Tips and Techniques for Improving Bird and Wildlife Photography

Taking your wildlife photography to the next level

Spring is on the horizon and although wildlife photography can be a year-round activity, I’m excited for the warmer weather, blooming flora, and lots of critters being up and active. We’re gathering our cameras, lenses, and other photo gear and itching to get outdoors.

Photographers at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yet, no matter the season, I am always excited to grab a long lens and explore nature and hopefully come away with some bird and wildlife photos. As I’ve said before, I’m not a professional photographer by any means. However, I certainly put myself in the enthusiast category and I’ve been photographing wildlife for many years.

Gilded flicker at Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife photography is more than just having a camera and pointing it at an animal. There are tips and techniques, both in terms of composition and gear that can help make wildlife photography easier and hopefully help you be more successful in capturing great photos of birds, critters, and other animals.

Elk at Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Below is a list of important tips and techniques for birding and wildlife photography that I’ve learned over the years and try to keep in mind whenever I’m out photographing birds and other animals. Keep in mind that this list of tips is by no means exhaustive but it does cover some important guidelines and suggestions for gear selection and shooting techniques as well as artistic and creative tips for improving your wildlife and bird photos.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Now, without further ado…

Photographers at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buy a telephoto lens

This first tip is, perhaps, a somewhat obvious one, especially if you’re already familiar with birding and wildlife photography but one key piece of photo gear for a good wildlife photography experience is a long, telephoto lens. There isn’t one particular focal length that works best for all situations; however, I’ve found that a solid starting point is a focal length of 400mm.

Wood storks at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Depending on your camera system, the options for a 400mm telephoto lens can vary quite a bit but be aware that supertelephoto lenses can often be expensive. You also have the option for a prime lens or a zoom.

Rocky mountain sheep in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In most cases a zoom lens is a great choice that gives you some versatility. A fantastic choice for a great wildlife-centric telephoto zoom is a 100-400mm-style zoom or a 150-600mm zoom. Several manufacturers make these types of lenses at both affordable and high-end price points. Some options may make optical comprises to some extent in order to make such a long-zoom lens reasonable lightweight and usable handheld so you’ll need to weigh what type of budget you’re comfortable with and what kind of image quality performance you’re looking for.

Inca doves at Edinburg Wetlands, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use a tripod or monopod

Since many full-frame format supertelephoto lenses are large and heavy, consider using a tripod or monopod or some form of support. Many of these lenses can hit in the 6, 7, or 8-pound range which can get very tiring to use handheld for any length of time. And birding and wildlife photography takes patience.

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

Mourning dove at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tired arms and general soreness means less steady hand-holding resulting in missed shots, blurriness, or missed focus, and just generally less enthusiasm to keep shooting. A good monopod or tripod can help get you sharper shots and keep you shooting for longer.

Roseate spoonbill in flight at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use fast shutter speeds

Be aware of your shutter speed, and in particular, use a faster shutter speed for sharper photos especially for birds in flight. The traditional rule of thumb has been using a shutter speed of “1 / the focal length” (in terms of a 35mm full-frame camera). For example, if you’re using a 400mm lens on a full-frame camera, a good starting point is 1/400ths of a second in order to avoid blurring from camera shake. However, that means the longer the lens, the faster the shutter speed needs to be. For birds-in-flight, however, a good starting point here is at least 1/1000s, but I’d recommend shooting with even faster speeds, such as 1/2000th of a second. But 1/1000th of a second at the minimum for birds in flight is a good starting point.

Yellow warbler at Benson-Rio Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pay attention to background elements

With a telephoto lens, you are able to bring faraway subjects closer and one of the best creative benefits to such a lens is the ability to isolate your subject and create smooth, blurry backgrounds. The ability to remove distractions is one of the great benefits to a telephoto lens. Be mindful of objects in the background. When photographing perched birds in trees pay attention to leaves, tree branches, and other objects that are positioned behind your subject.

Great horned owl at Estero Llano Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get creative with your shooting angles

When photographing birds, you’ll likely find yourself pointing upward into the trees. While this can work and make for some interesting images, you’ll often end up photographing the underside of the animal which might not be the most attractive pose or position or you may have to contend with your subject being heavily backlit with a bright sky. 

