An Insider’s Guide to Wildlife Photography
Getting the perfect photo isn't easy – and it’s even harder when you’re trying to snap a moving, unpredictable subject. It’s an art that professional wildlife photographer (and former head of Flight Centre's Creative Studio) Andrew Sproule has mastered though, and been recognised for. So how does he do it? We picked his brains about timing, composition, equipment and more.
Right Andrew, tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m an award-winning wildlife, travel and stock photographer based in Kent. I’ve always had a passion for the natural world and have been fortunate enough to have travelled extensively and photographed animals in many locations. I've also met some extraordinary people and storytellers along the way. My biggest passion has always been Africa.
First things first: Canon or Nikon?
Canon. My main camera is the Canon EOS 1DX, which I use for all my wildlife field-work. Mostly because the exceptional image quality at relatively high ISOs (ISO 1600 for example) enables me to work in low light conditions, something I often face as a wildlife photographer. I also have a Canon EOS 5D3, which I use as a back up, or for when I’m travelling light. I also use it for my landscape work.
What do you love to photograph the most?
That is easy. African wildlife. The Okavango Delta in Botswana has to be at the top of the list. Stunning scenery and an incredible volume and variety of animal species.
How long have you been photographing wildlife for?
When I was ten years old my dad gave me a Russian-built Zenit ET 35mm camera, which got me interested in photography. At the same time, I already had a fascination with the natural world and I started to use my camera to record what I saw to help me learn about it, which is where photography and wildlife came together.
How do you compose a shot?
Photography, in general, is all about pre-visualisation and planning. Most of my images are pre-visualised and well planned and I go after those concepts/subjects and execute. There is a huge difference between taking images and making images. Anyone can take an image, but to make an image requires a lot of knowledge, both on the technical aspects of photography and your subject. There are a number of different tasks you have to do before releasing the shutter. Some of them have to be done in advance (like exposure setting and most of the camera settings) and the rest, which is composition, will depend on the kind of subject and opportunity you get.
Most of the action in wildlife happens early morning or late in the evening, which means less light. In this situation you face challenges with equipment where focusing will be very slow and you may need to increase your ISO to get a decent shutter speed to capture any kind of action. Fortunately, with the improving digital camera technology, dealing with ISO is something that can be handled.
When it comes to photographing wildlife, what would be your advice?
Like most things, the obvious answer is practice, practice, practice. That will never change. However, something I still do to this day is, before I press the shutter I ask myself the question “How would I caption this image?” If the only answer I can conjure is the species name, then I wait for a better shot. Wildlife photography is all about being at the right place at the right time, with the right kind of equipment and techniques. Secondly I recommend reading books and interviews by professional wildlife photographers.
For someone starting out in wildlife photography, where in the world would your recommend going to first?
Hmmm. That is a difficult one. I started off with regular trips to zoos and safari parks, to not only practice, but to gain knowledge from the keepers etc. I then (and still do) travelled extensively within the UK. The British Isles are so diverse – puffins on Skomer Island, mountain hare in Scottish Highlands, red kites in mid-Wales, waders and seals and Norfolk. The list is endless.
However, I had always wanted my first big foreign wildlife photography trip to be an African Safari, so that’s what I set my sites on and saved for. So, assuming that one has developed an adequate understanding of one’s equipment, has the techniques nailed down, and finances permit, you can’t beat an African safari. Be warned though – it’s addictive.
What lenses would you recommend for travelling?
For travelling I’m a huge fan of wide-angle and short focal length lenses, even for wildlife, and have a fish-eye lens and 24-70mm. But my favorite all-round workhorses are the 70-200mm zoom and 300mm prime, which I use more than any others. If weight restriction permits, I will also take my 500mm, which I mainly use for birds.
What’s the key to taking the perfect shot?
There are various factors involved in isolating your subject and capturing it: the equipment being used; your distance from the subject; the angle of approach (eye level is nearly always preferable); the background associated; and the kind of subject being photographed. One of the key aspects in wildlife photography is to understand the behavior of your subject/s. The circle of fear is part of that. Once you are able to break that circle of fear and the animal knows you are not a threat, it will continue its normal business, which helps to capture the natural behavioural aspects. All animals do display emotions, especially when they are in a group. Patience and perseverance are keys to capturing these emotions.
What photo of yours are you particularly proud of?
As I’ve mentioned, the best time of day when all the elements come together is typically early morning and late evening. This shot was taken at the worst possible time – midday in the searing heat of the Masai Mara.
We had been with this mother cheetah and her five cubs for an hour or so when she suddenly became extremely nervous. Although I couldn’t see anything at the time, a pride of lions was heading in from the right. The mother cheetah had obviously picked up on something. As she started to make her exit, a herd of the nervous wildebeest watched on. Normally my preference is to shoot at eye level so will often take up position, low down, next to the driver. However, because it was midday there’s an invisible enemy, which catches out the uninitiated – heat haze. So, on this occasion I photographed from on top of the vehicle to avoid any issues with focus.
What’s been the hardest animal that you’ve photographed?
Tigers in India definitely. Not because they’re technically difficult, but because they’re so elusive. I’ve lost count of the number of drives I’ve been on only to be rewarded a couple of times and even then they were fleeting moments. I’m going to have to suffer the heat of the dry season I think to maximise my chances next time as I’m a long way away from doing this species justice photographically.
Where are you and your camera kit off to next?
I have four days photographing ospreys in the Scottish Highlands in July and I’m currently planning a trip Svalbard in the Arctic for this time next year. In between, I’ll be visiting the fur corners of the British Isles. Generally though, the biggest problem I have is, as I tick something of my list, I end up adding two more!