“Want to see pictures of my deer?”
That phrase invariably invokes a variety of responses from the average hunter, but for me it always sends icy chills up my spine.
I’ve seen hundreds, more likely thousands, of photos snapped from a range of devices provided by readers, friends and others in my short time of writing about outdoor pursuits. Each and every one documented a priceless memory for young and old, but to be honest, most were downright disappointing.
Today’s outdoorsmen and women have the most advanced tools to document all aspects of their pursuits, but even with “auto-everything” features, great photos don’t simply just happen. Skill with any type of camera mirrors deftness with a rifle, fishing rod or turkey call – it takes equal parts of practice, preparation and follow-through.
Here’s a snapshot of some suggestions for improving your photos in the field.
The biggest aspect of any photo is lighting. The “good light” that makes shots glow in the early morning and late afternoon when the sun is slung low on the horizon is what can make any photo pop. Alas, that light quickly fades, which means most hunting and fishing photos are taken in lousy light – dawn or dusk, after dark or in sun-scorched midday hours. The key to maximizing quality is to start off by keeping the sun at your back or even to your side and working from there.
Almost everyone in outdoors photos are wearing hats, which protects from the sun and adds character, but it also adds shade and cuts down on the main component of good photos of people – eye contact. Sunglasses also do the same, so dispense with them, but instead of removing headgear, add light with fill flash, which will illuminate dark areas and keep eyes from disappearing in your photos. Almost all auto-exposure cameras will do a superb job of this, which will provide dramatic improvement in a number of lighting situations.
Remember when photographers actually shot on film?
I can recall hours spent thumbing through photo albums and slides from my father’s exploits in the field, but today all that exploration is done with the click of a mouse, which isn’t a bad thing. Today’s digital cameras come in all shapes and sizes, and most deftly will capture your outdoor moments and memories. Your selection all depends on preference and what you feel comfortable with. Most “point-and-shoot” models are enough to capture great images, but if you’re more inclined, you certainly can up the ante with an SLR model made by any number of name-brand companies.
Now, let’s look at aiming, which is known as composition. In a perfect world, you’ve got plenty of time to carefully arrange everything before you depress the shutter, but even if you don’t you still can set the stage nicely. Close-ups are much more dramatic than wide shots, so fill the frame with your subject, getting as near as you can so there’s nothing extra on the edges. Speaking of edges, make sure there’s nothing out of place. I once saw a magnificent photo of a proud hunter with a massive West Texas muley, the kind of shot capturing a true once-in-a-lifetime moment. The lighting was perfect and the close-up was spot-on. The only problem was the man behind the lens didn’t account for the fence post that seemed to grow right out of the back of the hunter’s head.
One of the best ways to check your composition is to take a variety of shots from varying angles, up close and wider. You also should try a really wide shot to encompass the scenery. These are the kinds of shots you see on magazine covers where a hunter appears to be in the backcountry, seemingly a million miles from civilization.
One of the tenets of good photography is steadiness. Most blurry photos are the result of shaky hands, though some photographers will claim they tried for an artsy soft focus attempt. Low light especially will compound the problem, but this precisely is why you should bring along a tripod. One cool piece of gear I have toted is a flexible Gorillapod, which you can wrap around trees, fence posts or almost any other outcropping for a quick and steady setup. In place of that I’ve even used and seen others use almost anything handy to build up a steady platform. Maybe it’s rocks or even the top of a hunting pack.
Great photographs truly seize a moment in time, the one that best sumps up a trip or even a season. It could be a bird dog leaping through water or brush, a big bass bursting from the water in front of a wide-eyed angler or a proud parent admiring their son’s or daughter’s first duck, deer or turkey. The most photographed scene is of the proud hunter posing with whatever game they’ve harvested.
It’s also the most abused.
The main thing to always remember is to present the game animal with dignity and respect. That means snap your shots before field-dressing it and wiping off any blood. For deer and other big game, position the animal as though it is sleeping with its legs folded underneath and on its stomach rather than on the side. This should be done in natural terrain, not in the back of a vehicle.
Game shots always are most impressive against the natural background of the sky, so if possible, position the subject on a rise or ridge and get below to shoot up. The antlers of a whitetail or muley will appear more dramatically this way and instead of holding the animal up by an antler, simply support behind the ears. Other variations of game shots include having the subject look at the animal rather than directly at the camera or perhaps walking up to the animal.
Other ways to make great photos is to focus on places and people rather than just a “limit” of birds or fish. Perhaps it’s a hunter admiring a single brightly colored pheasant in the morning glow or a hunter packing out a turkey gobbler over his shoulder in the fading light. The grip and grin shot with a fish has been around as long as cameras have been used to document success. Instead, try to capture the moment of success whether it’s a fishing buddy lipping a lunker largemouth near the water’s surface or a friend netting a hefty redfish.
With practice comes great photos, and even if you’re not among a host of other wildlife photographers who truly are artists, you still can come away with images that will stand the test of time. The most important rule is to always carry a camera. This is where a point-and-shoot or even cell phone camera works great. I’ve had images printed in newspapers and magazines that I shot with either my pocket camera or even an iPhone, so clearly it’s not just a matter of megapixels.
The second rule of photography is simple: Take a lot of photos. You never know what you might catch with your lens and it’s just good practice. Also, be prepared should your efforts catch someone’s eye.
The usual response: “Wow, you must have a really expensive camera!”