5 Pro Tips For Wildlife Photography

5 Pro Tips For Wildlife Photography

General How-To

5 Pro Tips For Wildlife Photography

pro tips wildlife photography
Wildlife photography is booming with shooters of all skill levels as advances in digital technology and better lens design make capturing wild creatures easier and less expensive than ever before. And if you’re a wildlife enthusiast, you can practice your passion from the far-flung corners of the world or the comfort of your backyard with a bird feeder and some natural wooden perches.

And even though it takes a great deal of skill and patience to master most basic wildlife photography, it also requires some creativity and imagination to capture images that inspire and stir the soul. If you desire to elevate your images beyond the mere ordinary and uninteresting, these five pro wildlife photography tips will set you in the right direction. Not only will they help you create more professional-looking images, but more compelling ones too.

Compelling Wildlife Photography
“Shadow Bear” Alaskan coastal brown bear in dramatic back light. Lake Clark National Park, Alaska USA

Look Beyond Conventional Front Lighting

The most frequently used lighting choice when shooting wildlife is front lighting. “Point your shadow at the subject” has been the tired refrain of wildlife photographers for decades since it can be assured the bird or animal will be evenly illuminated. It’s easy. It also happens to be unimaginative and dull. You’ll miss out on other exciting and creative lighting possibilities by always opting for the sun at your back. Side lighting, directional sunlight from a 90-degree angle can reveal texture and add depth to your wildlife subject, creating the illusion of three-dimensions. Backlighting, which is essentially shooting directly into the sun, can give translucent materials such as fur and feathers a beautiful glowing rim light. This effect is much more dramatic than conventional front lighting. However, be aware of possible underexposure, autofocus difficulties, and sun flare when shooting backlit subjects.
Wildlife Photography
“Approaching a Rift” I used 1/6 second shutter speed to give this still image the illusion of motion.

Pan With Long Exposures

Add some dynamic movement to your images by introducing some long exposures into your wildlife portfolio. Animals on the move or birds in flight offer suburb opportunities to use slower shutter speeds with camera panning. Freezing the action with faster shutter speeds will nearly always be the initial impulse for most wildlife photographers, but sometimes it’s better to go with the flow! Start with 1/15 second for moving subjects and experiment from there: faster exposures for rapidly moving animals and longer exposures for slower. You want to express motion while preserving the integrity of the animal’s primary features so it’s recognizable, especially the eyes, if possible.
Compelling Wildlife Photography
“Desert Nomad” Oryx stopping for a rest in the Namib Desert, Sossusvlei, Namibia. The wider perspective pulled in the background lines and shadows, making this a far more compelling image than a mere close-up.

Go Wide

When shooting wildlife, the photographer’s first impulse is often to grab the biggest, longest lens in the bag and zoom in as tight on the subject as possible. This strategy is great if you want to start counting fur fibers and feathers, but it isn’t always the most compelling option. Every so often, try resisting this urge and explore a more expansive view instead. Not only can the surrounding environment give perspective to the moment and help tell a story about the creature’s life and habitat, but it can also help create a more compelling composition by bringing in complementary lines and visual elements. The next time you’re using a telephoto lens, pull your eye away from the viewfinder every so often and look around at the subject’s surrounding environment and ask yourself if it’s adding more to the whole story or not. You would be surprised how often the answer is yes.
Compelling Wildlife Photography
“Paulet” An Adélie penguin welcomes visitors to Paulet Island, located on the northeastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. I was flat on the ground shooting upward with a wide-angle lens for this intimate portrait.

Get Low

With but a few exceptions, the absolute worst perspective when photographing wildlife is at a downward angle. Capturing the top of an animal’s or bird’s head isn’t going to move or inspire anyone. Psychologically, it’s condescending and authoritative. Aesthetically, you have the immediate ground as your background and little or no eye contact with your subject. Choosing a low, eye-level perspective, especially with the smaller animals, makes it much easier for the viewer of the image to relate and connect with the animal. The emotional implication is mutual respect, not dominance. Getting low also delivers far more interesting, out-of-focus backgrounds where the subject almost “pops” off the screen.
Compelling Wildlife Photography
“Polar Intrigue” Polar bears engaging in play fighting – a great example of both gesture and interaction, Barter Island, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska USA

Show Gesture and Interaction

The three most essential ingredients in a successful wildlife image are composition, light, and gesture. Everyone knows something about composition, and we talked a little about light earlier. Gesture is defined as the “movement of part of the body that expresses an idea or meaning.” We want our images to have meaning, so why not let our animal subjects help us express it? Don’t be satisfied with photos that only show a static animal or bird staring blankly into the camera. Show how these animals interact with one another, play, mate, or hunt for food. Unless you intend to photograph a documentary image for a field guide, don’t be satisfied with a simple stock wildlife portrait. Wait for something special to happen, and then be ready to act!

