Having done some wildlife shooting in the past I have found the key to getting good shots is preparation.
Before You Leave the House
You want to be comfortable with your camera. You should be able to easily make changes to your cameras settings. You should know what effect different metering and focus settings would have on a shot. You should be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the lenses you will be using when you get in the field. You should also know your own limitations especially when shooting handheld. If you can handhold your camera and 300mm lens steady for one out of four tries at a shutter speed 1/500 of a second then you would want to snap off 5-6 shots when shooting handheld at that setting. One of the six shots should be acceptable.
What Lenses Do I Need?
Reach is the key to wildlife shooting and you want the most that you can afford. The perfect lens for any wildlife shot is usually 100mm more than the lens you have on the camera when you are taking the shot. I would say that the minimum length would be 300mm. It is not necessary to spend thousands of dollars to reach 300mm. Its great to have a 500mm F/4 or a 400mm 2/8 lens from Nikon or Canon but it isnt necessary. One can find reasonably priced lens from Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina that will get you fine shots. I got some excellent results from the Tamron 28-300mm and the Tokina 80-400 when I was starting out.
Yes, Yes, Yes. I know its a hassle to carry a tripod and to set it up in the field. I also know that you are very steady when you shoot and can get a sharp shot at 1/15 of a second at 800mm but you still need a tripod or at the very least a monopod. When you are shooting wildlife you will usually be shooting at the furthest reach of your lens and you will get a higher keeper rate and sharper shots if you use a tripod. You should go for the best tripod you can afford. Its easier to go cheap on the glass than it is for a tripod and head. Y0u can get good shots with cheap glass on a good tripod easier than you could with good glass on a cheap tripod.
In the field
Before You Shoot
The most important equipment you have is your vision. Before you pick up the camera And start snapping off shots .. Look, Observe, Plan. You want to look at the light. This will give you the necessary information to determine your exposure and white balance settings. I know that there are many who say you can fix that stuff in Photoshop but your shots will have higher image quality and the time you spend post processing your shots will be greatly reduced if you get the right exposure and white balance from the start.
You also want to have some knowledge of your subjects. Its kind of like poker where your opponents have tells that indicate the strength of their hand, In wildlife shooting your subjects also have tells. Many birds while hunting will momentarily tense up right before they strike. Thats an indicator for you to start taking a series of shots and to fill your buffer. When the action starts it may be late for you to get the shot because it starts in a flash and it ends just as quickly. A good example of this is the Reznick Flip where a bird will flip its catch between its bills right before it swallows the catch. I have caught this flip quite a few times but I have never actually seen it. It just happens too fast. Unless one starts taking a sequence of shots before the moment you cant catch that moment. With birds, if you want to catch a flight shot you should look at their flight paths, observe what the subject does before it takes off, how fast it moves, how it lands, etc.
The most interesting wildlife shots are the ones that show some kind of action by your subject. There are many fine wildlife shots of the subject standing still. I call them the birds like statues type of shot. While these shots are fine a whole gallery of such shots would quickly lose a viewers interest. The shots I find most interesting are the ones that capture a subjects actions. To get these shots require preparation and some knowledge of your subjects behavior.
If you want to capture wall hangers you have to use light effectively. When you go out to a location you should have some knowledge of its lighting before you get there. Some locations have better lighting in the morning and some are better for afternoon shooting. It can be frustrating to get to a spot and find all your subjects severely backlit. The best hours, with the most dramatic lighting, are the golden hours the two hours right after sunrise and right before sunset. When shooting in the golden light you need to be very careful about selecting your white balance. You should avoid a WB setting that will too greatly enhance the colors in those hours. The lighting is dramatic as is and if enhanced too greatly you will end up with very unrealistic colors.
There are no one size fits all camera settings as we all have different styles and preferences when we shoot. I usually use matrix metering and aperture priority when I shoot. I will then make EV adjustments based on the scene. If Im shooting a white bird, for example, I know that I will probably need an EV adjustment of 0.3 in normal lighting to avoid overexposing the subject.