Green jay at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If possible, try to position yourself at a different elevation or more at the same level as your subject. As you might expect, this is easier when photographing ground-based animals as you can more easily get down to a lower position and more at their level. For birds up in trees, this can be a difficult task depending on your location and surroundings. Getting level with birds is more easily accomplished when photographing near bird feeders or if you’re fortunate to find yourself in a location with elevated walkways or trails that put you more up into the trees. For shorebirds, water birds, or other ground birds, again, the key is to go low and close to eye level.

Related Article: Bird Photography Basics: On Camera Equipment and Shooting Techniques

Plain chachalaca at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep the sun at your back

When possible, position yourself so that the sun is behind you and illuminating your subject. You don’t want to be photographing a bird or other animal with the sun behind it as it will likely be harshly backlit and underexposed. With the sun illuminating your subject you’re able to capture the beautiful colors and the sharp detail in fur or feathers of your subject.

Curved-billed thrasher at Whitewater Draw, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seek out good light

Consider the time of day when photographing birds in flight. Much like the golden hours rule for landscape photography, these are also ideal lighting conditions for photographing birds in flight. Light is softer, has a warming glow, and properly illuminates the bird. If the sun is too high in the sky, the underside of the bird will likely be in shadow.

Black-bellied whistling ducks at La Feria Nature Center, Texas

Research your shooting locations

Research your location before you go. You’ll be more comfortable and aware of your surroundings and you’ll have already scouted some good locations for wildlife and be prepped to set up shop and wait for photo opportunities.

Western scrub jay at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State and national parks, national wildlife refuges, and nature preserves are prime locations for birds and other wildlife and are conducive to photography. They often provide bird blinds and feeding stations which are ideal for observation and photography.

Birds sometimes land right where you want them © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be patient, be quiet and take your time

Last but definitely not least: be patient.

Related Article: The Basics of Bird Photography: Before, During, and After Photo Sessions

Birds and wildlife are unpredictable and they won’t often land or appear right where you want them. But that’s part of the fun of this type of photo subject, the unpredictability of it all. However, wildlife photography takes patience. Traipsing through the woods will alert most animals to your presence and so you’ll want to get into a good spot and then wait, quietly. Eventually, the birds and animals will likely start to ignore you or become okay with your presence, so long as you’re calm and quiet. 

Ground squirrel at San Pedro House, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the same lines as being patient, it’s also important to be diligent and observe your subject once you’ve spotted it. Don’t just snap a single frame and call it a day. Watch for interesting behavior or certain poses that can bring the subject to life and show some of its personality.

Worth Pondering…

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.

—George Eastman

Bird Photography Basics: On Camera Equipment and Shooting Techniques

In bird photography, the camera should have a fast frame rate to capture the fleeting moments of birds

Photographing birds often encourages us to spend more time with them, study the birds closer, and appreciate the importance of watching and waiting to see what might happen next—or what different birds might slip into view. Photographing birds make birding more enjoyable in the field—and as you review and edit photos after your close encounters of an avian kind.

Cerulean warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capturing great bird photographs has its own set of challenges. Many beginners wanting to try their hand in bird photography may have a perception that they need to buy an expensive camera and lenses to match. While it is true that the top-of-the-line cameras and premium lenses produce superior results in challenging conditions, still don’t expect it to be the end-all-be-all. And a lens alone can set you back over $10,000.

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For successfully photographing wild birds in the wild, you need a camera, a long focal length lens, and a good tripod. Once you are confident about handling your camera and lens, you may wish to use them free-hand. But in the beginning, a tripod can benefit your photography especially with the composition and low-light situations.

Related Article: The Basics of Bird Photography: Before, During, and After Photo Sessions

Inca dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you feel carrying a tripod around is too cumbersome, you can also try handheld photography. But you need to maintain optimal body stability and posture to minimize the associated camera shake. Another option is to carry a monopod which would give you excellent results.

Tufted titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Personally, I have not used a tripod for 99.9 percent of the pictures that I have taken. They are not perfect but are reasonably sharp and focused. This is because I have developed hand and body posture stability through years of experience and practice.

Pauraque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are a few things to remember about the camera requirements when aiming for bird photography. The camera should have a fast frame rate to capture the fleeting moments of birds. Anything upward of 8 frames per second is good.

