Since I started taking photographs I have gone through countless transitions, altering my techniques and strategies almost entirely from what they were. It’s something all photographers go through, whether it be certain habits we change, or even different ideas we start to call our own. I have three "golden rules" that I like to keep in the back of my mind when I'm shooting, in order to get the most out of my time in the field. Here they are:
1. Wait for the right moment to take the photo.
I used to save all of my images from the field, even as far back as the beginning. One thing I always noticed about most of these earlier images was how tiny the subjects were in a lot of them. There were northern harriers in the frame equivalent to about the size of the center autofocus square, or bald eagles that resembled a distant letter “V” in the sky. In other words, shots with very little detail. Over time of course we learn that the closer subjects are the more valuable ones, in terms of image quality. This brings us to our first tip. Wait until your subject is close enough, then take the photo. Holding off on clicking the shutter won’t just save you the time spent deleting images, it will provide a better chance for your subject to get closer. I have learned that many birds, raptors especially, react to the sounds of the camera. Firing away at a bird in the distance will often alert it of your presence, lessening your chances for a close encounter. And like I always say, wait the bird out and let the photo happen naturally. Your images will be better this way.
2. Always be thinking about composition.
Sometimes it is easy to get carried away with the bird right in front of you. When this happens, we often forget about the other important parts of the image. There’s nothing worse than coming away with an incredible encounter, only to realize there was a wire running through the background of the image, or a branch obstructing part of the bird’s wing. Believe it or not, this happens all the time. It is especially important to remember this when your subject is still and you have the opportunity to pick your spot. Try and line up something nice behind the bird. Solid colors are preferable. Also be sure to move around any sticks obstructing the bird. It doesn’t take much movement on your end to clear the frame of any unwanted objects. Even a slight shimmy could do the trick. When I am laying on my stomach photographing shorebirds, I find this motion helpful. It allows you to line up something nice behind the bird, all without spooking it. Another important part of the image is the foreground. Something smooth is always desired, but most importantly nothing that obstructs the bird. With shorebirds, I find that the best images display the bird from head to toe. Cutting a bird off at the ankles takes valuable composition away from the image.
3. Take the time to process your images.
I remember always thinking that whatever came out of the camera was the final product. Before I had any type of editing software, I used to simply crop my images in iPhoto and call it a day! Now I spend just as much, maybe even more time processing images than I do taking them. This is partly due to the fact that I now shoot RAW images, as opposed to JPEGs. RAW images capture every bit of data that the camera produces, but often look flat when you upload them onto the computer. Post-processing tools allow us to bring that life-like feel back to our images, as well as enhance them to look better on the computer screen or printed. RAW images also take up A LOT more space than JPEGs - in some cases, 5x the space - so you will have to weigh in the drawbacks. I highly recommend shooting RAW images if you are looking to get the most out of your camera; however, JPEGs are perfect for laid back, pure enjoyment photography! And hey, you can still do A LOT with JPEGs. It’s all a matter of opinion. Try it for yourself and decide! But whichever your choice may be, always remember to put the time in with editing. It will really make your photographs stand out from the others.
I am always searching for new ways to improve my shooting, whether it be different strategies to get the photos, or new tricks to use in Photoshop. I hope that these ideas will be of value to my fellow photographers out there. And I would love to hear some of your tips along the way too!