Getting it right in the field – Wildlife and Flower Photography

Posted on 19th January, 2020

Red Admiral in cluttered picture
Red Admiral in cluttered picture

I remember the first time I seriously tried to take a photograph of a butterfly a few years ago. A Red Admiral on the Buddleia Davidii in the garden. It was a lovely day, with light wind and perfect light. The well known Red Admiral (Vanessa Atalanta) is a regular visitor to British gardens and probably one of the more well-known of our 60+ species of native butterfly.

Unlike some, Red Admirals bask with their wings open, although they do close them from time to time, so unlike some you can be assured of a nice shot with wings spread if you are patient. I was using my camera handheld to allow me flexibility and with such good light and a slow butterfly, I could easily set an ISO of 100 with a shutter speed of about 1/250th of  second with my 24-70 F2.8 lens.

I snapped away and took maybe 30 or so pictures. I hastily went to my computer to load them up and I must admit I was both shocked and somewhat disappointed to see that many of the photographs were out of focus with blurring on the body

I realised that the blurring was not down to my camera, shutter speed or technique – it was the fact I hadn’t seen some cobweb strands between the lens and the butterfly!

Even the lightest of winds can move grass, cobweb, leaves – almost everything !

However, the bigger issue, is that there is a vast difference between a “good” picture and a “great” picture – and often what separates the two is the distraction in the picture.

Far better that you have a clean, uncluttered shot like this one on the left. While this isn’t an award winning pictures, it is clean. No extraneous grass, twigs, leaves or cobwebs,

Peacock Butterfly on Buddleia - much cleaner shot
Peacock Butterfly on Buddleia - much cleaner shot

However, the bigger issue, is that there is a vast difference between a “good” picture and a “great” picture – and often what separates the two is the distraction in the picture.

Far better that you have a clean, uncluttered shot like this one on the left. While this isn’t an award winning pictures, it is clean. No extraneous grass, twigs, leaves or cobwebs,

Red Admiral butterfly with a damaged wing
Red Admiral butterfly with a damaged wing

I’m not saying of course that you don’t want other things in the picture. Sometimes you do, particularly if you are trying to show the habitat or environment the animal lives.

Sometimes too, the subject itself is not a good example. Like this Red Admiral here – this one has unfortunately had a few scrapes in its short life resulting in a damaged wing.

Now you might think that you couldn’t possibly miss this? – well, maybe so, but sometimes you are concentrating on it so hard it is surprising what you don’t see !

A Red Squirrel - perfectly posed but with grass across the face
A Red Squirrel - perfectly posed but with grass across the face

This was a lucky encounter with a Red Squirrel in a woodland near Hawes. Now, even though it was a nice day, the light under the woodland canopy means you are often dealing with higher ISO to realise a shutter speed fast enough to stop a fleeting squirrel in its track.

Now, in this case it stopped and I was able to get a couple of shots before it disappeared. I was quite pleased until I saw it on the computer and realised there was a blade of grass right across its face! – not terrible, but not ideal either. And although you could “remove” this irritating grassy intruder, it wouldn’t be easy.

Sometimes you have no control over the environment – as in this shot. Squirrels rarely stand exactly where you want them, but you can stack the odds a little in your favour. In this location for example, there was a fence line and gate that I noticed the squirrels were using as a fast highway between one place and another. Also there too were a number of mossy old tree trunks that they were perching on to eat the food they got from a nearby feeder.

Red Squirrel - nicely posed on a moss covered trunk
Red Squirrel - nicely posed on a moss covered trunk

When you get to a location and see a bird, butterfly or animal that you really want to photograph, the urge is to click away – shot after shot!

That’s fine. After all, they may disappear – so get a few shots. But once you have satiated your initial excitement, the best thing you can do is sit quietly and watch. Try to spot patterns or popular feeding spots, or routes they use to run to hide or cross between key points.

This means you can start to exert a little control over your shots. Position yourself to take best advantage of available light, or background. Much nicer to have a squirrel against a woodland backdrop rather than a parked car or litter bin.

Also look too for a place you can minimise the clutter in the scene. A squirrel on the ground is always going to be in the clutter of the vegetation, and while you can get some good pictures, if you want the viewer to focus on the detail and beauty of the animal, you are better to be slightly below it and ideally with the animal sat on a high point – such as a fencepost, tree stump or along an isolated branch. 

This shot for example, I took this after watching where the squirrels tended to sit after taking food from a nearby feeder, They would often rush off and bury food, but occasionally they would sit and eat. To do this they clearly wanted to be in a place that afforded them some measure of safety and the ability to see what was happening around them. Once I had seen this, it was then a matter of staking out a suitable place to take my shot.

With wildlife you may need to return time after time after time. I heartily recommend it anyway if you can. The long term study of wildlife is massively rewarding in itself. Returning repeatedly will mean you start to “see” properly. Notice little nuances you miss when you first arrive. Start to understand the way animals behave. Habits, times, preferences. The more you can understand the better chance you have to getting that perfect shot, the one that really shows the true animal behaving and expressing itself naturally.