Green-winged teal © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With few exceptions, most common birds move around quickly. Their pictures can be blurry by the subject movement if the shutter speed is not high. A 1/2000 of a second shutter speed is a safe starting point. A camera with good ISO performance can achieve that. So aim for the one giving low noise results at ISO 1600–3200 range.

Cooper’s hawk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When considering the sensor resolution in megapixels, most cameras now offer plenty. A high megapixel count is beneficial when you want to crop the picture in post-processing. Look for cameras with more than 15-megapixels. Be mindful that large megapixel cameras produce large image files. You will need a powerful computer to process those images. A camera with an inbuilt GPS is an option to consider. GPS enables the camera to tag the location where each photo is taken. It also sets the time automatically.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Great horned owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep in mind that a camera is only one of the ingredients of photography. To make your photo stand out, you need good soft light. Soft ambient light conditions are available when most birds are active, mornings and evenings. So be prepared to wake up early.

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The next ingredient in the recipe is a long focal lens. Wild birds can be very skittish and are hard to approach. A lens of at least 400mm focal length is a good start. That way you also have the flexibility to approach the birds from a reasonably good distance.

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usually, when we have smaller focal length lenses we tend to go overboard and approach the bird too close for their comfort. You don’t need to spend a fortune to buy a prime wide aperture lens. Most camera manufacturers offer budget options in the popular focus length ranges.

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shooting technique becomes paramount in the field. By carefully selecting the shooting angle, it’s possible to separate the bird from the cluttering background. You can try to move slowly to find the best possible background. I have observed that abrupt lateral movements alert the birds to take off immediately. Thus, a patient and calm approach is necessary to obtain the best results under the given conditions.

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

Yellow-crowned night heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A background blur can be created even with narrow aperture lenses. A word of caution here; you don’t want to stress a bird or an animal in the process of getting your best photo. If the bird or animal shows any sign of discomfort, back-off or leave the area.

Royal tern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even with a good camera and a lens, an incorrect exposure can ruin the picture.

Mirrorless technology is the latest in advanced cameras. You can also try these models as they are light to carry and offer great results and quality.

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take advantage of the photo surprises that unfold, and be prepared for the next rare, unusual, or profound bird you get to see—and document it with photographs.

Related Article: The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

Worth Pondering…

We don’t take pictures with our cameras. We take them with our hearts and we take them with our minds, and the camera is nothing more than a tool.

—Arnold Newman

A Photographer’s Focus on Wading Birds

The watery world of wading birds

Tall wading birds—herons, egrets, bitterns, ibis, spoonbills, storks, and cranes—are among the most popular birds for birders and photographers—and for everyone. They are large and fairly obvious attracting our attention wherever we encounter them. They have long necks, long legs, long bills, long wings, and in-flight wading birds are most impressive—singularly and in flocks.

Ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As photographers, we are always hopeful of photographing wading birds to show their majesty, to document them catching prey, and to show them in the throes of mating displays in advance of the nesting season.

Reddish egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As winter melts into spring along the shallows of wetlands adjacent to the warmer areas of the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts, bright colors are flushing bare skin on the face of many species of wading birds with deeper colors accenting their legs and bill while some species grow feather plumes on their head, throat, back, or breast, providing ever-more impressive birds to photograph. As spring progresses, the wading bird progression will anchor the migration north with camera-toting birders intercepting their flight paths and stopover sites.

Great white egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wading birds are large, they are impressive, and they provide a variety of photo opportunities. Wading birds are among the first birds we hope to photograph—great blue herons, tricolored herons, great egrets, sandhill cranes—and we eventually seek out wood storks, roseate spoonbills, and yellow-crowned night herons—then we try to photograph all the wading birds. So we make it a point to seek them out, visit locations where we hope to find them, and marvel as we photograph each one.

Related Article: The Basics of Bird Photography: Before, During, and After Photo Sessions

Sandhill cranes © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because many wading birds are among the largest birds we encounter, they are a good group to start with as beginning photographers, but ultimately, we never get enough photos of wading birds. There are always more opportunities in different settings under different lighting conditions with the birds engaged in an array of activities. Wading birds as a group are just plain exciting to behold and to photograph.

Yellowlegs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Locations: Wading birds are usually associated with water—the shorelines of shallow ponds and marshes, tidal flats, and lakeshores—these are the primary habitats to visit regularly to photograph wading birds.

