in more general photo tips. For now, consider the following:
Leading lines – within or outside the animal to guide viewer’s eyes to the anchor or focus of the scene.. They don’t have to be “lines”. They can be arcs, circles, triangles of arms, legs, other animals looking at the subject, clouds, objects in front of the animal, shoot-through holes in bark, ice, bushes, patterns that “lead” toward the subject, etc.
Depth of field can also be used as a leading line to direct focus. Blurry parts of the frame can focus attention on the subject, whether in front or behind, or create a sense of danger or vulnerability. The wider your lens, the less effect you can produce with depth of field (unless you are up close), as more of the bear and scene will be a infinity, or pretty close. It will also depend on whether the bear is horizontal, head-on or oblique to the camera. If horizontal to you, all of the bear will be relatively within the same focus distance, so less depth of field (larger aperture) may be OK, which will allow you more light. If oblique or facing toward/away, your depth of field will be more crucial to focus on the eyes or whatever is important. A good rule of thumb in these cases (i.e. most of the time) is between f5.6-f11. You can adjust ISO to a higher number if light is an issue, to keep your shutter speed at whatever speed you need to capture action or create blur (see below).
Rule of thirds – try not to place your subject right in the middle, except if it is a huge close-up with no surrounding elements. Allow negative space to follow the animal’s gaze or energy in the shot, and allow “consideration” or suggestion to fill the space. Combine with leading lines mentioned above.
Angles – consider ’em all! From above, below, eye-level (but not necessarily your eyes!), from the side or behind a blurry animal or person, etc. Get down on your chest, knees or in a hole. Getting close to the ground injects a palpable vulnerability and involvement to the shot, and works great with predators like bears, snakes, alligators, etc. Or get up high. Envision how different perspectives might add impact. Is there a background that could be included or excluded?
Cow moose, Kenai, Alaska
Envisioning different angles is part of the larger, vital concept of anticipation. Be prepared for gestures, mouths opening, other animals or mist moving in, etc. I watched the cow moose above for over an hour as she regularly fed and on the bottom and picked her head up every 15 seconds to check for danger. Ask yourself what might happen in this situation? What other animals are interacting with the main subject? Could there be a fight? If it’s raining, could there be a burst of light? If there is a breeze or wind, will the birds be landing into the wind (great for eagles, cranes, etc.)? Will the animal shake the water off? If so, how often? Are people entering the scene, or could you move to include them?
Anticipate synchronicity or convergence. A convergence of events happens all the time, sometimes ever so briefly, and usually catches you by surprise. The image of the sand dune that opens this page is an example. I shot the dunes in different times of the day, returning in late afternoon with the knowledge where the sun would be for the shadows. The light was getting lower, and shadows were forming. But I didn’t anticipate two things: First, that the side light would illuminate the plants on the shadow side of the dune. That gave some nice accents and balance to the shot. Second, the ostrich that entered from the far right. The scene was brilliant enough with the light and color, but the addition – convergence – of the ostrich gave it added punch.
Always be vigilant, scout around the scene, anticipate the possibility that you may be graced with the perfect synchronicity of light, color, action, emotion, eye contact, etc. You may be so focused on getting a close-up of one animal that you miss the sunset or the mist or another animal approaching. Be ready for that life-affirming moment when your heart skips a beat. It’s happened to me many times and leaves me with joyful tears as I mutter “thank you”to the photo gods.
Decisive Moment vs Continuous Autofocus
Springbok “pronking” when startled, Namibia
When you are waiting for action or a “moment” to happen, there are several factors to consider. Is the action moving too fast to keep refocusing (whether manually or automatically)? If on continuous AF, does the camera keep refocusing on unintended areas such as hair, grass, or part of a nearby animal? Will the action be slow enough where you can refocus and be positive you get the eye catchlight or other critical area? How good are your eyes? Is the light and/or scene contrast dim or bright (autofocus works better in bright light or contrasty scenes)?
I have had good and bad experiences relying on AF and continuous focus, vs anticipating and shooting one or two shots when I am confident the eye (or whatever) is in focus. When the action is fast and it is hard to focus manually or use single autofocus (and reposition the camera slightly to keep the subject in focus), I shoot with Continuous AF. This isn’t foolproof, as continuous AF can, and does, trip the shutter when the critical element (like the eye) is not in focus. But it often the mode of choice for sports photographers and fast moving wildlife.
