Perfect Light

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Published on: Dec. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

of the car with camera in hand. "It's a Massasauga rattler!" He's already taking pictures. It's only the third Massasauga he's ever found, and he discovered one of the previous ones by stepping on it - briefly.

The gray pattern of the snake's skin blends with the gray gravel, but the ability to spot the least movement and the most camouflaged critter is part of Rathert's success. That, and a deep interest in nature, which he says is probably the main prerequisite for becoming a good wildlife photographer.

"The photography is the final step," he says.

A Flock of Wildlife Photos at Home

No need to pack for an African safari to begin your pursuit of wildlife photos, when you can look out your window and simply check who's there. A good place to start is with the visitors to your own bird feeder. Birds and squirrels become cooperative subjects when attracted by the food you supply.

You say you don't want that man-made bird feeder in every photo? Rathert recommends an auxiliary natural perch nearby. That could be a tree already growing in the perfect place, or you can use a branch you find on the ground (but not a rotten one). Position it securely at a natural angle to provide a place where birds will perch between visits to the feeder. "You create your own outdoor mini-studio for the birds," Rathert says.

Because you have control over the situation, you'll be free to concentrate on photos, rather than galloping after an elusive subject in the wilderness. The wilderness can come later, when you know more about your camera equipment's capabilities and the quirkiness of wild subjects. At home, you control:

Distance. Position the feeder and perch near a window and set up your camera on a tripod in the house. Shooting through an open window is better than shooting through glass that tends to be reflective.

Or put up a blind or a "hide" outdoors. Once you're concealed, birds will return to the feeder and ignore you. If the distance is right and you use a long lens (as opposed to a wide angle lens), you'll fill up the frame for a definitive bird or squirrel photo.

Background. The idea is to isolate your subject against a distant background. If you're lower than the perch, you may have a sky background; if you're higher, a background of grass or foliage. You can arrange your outdoor studio to avoid distractions such as a neighbor's white house in your photos.

Angle of light. You may be able to situate yourself and the feeder so you have, for instance, early morning light coming over your shoulder to illuminate the birds.

If your photos are blurred, it may be due to movement of the animal or the camera. Try a faster shutter speed and stabilize the camera.

Be patient - that purple finch is sure to turn its back or fly just as you have a beautiful shot, but it will return.

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