 

A Painted Lady with an annoying and distracting blade of grass
A Painted Lady with an annoying and distracting blade of grass

With butterflies and wildflowers, you can often get quite close and take a little time. However, it is a rare shot that doesn’t have some clutter in view. For example, grass and other flowers.

There is a particularly bad practice prevalent where photographers completely manipulate the environment to get the “perfect” shot. While this I perhaps tempting, I am against it. Your first rule should be that the subject is worth more that the shot. I don’t know who first said that, but it is a good rule to follow. Inevitably your very presence will cause some disturbance but try to keep that to an absolutely minimum.

This too extends to the practice of removing unwanted stalks and extraneous plants in the way of your shot. I have seen some photographs where someone has literally mown around an orchid in order to take an unintruded picture of it, but this is ridiculous and may mean the death of the subject plant. The very fact it grew there may be down to the microclimate created by the surrounding plants.

I take lots of pictures on my own land- in my garden and my fields. So I know I am allowed to be there. If you are in an area that is covered by a SSSI then you clearly cannot and should not alter or move anything.

So, what do you do it something is in the way.

Well, firstly – do you need to do anything at all? …it is often the case you can reposition yourself in relation to the subject and hide or avoid the distraction. That is usually my first course of action.
If something is in the way like grass or dead stalks, I sometimes use light twigs or a car aerial I carry to gently bend it out of shot and thus allowing it to spring back afterwards. I often collect small deadfall twigs when I walk out with my camera for this purpose.

If it is a single dead grass stalk, on my own land I may snip it off – but bear in mind it may be providing some support for the plant so this really is a last resort.

No matter where I was I certainly wouldn’t wholesale snip everything in the way because it is massively intrusive and also may be illegal ! – a weed to one person could be an endangered  species within the confines of the law.

 

Useful telescopic hook to move errant grass from the shot
Useful telescopic hook to move errant grass from the shot

One of the tools I use is shown here… a telescopic lightweight aerial with a small hook. It allows me to carefully move blades of grass or vegetation in the way allowing it to bounce back afterwards.

 

Finally, I use software to perhaps remove things in a picture that I cannot or perhaps can’t control at the time. You have to be honest and careful of course.
This is an area of contention anyway. You have to ask yourself what you are doing it for and where you are intending to submit your picture.

If you are doing it to create a picture for sale – well, it is often common practice to make the picture as “picturesque” as possible, and removing a distracting mushroom, dead leaf, flower head etc is fine.

However, if you are presenting it as a true reflection of the subject as you took it in the native environment, then leave it all in – or at least be honest and show the before and after.

If you are entering a competition or showing it as part of a survey –then you will be often governed by rules about what you are and aren’t allowed to do. Sometimes you must submit the originally RAW images as taken from the camera to demonstrate that your port-processing hasn’t significantly altered or misrepresented your work.

Finally. The argument about post-processing itself. There are many many opinions out there about “what is acceptable”. These range from those that say you should get it all right in camera, never edit it and show what the camera saw. Well, this is subjective in itself to a large degree. After all – what constitutes an “edit”? … the camera itself has software (firmware) inside that will do some processing anyway. If your camera renders the image as a JPEG format it has certainly been edited by the camera software conversion itself.

Some are happy to have rules saying that “some basic editing is allowed” but not extreme editing. Honestly the line for this is constantly shifting and will vary depending on the a myriad of factors.
For example - If you are removing some errant dead leaf or sweet wrapper fair enough. Adding velociraptors isn’t !

However, I think what matters is honesty. If you’ve edited your picture and someone asks, or local rules require you to conform, then you be honest and say what you have done. You can always show the original “unedited” version as a comparison if necessary.

Personally, I take two types of picture…

(1)  A picture that reminds me of the event or day, a memory of the moment if you like. I may take care with composition and light, subject etc …but mostly it is what I refer to as a “snap”. Something that was a single moment in time captured for my enjoyment or future reference.

(2)  A Photograph intended to make people see the magic in the place or moment. This is more likely to be a carefully taken picture. Something I will take time to take, or go out especially for. I am more conscious of composition and light, more likely to consider depth of field and a bunch of other settings to ensure I create a picture that hopefully represents my artistic vision.

I am far more likely to edit the latter. In fact I invariably will. However, my edits are usually tone and colour balance, white balance, perhaps cropping if needed, as well as more artistic edits with a view to ensuring the visual message I want to present is brought to the fore. In extremes this may means hours of editing and selective masking in software to achieve this.

However, the more I get it right in camera on the day, the more likely the picture will be a memorable one. You cannot take a poorly focused, badly composed image and turn it onto gold in Photoshop! …whereas what I find in practice is that on the right days, when the light is good, and I have taken my time to get the right composition and subject in the field, that the editing required afterwards is minimal !!

I hope that helps. 

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