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Top 5 photography tips for wildlife volunteers

Are you a happy snapper? Being abroad might bring out your creative side and most importantly, you want the best photos to keep the memories of your time abroad. Fin Belcher, Frontier’s Field Communications Officer in Madagascar has previously spent 5 months volunteering on the terrestrial program. He has gained a lot of photography experience during this time and here are some of his best photography tips which future and current volunteers may find helpful.

Image courtesy of Fin Belcher

1. Check you have the right equipment for the job

Whether you have a point and shoot camera or a DSLR with a few add-ons and lenses, always check whether you have suitable equipment for your specific needs. Go on a walk and take some close-ups. Experiment. Take some shots in bright sunshine and in dark situations too. Remember that if you're working in the forest your setup will need to work well in low light. Check the cameras focus settings. Really put your camera through its paces to see that it's does what you need it to do before you leave for your project.

Assess what memory cards, batteries and chargers you need. Think about how long you'll be on the project as this may influence your decisions on what to take. Personally I brought a large solar charger which I regret now I'm here. It just took too long to charge anything! Instead I would recommend buying 1 or more spare batteries for your camera and charge them when you can. I have 5 camera batteries which ensures I am never caught short when a photo opportunity arises.

It is also worth nothing that it's not all about big DSLR cameras. These days compact cameras can produce fantastic photos, so keep in mind that you shouldn't and don't have to spend a fortune to get a camera that will produce respectable results.

Image courtesy of Fin Belcher

2. Be mindful in the field

It really does only take one wrong move to unnecessarily distress and scare away your subject. While you may be excited about a photo opportunity, a little bit of patience and care will give you the best chance of getting you the photo you want, and most importantly you leave the animal reasonably undisturbed. Give the animal some space, being careful not to knock any nearby branches (if you're in a forest), and move in to position quietly, taking some shots as you go. It may seem like this advice is all common sense however I've seen examples of this done the wrong way too many times!








Images courtesy of Fin Belcher



3. Use the right autofocus settings

This is the most common problem I see volunteers having with their cameras. It stems from the fact that most cameras by default take an evaluative average of the frame (what you see through the viewfinder) when deciding what to focus on. In many situations this would be a good way for the camera to behave, but generally not with wildlife photography. If 70% of your frame is filled with a bush, and you want to focus on a chameleon through a hole in the bush, the chances are you will get a very in focus bush, and the beautiful chameleon you were focusing on will be an oval shaped blob of blurriness.

So... the solution?! Mess about with your focus settings. Look at the focusing section in the manual for your camera. Each setting should be explained. Modify your settings and try them in the field, preferably before you leave for your project. Personally on my DSLR Canon 500D I find 'point' auto-focusing works best (slightly different terminology may be used) as the camera will then focus on a point rather than averaging the whole frame. This is especially useful in the forest and for close-up (macro) shots. You can then use this process:

  • Make sure the focus 'point' in the viewfinder is over what you want to be in focus
  • Half press the shutter button which will initiate focusing
  • Wait for the camera to focus on the point
  • Compose your shot by panning the viewfinder to your desired position

In the forest I use this setting and process for every shot I take, except in difficult conditions when I may decide to switch to completely manual focus.

Image courtesy of Fin Belcher

4. Use a flash diffuser or reduce the power of the flash

Another common problem I see is volunteers getting photos where nearly everything is white. This happens when the camera does not compensate for the power of the flash correctly at close range. You can overcome this by either reducing the power of the flash in your settings (again, check your cameras manual to see that this is possible. Macro mode may help too) or by using a flash diffuser. Or both!

I recommend using a diffuser at close range as it will also give a more natural look to your photos. There may be a diffuser made especially for your model of camera. A quick search on Google will tell you. If there's not you could modify one or even make one yourself! Believe it or not a folded white bit of plastic bag placed on front of your flash may diffuse the light sufficiently for you to get a better photo in these situations.

I use this kind of DIY flash setup for my macro photography, and have got results I'm really happy with. It's by no means necessary, but you may consider using an external flash if you do have a DSLR camera.

Image courtesy of Fin Belcher

5. Take care of your equipment

I've seen a good few cameras bite the dust or go missing out here due to insufficient care and attention. A bit of common sense goes a long way. If you avoid leaving your equipment out and about and are careful where you set it down, these situations can be avoided. Note: sand and cameras do not mix!

If you have a camera with changeable lenses, ensure you do the swapping in an environment where debris will not be able to get into places it shouldn't be. Ensuring your lenses are free from smudges is also good practice as they will often show up in photos. A powerful hand blower which allows you to remove dirt without direct contact and some optical wipes are always in my bag just in case.

Finally for reference, here's a list of the main equipment I'm currently using:

Canon 500D body

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM Lens

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Lens

Canon Speedlite 270EX II Flash

If anyone has any questions, fire them over and I'll try to answer them as best I can.

Got any photography tips of your own? Share them on our social media channels. FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.

If you're a past or present Frontier volunteer, make sure you enter our photography competition with a great wildlife shot here.

Frontier runs over 300 dedicated conservation, community and adventure projects worldwide. Why not have a look at our journalism projects and internships in Fiji and China. Or, find out more about great ideas for your gap year, and opportunities to volunteer across the globe.

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