Capturing the decisive moment was a term coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson to refer to waiting to hit your shutter at just the right time in order to capture something special. His book on that very topic is studied enthusiastically by photojournalists and street photographers alike. However, the idea carries over just as well if not more so into wildlife photography. If you’re looking at the photos you’ve taken and wondering what it is that could take them to the next level, keep reading.
We sat down with Joshua Holko to get a few tips from him to help you prepare to capture the decisive moment in wildlife photography.
1. Learn How Your Subject Behaves
“For example, when I was photographing arctic foxes, I studied them tirelessly. In fact, I bought every book I could find on arctic fox research and even consulted someone who had done their Ph.D. studies on arctic foxes.”
Knowing your subject is important and will serve you better than turning up on location and capturing whatever grabs your eye. When you know your subject really well, you can anticipate and predict (not with absolute certainty of course) its next move. Will it veer left? Will it snatch a fish from the river? Will it just sit quietly and watch its young? Being able to anticipate any of these means that you’re more likely to be in the right place with the right framing and clicking the shutter at the precise moment when something special happens.
2. Anticipate, But Don’t “Previsualize”
A dramatic snowstorm, a wolf comes out of a forest and stands perfectly within your frame as if it’s waiting for you. It’s the perfect shot…..that you previsualized.
“The thing is that the shots you imagine are perfect and nature just doesn’t cooperate that way. Worse yet, if you focus on the images in your mind’s eye, it can be a distraction from when something else really special happens costing you great shots.”
Instead, anticipate what could happen with every step, every look, and every pause. When you learn to do this, you can be ready to react and take advantage of a wider range of opportunities to capture stunning images.
3. Be Patient
Capturing those fleeting moments isn’t something you can just get out of your car, walk ten feet and snap a few photos to accomplish. It takes patience; honestly, more patience than most people would ever consider.
Photographing wildlife for many means sitting on a plane for ten or more hours and then sitting for ten more hours on location waiting for an animal that might only appear for 30 seconds once the entire day.
The main takeaway here is that the more time you spend in the field, the more likely it is you’ll be there for the decisive moment.
4. Know Your Camera Intimately
The last thing you want to do when you’ve been in the field for ten hours and everything finally lines up for you to capture something special, great composition, great light, your subject acting in a way that gives context to everything tying it all together is fumble around with the dials and buttons on your camera looking to change settings.
Ideally, your camera should feel like an extension of your hand with you able to change all of your main settings without the need to look and barely the need to think. If it doesn’t feel this way, you need to practice, practice, and practice some more with your camera until it does.
Not only can fumbling around cost you untold opportunities to capture spectacular images, but photography is an art and more of your mental space should be taken up with what you’re trying to say with your photograph than F stops and shutter speeds. Otherwise, you’re acting as a camera operator and not a photographer.
5. Decide What You Want to Say With Your Photo
Framing, exposure, depth of field, and shutter speed will largely be affected by the story you want to tell with your image and the emotional response you’re trying to elicit from your audience. There is no one way to go about this so we have a few thoughts we’ve collected on aspects of storytelling in photography.
You can have a situation where you have a polar bear walking under a glacier in winter and it might be tempting to shoot it with a long lens (400mm to 600mm range) and get a tight shot of it. But, it might be far better and more powerful to use a medium telephoto lens (70-200mm) and place the bear as part of the environment with the large glacier and everything around it leaving it very small in the frame. So you have this beautiful glacier that frames the animal and leaves it as a tiny part of the frame. This can be used to a really strong effect because it tells us a story much more so than just a really tight portrait shot. This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with a tight portrait shot of an animal. We all do them and they have their place.
Something else to consider is the weather. It might seem tempting to shoot wildlife photography in great conditions. It’s easier to focus, less challenging for your camera, and just a more pleasant time to be outside.
However, inclement weather is great to shoot wildlife in for a couple of reasons. The first is it helps to tell a story about how harsh and unforgiving the environment can be and how resilient the wildlife that thrives in these conditions is. An additional benefit to shooting in inclement weather is that snow or rain can add a lot of depth to the areas of the image that would otherwise be a lot of negative space or cropped out.
When we’re first learning photography, we of course learn the exposure triangle and probably spend years building a mastery of these three elements feeling like we can produce technically perfect images without much thought.
Have one look at the most iconic ones in history though and you’ll notice a pattern. They’re full of technical imperfections: slightly missed focus, and shutter drag (ie a slow enough shutter speed that motion is not perfectly frozen) being key among them.
Why is that?
In the case of shutter drag, it can help to show movement, which is extremely difficult to convey in a still photograph. That movement can be used to tell a story about how quickly your subject moves or how it interacts with other animals or things around it.
The decisive moment where things are much more interesting than the seconds before and after is a fraction of a second within an already extremely short window. The tips we covered today should give you some things to consider and hopefully help you to take your wildlife photography to the next level. Do you have any ideas that we didn’t cover? Share them below in the comments!