Wildlife Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots is part of the series of “From Snapshots to Great Shots” books published by Peachpit Press. The series is geared toward the beginning photographer. Each book focuses on a specific topic or genre but includes foundational instruction on gear, exposure, and composition as it pertains to the given topic, which in this case is Wildlife Photography.
Like the other books in the series, this book progresses logically and it reads almost like a photography class or workshop. Exercises at the end of each chapter are intended to give the reader some practice with the material they just covered. The class-like nature of the book is further enhanced by giving readers a Flickr group to join where they can post samples of their work inspired by the book.
About the Author
Laurie Excell is a nature and wildlife photographer from Portland, OR. She’s co-author of another book in this series, “Composition: From Snapshots to Great Shots” and her galleries include some very impressive work, some of which I recognized within the book along with tips on how she got the shot. She leads various photo workshops throughout the year, so readers who really love the book have an option for hands-on instruction as well.
Chapter by Chapter Walkthrough
1. Equipment Essentials – Gear, gear, and more gear! This chapter discusses pretty much all the equipment an aspiring wildlife photographer might ever need. It provides a high-level overview of the features to evaluate when considering equipment purchases, and lists pros and cons of common options as they relate to wildlife photography. Experienced photographers won’t learn anything new here, but it will be a good “know your gear” starting point (although perhaps a little overwhelming) for someone just getting started with photography. One equipment-related point that I’d have liked to see mentioned - but wasn’t - is that gear rental is an option for those who occasionally want that 600 mm lens but can’t afford the high cost.
2. Camera Settings and Shooting Techniques – In this aptly-named chapter, the author briefly describes her typical camera mode settings for a wildlife shoot. This is a prescriptive list. The text doesn’t go into much detail as to why she chooses these settings; that information is covered a bit further in chapter 3. It also provides some tips on the most stable ways of operating the camera, whether handheld or tripod mounted.
3. Exposure Simplified – Readers of Bryan Peterson’s book Understanding Exposure will find this chapter to be a good refresher on the material covered in that book. For new photographers who just want to learn the rules (i.e.,” wide aperture = shallow depth of field”) this is a nice condensed version of the same exposure and lighting material. It offers some stunning sample photos to illustrate the author’s points. For those who really want to dive deep into the topic of exposure, I’d recommend that they pick up the Peterson book as well.
4. Get To Know Your Subject – This chapter’s title only partially describes its contents. It’s not just about getting to know your subject as a photographer, but also about compositional choices that allow your viewer to get to know your subject as well. The author lists some general websites and organizations that are useful for pre-outing research to help the reader improve his/her chances of being in the right place at the right time. It introduces some tips for creating more engaging compositions and showcasing the behaviors of your subject, which will be explored further in chapter 7.
5. Location, Location, Location – For most of us, true trips into the wilderness are infrequent and are of limited duration. This chapter gives readers ideas to help them make the most of their wildlife photo opportunities, both by identifying potential local areas for practice, and by providing seasonal suggestions for wildlife photography trips.
6. Close Encounters – This chapter addresses one of the most difficult aspects of wildlife photography – how to get the shot you want without spooking the subject. This is all pretty generic advice, as different species will have different tolerance for human presence which may vary by season and area. But it gives the reader several approaches to experiment with, from gear options to extend your camera’s reach, to using blinds, to less-threatening methods of physical approach. Toward the end of the chapter the author calls out the need to watch for signs of physical distress in the subject as a sign that you’re getting too close. To me, this is critical advice as spooking the subject can have poor consequences – either for it or for you! I wish this were called out in big bold print, but I’m glad to see it at least mentioned.
7. Creative Composition – In Chapter 4 the author illustrated some ways that composition could affect the overall impact of an image, and here she expands much further, with beautiful examples of using lines, shapes, patterns, shadow, and perspective to convey certain moods or to draw the viewer’s eyes into the photo. The title of this book mentions going “from snapshots to great shots” and the concepts presented in this chapter are probably the most relevant in the book for those who want to achieve those great shots with extra “wow” factor. These same compositional concepts apply towards any type of photography and should be familiar to experienced photographers, but they’ll be extremely helpful to beginners.
8. Beyond the Basics – This chapter explores some additional creative choices such as high-or low-key exposures and provides manual exposure advice for challenging high-contrast exposure situations. It revisits the “blur panning” technique that is mentioned a few times earlier in the book. (Personally, I’ve never been a fan of this…blurry images look like mistakes to me even if the effect was intentional. To each his/her own!)
9. Bear Tales,
10. Birds of a Feather - The final two chapters are a departure from the rest of the book. Instead of advice and instruction, these chapters read more like an in-the-field diary. They’re intended to walk readers through the logistics and experience of a wildlife photography outing end-to-end. In Chapter 9 the reader follows along with the author on a trip to Alaska to photograph the coastal brown bears, and in Chapter 10 it’s an avian photography trip to South Texas. As a reader, the changed tone jarred me a bit initially (hey, what about helping me get better pictures!) – but once I got over the shift I think this is pretty usable information in that it gives you real-world example templates for planning and executing a wildlife photography trip.
Images Inspired By This Book
While I haven’t yet travelled to any exotic wildlife locations since reading this book, one thing the book did inspire me to do is to research wildlife I might see regardless of my destination, and to practice wherever/whenever I had a chance. So on a recent drive to California to see the solar eclipse, I found online mentions of a scenic stop off of highway 101 where elk could be observed in the evening hours. Without that little bit of beforehand research inspired by the book I’d have driven right by the turnoff not knowing these guys were grazing just a few hundred yards up the road:
The book also discusses approaching wildlife by boat as a way to get closer and better angled shots than you could on foot. I’d never tried shooting from a boat before, but I do have a waterproof camera bag and some friends with kayaks, so I brought the camera along on a kayaking trip on the Sammamish River. Sure enough, an eye-level perspective from the river worked nicely to capture this gray heron mid-takeoff:
Photographers are visually inspired, and perhaps the best aspect of this book is the wealth of amazing wildlife shots, along with the tips on how the author captured the shot. This is a great general purpose book for a beginner to intermediate photographer who could use some tips on gear, exposure, composition, or in-the-field operation. A more experienced photographer probably won’t learn anything new, but will at least be highly motivated to find more local opportunities to photograph wildlife and to start planning the next big wildlife photo expedition.
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