Whimbrel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Timing: Pick the time of your visits for the best possible lighting—mornings before 11:00 and afternoons after 2:00 are best now. As the spring season progresses and we adjust to the daylight savings change of time, we will need to adjust the periods we devote to photography.

White-faced ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sunlight: The need for good sunlight originating from behind you is essential to capture the best colors on all wading birds and that’s especially true with birds that have any iridescent plumage. In addition to providing more vivid colors, sunlight provides more contrast between colors and shades of colors too.

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

Green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shadows: Since sunlight also produces shadows, be aware of shadows on one side of the bird. After taking an initial photo, you may want to move to avoid shadowing. I also like to refer to my own shadow when positioning myself, so try to position directly between the bird and the sun—that’s when my shadow is pointing directly at the bird.

Tri-colored heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Overcast Conditions: When overcast it’s best to re-schedule for a sunny period. The quality of any resulting photos will have muted colors, low contrast, and dull surroundings. Any photos you take will be subpar.

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Water Reflections: Blue sky sunlight produces blue-colored water which provides a great setting for wading birds. At the same time, wading birds are the prime interest and whether the watercolor is blue, green, brown, or gray is less important. Water has unlimited variations produced by calm or variations of windy conditions, water flows, or waves. While you are focusing on the bird be aware of the water and its movements for enhanced photo quality. At times, when the water is calm, you may be able to take photos with the bird reflected in the water in front of it.

Willet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vegetation: Be aware of the background and foreground. Plants in your setting can be a welcome addition to add some contrasting green, yellow, or tan coloration while showing the bit of habitat. In some cases, plants may not be welcome if they hide parts of the bird in a distracting manner. If necessary, reposition to get a better background after taking a couple of initial photos. Or you may be able to simply wait for the bird to move to a better location. As with any composition, take the photos you can and try to improve on them if possible.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Yellow-crowned night heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Positioning: When photographing wading birds, take some images from a low position—kneeling, squatting, sitting, or lying on the ground—to get closer to water level or ground level and thereby closer to the level of the bird.

Immature White-faced ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stabilizing: Stabilize yourself while holding your camera by bracing your elbows against your chest when standing or bracing one elbow against a knee while kneeling. Bracing your lens against a tree, pole, fence, or car window will help too. Hold your breath when pressing the shutter button to help stabilize your camera and lens.

Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Action: Take several initial photos, then wait to see what happens next—wait for the action. Perhaps the bird will try to catch a fish; perhaps it will take a few steps as it hunts providing another angle to photograph, or maybe it will decide to take a flight to reposition to a new hunting area. Spend ample time with each photo subject and you will often be rewarded with another, possibly better photo opportunity. Also try to anticipate the birds’ next moves, rather than react to their movements a step behind the action. Action photos are always the most interesting and most revealing.

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Flight Photos: Your best bet for getting multiple opportunities to photograph wading birds in flight will come when you can find a flight path the birds follow between feeding areas and nest sites. Then it’s a matter of spending some time in position and watching for birds you can focus on and follow through your lens, taking multiple photographs of each bird in flight if possible.

Wood storks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Approach: Avoid alarming a bird as you approach it, especially if it is feeding—the bird always comes first. Keeping your distance and allowing birds to behave naturally will provide the best photo opportunities. If you try to approach a bird, move slowly and don’t walk directly at the bird; instead, move at an angle to the bird that gets you ever-closer.

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cropping: When reviewing your photos some simple cropping can improve the quality of your final images. A simple crop to remove extraneous background area will enlarge the bird within the photo frame. It’s best not to center your subject in the frame. Instead, leave some space in front of the bird (consider the Rule of Thirds).

American Avocet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

March and April provide a great time to photograph wading birds as many species migrate north. The weeks ahead should provide a variety of species for you to photograph. Waders are most active during May and June as they begin nest-building at rookeries and the variety of wading birds should keep your attention through the summer months. There’s a great wading bird photo season ahead, so embrace this exceptional group of photo subjects as often as you can, and Good Luck!

