Behind the lens
photography in the bush

October 25th of 2022

©Photography byAngela Riley

I started out my career as a professional editorial and pet photographer. Based in Cape Town, I spent two years taking photos of dogs and cats, and people occasionally. But my dream since the beginning of my photographic journey was to be able to capture wild animals. That’s what led me to becoming a field guide, and it’s one of the best decisions I have made.

Anyone can take a pretty picture of a lion, but how can you make it tell a story..

I would say my style is definitely capturing the quiet and soft moments in nature, in a fine-art kind of way. I like to focus on high key images, when the background is overexposed, and capturing movement. I’ve recently started experimenting with motion blur and it’s quickly becoming an addiction. So I would like to share with you a few tricks I have learnt over the last year being in the bush for capturing the perfect image.

The main one I have learnt is patience. When taking pictures of pets, you have to be fast or you might miss the moment. With wildlife, get ready and wait. Be prepared to sit with the animal for a good while and it will surely pay off. I can easily spend up to an hour, probably even longer, with the animals.

If you want to freeze the moment in time, you will need to make sure your shutter speed is fast.At least 1/250 of a second would be the lowest to go, but it all depends on the animal you’re photographing. This setting would be ideal for a giraffe walking, but a bird in flight would need to be a minimum of 1/800. Preferably 1/1000 is a good bet.

For capturing motion, go below 1/125. 1/30 of a second works really well for capturing running animals. A really nice technique is to follow the animal with the camera while taking the photos -the result will keep the animal in focus and the background will blur, showing movement in an image.

I like to keep my aperture at F/8.0 when I can. For me this is enough to keep most of the an imalin focus and blur out the background. Anything higher than F/10, you will start to lose quality in the image. But when I’m playing with motion I will make my aperture F/10 or higher.When your number is lower, the aperture is larger resulting in more light to pass through the lens creating brighter photos and a shallower depth of field. The opposite happens when the number becomes higher, which allows for you to lower your other settings for the ability to capture motion.

Looking at an image is like reading a book. You read from left to right, and this is generally how you “read” a photograph as well. Space is important. If an animal is looking in a certain direction, give the image space in the direction it is looking. This will allow for the image to have more meaning and will lead the eye to the rest of the photo. If the animal is looking somewhere and the image ends, it won’t have the same effect.The background. Pay attention to what surrounds your subject.

The background might play a very important role in creating the story.Rule of thirds. This is an imaginary grid that will separate the image into thirds. There are four grid lines that create 9 squares. If you position your subject along these grid lines, it will result in much better compositions. For example; If you photograph a landscape, you would position the horizon on the top or bottom grid line for better results.

Zooming in on your subject can also have an awesome outcome. Like taking a closeup of an elephants’ eye and seeing all the lines and creases in his skin, or a portrait of a lions’ face with his mane framing the image - focusing on his battle scars, each having its own story.

Golden hour is a photographers’ best friend. The best time to get out is about half an hour before sunrise and about 2 hours after. For the afternoon, it would be about 3 hours before sunset. The prime time is about half an hour before the sun goes down. At these times the light is soft on the eyes and has that golden hue. The highlights and shadows blend well together and it just looks spectacular. You can take photos at any time of day but midday creates harsh contrasts. A hazy day for me is the best kind and that means a full day of photos.

Lastly, get creative! It’s all about having fun and creating memories to look back on. Once the basics have been learnt, then the playing begins. I used to be super critical of my work - “the image was not sharp enough”, or “my settings were wrong..” But the more I started to play and the less I focussed on the technical things, the results came through and my creative style began developing. Knowing the technical aspects of photography is important but also remembering to not be afraid to play with that is just as important.

Angela Riley