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.