Read Next: The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

Worth Pondering…

A wonderful bird is the pelican
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

—Dixon Lanier Merritt

13 Tips on Capturing Photos on the Road

Here are a few tips to help take your photos to the next level when you’re on the road

With cameras on our phones, everyone is a decent photographer these days. It’s easy to grab a snapshot or a selfie at a moment’s notice. But sometimes it’s difficult to capture mementos of our travels—nature shots seem ho-hum and boring. So here are 12 tips to help take your photos to the next level.

Note the even light without the harsh mid-day light © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Look for even light

When you take a photo, you are really just capturing light, so you need to be able to pay attention to all your light sources and understand how they will interact with the mechanics of your camera. 

Avoid the harsh mid-day light by shooting during the Golden Hour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beautiful, sunny days look gorgeous but cameras can struggle with the harsh shadows cast by the midday sun. If you’re shooting portraits, place your subject in the shade to get the same exposure on their face and body. You can always bump up the brightness using a photo editing app to get it exactly how you want it to look as long as the light is even.

Spanish moss in the Lowcountry © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re shooting a landscape photo, try angling your body so that the sun is at your back, shining on whatever you’re shooting. Unless you’re into artsy stuff, in which case, I love the look of bright, dappled sunlight coming through tree branches with just a hint of a lens flare. This technique works especially well for Spanish moss, the silver garland that hangs from live oak trees in the Southeast especially in the Low Country where it is just about everywhere you turn.

Along the La Sal Mountain Loop Road near Moab, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Understand the exposure triangle

Here is a brief summary of the three parts of your camera’s exposure.
ISO: This sets how “sensitive to light” your camera becomes. A higher ISO number means the camera will be more sensitive so you can use a faster shutter speed or smaller aperture, but will also be progressively more grainy with higher and higher numbers.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Sky Mountain Golf Course at Hurricane, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shutter Speed: This sets how long your shutter will stay open, letting light hit your sensor. Slower shutter speeds will produce motion blur if anything in your image is moving but they let in much more light allowing for a lower ISO or tighter aperture. Faster shutter speeds can “stop time” and make even quickly moving objects appear to be frozen but they let in much less light, so you’ll need to compensate with a larger aperture or a higher ISO.

Near Woodland, Washington© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aperture: The “aperture” of your lens is much like the iris of your eye—it can be opened very large to let in a lot of light or it can be opened only a tiny bit to let in only a very little amount of light. As I discussed above, a wide aperture will produce a very shallow depth of field while a smaller aperture will produce a much deeper field of focus.

Skaha Lake in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It should be obvious that ISO, shutter speed, and aperture all affect each other. If you open your aperture, you’ll need to speed up your shutter or use a lower ISO. If you change your ISO, you’ll need to adjust either your shutter or aperture (or possibly both) to compensate to get the right exposure. Once you have mastered the exposure triangle, you can leverage the parts of the triangle to more accurately capture what you see.

Sunset near Casa Grande, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Time your best shots for the golden hour

An hour or so after dawn and an hour or two before sunset is what photographers call “golden hour.” It refers to the special golden quality the light takes on during those periods when the sun is low in the sky and its rays are slanting through the atmosphere.

Related Article: 10 Essential Photography Tips Every Photographer Needs to Remember

After shooting the sunset in the above photo, I turned around… © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Golden hour makes any subject look a little more magical whether you’re shooting a mountain at dawn or a late afternoon desertscape. If you’re looking to capture some really special keepsake photos, plan your best shots for golden hour and watch as Mother Nature gilds your subjects with light. And if you’re shooting a sunset, don’t forget to turn around as the scene before you might be even more amazing.

Get close to the subject © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Get close to your subject

One common photography pitfall is shooting a subject from too far away. But getting closer and filling the frame can make for more dynamic shots whether you move physically closer to your subject or zoom in a bit. You can still shoot “wide” or from further away but adding a handful of close-up shots will imbue your photo story with rich context and detail it may otherwise be missing.

Getting closer to focus on the details © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Focus on the small things

To build off that, sometimes it’s not possible to get closer to the subject of our photos. In which case, why not rethink the subject? Instead of shooting a photo of the sunset, try focusing on something nearby instead. A stand of saguaro or a row of palm trees, a bee on a flower, or a sandcastle casting a long shadow on an empty beach. You’ll still get the benefit of that beautiful sunset light but a shot of a smaller detail is more likely to bring back the feeling of that place and time as opposed to a generic photo from further away. Sometimes specificity just makes our memories stronger.