My Favorite American National Parks For Photography

My Favorite American National Parks For Photography

Bucket List

My Favorite American National Parks For Photography

National Parks for Photography

My recent travels have taken me to some amazing places around the world (Iceland, Patagonia, Myanmar, Tanzania, and others) but many of my all-time favorite photography locations are the National Parks of the United States. Most of these parks are beyond beautiful, easily accessible for recreational activities, and are preserved as sanctuaries for pristine mountains, deserts, forests, seashores, tundra, and the wild creatures that inhabit them.

The writer, historian, and environmentalist Wallace Stegner is credited with coined the phrase America’s Best Idea when referring to the National Park System. Here’s what he said in 1983: “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

At the time of this writing, there are 59 National Parks in the United States. By my last count, I have photographed in 32 of them. Here – in no particular order – are my 5 favorite National Parks for photography, with a few honorable mentions thrown in as well. If you have a favorite that American National Park that didn’t make my list, let me know which is your favorite in the comment section, including why.

Yosemite National Park

No other place in the world inspires photographers quite like Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Iconic landmarks such as El Capitan, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls are burned into the psyche of landscape photographers in both name and visage. Spring, particularly the month of May when the waterfalls have the highest flows and the dogwoods along the Merced River are in bloom, is the most popular season for photographers. The summer months, with bumper-to-bumper traffic in Yosemite Valley, should probably be avoided but any season will produce fantastic images, including winter. Regardless of the month, Yosemite is always a good idea!

National Parks for Photography
National Parks for Photography

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It’s the most visited of all the national parks in the United States as well as one of the most ecologically diverse. Often dubbed “Wildflower National Park” because of the profuse blooms each spring (mid to late April is best) the Smokies have so much more to offer than flowers. There is spectacular autumn colors in late October, stacked mountain ridges, and wildlife too, including the highest density of black bears in the world. The Smoky Mountains National Park is also my “home park” and the place where I honed my skills many years ago. For sentimental reasons alone, it’s one of my all-time favorite national parks for photography.

National Parks for Photography
National Parks for Photography

Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park in Maine is one of the few places in the US where you can capture both deciduous autumn color (second to third week in October) and dramatic seascapes in the same frame. Favorite photography locations within the first national park east of the Mississippi River include Jordan Pond, Jordan Stream, Otter Cliffs, Monument Cove, Cadillac Mountain, Duck Brook, and Hunter Beach Cove. Nearby Bass Head Lighthouse can be crowded with other photographers at sunrise or sunset but it’s certainly worth a visit anyway.

National Parks for Photography
National Parks for Photography

Arches National Park

Delicate Arch is the most famous landmark in Arches National Park (it’s featured on Utah’s license plate) but it’s certainly not the only shooting location. All in all, there are more than 2000 sandstone arches in the park as well as many other geological formations, windows and fins that make superb photo subjects. With Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park nearby, the town of Moab, Utah makes a great location for a week or two of landscape photography and you still won’t scratch the surface of the available locations.

National Parks for Photography
National Parks for Photography

Yellowstone National Park

As America’s first national park established in 1872, Yellowstone National Park is best known by photographers for its wildlife and the many geothermal features found within its 3,468.4 square miles (8,983 km2). I’ve been traveling to Yellowstone for wildlife for more than 20 years and it never disappoints for the wildlife opportunities or the geysers, mud pots and fumaroles. Lamar Valley is often referred to as “America’s Serengeti” because of the sheer abundance of wild animals and is one of those places no wildlife photographer should miss during their lifetime. My favorite seasons for visiting for photography are spring, autumn, and winter while summer is a bit too crowded for my personal taste.

National Parks for Photography
National Parks for Photography

Behind The Lens: Cradle of Life

Behind The Lens: Cradle of Life

Behind The Lens

Behind The Lens: Cradle of Life

Cradle of Life
“Cradle of Life” Lone giraffe on the Serengeti Plains under dramatic evening skies. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. Canon EOS 1DX Mark II and Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens @ 70mm, 1/250 second @ f/13, ISO 100.

