Welcome to my new blog series I am calling “Great Subjects”! The idea behind this series is to give you specific themes to focus your attention on, a quest if you will, for your photography outings.
Expand your horizons! Get outside your comfort zone! Try something new!
You’ll find that once you start looking for a particular subject, you’ll discover it much more often than you might have thought. And, even if the subject isn’t your thing, you’re bound to learn something new by stretching your wings.
So, with no further ado …
The first lesson in the series is on how to photograph small animals. Why are they different than photographing large animals? Because the very small creatures that inhabit our world tend to be skittish and move quickly making it hard for us to sneak up and get closer with our big lenses.
A slight tangent — Did you know there will be more Instagrams of cats posted today than there were photographs made during the entire 19th century? For that reason, I feel like I should point out that we’re talking about animals that are smaller than a kitten! So photographing your cat doesn’t cut it for our “small animals” theme. But you can photograph small birds, rodents, reptiles, insects, crustaceans, mollusks, and even fish.
When we think of the word “animal”, we usually picture the larger mammals that we’re so used to seeing every day. Instead, for this theme, focus on the word “small”:
Rodents – This category of mini-mammals reaches far beyond the rats and mice that first come to mind. Squirrels, for example, are found almost everywhere. Depending on where you are in the world, you might also find chipmunks, ground hogs, gophers, gerbils, and prairie dogs.
Reptiles – Some of the oldest species in the world fall into this family, having lived alongside the dinosaurs. Lizards are a subfamily of reptiles which include chameleons, geckos, and chuckwallas. Other types of reptiles are turtles/tortoises and snakes, as well as several that are far bigger than we’re looking for in this theme (alligators, crocodiles, etc).
Crustaceans – Found almost exclusively in or near the sea, this category consists of crabs, lobsters, shrimps, and crayfish, as well as unexpected creatures like barnacles and the little bugs found infesting dead trees (known either as wood bugs, woodlice, sow bugs, pillbugs, or roly-polys, depending on where you’re from).
Mollusks – Also fond of wet habitats, the mollusk family consists of a wide variety of invertebrates including clams, oysters, scallops, cuttlefish, squid, octopi, snails, and slugs. They’re not the most glamorous photographic subjects, but are small animals nonetheless.
Insects – Probably the easiest subjects to find will be insects. They are everywhere all around us and despite their reputation as pests, they can be fascinating photography subjects. Look for flies, dragon flies, ladybugs, ants, praying mantis, bees, and even butterflies.
Small Birds – Since they meet the qualification of “smaller than a kitten” you can also include small birds in this theme.
Optimal Camera Settings
Capturing such small creatures can be difficult because they often move very quickly. For the best results, select the shutter priority mode on your camera’s command dial and choose a shutter speed around 1/500th of a second to freeze any motion. You can then adjust your shutter speed depending how fast your subject is moving.
Using a very wide aperture, you can blur the foreground and background which will put all the attention on your main subject. Remember, the widest aperture opening is represented by the smallest f-stop number like f/2.8 or f/4. Using this wide aperture will also bring in lots of light which will help keep your shutter speed fast.
Start at ISO 100. If you are able to get the shutter speed and aperture you want at this ISO then you don’t have to do anything further. But if you need more light, then increase the ISO accordingly until you can get the shutter speed you require. Sometimes high ISO can result in noise, but it’s better to have a sharp image with a bit of noise (which you can correct in post processing) than it is to have an unintentionally blurry image.
When using auto focus, having it set to continuous auto focus (usually called AF-C or AI Servo) will tell the camera to track the subject’s motion for more accurate focus. However, this mode isn’t always ideal when the subject is still. If you’re not sure what your subject is going to do, hedge your bets by choosing the automatic auto focus (AF-A or AI Focus AF) – the name sounds redundant, I know, but this mode will select between continuous and single-shot (AF-S or One-Shot AF) mode based on the detection of movement within the frame.
When I am shooting animals large and small, I rarely use a tripod because I am using a fast shutter speed anyway and without a tripod I can move quicker and get my camera into the perfect angle more easily.
As far as lens choice goes, you’ll probably want to use either a telephoto lens or a macro lens.
Smaller animals tend to have acute prey instincts, based on their typically low position in the food chain. This can make it difficult to get close to them without frightening them into flight. In some cases (such as certain spiders, scorpions, insects, snakes, and frogs) it can also mean that they have developed dangerous defense mechanisms to protect themselves from predators. While I strongly advise you to stay far away from anything harmful or poisonous, having a long lens on your camera will allow you to get a good close-up while keeping a safe and non-threatening distance.
Not all things are so skittish, though, and some will allow you to get much closer than others. Many small simple creatures, such as worms, ants, and snails, won’t register you as a predator so much as part of the moving landscape. For animals like these, you can get closer to them, fill the frame, and capture fine detail by using a macro lens.
