Urban wildlife photography — a beginner's guide
She's no stranger to capturing cold and remote places in the north and the fragile Artic wilderness, but for photographer Lina Kayser exploring wildlife around her hometown is an opportunity to capture all creatures, great and small
When you go outside, look around — what do you see? Sometimes we don't notice the life within the trees, bushes and even on the rooftops until we stop, pause and take a good look around. Remember to move slowly and carefully and find out the distance you need to keep to ensure you don’t scare your subjects away.
For birds, in particular, it’s a good idea to learn their songs — that way it’s easier to locate your favourite one. I also find it more rewarding to go for a walk when I know what bird it is that's singing around me.
Know when the time is right
The best time to spot wildlife is early in the morning when the sun rises, or in the evening when the sun sets. The light is at its most beautiful and it's ideal to spot foxes, badgers, beavers, hedgehogs, deer and more. They are masters at hiding during the day, so you’re likely to spot them roaming around while everyone else is sleeping.
I really like the golden touch of the first rays of sun striking through. It might be a little dark still, so leave your aperture open to allow more light in — depending on your lens it could be f/2.8, f/4 or f/5.6. To keep your camera and lens steady, try setting your shutter as fast as double your focal length (for example, for 300mm use 1/600 sec or faster).
Then adjust your ISO to get the correct exposure. I like to have a preview of the histogram in my viewfinder which is a great feature on the Nikon Z 7, and I make sure that it doesn't stick to the right or to the left side when I set the exposure. You can also just use your camera’s light meter to adjust.
Take test shots
Take some test shots to find a background you like and make sure you’re only getting the elements you want in your frame. For example, a bright red car in the backdrop could easily ruin your photo. That said, it can also be really interesting to add a touch of the city in your frame, so don't be afraid to incorporate some urban elements. It’s also a good idea to take some test shots to check your exposure and background, so that you are ready if something appears.
When I'm shooting portraits, I like to have a soft and blurry background to accentuate a sharp subject. A lot of the time I choose open apertures between f/2.8 and f/5.6, depending on the lens, to make my subject stand out in the frame.
Using your kit (and its settings) to your advantage
If you don't have a zoom lens, or you want to photograph the landscape and keep the bird or the animal as a detail in the shot, you can use wider lenses like the NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S or similar. Remember that you don't always have to take close-ups to capture amazing photos of wildlife. Documenting them in their natural habitat can often produce far more interesting results.
What's great about photographing wildlife in gardens and parks is that these creatures are used to people so you can get quite close. I use my AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens a lot because it’s lightweight, easy to use and produces great results with super sharp images but you could experiment with any telephoto or zoom lens. I’ve found the NIKKOR Z DX 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3 VR coupled with the Z 50, for example, to be particularly versatile.
Getting the shots sharp and in focus can be a real challenge regardless of what gear you have, especially when shooting tiny birds that are unpredictable and fast moving. Small birds’ wings flap at approximately 40 beats per second, so to freeze the motion of a flying bird you would need at least 1/1000 to 1/2000 a second, even faster if possible. Use your camera’s AF-C focus mode (continuous focus) to capture movement. As long as you have the shutter button pressed halfway and are focused on the bird, the camera will remain focused.
Garden birds and wildlife that live close to towns and cities are great for practicing your skills as a photographer. So take whatever gear you have, get out there and get started.
Lina Kayser's top tips to accelerate your wildlife photography:
- Get up at sunrise. You might be surprised to see who’s roaming around while everyone else is sleeping. This is the best time to spot foxes, deer, rabbits, beavers, birds and more. The light can sometimes be trickier at this time so the easiest way to nail your shots is to shoot with your back against the sun. However, you can also make beautiful backlit photos by positioning yourself so that the sun’s rays are filtered through branches, leaves or grass.
- Take some test shots to check and adjust your settings, so that you are ready if something suddenly appears.
- Choose your background and decide whether you want to include some urban elements like cars, buildings or fences in your frame.
- Open apertures give a soft and blurry background and makes the subject stand out in the frame.
- Long lenses can be hard to keep stable, so use a shutter speed that’s double your focal length or more. When I’m shooting with my 300mm f/4 lens I keep my shutter at 1/600 sec or faster, and with my 500mm f/5.6 my shutter is set to 1/1000 sec or faster.
- Study the habits of the wildlife you want to photograph i.e. what do they eat, where can they usually be seen and at what time? You can also ask your neighbours or local farmers if they have seen anything.
- Learn the different songs of each bird. That way it’s easier to recognise and find your favourites. You can also play the songs from your phone to see if the birds answer or come closer. There are plenty of apps and websites with bird songs.
- Try to be at eye level with your subject, even if it means laying flat on the ground.
- Set the focus on the eyes. Try shooting with single point focus for better control.
- Wildlife living in urban areas are usually less shy of people so don’t worry if you don’t have a big zoom lens.
Start your wildlife photography journey here
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