Cradle of Life

This captivating image of a giraffe on the Serengeti Plains almost never saw the light of day. Captured in June of 2017, it has languished in my image files (perhaps it was published somewhere on social media at some point) as a rather pedestrian sentimental wildlife image with a contrived, rule-of-thirds composition. There’s the fantastic, early evening light with crepuscular rays that added a dramatic flair, that’s all it had going for it to be honest.

I should say that it wasn’t exactly the same photo as the one you see above but it was the same capture. The original color version just didn’t inspire me very much, but I revisited this image during the coronavirus lockdown and decided to see how it felt in black and white. It was only then that the image came alive: the Serengeti grasses pulsed with the blowing wind; the light flooded the frame as the rays beamed from the sky; and the dark storm clouds loomed ominously over the wide expanse of the plains.

All of that was missing in the color version. My image portfolio is made up of 95 percent color images because color is such a big part of my experiences but every once in a while, a black and white interpretation better expresses how a scene felt to me than color. Cradle of Life is one of those exceptions.

The key to creating powerful and compelling black and white images is contrast. If your original raw file doesn’t contain much contrast, make it. Darken the darks, lighten the lights, create contrast by selectively adjusting tonal values of each corresponding color. And unlike color photos where there’s an implied threshold of believability that shouldn’t be crossed (photography is the only form of art where people expect the image to represent something real) that isn’t the case with black and white. Push the blacks to the limit if you like. The black and white medium doesn’t represent what we see because we don’t see the world that way. You have more creative latitude as a photographer to create mood with monochrome even if there isn’t any.

Cradle of Life was captured with a Canon EOS 1DX Mark II camera body and Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens. The image was processed in Adobe Lightroom and Skylum Luminar 4.

Cradle of Life can be licensed or purchased as a print here.

Bernabe Answers Twitter AMA (Ask me Anything)

Bernabe Answers Twitter AMA (Ask me Anything)


Bernabe Answers Twitter AMA (Ask me Anything)

Bernabe Twitter AMA

Go Ahead. Ask Me Anything

If you feel 2020 has been like a strangely dystopian episode from The Twilight Zone, you’re not alone. To borrow and paraphrase a colorfully descriptive lyric from the pen of musician Gordon Summer, it’s been one humiliating kick in the crotch after another for humanity. It began in January – as most years do – with Kobe’s tragic death and limped into February with the persistently hellish brushfires in Australia, where 40 percent of the koala population perished. It’s estimated that the total area of torched land there, when the fires were finally contained, was equal to the size of Portugal. March smirked, said hold my beer, and unleashed a global pandemic on the world that forced almost every human being into a self-isolating lockdown with nightly rolling death counts and frightening toilet paper shortages. April conceived a vision of what a 1930s-style Great Depression might feel like and gifted us a flying demon called the murder hornet. And if all that doesn’t Sting enough, we’re not even halfway through May.

So, at the urging of some Twitter followers, I sheepishly offered an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session with the hashtag #BernabeAMA on April 28 and 29, as a modest distraction from all the above. I chose some of my favorites and gave my answers here. I’ll try to address as many of the others as I can, but most were fairly redundant so an answer to one is an answer to many. I also tried to avoid most of the technical gear questions because….well, I think gear is boring, at least for what I wanted to accomplish here. I’ll get back to you personally about your camera gear and lenses. Hey, I do have the time.

So here we go. Thanks to everyone who participated!

What was your biggest photographic challenge? @IamnotMarilyn

My good friend Rick Sammon just completed a book titled Photo Quest: Discovering Your Photographic and Artistic Voice and I was honored to be asked to write the book’s foreword, which I happily did.  With regard to “finding your voice” I attempted to make two key points. First, it’s essential that you know yourself. Know your sources of happiness, your deepest fears, who you really are and what you’re not. Be honest since this is where the voice comes from. Second, as an artist, you need create for yourself. Be selfish. Don’t create to pacify the critics or impress your peers. Don’t create for the sake of “likes” on social media and don’t create for commercial success either, otherwise it’s not your voice. It’s the voice of someone else. By being selfish, paradoxically, you ultimately achieve perfect selflessness since there’s no greater gift you can give your audience than a piece of your authentic self.

Now I hear many of you shouting into your computer screen or phone.

“That’s sounds great, Bernabe, but how can you be a professional photographer or artist and make a solid living if you’re not listening to the market and what editors, collectors, and clients want from you and your work? How can you survive financially?”

The long answer to that question would make an excellent blog post or essay for another day. The short answer directly addresses your question as to my biggest challenge.