If you don’t have a dedicated macro lens, you can also use extension tubes or close-up filters on a regular lens to get the same effect with a smaller price tag. I use a 70-300mm telephoto lens for most of my wildlife work and, if I am photographing very small animals that I can get a few feet away from, I’ll use my Canon 500D close-up filter on the telephoto lens, which essentially turns my telephoto into a macro lens by allowing me to focus at a closer distance.
Where to find your subjects
Where do you go to find small creatures? Finding an animal that’s smaller than a kitten can be tough because they’re so small, and they don’t always make themselves seen. This usually means that you have to go searching for them. Luckily, once you know where to look, you’ll quickly realize that tiny things are everywhere.
As soon as you step out your front door, they’ll probably be right under your feet. In fact, you might step on them if you’re not careful. You’ll find worms and snakes buried in the grass, and insects hiding in nearby flowers and shrubs. If you listen closely for the telltale cheeping of newly hatched birds, you might find a nest. Remember to keep your distance and never disturb a nest, though, as this can cause the mother to abandon it.
In hot climates, you’ll probably find lizards basking on top of rocks, or maybe hiding in the shade. In wet areas, visit the swampier regions to find frogs and other amphibians among the water plants. Small rodents live in forested areas and park lands, usually buried in small dens among the tree roots. If you’re near the coast, head to the ocean to find crabs and mollusks. They will often hole up in the dampness under stones and in tidal pools, or even buried in the sand.
The city has its share of animal life too. Hit up the city park to find squirrels, pigeons, robins, and other animals that have learned to live off of the surplus of human civilization.
If you’re in a part of the world that is still frozen, you’ll have a more difficult time. If you’re really stuck, take a trip to the local zoo to find all sorts of animals in one place.
Approaching Small Animals In the Field
Small creatures often have highly-tuned “prey” instincts, and have a fear of larger things such as humans. If you want to get anywhere near these animals, it can take a great deal of care to keep from frightening them away.
The first thing to avoid is noise. Keep as quiet as possible to avoid alerting them to your presence. Turn your cell phone on silent and step lightly when approaching.
Sudden motion will also put an animal on guard, so be conservative with your movements. Keep as still as possible and when you do move, do so slowly and carefully, being cautious that you don’t trip or knock into anything. Think like a ninja. Carrying as little equipment as possible will allow you to move freely and easily, with less gear to pay attention to or potentially throw you off balance.
Some animals consider it a threat when you look directly at them, so try to keep your eyes low and watch them from your peripheral vision. When you do approach them, don’t move directly towards them in a straight line, but in a gradual zig-zag pattern. When it comes to easing an animal’s fear, your ability to be hushed, still, and patient will make all the difference.
Sometimes the best way to get close to an animal is to find out where they naturally congregate, go there, set up and wait patiently without moving or making any noise. Eventually you will become part of the landscape and the animals may be unaware you are there.
Another way to get close to an animal is to lure them towards you. Find out what food they like and spread some out near you. “Baiting” in wildlife photography has ethical considerations and you shouldn’t bait an animal when it might change that animals behaviour and ultimately be harmful to the animal. But mostly this applies to large animals. Baiting a bear is a little different than baiting a squirrel, so I think we’re okay to throw some seeds out for our little friends.
One of the biggest challenges we face when shooting small creatures is how easy it is for us to get lost in a sense of reverence or affection for the animal and forget to pay attention to the nuts and bolts of good composition.
A good photo is not made by the subject so much as the way the light falls on it, so always keep your eye on the shadows and contrast when framing your shot, and don’t forget to compose your background and foreground elements so that they emphasize the focal point. Animals (even tiny ones) can be full of personality and this certainly should not be ignored, but the forms of their bodies also create elegant shapes (both real and implied) that can be used to create an enticing portrait.
“Portrait”? I know, the word is usually used to refer to pictures of people, and often only from the shoulders up. This is the traditional artistic definition, but the word itself simply means “a representation or impression of someone or something”. If you think of photographing animals in this way, it becomes easy to create interesting images that depict the subject’s unique charm and character.
In this spirit, you can approach your composition in two ways. One is the classic portrait, which is a close-up that highlights the features of the subject’s face (usually the eyes, but in the case of non-human creatures, it could be fur, scales, whiskers, antennae, etc). This is best done by filling the whole frame with the animal and using a shallow depth of field to emphasize fine details and obscure the negative space around it.
The other method is the environmental portrait. Taken from a distance or with a wide angle point of view, this type of composition incorporates a subject’s location to give it a sense of context. There is a lot to be understood about an animal by the place it’s found in, whether that be its natural habitat or something more artificial. Unlike the classic portrait, this approach will usually use a larger depth of field in order to get more of the surrounding setting in focus.
Consider these ideas as you go looking for small creatures to photograph, and always remember that animals are living things and they (and their homes) can be very sensitive, so take care to treat them with respect as you try to capture memorable images.
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