Wildlife Week: Capture THE Moment

April 19, 2010


Coyotes Fighting, Yellowstone NP, WY

[Editors Note: This week we are having a Wildlife Photography Tip every day here on DPE. Rick is also doing a tip a day on People photography over on his personal blog, make sure to check it out.]

Nothing adds more interest to a wildlife photo than action. Whether it’s a fox pouncing on a mouse, a wolf chasing an Elk, or, as in the image above, two coyotes fighting, action provides us with a glimpse into the everyday life of the animals we are photographing. Because of this, action makes our photo viewers want to take a closer look, linger a bit longer on our images, and ultimately make a stronger connection with our images.

Capturing THE Moment is quite possibly the biggest challenge in photography. But you can stack the odds in your favor with these few quick tips.

  • Know Your Subject – As I said in yesterdays post, knowing your subject is paramount for making a great image. Study your subject, learn it’s behaviors, it’s social structure, and it’s diet. You can never really predict what wildlife will do at any moment, but by knowing your subjects intimately, you can increase your chances of being ready to trip that shutter at the right moment and “Capture THAT Moment”.
  • Patience & Perseverance – You must be patient, and wait for the moment, never, ever prompt a wild animal to perform for you. This not only puts the animals welfare at risk, but in many cases it is also illegal. You must observe and try to capture that moment many many times before you make THE right image. You may have to sit in a blind for days to get that ONE moment, often lasting fractions of a second, and you may have to do it repeatedly to get just THE right image. Sometimes you may get lucky, but as they say, luck favors the prepared.
  • No Machine Gun Action – When you think the moment is about to happen don’t just hold that shutter button down and let it rip… Chances are that if you do this, your buffer will fill up and the crucial moment will take place when your buffer is full preventing you from capturing the real peak moment. This is where knowledge of your subject and repeated observations come in handy, you will get better at predicting the moment. Then shoot in short bursts, trying not to fill the buffer if you can. Oftentimes, great shots present themselves when you least expect them. Be deliberate as to when you trip your shutter.
  • Shutter Speed – Try shooting at the highest shutter speed you can. 1/1000 of a second or higher if you can help it. Don’t be afraid to increase the ISO if needed. I would prefer to get a little noise/grain in my image than get a blurry image.
  • Focus – When photographing wildlife, I prefer to de-couple the AutoFocus function from my shutter button. I shoot Canon cameras and these have had this feature for as long as I can remember. This puts me in complete control as to when when the AF engages by pressing a button on the back of the camera with my right thumb. and not when I press the shutter button. What this allows me to do is focus on my subject, then recompose and be ready to trip the shutter whenever I need without fear that the camera will try to re-focus. The last thing you want the camera to do is try to refocus when you are trying to capture THAT moment, producing a blurry image, or worse yet, missing the moment completely. This takes some time to get used to, but I find it indispensable when photographing wildlife.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and other tips you may have. Feel free to post them in the comments below.


This post was written by:

- who has written 347 posts on The Digital Photo Experience.

Juan is a wildlife photographer who currently lives in Maine. Juan lives and breathes photography and travels around the country making images, teaching and leading photo workshops. Juan’s favorite destination is Yellowstone in winter.

You can follow Juan on twitter at http://twitter.com/jpons

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7 Responses to “Wildlife Week: Capture THE Moment”

  1. Tim-Myfotoguy Says:

    Good tips! All thos points are great. The first two ezpecially (knowing your subject, patience and perseverance).

    I have learned that patience pays off, as it allows you to gain the experience. It’s times when I tried to accomplish too many new techniques in a short amount of time that I have failed. Being pateince, keep trying, and then reviewing myu work with a critical eye to consider what I have missed work well. Shortly after a shoot as I review I can usually discover if there were any “THE Moments” that I missed.

    “To take a photograph means to recognize – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second– both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning.” -Henri Cartier-Bresson


  2. Soren Hedberg Says:

    Hi Juan,

    Just a quick question re: shutter speed. I know that you’ve said in previous posts that you use Av mode when shooting wildlife. What aperture do you normally use, and how do you ensure a high shutter speed when you need it if you’re in Av mode? I guess you meter the situation in advance and make sure your ISO is more than sufficient to hold a speed over 1/1000th?

    Right now I’m shooting in Tv mode, at 1/1000th of a second for birds, but I imagine I should probably be forcing a larger DOF to give myself a better shot at sharp focus when they are in flight?


  3. wafaa Says:

    it’s very good job .. I like it .


  4. wafaa Says:

    Good afternoon Juan
    It’s good job .. I like it .


  5. Martin Says:

    Great points!
    I’ve been trying back button focus after hearing a lot of pros talkimg dearly about it. I was wondering what type of back button focus you are using. My Canon T2i offers four different modes to do this. Eith and without AE-lock.



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