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Thoughts on becoming a happy wildlife photographer

I took my first steps into becoming a keen wildlife photographer as a ten year old, with a box brownie camera trying to get photographs of New Forest ponies. The results were grainy and in monochrome. I ended up back at my parent’s car in tears, carrying my sandals with muddy legs where I had walked into a bog. It’s been a steep learning curve and lots of fun ever since.

Many people in recent years have got into wildlife photography due to the advent of cameras in mobile phones. I’ve often found that there is a misconception that in order to take good wildlife photos you need a really expensive camera with a huge lens. Undoubtedly, the expensive cameras with long lenses can make the difference in the quality you get, especially if involving movement. However, what is more important is that you know how to use whatever camera you’ve got to its full potential. You know what it can and can’t do. (Even expensive ones), and you can quickly turn it on, aim and shoot. It’s surprising how many people go on a once in a lifetime safari with a new camera and then can’t use it properly because they haven’t spent time practicing with it.

Over time, as the enjoyment and success increases, you may well want to upgrade your camera. I’m currently on a mirrorless system. It stretches my ability but can get me superb shots. However, I’ve seen people, even children, with a mobile camera who have, on occasions, wiped the floor with the rest of us in terms of an instant, quality shot, so there is no perfect kit. It’s a case of continually learning, experimenting and being in the right place at the right time.

Even, when you have taken the photos there is still much to do. Learn how to use software to sharpen, crop and enhance the image in many different ways. I’m no expert but I can do enough to change a decent shot into a potentially pleasing one. A friend of mine, who is technically superb, puts every shot he takes through software or bins it. Tedious yes, but the results and his general level of photography are undoubtedly superb.

As well as knowing your camera, it’s vital that you prepare for trips, whether to a zoo or the middle of Africa. Have you got enough memory cards? Have you spare batteries and a charger with an adapter for the electrical system abroad? Do you have cleaning cloths for your lenses and a puffer brush to get rid of debris? Are you carrying your gear in protective bags? (I remember with horror opening an overhead locker on a flight to have a ladies slr camera drop out onto the floor because she had placed it in an open topped bag which had toppled over.) If on safari, do you have plastic bags to keep the fine dust out of your kit, and if really keen and on the holiday of a lifetime, can you stretch to a back up camera if your main one breaks down? I’ve seen people in tears when their kit has failed and the photographic memories of their wonderful holiday suddenly cease.

The opportunities now to get close to rare, exotic creatures are unparalleled but there are ethics to be observed. In getting a shot the well being of the creature is paramount. It is not acceptable to make a lot of noise, bang on windows to get it to turn its head or to get too close and frighten it.

Nor is it acceptable to pursue a creature or attempt to drive it from cover. I was furious a couple of years ago to observe a jeep pushing into a bush where a leopard had hidden in order to drive it out. Fortunately, most guides will refuse such actions but there are always some willing to bend the rules or who are intimidated by clients.

Think about your safety i.e. don’t drive under a tree with a leopard in it because it’s liable to jump down into your vehicle as happened to some German tourists a few years ago. Also, never get out of a vehicle to take a selfie near wild animals. The Japanese tourist who did that near a pride of lion only did it once!

The use of strong searchlights, flash or laser pens to highlight an animal should also be discouraged as it can momentarily blind the animal making it vulnerable to predation.

As well as thinking about the well being of the animal, the well being of other clients or visitors also needs to be catered for. I’ve spent many hours in one spot in zoos waiting for the chance to photograph a certain creature or action. However, I don’t own the spot and it is only right to relinquish it if somebody, and particularly children, can’t see into the enclosure. It’s equally right that the general public do appreciate that, if you’ve stood for six hours waiting for a creature to appear, there has to be give and take as to who needs to squeeze off a few shots before giving way.

Equally, in jeeps on safari, it is vital that when close to creatures there is no sudden movement, people standing up or making a noise because the result is predictable i.e. animal takes off and nobody gets a shot!

On safari, many of the driver/guides are trained in how to position the vehicle to get you potentially the best shots. They are aware of the position of the sun, the wind direction, the movement of the creatures and the topography of the land. However, they can’t mind read and if you have a particular shot in mind you need to discuss with them what you are hoping to get and then work as a team to try and get it.

Getting ahead of an animal and then being in position as it comes towards you can be very rewarding. I’ve got great shots of Ethiopian wolves and big cats using this technique and it’s always good PR to share the resulting images with the drivers who made it possible.

Experience teaches you when to take the shot and to always take a safety shot from distance so at least you’ve got something. Try and learn about the animal’s behaviour. It’s very satisfying to correctly anticipate what is going to happen next.

Always look for something different and when you take a shot, quickly appraise if it’s okay. Who needs hundreds of bad shots caused by one problem, probably easily fixed if spotted? Think about different angles, getting low, where the sun is, factoring in for the light, speed, and what’s in the background. Over time, thinking about such things becomes second nature but you’ll still make mistakes. Even this can be useful because you’ll improve.

Be proud of what you take but also critical. Everybody can improve, even people like Chris Packham who can take totally original and technically superb shots but is always looking to better his efforts.

Enjoy your successes. Nowadays you can make your own professional looking photo book on line or have large prints on canvas or aluminium. To have such successes on your walls is satisfying and a great talking point with guests.

Don’t be afraid to put shots on groups such as flickr. It has resulted in requests from authors, artists, magazines and papers for some of mine which is really satisfying.

I’ve been taking wildlife shots for over sixty years now. The thrill of getting a rare animal or behaviour shot never diminishes but I’m still learning and still making plenty of mistakes. Along the way I’ve joined various groups with the same interest. Meeting people with a similar interest and appreciation of your efforts makes the whole experience even more enjoyable. Even when things go wrong you can have a laugh and others recount their own disasters. And when you meet up with people, especially in a zoo like Marwell, and you’re all kicking your heels for a long time waiting for something to put in an appearance, chatting about cameras and other gossip from around the zoo certainly helps to pass the time.

Even if the situation is such that shots are impossible to get, don’t get frustrated. Just put the camera down, relax and enjoy the view and company. With luck, there will always be another day when the perfect shot will be there for the taking,

Photo of wildlife photographer Jon Isaacs with a caracal sitting beside him in his shade
Jon Isaacs, with a friend sitting beside


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