Award-winning photographer and lecturer Neil Aldridge explains some simple ways to take wildlife pictures with the wow factor
Whether you’re back-garden birdwatching or roaming new landscapes on holiday, a picture really does tell a thousand words.
Great photos are within everyone’s reach these days, thanks to the technology crammed into our smartphones. These five, easy-to-follow tips will help you to capture the wildlife around you, whether you’re using your phone or a professional DSLR. You never know, the next Wildlife Photographer of the Year could be you...
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1. Three is the magic number
The ‘rule of thirds’ is a simple way of composing photographs that ‘work’ and are pleasing to the eye. Place your subject or a point of interest, such as the horizon, slightly off-centre on a line one-third of the way into the picture. This helps to create balance and allows the viewer to ‘read’ the photograph more naturally.
Artists and photographers have been influenced by the 'rule of thirds' for centuries. This is because, when viewing images, our eyes naturally go to one of these off-centre points, rather than the middle of the shot. It can also be applied to moving subjects, helping to give the star of your image natural space to run, fly or gaze into, making an overall more pleasing composition.
The rule is neatly demonstrated by this image of a red squirrel. The edge of the tree and the squirrel’s eye are both on these imaginary lines, creating space for the squirrel to look into.
2. Get down low
Move around when taking photographs to find the best angle. Be prepared to bend your knees or, even better, to get down on your knees to get a cleaner shot. A lower viewpoint will help to isolate your subject by pushing the background further away. This will also reduce clutter in the picture and make it easier for your camera to focus on your subject.
Getting down low will also help you to take photographs that are eye-level with your subject. This creates a more engaging image and can help make animals look more impressive or imposing.
In this image of a grey seal in a ‘banana pose’, the low angle helps to highlight the unusual shape of the sandy seal against the blue sky.
3. Let there be light
When you’re starting out in photography, it’s best to keep the sun behind you or off to one side when taking a picture. Not only will this mean that the subject in front of you is well lit, it'll also help your phone or camera to focus as it won’t be struggling to find a point of focus in dark shadows.
As you grow in confidence, you can become more adventurous. Try shooting into the sun to create striking silhouettes, or adding extra light to get a more balanced image.
You don’t need expensive camera flashes or professional lights and reflectors to get the best effects. Even the light from a mobile phone screen or torch can be used to illuminate detail in a dark foreground.
And you can use a large juice carton with foil coating on the inside to reflect sunlight evenly onto your subject. Just cut it open and flatten it out, and you’ll have a lightweight reflector you can take anywhere.
4. Catch them in the act
Learn about wildlife so that you can start to predict your subject’s behaviour. Knowing what a species does will enable you to anticipate which flower a bee will land on next, when a bird is about to vocalise or take flight, or identify the perch a darter dragonfly returns to regularly. This will help you to be ready to take your best action shots.
You don’t have to be quick and follow your subject’s every movement. For fast-flying subjects such as bees, it’s easier to pre-focus and frame-up on a flower and then wait for one to fly into the frame.
For slower-moving subjects such as birds in flight, keep your subject in frame by tracking their movement with your camera while taking a burst of shots. It takes practice, but the reward is freezing a moment that your eye may never otherwise see.
Tripods can be helpful. They can take the weight while you track a moving subject, or keep your camera in the perfect position while you wait for a fast-flying dragonfly to return to its perch.
5. Break the rules!
These tips are a great way to improve the overall quality of your photography – but now you know the rules, you can break them. Don’t be afraid to try new things, such as putting your subject in the middle of the frame to create symmetry. Or taking a step back and making your subject small in the frame to show its relationship with its environment. With digital technology and the power to delete anything that doesn’t work, you can let your creativity run wild.
The other great thing about smartphones and small cameras is that you can put them almost anywhere to get surprising or creative viewpoints, such as looking up at flowers in a woodland, effectively getting a bug’s-eye view.
Instead of freezing the action, try to capture the blur of a moving subject, such as a bird, by slowing down your shutter speed. This is even possible on camera phones in the ‘manual’ or ‘pro’ mode, and the results can be dramatic.
Neil Aldridge is an award-winning photographer, filmmaker, wildlife guide and lecturer in photography at Falmouth University. All of the photos in this feature are his own. To see more of his brilliant work, visit his website.