As I sit here pecking at the keyboard, I was thinking about what really makes a decent wildlife photograph. How does one get to a finished product to hang on the wall or share with others? Searching for the secret through millions of posts on the internet for that magic answer has not proven fruitful, although there are loads of people out there with equipment reviews that will give suggestions about how spending money will improve your photographs.
As for me, I have acquired some decent equipment over the years, and yes, played the game of "Get the Goodies", when it comes to camera gear. In retrospect, having compared images from older camera gear and new, a different strategy has occurred to me. In actuality, I have been utilizing this strategy for years, but hadn't really spent the time to organize it, or thought of it, as an actual strategy.
I now refer to it as "The Three P's".
Wildlife photography is not a task, chore, or specifically designed end product. It is the amalgamation of three basic components of which the first is...
Patience: This is essential in not only wildlife photography, but also other events in your life. It is true that you can capture an outstanding wildlife image without having patience. You may enjoy shooting many images and move around from place to place chasing wildlife, and yes, occasionally coming up with a usable image. But productive wildlife shooting in the outdoors (not including zoos, rehab centers, etc.) can be quite difficult. It is even more difficult when you are after a specific species. Animals have habits, food sources, and daily activity schedules just like humans. If you required photos of me, for example, you wouldn't want to hang out at a Starbucks in hopes of spotting the David Bozsik bird. But on the other hand, if you located yourself by a nearby pond, you will be provided with many sightings of me as I go about my daily activities.
Wildlife photography requires plenty of time learning about animal habitats and each individual's requirements. This requires patience either reading about, or observing wildlife in the field. Spending a bit of time with others who are familiar with the wildlife in a given area can also be productive. I will often take the time to say hello to another hiker along a trail and ask them if they have observed any wildlife. If they have, inquire some specifics about when, as well as where, they happened upon the animal. Timing can be as important as the location. Remember, most animals are creatures of habit and will return to the same spot at the same time if the location is providing consistent food or cover.
Another part of patience is sitting your butt down in a spot and letting the wildlife get used to you. When I entered the thicket 5 minutes ago, many species of wildlife were watching me enter, followed my activity, and for the most part, avoided that location. But if I kept still, they became distracted with their daily routine and other new stimuli such as a potential predator flying over, ripe fruit in the trees as they scavenge, or finding a mate if the time of year is right. BUT YOU HAVE TO SIT STILL AND BE PATIENT.
Listen for sounds of activity. The sounds of scratching on the forest floor as the fox sparrow searches for its breakfast is perfect. Wait for the animal to do the moving. It is already busy enough that it is making sounds and not aware you are present. Wait until it emerges from the vegetation. If you attempt to stalk it, you will make noises that will alert the bird of your presence. BE PATIENT.
I recently spotted a garter snake out hunting. It was approximately 50 feet away. I watched the direction it was headed, and moved to a location 20 feet ahead of the snake and waited. Eventually the snake slid by the location I had chosen, unaware of my presence. So patience often pays off.
Practice: This is important for a number of reasons, and the first would be timing. The difference between a good shot and a great shot is often the timing. Animals "do stuff" all the time, and knowing when to expect that "stuff" to happen is all about timing and practice.
I have a bird feeder in my yard. I spend time just shooting images of subjects that I have thousands of already. Why? Because I want to capture the bird just as it jumps to the next limb, looks at another approaching bird, or some other kind of action. This takes practice and observation... many hours of it.
This first capture is a nice, and somewhat interesting presentation of the alert and hunting Great egret.
Moments later, I was rewarded with this shot. Obviously some action here. But patience paid off by staying with the subject.
Just minutes after the previous capture, I was excited to have this moment save to my camera's memory card.
Practice also hones the skill set required to quickly change camera settings to fit the desired lighting or swap a lens in the field. Practice will allow you to quickly change the lens and possibly acquire the image before your subject departs. Practice also helps you to make these decisions quickly when time is of the essence.
The next two images are an example of the difference a split second can make in a photo. Two simple captures. Compare the two.
Processing: This is a BIG P that is often set on the back burner of the skill-set-stovetop. But for me, I feel it has the same significance that the initial capture does. Learning how to process the image once it returns to the digital darkroom can save you from the shortcomings of the camera's electronics and present the subject in the best lighting and emotional context possible.
I have accidentally taken some images of wildlife at the wrong setting, but with processing skills, I was able to salvage the image into a usable one. This is immensely important in wildlife shooting as you can seldom replicate the moment. A pair of earrings or glass of wine can be set up in the studio over and over until you get it right. This rarely happens in the field of wildlife photography.
Here is an example of an underexposure due to backlighting of the subject. With a bit of post processing, the image can become much more pleasing. I even added a bit of clouds to enhance the static background.
Don't underestimate the ability to remove unwanted parts of a scene to make the image more pleasing to the eye. The whole point is making a photo worth viewing. Sticks, man-made objects, human tracks, etc. can really subtract from the final composition. This is important with landscape as well as wildlife photography. Post processing is a very essential component in constructing the final image for presentation.
So there you have it.
The 3 P's of wildlife photography from my perspective. There are other ideas out there that are very valuable in creating a final image you will be proud of. So get out there and be patient, practice often, and be vigilant in your post processing to provide a wonderful final image for others to enjoy.