I have always admired your photos with symmetry of animals. And this is very different from a landscape. So, what happens first: luck or patience in getting the shot right? @40GRAUSS

Luck plays a much larger role in wildlife photography than any of us would care to admit but it still runs both ways. I’ve been in situations where I’ve done everything right and prepared for every possible contingency and it didn’t work out because of something completely out of my control. Conversely, there were times when I couldn’t be more inept if I’d forgotten to remove the lens cap yet still managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat. You take the good with the bad but good luck does tend to correlate positively with the amount of time invested in the field. Patience certainly helps but preparation and research are even better.

Can nature and landscape photographs be “too pretty”? @gregerts

I don’t believe you can have too much beauty in your life, particularly during these dreary times. But instead of relying solely on superficial beauty to carry your image, why not make it meaningful too? Better yet, make the images all about what’s meaningful to you and the emotional responses to your experiences. The real subjects of your photographs should be raw emotion: awe, peacefulness, power, fragility, joy, melancholy rather than the shallow, self-indulgent sentimental beauty you might find in a Thomas Kincade painting or John Denver song. Your personal vision and interpretation of nature should be the shortest distance between your heart and your audience so they can feel what you feel, not what your camera coldly captures.

Did you do formal photography study such as at school/college? Did you do an internship or work with a more skilled photographer in the beginning of your career? @MelindaAlfred

No, I’m completely self-taught which only means I have so many bad habits to overcome that I now rationalize my flaws as giving my work “character.”

I have mixed feelings about formal training for artists. On the one hand, the more you learn about anything, the better as a general matter. On the other hand, an untrained, motivated, insanely curious person with a strong personal vision might have a more intuitive feel for creative expression, but that’s just my uneducated, unlettered opinion.

How did you know your style? @fanni40877378

I’m allergic to the whole concept of style to be honest, to which anyone who has seen how I dress can attest.

When someone sends an email to say they’ve seen one of my published magazine photos while in the dentist’s waiting room, it’s a nice gesture that never goes unappreciated. But when they go on to say they knew the photo was mine because they recognize my style, I die a little on the inside. By having a style, it means I’m using the same conceptual formula time after time for each experience even if the location, subject matter, and circumstances are different. It’s muscle memory. It’s easy. It’s lazy. It’s not being creative.

I try to approach each situation with a clear and open mind, completely in the present moment, with zero influence from the previous day, week or month. Have a look at David Bowie’s body of work through the years. I respect the hell out of Bowie. He was always re-making himself and his music as something different from what he did before while still being different from everyone else. That’s why even now, Bowie’s music still sounds so fresh to me.

What is the progression of questions/attributes that you use when evaluating a scene for its photographic potential? @firthermor

My process always starts with an emotional/intuitive/right-brained series of questions regarding how the scene or subject makes me feel. I’m searching for an emotional core around which I’ll build the image. The process then transitions into conceptual/technical/left-brain thinking about how I want to execute it. This is almost always the methodology I use.

You can only use one lens for the rest of your photography days. What will you choose, and why? The format is 35mm equivalent, and it must be a real existing lens. @awilliamsny

If you’re going to put me in that predicament, I’d hold my nose and go buy a Tamron 18-400mm “ALL-IN_ONE” lens. Honestly, I didn’t even know there was such a thing until 5 minutes before writing this piece. But in the real world, I would keep my Canon EF24-105mm F4L IS II USM (Soon to be the RF Version) since 24mm is wide enough for wide-angle, near-far landscapes and 105mm would allow me to do some wildlife in a pinch, with a bit of cropping. It is, of course, the perfect “walking around” lens and ideal for street photography and general travel.

Beyond photography, music and writing are there other creative art forms that interest you? @mauramullarkey

Are you saying there’s more to life than that? I mean, beyond food and the love of friends and family, is there anything else I need? I’m a fan of any type of creative expression – movies, music, art, even poetry – that has the ability to inspire or move me to tears.

After another long hard day at the office, travelling, or shooting in the field, what’s your go to drink? @life_with_louis

With the exception of an occasional signature exotic drinking experience tied explicitly to a particular place (aguardiente in Colombia, pulque in Mexico City, absinthe in Paris, etc.), I prefer to keep my libations pretty simple: water, a double espresso, or red wine, depending how good or bad a day it was.

