Shooting Down on Wildlife

Telephoto lenses are the domain of wildlife photographers. We never seem to get close enough to wildlife. We want to record them large enough to fill the frame. Moving closer, as long as you are safe, usually gives better results. However, regardless of whether you are close or far, one thing is for sure. Try not to shoot downward toward wildlife (dogs and cats, sure, but not majestic wildlife).

I got to thinking about this again while on Maui, photographing whales during their annual mating and calving time, and I’ll get back to this in moment. The most frequent time I see this crop up is during African or South Asian safaris. In those situations, you are confined to a safari vehicle with no chance to disembark to ground level. You are essentially forced to photograph down on wildlife.

The problem is that shooting downward minimizes the raw power of a wild animal. It reduces their visual appeal. Of course, it is only natural that should a cheetah come close to your safari vehicle you will not be able to resist the temptation to record it. Fair enough (but see the hint, below).

Nonetheless, I advise my adventure clients to save some of their camera firepower until the animal moves away. That way your angle of incidence is shallower. After all, that’s what a telephoto is for. The animal may be further away, but your lens will more than make up the difference. Plus, with today’s mega-pixel sensors, you can safely crop and bring the animal even closer.

Well, the same thing holds true for whale photography. Of course, your choice of camera and lens is critical, but just as important is your choice of boat. Here in Maui you have many choices of whale watching boats. The key is to pick a boat that gives you opportunities to shoot from as close to the water line as possible. You want that breach to show the animal with sky behind it, not just water. Jetting a 40-ton body clear out of the water is a feat that should be afforded its proper due.

There are some photographers that fall prey to shooting from rubberized crafts, like Zodiaks. That does get you to the waterline itself, but beware of its limitations, too. Those rafts do not provide a stable platform, especially in even slightly rough seas. I see a lot of great shots of breaching whales taken from these boats; if only they were in focus!

One final tip for those of you who plan an African safari: when that cheetah (or other wildlife) does come close to your vehicle, that’s the time to switch to video, which is far better suited to that sort of storytelling.

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