Shooting the above Altimira oriole involved shifting my position to avoid unwanted background objects © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Check the backgrounds

We’ve all seen funny pictures online of people who were unwittingly photo-bombed by their surroundings. Animals popping up unexpectedly or a background object captured at just the right moment to make it look like it is part of something else. When you’re intently focused on capturing your subject, it can be easy to overlook unwanted elements in other parts of your photo. Like a shirtless guy drinking beer just behind your smiling partner’s shoulder or a dog in the middle distance picking that exact moment to heed nature’s call.

Yellow warbler at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park in South Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So take a second to scan your photo composition and look for unwanted elements. Sometimes it pays to wait a few extra seconds for tourists to clear your shot, giving the illusion that your surroundings are more serene than they really are.

Related Article: Travel Photography Tips You Don’t Usually Hear

Approaching the Flat Iron Trail at Lost Dutchman State Park in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Selfie safety

A hiker in Arizona recently slipped and fell 700 feet to his death after trying to take a selfie on the Flat Iron Trail in Lost Dutchman State Park. Time and again, the smallest misstep, distraction, or lapse in judgment has resulted in severe injury or death. To help raise awareness, the National Park Service published a guide to safe photos. “Be aware of your surroundings whether near wildlife, thermal areas, roads, or steep cliffs,” the website says.

Focus on where you walk especially when surrounded by beauty; Cathedral Rock hiking trail at Sedona, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stay focused on your surroundings, not your shot. Tripping, slipping, and falling whether into water or from great heights have all led to selfie deaths. One moment of inattention or distraction could mean the difference between life and death.

Keep your eyes focused on where you’re going and where your feet are more so than what’s in the viewfinder of the camera especially if you’re trying to take a selfie. Make sure your feet are planted firmly before you line up the shot and then don’t move once you do that.

Joshua Tree National Park in California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Consider a selfie stick already

Sure, they’re kind of silly and we all had a good time making fun of selfie sticks when we first heard about them, but the thing is, they can be useful. For one thing, you can take more than selfies with them. They’re perfect for capturing group shots without leaving anyone out. No need to set the timer and dash to get in your own family photos. It’s like having an extra-long arm to help you angle your camera perfectly, so you don’t have to cross your fingers and hope a stranger has good photography skills and the patience to get your shot just right. And if you happen to be in an area where there’s no one around to take your photo, well, then nobody will judge you for using a selfie stick, will they? It’s goofy, it works, I don’t have one but you can embrace it. I won’t laugh!

Using a tripod for bird photography at Whitewater Preserve in Southeastern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Look for a flat surface

In case this isn’t obvious, tripods are perfect for setting up things like long-exposure photos, videos, and group shots. Monopods also provide support for cameras and help photographers steady their shots and are less cumbersome to tote than tripods. But if you’re a casual photographer, you might not want to lug a tripod (or monopod) around with you.

Using a tripod for bird photography at Bosque National Wildlife Reserve in New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep your eyes peeled for flat surfaces where you can prop up your camera to capture shots that require total stillness. For instance, you might set the self-timer and then run into the frame to capture a cool portrait shot on a solo hike. Or maybe you want to do a time-lapse of fog moving across the water or the moon rising. Get creative with your surroundings to help get the shot you want.

Photographers at Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Northeastern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And if like most of us, you’re using your phone as a camera, there are some very cool, bendable mini-tripods you can get online to help position your shot.

10. Use a BlueTooth remote

Another easy hack is to buy an inexpensive BlueTooth remote control to trigger your shutter. Rather than using a self-timer, you just keep the small control in your hand and press the button to signal to your camera or phone to take a shot. It’s great for self-portraits or setting up your camera to capture skittish birds while you hide behind a tree. Or, shy, small, peaceful wildlife, like rabbits. Don’t do this with bears.

Using the burst mode when shooting the above green jay, I was able to sort the keepers from the dozens of photos taken © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Go ahead and burst

Burst mode is when a camera just automatically takes shot after shot of stills in a row. You can typically trigger this function by holding down the shutter button on your camera or phone. It’s great for capturing quick-moving action, like someone doing a cartwheel or a cheetah going for a run. But it is just as handy for getting selfies or group shots because you’ll capture twice as many photos as you typically do, allowing you to sift through the stills for the perfect moment.

