I have authored and photographed a number of books with well-known international publishers including Bloomsbury, Bradt Travel Guides, John Beaufoy Publishing and New Holland. I am often asked about my photography and what goes into taking the right image and the techniques used. I will use this question as the seed for this article to summarise some of the key factors I explain to beginners when I am asked about my wildlife photography. Being a good photographer requires many skills, enough to require a book to explain all of it. But let me narrow it down to a few elements which can be distilled into a short article. This article is aimed at people who are using Digital SLRs or mirrorless camera systems that allow a lot of control, much more than with a camera on a smartphone, for example. Three key areas of photography I would focus on are subject matter expertise, technical skills and creative skills. Let me take each of these in turn.
Subject matter expertise is probably the simplest and easiest to address. Whether it is sport, fashion, news or wildlife, you need to understand your subject matter. It will allow you to have the right empathy and to know how to position yourself for your shots and what type of image is needed. With nature photography, especially if you are taking images for a field guide type of book, you need to have immersed yourself in a fair amount of background reading. In fact, many leading nature photographers consider themselves as naturalists first and a photographer second. In life, you cannot wait until you are an expert until you try your hand at something. Therefore, it is an interactive process of taking images and also learning at the same time.
With some types of nature photography, for example, if you want to take stunning images of big cats, you need not have read a lot about their ecology to go on safari and take images. Provided you understand other key factors such as lighting and composition, you may be able to take great images without necessarily knowing a lot about their behavior and ecology. However, if you are photographing subjects such as plants for a book, it is surprising how much you need to know. One of the photographic guides I worked on was A Naturalist’s Guide to the Trees of Sri Lanka published by John Beaufoy Publishing. For the book, I photographed a familiar Papaya plant which is a soft-stemmed tree. Originating in the tropical Americas, it is now widely planted in the tropics around the world. I took a series of images of its flowers, leaves, bark and fruit. It was only later when I was writing the text and looking up some technical literature that I realized that it is a plant on which the male and female flowers are on different trees. The plant I had photographed was a female plant and I had not photographed the male flowers. What surprised me most was that despite having grown up in the tropics, I had not been aware of this. What I had photographed was good enough for a first edition of the book, but I know that I have a gap to fill in the second edition.
The second of my key areas are technical skills. I take this to mean understanding how your equipment works as well as understanding certain fundamentals in photography on how cameras capture images. One of these is the interaction between ISO (more commonly referred to as film speed in the pre-digital era), aperture and shutter speed. For a given ISO, for an image to be correctly exposed, a photographer can only set one of the other two variables, the aperture or shutter speed. One determines the other and the photographer has to make a choice on what is the priority.
Let’s start with ISO as this is the simplest and the usual starting point. The higher the ISO the more sensitive it is to light and the faster the shutter speed. Therefore, it would be tempting to think that one should choose the fastest (i.e. highest ISO number available). But when the ISO increases, whether it is in modern digital cameras or the older film cameras, the graininess of the image increases. Therefore, unless the lighting is very low and someone simply wants to take a record shot, or a photographer wants to introduce graininess in an image for artistic reasons, most photographers limit the ISO to a level where grain is not an issue. I seldom use an ISO more than 400 but there are photographers using high-end cameras who are happy to shoot routinely at ISO 800.
When taking action shots, for example, a fast shutter speed is needed to freeze action. Another way to increase the shutter speed is to reduce the f-number. On your camera, these are the numbers that appear in a funny sequence as f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16, etc. Reducing the f-number actually means widening the aperture or the circular area through which light enters the camera to strike the sensor (or film in older cameras). This works perfectly when taking images of sporting events. However, the choice of aperture, in turn, impacts the depth of field which is very important to understand. The depth of field is the area that is in acceptable focus in front and behind the chosen point of critical focus. When the aperture is wide (or the f-number is low), the depth of field becomes low.
A nature photographer taking close up images of flowers may find that there is insufficient depth of field to show the whole flower in sharp focus. The photographer may compensate by increasing the f-number. But this reduces the shutter speed and camera shake may spoil the shot. A tripod can be used to steady the camera. But it may still pick up subject movement if the flower is being moved by the breeze. In the absence of artificial light, the photographer will often find a compromise needs to be struck.
Therefore, I always start by considering what matters most; is it shutter speed or depth of field? If I want to freeze the motion of saying a flying bird, it is easy; I will use a low f-number (wide aperture) and get the fastest shutter speed available. If I am taking close-ups of a butterfly or dragonfly, I need depth of field. But how high an f-number I can use will be dictated by the available light and the upper limit of the ISO I would like to use, as I cannot have the shutter speed falling low to a point where it picks up camera shake. Most of the time, I shoot in what is called aperture priority mode, allowing me to select the f-number that will give me the depth of field I want and allowing the camera to do the rest. I can see what the camera calculates as the shutter speed for correct exposure. I ensure that it is high enough (or I support the camera) to avoid blurred images from camera shake.
Besides determining the shutter speed, an equally important attribute of the f-number is its control over the depth of field. Creative photographers often use a low f-number and the reduced depth of field to throw backgrounds out of focus. I do this when I am photographing people and I want the attention to be on my subject.
Every photographer combines their control of ISO, aperture (f-number) and shutter speed with another key technical element. This is using exposure compensation to make the camera expose for less or more than the electronics think is the right level. For dark subjects or where a dark background is dominating, I have to dial down the compensation (using a minus setting) and with bright subjects or dominant bright backgrounds I dial-up (using a plus setting).
I often meet people with very sophisticated and expensive cameras who leave it to their cameras to do everything, quite often by selecting one of the program modes. Most of the time this works fine. But there are situations especially when you are working on a book project where knowing the basics is important for taking images that are properly exposed, in sharp focus and with enough depth of field.
The third key area I want to cover in this article is creative skill. This also means understanding lighting and composition. Creative skill is about how to take an image that is impactful or pleasingly composed. With wildlife photography, the composition is just as important as in any other photographic genre. Sometimes it may mean moving a few inches to the left or right to avoid a distracting highlight from the flowing water of a stream which is in the background when photographing a dragonfly. Or moving around so that a flower or a leaf does not have a harsh sky behind it. There are many books published on how to take creative images. In a future article, I will explore some ideas on how to use natural lighting to best effect with nature photography.