A Baker’s Dozen: Tips for Better Wildlife Images, Part 1


Every time I walk past the photos that hang in my home, I think to myself how lucky I am. A huge smile radiates as I see images from the many states and different countries to which I’ve traveled. Within those photos, wild animals appear either in their environment or in full-frame grandeur. Some were made in warm early light and a number with golden late light. Guilt rushes through my system knowing I get paid to bring people to locations and teach photography—I truly feel as if I haven’t worked a day in my life. Lesson to be learned: find your passion and may the same gift fall upon you.

For many, vacations are once a year events and expensive. If you return without good images, the option to go back to the site is slim. It behooves you to do as much prep work as possible before you depart. When the trip is over, memories and your images are the only reminders. When you bring back quality RAW files and optimize them to their fullest, it allows you to relive them time and time again.

To make good travel photos, many factors remain constant. From deciding upon a destination to creating a multimedia show of the best shots, much deliberation and forethought must go into the planning. A safari to Africa is high on most photographer’s lists. Imagine laying out upwards of ten thousand dollars only to find the day you arrive the migration is on the opposite side of the Serengeti. Don’t laugh. I’ve heard horror stories worse than this. Plan every step so you return home with great shots.

The Baker’s Dozen

Just like a good baker, a photographer needs to use the right ingredients and superior techniques to create a tasty finished product. A baker needs to add the basics of flour and water to the recipe. Then there are the key ingredients of eggs, butter and flavorings. Also required are the sweeteners of sugar and honey. Finally, the finished pastry is removed from the oven for all to taste. For the wildlife photographer, analogies can be made to the above.

Any baker worth their weight in salt provides 13 items in every dozen. For the wildlife photographer, I share 13 key points to return home with good images. First, there are the basics: plan the trip, test the gear and learn some new techniques. Then come the ingredients: what gear is a must, how many cards are needed and learn the itinerary. The sweeteners are added to the batter at the destination: work the light, don’t overlook the details, work the background, learn how to use fill flash, capture the local flavor and keep good notes. The finished pastry is the baker’s thirteenth—show off your amazing images: use them as holiday cards, post them on the internet and create a full-blown slideshow.

The Basics:

Plan the Trip

There are many great locations, both within the United States and abroad, that attract me like a magnet regarding their wildlife. Some places are seasonal regarding when the animals appear and some attract various species all year round. Learn when the animals you want to document appear and for how long they stay before you purchase the airfare and book the motels. For instance, the migration goes on year-round in the Serengeti, but the Serengeti is huge and wildebeests and zebras move constantly. Be in the right place at the right time. Guide books and Google provide a wealth of information. Research the food, places to stay, climate at different times of the year and species in detail. Don’t overlook travel chat rooms. Talk with people who have just returned from where you plan to travel.

Gear Prep

It sounds basic, but a huge prerequisite is to make sure all equipment is in proper working order. At least a week before departure, test your gear. Make images with everything you plan to bring to make sure it works properly. Additionally, clean all lenses and filters to free them of fingerprints or smudge marks. Microfiber cloths work well and fold away smaller than a handkerchief. Have dust removed from your sensors. Batteries are the camera’s lifeline. Charge them all and bring extras. Always carry them with you. You don’t want to be left powerless.

Learn Key Phrases of the Language

Communication on a primary level is necessary. Learn key phrases like, “Where’s the bathroom,” “good morning,” “good night,” “please” and “thank you.” Tape them to the back of your camera if necessary.

The Ingredients:

Equipment Choices

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a lot of photographic “stuff,” but I’ve learned to pare down the gear I bring and carry only what I use. For full-frame images and headshots, I bring my 600mm, a 1.4 converter and an 80-400mm. I also find flash to which I attach a MagMod indispensable. I bring two camera bodies, extra batteries and a polarizer to throw into the batter. A small tool kit, headlamp, a Sharpie, notebook, plastic bags and a few other miscellaneous items round out the mix.

Environmental Wildlife

I love it when I get to an area that teems with wildlife and is also beautiful in its own right. This is where I make environmental portraits. For these, I use my 16-80mm on a crop sensor camera, which translates to a 24-120mm on a full-frame camera. I use the rule of thirds to place the animal in the scenic. Real estate-wise, the animal is small, but it shows the area it inhabits—powerful images!

Airport Concerns

Travel with photo gear is straight forward, but photography goes hand in hand with technology, so you’ll also have a laptop. A laptop has to be removed from its case. It doesn’t take a lot more time, but it’s a consideration. If you don’t have up-to-the-minute airport information on what needs to be done to get through security, be sure to check with TSA and review everything.

Stay tuned next week for the final part of this two-part series.

To learn more about this subject, join me on one of my photo safaris to Tanzania. Please visit www.russburdenphotography.com to get more information.

Originally Published December 7, 2020





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