Shooting Fast Subjects in Natural Light

Alex Cearns’ lifelong love of animals has turned into an award-winning profession. She photographs around 1300 animals each year, so knows a thing or two about capturing them in their best light.

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It’s one thing to do that in a studio, but another thing altogether when it comes to snapping them in their natural environment.

“To photograph animals in the wild, you need to meet the challenges unique to photographing unpredictable, and often fast-moving, creatures in conditions that can be far from ideal. At the end of the day, the thrill of achieving the result you're looking for is worth the effort,” says Alex.

If you’ve been looking to take your wildlife photography up a notch, you’re in luck. Here are Alex’s top secrets for capturing fast-moving wildlife in natural light.

GET TO KNOW YOUR SUBJECT

Understanding animal behaviour goes a long way to getting that perfect wildlife shot, so Alex advises you to read up on their habits before you head out.

“Are they more active at dusk and dawn? Is it a breeding season? Do they have seasonal patterns of behaviour (birds floating on the thermal currents or following a certain flight path), or regular habits? Are they dangerous or venomous? Are they found alone or in a pack? Are they aggressive to people?”

“The more knowledge you are armed with, the quicker and easier it will be to locate your subject and find the best and safest way to photograph them when you do.”

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CHOOSE THE RIGHT GEAR

This ties into knowing and understanding your subject as it will determine the type of lenses and gear you pack for the shoot. 

“There’s no need to carry unnecessary weight if you aren’t going to use it when you reach your destination,” says Alex. “When photographing wildlife outdoors I generally prefer to use natural light over flash and I shoot handheld – so I often leave my flash unit and tripod at home.”

“I always travel with my Tamron zoom lenses. I often go for a mega-zoom with a long reach, like the 150-600mm Gen 2 lens when using my Canon and 150-500mm when using my Sony. This enables me to stand back at a safe distance and zoom in. Sometimes, I include specialised lenses like a superzoom, macro, or wide-angle lens, depending on where I’m heading and what I might see when I get there.”

WHAT’S THE STORY?

“When photographing wildlife, it’s our aim as the photographer to capture the poses we see as great images and through them, tell a story,” says Alex.

“By planning the story you want to tell or the message you want to convey through your shots, you’re more likely to capture everything you need.”

“Think about what you want to shoot and why that angle or scene might be interesting. Do you want to do a closeup or full-body shot? These are all things to consider and then experiment with.”

SEE THINGS IN THE RIGHT LIGHT

Outdoor photography is more challenging than studio photography as you have to work with lighting conditions that you have no control over. So understanding how natural light reflects off different animals is key to crafting a great shot.

“Animal’s fur can shine and reflect in full sun, so more even light is best, like shaded areas,” says Alex.

“Overcast days with a light sky are my favourite outdoor shooting conditions. They are bright enough to capture detail in fur or feathers but result in minimal glare.”

“Planning not only where to shoot in good light, but also figuring out the times of day that provide the best light, will greatly assist with the exposure of your subject.”

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TIMING IS EVERYTHING

The unpredictable nature of wildlife means you always have to be at the ready for a photo op and it takes plenty of practice.

“Capturing that perfect moment is something you get faster at, the more you practice,” says Alex. “Digital cameras allow us to take hundreds, even thousands, of images and I always make full use of this in order to get the photo I’m after.”

“Have your camera out with you if you can, wearing it on a neck strap or around your waist on a Spider Holster belt.”

PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE, SO IS SLOWNESS

If you ever needed a lesson in delayed gratification, wildlife photography will teach it to you like no other experience. 

“Patience was the first thing I had to learn when I started photographing animals and it’s a crucial factor when taking portraits of wildlife,” says Alex.

“You’ll sometimes get the shots you want instantly, while others could take hours or days. Being prepared to wait for an image to present itself pays off when you get the shot you have waited for.”

Adding to patience is the need to move slowly as you don’t want to startle your subject with sudden motion or noises. You’ll also need to stay calm.

“Animals can sense when we are nervous or overly excited. By maintaining your composure you will also be more aware of the images you are taking, which results in better photos. Rushed pics can lead to blurry photos through lack of concentration.”

STAY SAFE AND MIND YOUR SURROUNDINGS

Alex has had her fair share of run-ins with animals. It’s part and parcel of working with wildlife, so expect things to go wrong from time to time. Remember, though, to stay safe and know your boundaries as well as those of your subject.

“I always wear very sturdy shoes and long pants when photographing wildlife,” says Alex. “I make sure I know where my feet are at all times and I don’t get so absorbed in the shot that I lose concentration and trip or fall. I don’t want to make any of my shots my last shot.

“Most animals give you a warning or indicator of their intentions before acting with aggression. Paying attention to their body language and trusting your instincts will pay off.”

“If you feel a weird vibe from your subject, listen to it and get out of there or back off. As soon as you notice a shift in energy, take action to stay safe.”

Alex Cearns

Photographer

Dogs Today Magazine UK called Alex Cearns “One of our greatest dog photographers in the world”. She crafts exquisite animal portraits that convey the intrinsic joy people find in animals. Deeply committed to the wellbeing of all creatures great and small, she is considered one of Australia’s most passionate champions and voices for animal rescue and wildlife conservation.

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