Again you have to view the scene and make a decision about what you want to capture. If you are shooting a subject and you find the background to be distracting you would want to open up the aperture setting to blur the distracting background. If you have your subject against the sky or water, which does not present distractions, or if you want to show the environment of your subject you would step down the aperture to your lens sweet point. You also should understand the strengths and weaknesses of your lenses. I know that my 300mm and 500mm primes do well when I shoot with the aperture wide open. My 80-400 zoom does not do so well wide open so I will try to step down the aperture setting when I use that lens.
Proper exposure is the most important element of an effective capture. Use your histogram and your highlights indicator on your camera. Where possible take a trial shot first and review the histogram. You want to expose to the right as much as possible as long as you are not blowing out the highlights because most of the data points are contained in the first third of the histogram.
When you are setting up a shot you should consider the possibilities of the shot. One day I was shooting an egret in the water against a background of dark green vegetation. I was getting a fine exposure w/o any EV adjustments and my shutter speed was at 1/500 so I took a few shots. Suddenly the egret lunged its head into the water and came up with a good-sized frog and I snapped away. When I reviewed my shots the early ones in the sequence were fine but the shots of the lunge and the egrets capture of the frog were very soft because the 1/500 shutter speed was too slow for the action. If I had been thinking about the possibilities I would have upped my ISO setting until I had a shutter speed of 1/800 of a second or higher. Another time I was shooting an egret in the water and an EV adjustment of 0.3 gave me a perfect exposure. Then the egret took off into the sky and without thinking I just snapped away and nailed some perfectly focused sharp as a tack flight shots. The only problem was that the egret was mostly blown out. I had failed to take into consideration and adjust for the fact that when the egret was in the air it was in brighter light and I needed an EV adjustment of at least 0.7 in that light.
How to get close enough to a subject is always a consideration. How you do it depends a lot on your location. In areas where the wildlife is particularly skittish a blind is effective. You set it up in an area where you know there usually is activity and wait for the subjects to get within shooting range. In your backyard feeders can be used to attract subjects to within shooting range.
In the usual situation its you in the field trying to get close enough to the subject for a shot. One of the first things to remember is that you cannot sneak up on them. Birds live in a state of total awareness. If they relax they become somebodys meal. They will know that a 6 foot, 180 pound entity carrying a long metal object is around no matter how sneaky you are.
In order to get close to your subject you need to have some knowledge of their behavior and how they respond in different situations. Each species has their own behavior, some are very skittish and others are much more tolerant of humans. You want to appear non-threatening to your subject. Avoid eye contact with it as you approach. Make your approach very, very slowly. Approach gradually over extended intervals. The birds will become used to your presence and their fear of you will be reduced. Dont approach them on a straight line, zig zag towards them instead. Try to approach when the birds are engaged in some activity such as hunting and/or feeding when their attention is elsewhere. Once you are in a good position stay still and let the birds start to approach your position. Take some time to observe your subjects and study their behavior. Wait for the right time and then take your shot. Remember that the noise of the lens focusing or of the shutters release will often be enough to send your subject flying away so you want to make your shot count.
You should experiment with different settings and review the results. Takes multiple shots, especially if you are shooting digital, of your subject. Its better to have 5-6 shots of a scene and then to have to choose the best out of that 5-6 than to take one shot and find that your hand had shaken as you took that one shot or that a blade of grass had blown in front of your subject. Learn your tools strengths and weaknesses and use them to your advantage.
Remember that no matter what tools you use that the most important tool you have in your kit is your own vision. Look at the scene and envision what you want to capture and always consider the possibilities it presents or may present in the next few moments. Then apply your tools and talents to the task of capturing your vision.
This tutorial is just a scratch on the surface of this topic. I would have to write a book to fully explore all the subjects I have touched upon here to fully cover all the possibilities. If you get the chance I strongly recommend that you try to attend a workshop on wildlife shooting or at the least find more experienced photographers to shoot with and to learn from.
You can discuss this and other Wildlife Shooting issues in our