Cameras, lenses and sensors are continually improving to incredible degrees to be able to follow focus on whatever you set (some have eye AF that keep just the selected eyes in focus. Plus, technology seem to be improving in direct opposite proportion to the degradation of my eyes as the years go on. Though I don’t wear glasses or contacts (Lasik has helped), I find myself after years of trial and error, trusting autofocus equipment more and more than my manual focusing ability. Predicting what will happen is the easier part; actually catching that 1/500 second with a manual press of the shutter is where we lag behind technology.
Snake trying to bite handler, Thailand
But here is an important point to remember and something that will ease the pressure of catching every moment at the peak of action. There is an arc of anticipation preceding every peak. Whether it’s a predator catching the prey, or a football player catching the ball, the second before the actual event, or closure of the event, can and often is the most energetic, memorable moment. The viewer fills in the anticipation of the next split second, and the incredible energy of the moment can usually be seen on the faces of the subjects with more intensity than the next moment. That is the moment I often shoot for. Usually you have enough of a split second to trip the shutter manually if you want to confirm focus. But if you think the scene will repeat itself, you could try it both ways. Patience, time and luck are the key qualities you need here.
Exposure, Shutter speeds, Aperture
Iditarod musher and dogteam below Northern Lights, Alaska
The one rule with digital sensors is not to overexpose the highlights – if they are blown out, you can’t recover them with software. The bias in sensors and post-processing software like Photoshop is toward the dark side; you can bring back detail or contrast in darker scenes whereas with blown out highlights you can’t. Noise (lighter pixels) that appears in mono-colored or darker areas is fixable with Photoshop, Lightroom, Nik, Topaz, Noise Ninja, etc.
Learning to evaluate light involves anticipation and a little hope, both with changing weather and predictable animal behavior. The shot above of the dogteam amidst the aurora was taken after many years of shooting the Iditarod, and many takes from dogteams passing under this aurora. There was a fine balance that had to found between the aurora lights allowing enough light to use a fast enough shutter speed for the dogs below (they’re not running that fast). With a little help from Lightroom, the scene was balanced exactly as I saw it.
Most of us love when there is nice direct facial lighting that highlights a bear’s fur or eyes, but often the contrast in those situations can block up the darker areas on their face or elsewhere. Opening up the lens aperture 1/3- 1 stop can help sometimes. Meter carefully off the face and compare with background light to see what areas your meter is prioritizing, and/or what areas you aren’t worried about. Bracket exposures to give yourself some room to adjust things in post-processing. If you have a spot meter option, use it on the animals face or eyes, then lock in the exposure and with pull back or take it as you have it framed.
You don’t want to rely completely on Photoshop or Lightroom to fix exposures that can be field adjusted, but sometimes contrasty animals and light doesn’t make it easy. Just be aware of the light differentials on your subjects and backgrounds, and you’ll be on your way to much better exposures.
With backlit subjects, mentioned above, exposure can be tricky, but if you meter off a neutrally lit surface, instead of the dark bear fur or the direct sunlight, you’ll probably be close enough to keep the rimlight on the bear from overpowering the scene. I usually underexpose a bit to keep from blowing out the highlights.
Regarding exposure, unless animals are running, flying, playing/fighting or swimming, they are usually not fast moving animals. A shutter speed around 1/250 – 1/500 will capture most normal action and allow you to use an aperture of f5.6 – f11. I prefer to stay in the middle of the aperture range to assure enough depth of field when using long lenses (300mm and up) on faces. You can always bump up the ISO to allow faster shutter speeds, and risk some noise. But your shots MUST be in focus; a little noise can be tolerated and fixed in post processing.
Some of you may prefer shutter speeds of 1/1000 to be “on the safe side”, and again, that depends on the light and camera. Don’t forget that faster speeds are not always better. Slow shutter speeds can be great for evocative, mist-filled scenes and to convey the sense of motion, frenzy, anger, etc.
