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Two Techniques to Instantly Improve Your Wildlife Photos

Written by Thomas C


Posted on April 09 2019

Alotech Wildlife Photography & Nature Photography

Two Techniques to Instantly Improve Your Wildlife Photos 

Thomas from Alotech
Wildlife Photographer | Guide | Podcast Host for the PhotoCast | Founder of Alotech 

I was able to instantly improve my photos overnight when I started to do just two techniques.

You will become more efficient in the field for both wildlife photography and nature photography.

Be able to go consistently to locations in the field, and know exactly how the time of the day, wind, temperature, tides, etc. impact the animals in that exact location.

Just take field notes and articulate to yourself what photos you want to walk away with.

This sounds extremely simple, and it is…

I’m going to walk you through how to create a “shot list,” and how you can take notes in the field to maximize your success.

What exactly is a "shot list?"

A “shot list” is merely an outline of photos you want to take in the field.

You might be thinking that going into a field with a list of photos you want to walk away with sounds insane. Doing this will cause you to miss photos, and potentially zap you of all your creativity.

That’s why I am going to walk you through what I call my enhanced roadmap that I created for my roughly one-and-a-half month-long trip to the Falkland Islands so that you can implement my enhanced roadmap into your workflow.

How many times do you go to a location without a plan, and walk around photographing whatever you see?

The problem I had beginning my career was being overloaded visually with amazing scenery, and different animals all over. For example, if I were going to take you to roughly five different locations in the Falkland Islands where five different penguins live, including many other kinds of birds, with each island composed of different scenery you would get overloaded with options.

Do you photograph the Rockhoppers, Gentoos, Magellanics, the Kings…

How would you know what island has the best environment for each penguin?

An enhanced roadmap in the field will guide you towards what you should focus on that day; however you should still be opportunistic.

The enhanced roadmap happens before you visit a location. Before I went to the Falklands, I mapped out what each location was best for.

For example, one of the locations I visited was best for three out of five penguins. However, the location had all five penguins. I was able to maximize my success and walk away with images that I was proud of because I focused all my time photographing three out of five penguins while I was on that particular island. I purposely ignored two types of penguins because I knew the opportunities would be better at other islands.

Magellanic Penguin & Chick | Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8 II | 1/320, f/10, ISO 200

Gentoo Penguin | Canon 1DX Mark II, 300mm f/2.8 IS II | 1/800, f/2.8, ISO 3200

Rockhopper Penguin | Canon 1DX Mark II, 600mm f/4 IS II | 1/2000, f/4, ISO 800

To start your enhanced roadmap: 
  1. In a 5-inch notebook found here, start with the name of the location you are going
  2. Under each location page list what animals you should focus on for that particular area

Your next step is going to be to list the types of photos you want to walk away with. The key though is to make the list of the type of photos you want to take as broad as possible.

For example, on one island a sample of my list included:

Rockhopper Penguins

  • Rockhoppers riding waves
  • Rockhopper jumping taken from a low angle
  • Rockhopper up-close portrait
  • Rockhopper headshot

Gentoo Penguins 

  • Gentoos surfing back to shore
  • Gentoo portrait in the sunset
  • Gentoo headshot
  • Unique behavior between an adult Gentoo & its chick

When you create a list, my best advice is to not look at anyone else’s photos for that week. I think about each species, what is unique to each species, and the behavior of each species in my head to create a list of photos I would be happy walking away with.

A broad list of photos you want to capture will help you succeed in the field because you can outline X amount of days to solely focusing on, for example, a unique behavior between a Gentoo and a chick.

As soon as I got to an island, I scouted for the best Gentoo & chick that had both a clean foreground and background. On my enhanced roadmap, I knew that I could spend X amount of days photographing just that one Gentoo & chick all day to maximize my chance at getting some unique behavior.

Gentoo Penguin & Chick | Canon 5DS R, 600mm f/4 IS II | 1/3200, f/4, ISO 200

We added a step to the enhanced roadmap to now be:

  1. In a 5-inch notebook found here, start with the name of the location you are going
  2. Under each location page list what animals you should focus on for that particular area
  3. Under each animal create a broad shot list for that specific location

The next step is to create a page for each day you are at a specific location. On that page write down what you are planning on doing in the morning, around lunchtime, and the afternoon.

For example, on one of my days this was my plan:

Day 8- X Island

  1. Morning: Photograph one pair of Magellanic Penguins next to my tent depicting unique behavior
  2. Lunchtime: Scout the island by walking along the beach to the point
  3. Afternoon: Photograph Gentoos & Magellanics coming back to shore during sunset

Remember, your enhanced roadmap is designed to be flexible. After visiting a location, you can realize that it is different than you originally anticipated, and all you have to do is change your daily roadmap.

One of my favorite days to do is flip days around. For example, if you want to photograph an animal during sunrise and the day is cloudy just switch around what you want to capture that day with another day.

The final enhanced roadmap before we get to the location includes:

  1. In a 5-inch notebook found here, start with the name of the location you are going
  2. Under each location page list what animals you should focus on for that particular area
  3. Under each animal create a broad shot list for that specific location
  4. Outline each day you are at a particular location and articulate what you want to focus on in the morning, lunchtime, and evening

Now that you had created an enhanced roadmap before you were in the field, now let’s talk about one technique you can implement while you are in the field that will help you achieve consistent results each time you visit a particular location.

The Importance of Detailed Field Notes 

One of the biggest regrets I have starting out is not taking detailed field notes.

Wildlife photography is about putting yourself in the right situation at the right time.

Well, how are you supposed to know detailed information about the best time to visit each location if you don’t take detailed field notes?

Everything from Black Skimmers to Moose all follow patterns depending on a plethora of environmental factors. Getting even more granular even one specific animal will display even its own individual behavioral patterns depending on environmental factors.

You can get as granular as you want to try and uncover animal behavior for your local animals, and a good baseline to record are:

  1. Weather (snowing, sunshine, rain, fog, clouds…)
  2. Temperature
  3. Wind speeds
  4. GPS location of where you see each animal 

I like to write all this information down in the small notebook found here.

My Garmin GPS device is worth its weight in gold. My favorite GPS is the Garmin inReach Explorer+ and the Garmin 64st because all I click is one button to mark any location on a map.

My Garmin GPS 64st is sitting next to me right now, and it has every single animal location I have ever recorded. This data is so useful because for locations I don’t go that often I always mark the “hotspot” areas, so I can immediately know exactly where to go each time I want to find that particular animal.

Another feature I love to use my GPS for is to study maps on my computer and import areas into my Garmin where the geography possibly indicates a good area for a particular animal. I mark that area on my map, so I know exactly where to go in order to check that new location out.

You can even track other data points including tides if there was a full moon…

Overall, if you record an enhanced roadmap before you get to a location, you will be able to spend your time getting keepers vs. going in with no plan and spreading yourself to thin causing you to take lots of photos and walk away with no image you are genuinely proud of.

An enhanced roadmap combined with field notes will allow you to consistently locate animals and continuously put yourself in situations to capture unique and differentiated photos.

What's your take on creating an enhanced roadmap and field notes? You can let me know in the comments below!