Photographing a species doesn't happen overnight. As a trained biologist, wildlife photography presents a triple-challenge. First of all, I have to study all of the information available on the animal. Then I must find a way to approach the creature without disturbing it. Finally, I have to photograph the animal in its environment as a souvenir to share with the world.
If everything goes well, I can spend ten days on location, but it can also take many years. For example, I have been photographing Snow Leopards since 2017, and I still don't have the photo that reflects my efforts, so I will continue to return every winter until I do.
Research is a massive part of getting the final images. I start by studying the species. I need to find out the habitat it frequents, its prey, its habits, its protection status and also, I need to ask myself, 'why am I taking pictures of this particular species?'
All animals are beautiful, but I have to look for that additional reason. Either they are vital animals in the ecosystem, are endangered, or are unknown to the general public.
The days in the field can be very long, but it is a passion, so I don't sit there counting the hours. As with many types of photography, the first and last hours of the day are the best, not only because of the great light but also because this is when the animals are typically most active.
For some species, we will use hides or tents with the aim that the animal comes close to us, but it is not disturbed. In the case of rhinos, the hide experience can be unsettling; the large, powerful animals come to drink at night just two or three meters away from you. Silence, slow movements, and very bright, wide-angle lenses such as the 12-24mm f/2.8 GM or 16-35mm f/2.8 GM are essential.
In the case of the cheetahs, I found them to be calm and docile. I was actually able to get out of the vehicle and lie down a few metres away from them with the 400mm f/2.8 G Master – a total dream!
The 400mm f/2.8 GM is my favourite of all my lenses. The f/2.8 aperture allows me to let a lot of light in, and it also means I can throw the background out of focus. And, if I add a 1.4x converter, I get a 560mm lens without compromising the autofocus speed on my Sony cameras. I will also use the 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS, which is an excellent lens at a great price.
I have used various Sony cameras, but for the last few years, I have been using the Alpha 9. I have lately also been using the Alpha 1, which I love because of the combination of class-leading autofocus and high-resolution sensor. I have taken these cameras everywhere, from the jungle in Borneo to the cold of the Himalayas, and they have never let me down. More recently, I have added the Alpha 7 IV to my bag, which will serve me alongside my Alpha 1.
Light and Composition
Light is the key, so getting up early is essential. The best times are usually dawn and dusk when the sun is low in the sky. Generally, the midday light should be avoided. The sun is too hard, too vertical and crushes the subjects.
I shoot with the widest aperture I can, usually f/2.8 or f/4. This setting allows me to have a nice background and a fast enough shutter speed to keep up with the movement of the subject.
Finally, I decide where to position myself to the light depending on the subject. I may want to shoot with the light from behind me to the animal. Alternatively, I may want the sunlight behind the subject putting the animal in silhouette. Contrary to popular belief, a cloudy day is interesting because the clouds act as diffusers and allow you to work in the middle of the day, which would be impossible in full sun. In addition, clouds and heavy skies can give an extra graphic effect to the photos.