Back-button autofocus is an option that higher end cameras have which allows you to frame and focus on a particular part of the animal or scene, press a button with your thumb on the back of the camera that locks in that focus spot (and/or follows it if it moves), and move your camera a bit to check or change exposure. Some photographers swear by it, others (like myself) find it marginally better than simply pressing and re-pressing the shutter to nail the exposure and focus. When action is fast, sometimes back-button focus can be handy, but you still have to be sure of your exposure. For me, pressing with a thumb and forefinger for back-button, or pressing twice with the forefinger on the shutter button is about the same effort most of the time.
Shutter priority vs Aperture priority vs ?
If you are trying to capture action, you might want to set your camera to shutter priority, if available. You set the shutter speed, the camera adjust aperture and ISO for the correct exposure (you can still override it with compensation buttons). This is often a good setting for fast moving wildlife, as it’s usually much more important to have a sharp shot than one that is slightly dark or light (fixable in the computer).
However, many photographers, myself included, like Aperture priority better as a working setting. You set the aperture and the camera sets shutter speed. Most of the time, you will want your shots to be in the middle range of apertures on your lens, between f5.6- f11. This gives insurance that you are using the very best part of your glass with the best contrast, acuity and cushion of depth of field for focusing anomalies.
With furry animals like bears, even if you focus on the eyes, a random piece of fur or water or insect can seduce the autofocus into the wrong millimeter on the bear’s face. Keeping your aperture away from the wide end of your lens gives you that cushion. Similarly, you don’t want your lens to suddenly expose with f16 or f32 on super bright scenes, unless necessary. This means everything will be in focus, which can dilute the impact or emphasis of your shot.
Setting your camera on Program more or less gives up your right to creative decisions and lets the camera decide, like a robot, what exposure you want. I don’t use it, unless there is a rapidly changing scene in which I’m not shooting for effect or inspiration, merely capturing a moment that is not particularly fast moving or complicated. As with all modes, remember to chimp a few shots in the beginning to see if your camera is doing what you want.
What about the story?
Sheep grazing in clearcut, central Mexico
This section is also repeated on the Photographing Bears page, mainly because I learned it from some master editors and photographers a long time ago, and feel it is some of the best advice I’ve ever heard.
Aside from looking for those iconic single shots that give an instant sense of place or personality, pull back and think editorially. What is the context? Is there a story that can’t quite be conveyed with a single shot? Would a slower shutter speed convey the motion better than a fast speed (e.g. a bear shaking off water, or fighting with another bear).
The recent shift in the last 10-20 years by editors and publications (online and print) to include more images taken by cell phones is a distinct, purposeful acknowledgment of the priority given to the energy and emotion captured in the shot, rather than the sharpest, clearest, closest photo possible. Shoot for energy and emotion, and you won’t be disappointed.
Consider also what a specific scene might look over time – morning, afternoon and evening, or spring through winter? Or the same animal in different situations – feeding, sleeping, playing with cubs, etc.? Are there human-animal interactions that can be pieced together for an impactful or unified message? Many times individual shots don’t have to all be killer shots, but together they have an impact far beyond the power of one.
The story doesn’t have to be physical. It can be historical or emotional, or a message, something for the viewer to consider beyond the beauty of the image. Like the synchronicity idea above, merging beauty with context will add memorable depth and impact.
When I work with NGOs or publications founded or sponsored by NGOs, they look for subtle or not-so-subtle messages like disappearing ice sheets in the north, animals affected by man’s activities, universal bonds and themes that tug on our heartstrings enough to change our minds or our lifestyles.
Keep these ideas in mind everywhere you photograph, because everywhere there are icons and messages waiting to be discovered, connected and brought to our attention. And we respond to photographs more than we listen to logic. We are moved first, then moved to action.
Photos & text © Ron Levy
If you liked these tips, you’ll love our photo tours. We’d love for you to join us!
Ron Levy started leading tours back in 1980 when he was stationed as a Park Ranger on San Miguel Island off the coast of California. He has guided hundreds of travelers on nature, photo and historical excursions in Alaska, California, Arizona and Ecuador over the last 35 years. His images have been published internationally for over 3 decades, including exhibitions in museums and galleries in the US, Europe and Asia. He has been a photography instructor at the University of Alaska, and provides assistance to agencies and NGOs specializing in health and conservation issues worldwide.