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Animal photography, strangely enough this is one of if not the most divers of photographic specialities, children are children, cars are cars, food is food etc. but under the guise of animals comes birds, fish, domestic, wild, very wild and extremely wild! Not forgetting insects, alligators and the rest.
Now before going any further, here are the dos and don’ts:
- Don’t put the animal at any risk of injury.
- Don’t put yourself at any risk of injury.
- Do make sure you are properly equipped with food etc. for the animal.
- Do make sure that you have enough help to handle the animal.
The problem with animal photography is not helped by the difference in sizes, one day a mouse and the next a giraffe, all this means a considerable amount of different cameras, lenses, tripods and lighting. So let’s start with something easy, young ducklings, I thought it would be nice to have a few ducks wandering around my garden in France, so at the local market I purchased 12 of the most beautiful ducklings we could find.
I’m sure you will agree they look lovely, this image was taken while in their cage when still too young to be let out, the light was daylight coming through French windows and a reflector to fill in on the right hand side. You will notice that the camera angle is very low, as with most subjects, get down to their level.
What happened to the ducks? Well as they grew and got more confident thinking we were their parents they started to follow us wherever we went, well the garden was ok but when they followed me upstairs my other half bought an end to that adventure, they were given to a neighbour.
Now to the less charming, with most larger animals one must be careful, even cats and dogs that are normally calm and quiet can have bad moments if not handled with care. For any animal, other than one you are well acquainted with, the owner should always be present but not be intrusive unless required. Many an animal owner will try to force their pet to do something whereas the softly softly approach is normally better. I do remember a shot for Friskies with seventeen cats and one of the owners was taken to hospital with scratches bad enough to need stitches on both arms because she tried to force her cat into a restricted space.
With all animal photography the eyes are terribly important try to get the most detail around the eyes as possible they can tell a story on their own.
I was trying to photograph frogs for this lesson but for some reason they refused to cooperate then having given up for the afternoon I threw a piece of bread into the water for all the fish to nibble on when a frog jumped on it and used it as a raft. I don’t know what the moral of the story is but there must be one.
Even if the lighting is not 100% in the image the eyes can be brightened in post post-production, if you have a retouching program on your computer.
Cats and dogs
With domestic animals think about the image as you would a photo or portrait of a human, try to get their natural look, they all have little habits for example most cats lick there paw if it has some butter on, this always makes a great shot. Be creative and find ways of provoking these habits. Dogs, particularly puppies, will lean their head to one side and look straight at you with a great stupid expression, or try photographing dogs in action, talk to your local dog agility school for training dates so you can practice, you might even make some money by selling prints to the happy owners.
Horses should be shot either in movement jumping or running using the same techniques as sports photography, or standing still in profile like a racehorse portrait, a photo taken in any other way can become very quickly a snapshot.
Rabbits and hamsters, and other small pets, are always better photographed as part of a portrait. For example, a girl with her hamster or a boy with a frog, these are images that will bring back memories for years to come.
Beware when photographing mice, hamsters etc. keep the doors closed, as I am rather ashamed to admit I did not and when a hamster got free there was a general cry to shut the door unfortunately as the door closed the hamster was halfway out but at least we had a photograph to remember him by.
Normally for complicated animal photography I would work with a professional animal ‘wrangler’, basically the man that takes the risks. I use a studio in France that has everything I might need including 5 studios 1 shooting pool and outdoor sets, here one can shoot virtually any animal existing. Their Private zoo has many trained inmates from lions and tigers to eagles and bears.
The above advertisement for Valvert was shot in a studio. The bottle and rock were placed in a 3x3 meter pool of water as this type of eagle will only feed while flying across water. A small piece of chicken was placed just behind the bottle for the bird to fly and grab. We were able to do around 20 flights a day before the eagle had eaten enough.
This shot represents other problems, the first a very wild and dangerous animal, the second how to get him to drink from the bottle, the third how to stop him from covering the label and crushing the bottle.
On my first visit, just to see the beast, I had taken along a special reinforced bottle with a reduced exit to allow the bear to lick the sugared water from the bottle. camera at the ready in case a miracle happened and I might get a shot, we gave the bottle to the bear who promptly lay on the floor and drank the fluid ripping the label and the bottle in the process.
And if you don’t believe he was real...
If you are lucky enough to go on safari you will find that a very long telephoto is the best lens to have. Remember also that a lot of the animals sleep during the hot day and will start moving towards water holes and the like in the evening. This of course means lower light levels so make sure that you are ready and able to cope with this, either by having lenses that have low f numbers or making sure you know how to change the iso quickly on your camera. Animal photography is all about knowing your subjects habbits, so do the research before hand.
Always be ready! These elephants appeared and disappeared in moments.
This shot taken in Zimbabwe was with a 200mm, 250th at f2,8 on a canon. I had to creep up on them for around 15 minutes until I got close enough to photograph them.
Practice makes perfect often with animals you don’t get a second chance, so get to know your equipment or you might miss that special moment. Take yourself to the zoo or wildlife park and practice.
While I cannot cover a subject as large as this one and cover everything, Amazon have a large selection of books on different types of animal photography.
Tip, for a fun image catch a butterfly and very carefully cool it by leaving it in the fridge for a few minutes carefull not to leave it too long 4 or 5 minutes! When taken out it will be half asleep and you will find that it will happily sit on someones nose for a time as it awakes it will spread its wings and fly away. I'm told that the same works with bees but I've never tried that.