Category Archives: Wildlife Photography Shooting Tips

Wildlife Photography Awards – The Winning Formula

You’ve read the title of this blog and perhaps you’re now thinking that finally someone is going to give you an easy to follow winning formula for taking award winning National Geographic wildlife images.   Truth is there is no easy step by step guide, it takes a lot of time in the field to master the craft, understand your subjects and you require the patience of Job. Let’s face it you wouldn’t sign up to an online gaming site like Castle Jackpot unless you already knew how to play because you know the odds of winning are better if you know what you’re doing.  Capturing winning wildlife images is no different.

Sure there will always be those one in a million lucky moments when magic presents itself and you just happened to be in the right place at the right time.  However I would argue that luck is certainly not a repeatable process for success. Professional wildlife photographers like Canadian John Marriot have a well thought out plan and thought process.  So what is it?

Wolf Picture in snowLet’s use this image I took of a timber wolf shaking snow off of himself to demonstrate what went into the making this image.  Note: I planned ahead to get this specific image and the steps below detail the thought process behind capturing it.

1/ Research to find a location where timber wolves reside and can be photographed.

2/ Use The Weather Network to find a day when it will be snowing heavily at the location where the wolves are.

3/ Pack the right photography gear, below was my checklist;

  • Shoot with long lens to fill the frame as much as possible.
  • Bring fast frame rate camera to improve odds of capturing that decisive moment.
  • Heavy snow conditions means low light and long lenses with slower shutter speeds require the use of a tripod. I brought along the Gitzo GT5542 LS with a Jobu Pro2 Gimbal Head.
  • Pack rain/snow cover to protect camera and lens.  Tip: Spare batteries are a must in cold weather shooting.

4/  Research wolf behavior.  Ever notice how a dog shakes when it comes out of the water or has snow on its coat, wolves are no different. I observed this wolf sleeping for about two hours as the snow built up on his coat, knowing when he did finally get up he would shake.  Yes two hours to capture 2 seconds so you have to be ready when the magic occurs.  Being ready means just that, eyes on the subject at all times.  Watch for tells on when he/she might stand up.  If another wolf approaches, a bird lands nearby, a branch breaks due to snow build up and makes a loud noise, etc. these are all things that may trigger activity.

5/ Knowing your camera and its settings is critical, practice until it is second nature.  The moment you want may only happen once and very quickly so determine exposure, white balance, ISO and shutter speed requirements in advance and visualize the motion blur you want in the image.  I wanted a tack sharp eye but a blurring of the fur and snow so I went with a slower shutter speed intentionally.  Experiment with 1/15th to 1/60th for motion blurs.

6/  The truth of the matter is even the best thought out plan won’t always get you the award winning shot you were looking for, in fact the odds are in the houses favor which takes us to the final and perhaps most important tip of all, lucky number 7.

7/ The more you play, the more chance you have of winning.  Simply put, the more you get into the field and put yourself in a situation that has the potential to yield success the more likely you are to hit the jackpot and capture a publishable image.

There you have it, no magic, no secret winning formula, just good planning, lots of practice, plenty of patience and willingness and desire to get out there and shoot.

Bonus Tip: Never leave one subject to find another.  I can’t tell you the number of times I have been shooting with an impatient fellow shooter who leaves in pursuit of a better opportunity only to have the magic unfold 20 minutes after they’d left. PATIENCE PAYS.



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Photography Judge – How to win a wildlife photography contest.


Wildlife Photography Contest CoverThe Canadian Geographic Best Wildlife Pictures is the premier Canadian photography contest and a great way for amateur photographers to gain wildlife image exposure within the Canadian photographic community.  Many of you already know all of the details on how this Canadian photography contest works however for those of you who don’t I thought I’d share what I have learned thus far having made it into the magazine in 2011 and 2013.

First you need to be a member of the Canadian Geographic Photo Club.  The cost is $10 annually to enter the photo challenge and you get to enter up to 10 wildlife images.

The wildlife photography contest runs just once a year so check the Canadian Geographic Photo Club for the closing date.

If you win or are runner up your image will be printed in the December issue of Canadian Geographic Magazine.  This also gains you a gallery spot at the Canadian Museum of Nature Wildlife image exhibition.  And lastly all wildlife images are printed in the Canadian Geographic Best Wildlife Pictures of the year issue the following year.  That’s a whole lot of exposure folks so if you are looking to build your brand as an amateur photographer this is a great photography contest to enter.

