08 Jan

I think it is fair to say that there are subjects in wildlife photography and there are pictorial stories told by the wild subjects we photograph.  Of course that makes us ask, when is it a subject only and when is a story being told by our subject? I guess when the two come together a (high interest) subject gives us a behavioural story. Setting the scene, I can say that a subject only is one which is low on story while a subject which is high interest of itself and engaging in interesting behaviour, we have a subject telling us a natural or wild story. Now it is not to say that a great subject  posing is not good to photograph or uninteresting, but I certainly would say that a great subject engaging in behaviour which engages the viewer is the top of the wildlife photographic pinnacle. 

My own original thought is the OSCT principle. That is that to be able to get the (great) story images we desire, we need to combine the opportunity and the subject, in the best possible conditions and apply the most appropriate technique to it, in order to achieve this high goal (OSCT). Let us look at such an image. 

This image, shot in a reserve in KwaZulu Natal in South Africa is that of a Lesser Striped Swallow which is presenting a feather to a nesting site or mate. Anyone who has tried to photograph this and other swallows knows that they are fast, erratic and unpredictable, making them something of a photographic nightmare but also photographically rewarding. 

Seeing the Opportunity 

The opportunity can be elusive, in that we have little to no control of when and where we will find our (living and fast) subject. A few tips: 

  • Know your location and your intended subject and be fairly sure that it is likely to be there.
  • Know the subjects behaviour as best as you can. This will improve your chances of not only finding, it but possibly help the opportunity to be one which produces the great image you are looking for.
  • Simple dumb luck can help you get the opportunity. We can call it “right place, right time”. You have NO control over that!
  • Patience is vital and dealing with disappointment and trying again helps when patience has not been rewarded.
  • Carpe diem. Seize the day, or the moment. Opportunities can be very brief and being ready in terms of equipment, settings and position can make all the difference between getting the shot, or not.

 When opportunities have been kind to you, and once you have “the shot”, maybe it’s time to try something different or quirky. You never know what can come out of that. For example, do a part of the subject, roll your zoom while focusing or try a slow shutter pan for effect, over expose for high key etc. Work to the light as best as you can, to enhance the quality in the opportunity. Early and late light is of course generally best but many good images have been taken in less than ideal light (image in question being a great example of that).  The rules in various wild areas can also be a hindrance to getting the right lighting angle.    

Finding the Subject  (No subject, No shot) 

Subjects can be found randomly (the most used method) by going out in good conditions and shoot what you find, or specifically, by targeting a subject and shooting only that. Caution: Shooting boring and overly familiar subjects is to be avoided, unless they can be shot in a unique fashion, and so telling a great story. Backgrounds. Many if not most poor wildlife shots of great subjects come from being shot with distracting background elements. Check what is around the subject and try, where possible, to re position yourself so as to eliminate distractions, zoom in more (if possible). Constraints encountered can be due to location rules, other people or objects or just plainly not enough time before the conditions which made the opportunity a good one change. We can’t control our subjects that well in this type of photography.   Are you thoughtful, or “hit and miss” about composition? “Finger photographer” or a calculated, artistic photographer? Behavioural aspects. The more we know our subject the more we increase our chances that we can anticipate its behaviour, which can greatly help us to capture the subject and the shot as we want it.  

Conditions (for shooting) 

The conditions we are faced with are not all equal. There are ideal conditions with ideal lighting, beautiful complimentary (which in the desired context can be anything but complimentary!) colours, clear backgrounds, appropriate background to subject distances with optimum angles and also those which  are simply not that good. Know what is uncontrollable and what is not. What is controllable, control to your maximum advantage and what is not, work within the constraints, with creativity, in positioning yourself and with camera settings, as best as you can. Example (controllable):  Within reason you may be able to control the angle of your shot. Do that. Get that best angle, get a better perceived angle by changing your vehicle or body position or camera angle in relation to the subject, light and shadows and background. For instance, hard light is seldom good but if a subject goes into a shaded canopy of trees, for example, that can be magical. Hard light can also be used as an opportunity to shoot unusual effects (slow shutter panning?).  Example (uncontrollable): You can’t go off road due to rules or practical impossibilities, so move and anticipate the animals behaviour. If you are fortunate it will do as you think it will: great shot. If not, well…….You could have just stayed where you were and got the “average” shot. Is that what you want? Maybe, maybe not. It has been said that “in an age where photography is an everyman’s game, only the greats are able to differentiate themselves”. If the conditions are really poor, dull and grey, go back to bed, rest, have a drink, clean your lenses, whatever, and wait until later or tomorrow. The late and early debate. 

“Golden hour” thinking is well known and produces great images with great colours and amazing effects, so says everyone, and they are generally right!. It can also produce changing conditions which mean constant changes need to be made to white balance, aperture, sensitivity, exposure and speed settings. This can catch the unwary out and they end up with poor shots of remarkable opportunities!   Unusual conditions can produce unusual pics and unusual pics may be……unusually appealing! That is often what differentiates them from “the rest”. 


This can be summarised by saying: 

  • Be ready. There are no real default settings but being ready means being at settings that could, without much time lost, having your camera with right lens and set up  as correctly as possible, be able to get that shot. Remember those magical moments can be very fleeting.
  • React, carpe diem, seize the day, or moment, and compose in a flash, keeping as cool a head as possible. You are very likely to be under pressure.
  • If you have time and that behaviour or story is sustained or repeated, fine tune your technique in terms of settings and/or composition. I personally advise a quick glance at your histogram to see that your exposure is good and a few fine tuning adjustments. To get there ask yourself “what can make this better?”  More/less depth of field, more/less speed, higher/lower sensitivity, exposure compensation to get a darker or lighter look, contrast adjustments or white balance changes.
  • Avoid looking at the rear of camera images. I could say at not all but certainly not during a story playing itself out. The light in which you are, camera monitor settings and viewing angles all play a part in possibly being misleading here. My motto  here is “if the histogram looks fine, the image is (except if I focussed poorly, no cure for that one)”

 Let us look at the image of a Lesser Striped Swallow which is presenting a feather to a nesting site or mate again in the context of how it was shot. The technicals: Nikon D850, Nikkor 300mm f4 PF ED lens. 1/3200s f7.1 ISO 320 -1EV. The scene and story: The time of day was midday, the light good to strong. The swallows were very active, erratic and moved between dark areas and far lighter ones. I opted to only shoot in the lighter areas, looking for high action. Frustrated, I identified a pattern whereby this and another were landing on a branch on which they remained briefly. I decided that I needed a high speed and to protect my whites, underexposed with the bonus of being able to shoot at a 2x higher speed by going a stop under exposed. Depth of field was irrelevant as the subject to background was such that I would get good separation at up to f11. Resultant loss of speed in a wider aperture dictated that I stay at f7.1. Suddenly, the swallow swooped and collected “something” and then hurtled to the branch. I grabbed him with tracking and then saw that it was a feather. I knew that the under exposure has paid off, the light part of the feather was safe from being blown out (loss of detail). Should I have used f8 or even gone narrower? That is a bit of a moot point. To maintain the chosen speed, which I felt I really needed, would have meant raising the ISO, which could easily have been accommodated. The effect may have been a better level of sharpness on the tail of the bird, lack of which does help to accent the front, where focus is bang on concentrated, which I doubt would have happened as I think that this more high speed movement based than depth of field related. 

Very interestingly, 5 days after completing this blog, one of the top wildlife photographers said this of this image "story telling image Marc de Chalain". 

A few more “subject and story images” for you to see. Feel free to comment, criticise or critique them.

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