What is your favorite Seinfeld episode and why? @themahoneyphoto

The Boyfriend. I grew up in the shadow of New York City and I’ve been a Mets fan since I was 4 years old. Keith Hernandez, Art Vandalay, did you sneak a peak?, the magic loogie. No need to go on. But I consider the very act of asking a Seinfeld question to be openly flirting… so I see you, Jason.

What is that one elusive goal you have yet to accomplish in your career? @KristaBower411

I’ve always wanted to get arrested and spend a night in jail, but that goal has been a spectacular failure. You’d think it wouldn’t be so difficult or “elusive” but it has, mainly because of the many caveats and pre-conditions I’ve demanded. For example, it must be a real arrest, not some phony stunt. It must be a victimless crime yet not petty and pointless like shoplifting or trespassing. I’d prefer to be arrested and incarcerated in the name of some righteous cause such as a protest or sit-in while battling a social or environmental injustice. I could actually be proud of that and wave my arrest record around in public like a badge of honor. Also, one night in jail. Just one, thank you very much.

Why? Curiosity mostly. That and my environmental activist friends tell me I can’t be taken seriously until I’ve been arrested at least once. But yeah, it’s mostly curiosity.

Hey, you asked!

Essential Photography: Embrace Backlight

Essential Photography: Embrace Backlight

General How-To

Essential Photography: Embrace Backlight

“Daughter of the Sun” Giraffe in backlight at sunset, Etosha National Park, Namibia

Light is the lifeblood of the photograph.

As a photographer – or an aspiring photographer – you might have heard the preceding phrase a time or two. You might have also been taught that the origin of the word photography is a fusion of two Greek derivatives: photos meaning “light” and graphe meaning to “write” or “draw.” The inference here being that photography means to write with light.

George Eastman, the founder of the Eastman Kodak Company, knew a little something about light.

“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”

These are indeed lofty and inspiring words which happen to be mostly true. But he was also fond of saying:

“You push the button and we do the rest.”

It should be noted that Mr. Eastman is best known as a businessman, not a photographer.

It might seem obvious to most of you, but it is light that you capture with your camera, not the subject in your viewfinder. This is pretty profound when you really think about it. Your subject is always the light reflecting off the scene; its direction, intensity, and color. Not only is light the lifeblood of the photograph, light is everything.


When you point the lens in the direction of the light source (for outdoor photographers this usually means the sun) with your subject between you and the light, you’ll encounter a back-lit situation. Backlight produces dramatic lighting effects on your subject or scene and can take an ordinary photo subject and elevate it to something truly extraordinary. Backlight can create beautiful rim light with hair, fur, or feathers or a pleasant glow with other translucent materials like autumn leaves. With more solid objects, backlight will result in silhouettes, especially if the scene in underexposed.

“Shadow Bear” Rim light illuminates the fur of a coastal brown bear, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska USA.

Backlight Challenges and Solutions

While using backlight can produce dramatic lighting effects and visually compelling, jaw-dropping images, it can also present some challenges you will need to overcome. Here are a few.

  • Trouble locking in autofocus. When shooting into the sun, one of the first problems beginners encounter is the autofocus not locking onto the subject. Autofocus systems using Contrast Phase Detection particularly have this difficultly. This is quite common and something I always come to expect during a backlighting situation. The solution is finding a strong contrast edge on which to focus. Refer to the bear photo up above. If your autofocus indicator is over the head of chest of the bear, there wont be enough contrast to lock onto. Rather, move the indicator to an area of rim light – like the ears, where there is strong contrast between the light and dark. You will then discover the autofocus works and the camera fires with no problem.
  • Lens flare/ghosting. Pointing the lens into the direction of the sun will usually cause sun flare and ghosting. Trying shading the front of the lens using the lens hood (if the angle of the sun is somewhat off to the side), your hand, a hat, or some sort of reflector or diffuser board, If none of the solutions work before the actual sun is in for image frame. wait until the sun in low on the horizon and its naturally diffused by the atmosphere or airborne water vapor and dust. Sunset is better than sunrise since there is more dust in the air at the end of the day. It also helps to have a clean, dust and dirt-free front lens element.
  • Underexposure. The bright light or sun streaming through your lens will convince your camera’s meter into severely underexposing the photo. Depending whether or not the sun is in the image frame and unless I purposely want to underexpose the scene (such as shooting silhouettes), I will add +2 to +3 EVs using exposure composition to brighten it up. Consult your histogram to be sure you have shadow detail where you desire it to be and there are no overexposed areas as well.

If you can overcome these common backlight obstacles, you will master backlight and elevate your photography a notch or two.