Few activities are as rewarding or as difficult to master as wildlife photography.
For hours of waiting in the brush, a wildlife photographer may be repaid with only a glimpse of her subject and a few seconds to snap a photo – all while ensuring the photo is well lit, in focus, and aesthetically pleasing.
Wildlife photographers Connie and David Emerson of the Kingwood Photo Club know the struggles and rewards of wildlife photography better than most. The couple has photographed wildlife since the 1990s and mentored other photographers for more than a decade. Since retiring, they have traveled all over the world, from Africa to Asia, capturing photos of exotic birds, lions, and tigers. They also judge the annual Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center photo contest and plan to host a photography workshop at the park in August.
“Wildlife photography may seem intimidating, especially for beginners, but there’s no better way to improve your skills,” said Connie Emerson. “You never know what you’ll find.”
To help other aspiring wildlife photographers refine their skills, we created a list of the Emersons’ top tips below.
Photographers can spend hours fiddling with composition, lighting, and focus. But it’s also important that they know their subject when capturing wildlife – and that requires practice.
“Start with squirrels,” said Connie. “Squirrels are something that will run if you’re not careful. You have to learn about the habitat of the animal you’re trying to capture and how to approach them.”
She encourages aspiring photographers to visit their local parks to capture ducks, birds, and dogs before moving on to more exotic animals at the zoo.
“The zoo is a great place to practice,” she said. “Even though they are in a cage, they’re still moving. Try to track them and figure out where they’re going. You’ll want to find the best light to get that glint in their eye.”
The Gulf Coast region also offers some of the best birding opportunities in the region. While bird photography can be difficult, those up to the challenge will find an almost endless supply of birds at Jones Park, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Brazos Bend State Park, and almost any natural area in Galveston.
“Galveston is great for sandhill cranes, raptors, and coyotes,” said David Emerson. “Go during the spring migration in April. You’ll see birds that you can’t see at any other time of year.”
Bird calls fill forests, coastal prairies, and marshes while signaling the beginning and the end of the day. Photographers who wake with the birds are treated to an abundance of wildlife, but those who hit the trails later in the day usually aren’t so lucky.
“You have to work around the animal’s schedule to be successful,” said David. “The best times to photograph wildlife are from sunrise to 10 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to sunset. You’ll hardly find any animals out around midday.”
Wildlife photography is also seasonal. Spring, winter, and fall are the best seasons for bird photography. In summer, birding winds down, but bobcats, foxes, butterflies, and dragonflies may still make an appearance.
“There’s always something to photograph,” said Connie. “Summer is when you can find all the babies at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. You can usually find something just by snapping photos from your car.”
Almost everyone owns a camera of some kind, but photography as a hobby usually isn’t cheap. The best lenses can capture the details of a feather or an animals’ eyelashes from a distance, but they may come at a steep price – costing $1,000 or more.
Early on, photographers need to decide how much they are willing to invest and set realistic expectations based on that range. Detailed closeups of wildlife usually require a DSLR or SLR camera with a telephoto lens of 200 mm or longer to shoot from afar. Lesser cameras may not be able to capture the same quality and detail, but that may not matter for work that is primarily online, rather than print.
“You want to spend your money on your camera lens,” said David. “The camera body is important, but a quality lens will make an obvious difference in photo quality. The better the lens, the better your pictures are going to be.”
To save money, consider purchasing a used lens or renting lenses for special occasions. Purchasing a prime lens, or lens with a fixed focal length, may also be a good option for photographers on a budget. While they aren’t capable of zooming, prime lenses offer exceptional clarity and sharpness. These lenses are often lighter with less glass than a zoom lens, which translates into higher quality images. Choose wisely, though. Most wildlife lenses should have a long focal length unless you can get close to your subject. Prime lenses aren’t useful for every situation, so only commit to one if you intend to use it regularly.
Some nature photographers are happy using their cell phones. While cell phones don’t yet have the capability of a DSLR, the gap is rapidly closing. Apple iPhones now feature cameras capable of crisp, vibrant colors and shallow depths of field that rival more expensive gear.
And with the convenience of cell phone cameras paired with the popularity of online photo sharing, cell phones are becoming the tool of choice for many.
“You don’t have to go out and buy an expensive camera to be a photographer,” said Connie. “Even cell phones and point-and-shoot cameras can produce quality images, depending on your subject.”
If you’re shooting with a cell phone, choose a less challenging subject and focus on your composition. Photos taken with a little creativity can often rival more technically challenging shots.
Just make sure you understand your camera’s limitations. Cell phones lose quality in low light situations faster than DSLRs, so try to ensure shooting conditions are optimal. Stationary subjects work best. Look for interesting leaves, patterns, and flowers. Unless you can get extremely close, shooting birds and other wildlife with a cellphone usually won’t yield quality results.
Once you turn on your camera’s manual setting, a whole new world of possibility arises. Photos take on a more professional look when the photographer can control the depth of field, brightness, and focus. But if you aren’t yet familiar with your settings, photos can turn out dark, overly bright, or even blurry. Many photographers have regretfully set aside beautifully composed photos because of an out-of-focus eye or soft subject.
To avoid blur, the Emersons advise using a high shutter speed for birds and other fast-moving wildlife. If you’re shooting on a cell phone, target stationary animals.
“If you shoot birds, you want a shutter speed that is a minimum of 1/500 of a second,” David said. “To capture them flying, it needs to be 1/1000 of a second.”
Try setting your camera to aperture or shutter priority to maintain creative control while allowing your camera to adjust for slight changes in lighting.
It’s also important to use natural light. Using flash could scare the animal and almost always creates unflattering shadows and glare. When aiming, set your camera to continuous focus mode and focus on the animal’s eye to maximize sharpness.
“Wildlife is always moving, especially if it’s a bird,” he said. “If the subject moves, the camera needs to refocus.”
Want to put your photography skills to the test? Submit your photo entry to the Jones Park annual photo contest. Printed submissions must be postmarked by Thursday, April 23, or hand-delivered to Jones Park by 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 28. Digital submissions must be emailed to email@example.com by Tuesday, April 28.
Winners will be announced on Saturday, May 2, at 1 p.m. Call for rules to enter or visit www.hcp4.net/jones/photocontest.
The Emersons will serve as judges for the competition and provide valuable feedback and tips for contest participants.
“The whole idea behind this is to have fun,” said Connie. “Get out there and practice, practice, practice, but have fun with it.”
The couple will also discuss year-round photography opportunities in the Houston area during their photography workshop at Jones Park in August. The class is perfect for anyone who would like to improve their photography without having to leave the area, Connie said.
“Many people don’t have the time and money to travel to exotic locations,” she said. “Well, you don’t have to. There are beautiful things all over the city you can photograph.”
Photo above: Courtesy Connie Emerson