Confessions of an Amateur Wildlife Photographer
Unexpected side effects of my new hobby
It’s good to have a hobby, especially one that gets me outdoors again. Sitting in the same room, staring at the same screen, the days, weeks, and months merge into one another.
I used to play sports and lift weights regularly before I became a thrall to the YouTube algorithm. I was slowly transforming into an amorphous blob of bad life choices and cat videos, but wildlife photography has given me a reason to throw open the curtains and emerge from my sordid cocoon.
Every so often, it’s good to step outside and remind myself that life goes on; the seasons change; there’s always something new and exciting to see.
It’s not all good, though. I’ve also noticed myself… changing. For better or worse, here are some unexpected changes I’ve noticed since I picked up a telephoto lens for the first time.
I See Noise
I’ve never seen The Sixth Sense, but my discovery of ‘noise’ was as dramatic as any of M. Night Shyamalamadingdong’s twist endings. Probably.
When I first heard people talking about noise in their photographs, I checked to make sure I hadn’t accidentally turned on my Bluetooth headphones.
Nope. That picture of a mountain still sounded pretty quiet to me.
I watched videos about noise reduction. People would move a slider and I couldn’t tell the difference between ‘before’ and ‘after’.
I thought noise was a myth. An in-joke that I wasn’t privy to. Then, fairly quickly, I guess I trained my eye to see it. Suddenly, I was overcome by noise. I was blind, but now I see — and I can’t help seeing it.
For the uninitiated, photographic noise refers to a kind of graininess and/or spots of discolouration. You can find a full explanation here.
While it can be an artistic choice, too much visual distortion is generally not desirable for wildlife photography.
Low light, slow shutter speeds, small camera sensors, and high ISO (increased light sensitivity) are all things that can turn your photo into a cacophony of grain.
Dawn and dusk just so happen to be the best times of day to see many animals, so it’s a balance between raising the ISO to get high enough shutter speeds, and keeping it low enough to dodge the dots of doom.
Here’s a ‘noisy’ photo I took at a high ISO. It was evening, in a fairly dark forest, and it’s heavily cropped, which increases the appearance of noise.
Noise reduction software exists, and while handy, it can't work miracles.
I still quite like the picture, but not as much as when I took it. Maybe ignorance was bliss.
I’ve Become More Critical
I have quite a competitive personality, but my competition is mostly myself. If I try something new, I want to become as good as I can, and I don’t like not being good at it.
This is what has put me off trying lots of new things. Obviously, no one’s going to be good at something when they just start out, but I didn’t say it made sense.
Yet my definition of a ‘good’ photo is always changing. At first, I might not have cared too much about the background. Or what angle I was shooting at. Now noise is another factor that can make or break a photo.
It’s not just self-criticism, either. I may have trained my eye to be more discerning, but I’ve also trained myself to become a judgemental SOB.
Last week, I was going through my grandmother’s holiday snaps, and I had to throw them down in disgust.
“You’ve overexposed the fuck out of that, Nan”, I screamed. “And if you insist on ignoring the rule of thirds, I’m going to have to cut it up into three perfectly-proportioned pieces.”
OK, that may or may not have happened, but I do have to stop myself from being overly judgemental when seeing an old acquaintance's Facebook photos, for instance.
So what if it’s out of focus or they’ve ‘clipped’ the highlights? They’re not pressuring me to buy a framed print of it.
It’s not like I’ve earned the right to be snobbish about it, either. I think some of my animal pictures are decent, but I’m hopeless at landscapes and know almost nothing about portrait or street photography.
I’ve posted plenty of blurry photos taken with my phone; the only difference now is that I have a little (emphasis on little) more knowledge and I bought a decent lens.
I also know that more experienced photographers would look at my pictures and find plenty of flaws.
I Love the Ground
Speaking of more experienced photographers, one thing that sets them apart seems to be their willingness to contort themselves into strange shapes and poses to get the perfect shot.
Naturally, I had to imitate the pros. When it comes to wildlife photos, one thing I’ve learned is the importance of getting to eye level with your subject.
Well, I live in the UK, so very few animals are standing over six feet from the ground. (Especially birds, which tend to be the easiest animals to find.) In order to get a better angle at these tiny feathery bastards, I’ve become well-acquainted with the ground.
Lying on the floor will instantly tell everyone around you that you know your shit. They’ll make noises of approval, or perhaps pity, as you sacrifice your clothes to the god of mud in pursuit of something bigger than yourself. (Metaphorically. We’ve already established that most birds = small, and there aren’t many ostriches in the East Anglian countryside.)
Professional wildlife photography is 90% prone position and 10% skill — Marilyn Monroe
I Already Have Expectations
Expectations are a dangerous thing.
At first, I was just happy to get out in nature, and seeing a particular species, or getting good shots of it was just a bonus.
I mean… I’m still happy to just get out in nature, but now I have a nagging feeling of disappointment when I come home empty-handed, or the shots aren’t up to my (current and ever-changing) standards.
Wildlife photography is unpredictable by nature, which makes it easy to get disenchanted after a few fruitless sessions. At least if you photograph lakes or trees, you know they’re not going anywhere. Lugging my lens around on a miserable day with nothing to show for it can be dispiriting.
Yet I think this unpredictability is what makes me like it — some kingfisher pictures I took were all the sweeter because it’d taken about four outings to actually find one.
Not knowing what will turn up (if anything) is part of the fun. And even if you don’t see anything new and rare, there are always different shots you can get of the same species — a nicer pose, better lighting, nice background, etc.
I think it’s healthy to remind myself of that, especially when I’m several hours into my latest internet-induced procrastination session.
Maybe I’ll head out tomorrow.