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4 Creative Ways to Improve Your Wildlife Photography

Taking creative wildlife photographs is difficult. We have all come home disappointed from a shoot because the shots we captured didn’t reflect the vision we had at the time.

This can leave us questioning our own photographic ability, but the problem is often more to do with our mindset than a technique issue.

From time to time, it’s possible to fall into a “creative rut.” If this happens, ensure that you draw on your emotions and not what the photography handbooks tell you.

In this article, I will provide you with some tips and suggestions on how you can improve your wildlife photography to ensure your images are more creative and imaginative.

1. Learn to master the use of light

A camera is just a tool, but light is what can transform an image into something beautiful.

As wildlife photographers, we are often exposed to the elements, and we don’t have studios with controlled set-ups. So, we need to understand how light falls on a scene and the qualities it possesses.

mountain hair backlit

I believe that photography is never about the subject, but about the light. The beauty of working with light is that there is no definitive answer to what the best type of light is. It all depends on the species you’re shooting and what kind of images you would like to portray.

There are 3 main things to consider when thinking about light: the type of light, its direction, and the tones of the light.

As light moves through the daily spectrum, the temperature of the light changes. The most golden tones being displayed earlier or later in the day (when the sun is close to the horizon) – this time is known as the golden hour.

puffin at golden hour

During the periods before sunrise and following sunset, the light cools down to display blue hues (referred to as the blue hour).

Modern-day cameras have excellent capabilities at high ISOs, making it easier to shoot in low light. In contrast to the bright and golden tones, the blue hour displays a unique ethereal, almost dreamlike, quality.

During this period light levels will be low, so a high ISO is normally required and you will need to keep a close eye on your shutter speed to balance the exposure properly and not suffer from camera shake.

Canada goose

These are just two examples showcasing how important light is to your wildlife photography. Yes, the camera allows you to capture the images – but light defines the qualities which images convey.

2. Experiment with your shutter speed

Each time you take an image, the shutter opens and closes to let light reach the sensor; this is what creates your image. Shutter speeds can be described by the speed in which the shutter opens and closes.

A fast shutter only opens the shutter for a short period, whilst a slow shutter means it is open for longer. Only by understanding this will you be able to move forwards and creatively use your shutter.

Slow shutterspeed gannet

A perfect example to explain this is when photographing birds in flight. For many photographers, their first instinct is to use fast shutter speeds, freezing the action as the bird flies through the frame. There is no issue with this, and I still enjoy capturing these split-second moments in nature. But I would encourage you to think outside the box and get creative with your photos.

In the image above of a northern gannet, I was sitting on the clifftops of Hermaness NNR, Shetland. I’d spent a bit of time shooting the gannets flying below using a fast shutter, freezing the action. After a short while, I came to the conclusion that these images were “bang average”.

Rather than settle for average, I decided to slow down the shutter to 1/15th and attempt to record the movement of the birds as they flew around below.

To achieve this shutter speed, I lowered the ISO and increased the aperture to f/25. The technique required doesn’t change when attempting to create motion blur – you must still position the bird in your viewfinder, lock-on, and track the subject as it moves across the scene.

Don’t get disheartened if it looks like it’s not working: the rewards are great but the hit rate is low with this style of image.

Creative shot of seabird

3. High key photography

As photographers, we are often taught to take balanced and correctly exposed shots. In order to move forward with your photography, you need to break these rules.

High key imagery is often best suited to certain conditions, such as snow, fog, or bland skies. They often display minimal tonal range with little or no dark shadows present.

Mountain hair ears

When photographing high key subjects, you will need to add a positive exposure compensation. The aim is to take your histogram as far to the right as possible without blowing out the highlights of your subject.

For the image above, I wanted to create a unique portrait of the elusive mountain hares in the Scottish Highlands. Remember, when shooting portraits, it doesn’t always need to be a full-frame headshot. They simply need to capture the character of the subject.

Shooting on clean white snow is perfect for high key photography, as the white canvas provides a beautiful clean slate to work with. I pushed the positive exposure compensation to +1.7EV, which allowed me to brighten the image whilst keeping the exposure of the subject correct.

When shooting high key, keep referring to your histogram to ensure that you are not blowing out any important parts of the image.

Read more: High key Wildlife – How to Create a White Background

Mountain hair stretching

Again, with the image above, I dialled in a positive compensation of +2.3EV to keep the creative white-on-white effect.

A quick tip when working in the snow: if you leave the compensation at 0 the camera will render the snow a muggy grey and not the beautiful, clean white we are after. To achieve this, you will always need to dial in a positive compensation – always keeping an eye on the histogram so not to blow the important elements of the image.

4. Low key photography

Low key photography is the polar opposite to high key. It utilises predominately dark tones, creating a dramatic feel to your images. The images are largely dominated by dark colours and shadow, with a highlighted focal point.

Low key photography is my favourite style, and I’m drawn to the darkness and sense of mystery this approach creates.

Low key photography is commonly used in studio and portrait photography. It takes advantage of our eyes being drawn to the lightest part of the image.

Low key puffin portrait

The most important factor for the low key style is light. Studio photography has the benefit of lighting setups, but low key wildlife photography is still possible using natural lighting.

To maximise your chances of achieving low key images, you need to think about what you want to be illuminated in the image and what you want to be cast into the shadows.

Creative puffin photography

The image above was taken on Skomer Island a few years ago. As the sun rose over the horizon, the first rays of light hit the face of the puffin. To keep the background as dark as possible, I chose to position the puffin against a distant cliff face which had fallen into the shade.

For this style we will need to concentrate on negative exposure compensation, this time exposing for the highlights. To expose for the whites of the puffin, I dialled in a negative compensation of -1.3EV. This allowed me to retain the detail in the puffin, and at the same time throw the scene into darkness, creating an image full of impact and drama.

In conclusion

Let your images reflect your mood on the day of shooting. We all go through stages when our creativity falls into a bit of a rut, so during these times draw on your emotions and shoot what you feel – not what the photography books tell you to shoot. 

Photography is an art form that should reflect your mindset, and not what you think others would want to see. Hopefully, this article has inspired you to take a step back, rethink, and shoot how you feel.

Kevin is a multi-award-winning wildlife photographer, tour leader, and photographic guide with a passion for UK wildlife. Kevin has been a runner up in Nature Photographer Of The Year competition and was proud to see his mountain hare image grace the cover of the BWPA collection in 2018. He's also had multiple awarded images in international photography competitions such as Bird Photographer Of The Year & Natures Best.

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