Like any photography contest, winning or placing requires that you create wildlife images that catch the judges eye.  So what is a photography judge looking for when he/she are judging a wildlife image:

  • A winning wildlife image leaves an impact on the photography judge, your image absolutely must have that “WOW” factor.
  • Proper composition accompanies every winning wildlife image.  Recommended reading, The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos
  • Wildlife images must be of quality.  That means it has clarity, is exposed properly and is technically sound.  Recommended reading: The Photographer’s Vision: Understanding and Appreciating Great Photography
  • You must connect the photography judge to wildlife image you enter into the photography contest.  The picture should be of interest and the scene should tell a story.
  • And last but certainly not least if you want to win a photography contest your image must be unique and should demonstrate a level of creativity.

As you can see there’s a reason they call it a photo challenge, but if you pay attention to the points above you just might find your wildlife image in the next Canadian Geographic Best Wildlife Pictures issue.

Good luck and happy shooting!!!



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Back Button Focus

Nikon AF ON Back ButtonWhy Back Button Focus?

Great question and certainly most wildlife photographers I speak with are still using the default press the shutter button half way down to focus with another full press on the shutter button to shoot method.  While a perfectly acceptable method keep reading as you just might discover that back button focus better suits your style of photography.  It was explained to me about five years ago and I have not looked back since.  So what exactly is back button focus?  In simple terms the autofocus (AF) feature that is normally performed by pressing the shutter button half way is stripped away and relegated to a button on the back of the camera.

So what’s the big deal you ask?  Below are a few reasons why I think every photographer should consider back button focus, especially wildlife photographers.

  • Much easier to lock focus.  Let’s say you are out shooting an osprey in its nest and the focal plane remains constant.  With back button focus you lock down the focus on your subject by pressing the rear button (AF ON for Nikon) and once in-focus you simply take your thumb off the rear button. Now you may shoot as many pictures as you like and the focus will not change until you press the back button again to refocus.  With the shutter button focus if I composed an image and focused then wanted to go off center I had to keep the shutter button pressed half way down to maintain the focus and keep my finger there until I took the shot.  Not any more, the camera now makes no effort to re-focus when you press the shutter button half-way down again.
  • No override of your manual focus.  Ever found yourself out shooting a bird in a busy setting and you needed to manually focus the lens on the bird?  Sure you have so you focus manually on the bird but the moment you press the shutter button down half way the AF kicks in and focuses on the trees again, very frustrating.  With back button focus activated the shutter no longer controls the focus only the shutter release so your manual focus point is not interrupted.  No need to move the AF to MF in this case.
  • Timing your shots.  I just hated having to hold down the shutter button half way to maintain focus on my subject and then wait for the moment that I wanted to take the shot.  In this case of a wildlife photographer this could be a matter of hours not minutes.  By using back button focus to pre-focus on the spot where the subject is expected to appear you only need to be concerned with activating the shutter to capture the moment not focus and capture.
  • Close up focusing is much easier.  If you’re into macro shooting you’re going to love the back button focus method.  We all know how hard it can be to get exact focus on a close up subject.  With back button focus you can use the AF to get the focus close enough for a first pass by pressing the rear button with your thumb and then taking your thumb off the button again.  Now you are free to move a little in one direction or another to get the image sharp.  And best of all just like the scenario above the AF is not trying to re-focus every time you touch the shutter button.

So if you’re ready to give it a try here’s the magic setting to disable half-pressed shutter focus per the screen shots below:

For Nikon:
Function a5: AF Activation. Default is Shutter/AF-ON, change to AF-ON only

Nikon AF ON Menu










For Canon:
Custom function – C.Fn IV-1 Shutter button/AF-ON button. Default is 0, Metering and AF start. Use 2, Metering start for the shutter button and AF for the button

Canon AF ON Menu

Give it about a week to get used to as it will take a bit of practice, but once you’re on to it you may just wonder how you ever did without it.  Worse case is you revert back to the default and no chalk it up to a failed experiment so what do you have to lose.


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So You Wanna Shoot The Shit

Osprey ShittingThis COOL Wildlife Photography shooting tip is brought to you by the many bird pictures that I have missed before I became privy to this one key observation. A few weeks ago I was out trying to get snowy owl pictures of a juvenile bird that had parked itself for a few weeks about 20 minutes from my home, how handy is that?  After about three  hours of observing the bird on a marina dock (not conducive to great photography) on what was a very cold and windy winter day there remained only myself and one other photographer whom I had never met but he obviously had patience and a warm parka as everyone else had packed it in. Continue reading »

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