This photo was a keeper while using the burst mode © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can also use burst mode to create really cool stop-motion effects, almost like a movie, since there are subtle changes from shot to shot. There are a million ways to experiment and play with burst mode, so let your imagination fly.

Being ready for the caracaras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Be ready—moments come and go quickly

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in a perfect position to capture a truly memorable image but had my camera in my bag, or turned off, or on the wrong settings. Some shot opportunities only last a second or two and if you don’t have your camera in your hand, turned on, and set to reasonable settings you may miss it. When I’m shooting, I’ll frequently double-check my camera settings. I’m constantly adjusting the exposure triangle (see above) to fit what I’m shooting so I can be ready when the opportunity arrives.

Lady Bird Johnson Park in Central Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Practice!

We’ve all heard that practice makes perfect but I prefer the adage that perfect practice makes perfect. Photography is an art form that requires a lot of mental thought be put into every shot. I’d recommend practicing each of the previous tips one at a time until they all become second nature and you can easily do them all at the same time. Then you’ll be armed with the tools you need to truly capture what you see.

Worth Pondering…

We don’t take pictures with our cameras. We take them with our hearts and we take them with our minds, and the camera is nothing more than a tool.

—Arnold Newman

Selecting Camera Mode: Manual, Aperture Priority & Shutter Priority

Use the mode that helps you capture the image you want

Are the settings on your camera really so hard to understand? Of course not, but it can seem that way at the start, especially if they are not explained to you in simple terms you can understand.

Great white egret at Corkscrew Sanctuary near Naples, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For some photography snobs, shooting in manual mode is a badge of honor, shunning any other mode as something akin to cheating. I do shoot in manual mode, but I use Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority as my preferred modes of choice.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Typically represented by a capital A (or sometimes Av, short for Aperture Value) on the camera mode dial, aperture priority allows the photographer to dial in this specific exposure setting—the ƒ-stop—and asks the camera to calculate the correct corresponding shutter speed in the instant before the shutter is released. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s back up just a moment for a better understanding of how aperture priority mode works.

Related: 10 Essential Photography Tips Every Photographer Needs to Remember

Amish Country, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A camera has three primary exposure modifiers: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. The aperture (also called ƒ-stop) is the size of the opening in the lens which modifies the amount of light that’s let into the camera.

The shutter speed modifies the duration that light is let into the camera.

Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And the ISO (or film speed, back in the old days) represents how sensitive to light the sensor will be. A higher ISO is more sensitive to light (and produces more noise) while a lower ISO is less light sensitive but produces a cleaner signal and better image quality. These days, though, sensor technology is so good that even high ISOs still look great.

Related: Photography: The Geometry of Nature

One of many frog murals in Rayne, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s by adjusting these three settings in combination that proper exposure is established. If you allow in less light with a smaller aperture, you’ll need to balance it with more light from a longer shutter speed. Add to one, take away from the other. Simple, right?

Roosevelt State Park, Mississippi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Well, sometimes it’s not so simple, particularly in situations in which the light is changing. This could be when I’m photographing in full sun then moments later in shade. These changing situations make automatic exposure modes more convenient than continuously recalculating the correct manual exposure.

Sandhill cranes in Bosque National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But rather than turning over all the control to the camera, modes such as Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority allow the photographer to retain manual control over one specific setting. In this case, it’s Aperture Priority, where the photographer sets the ƒ-stop and the camera calculates the correct shutter speed to accompany it.

Hoover Dam and Colorado River, Nevada/Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aperture Priority mode is particularly helpful in situations where the photographer wants to set a specific depth of field and have that setting take priority over the shutter speed.

Applegate River Valley, Oregon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aperture Priority is my mode of choice with landscape photography. To create a sharp image area through greater depth of field the photographer can dial in a tiny aperture such as ƒ/22, and in Aperture Priority the camera will determine which shutter speed will produce the correct exposure. Be warned, though, that in this case, a tripod may be necessary if low light requires a long shutter speed that’s too long to handhold.

Related: Travel Photography Tips You Don’t Usually Hear

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now that we understand the way Aperture Priority mode works, we’ll look at its counterpart on the automatic exposure spectrum: Shutter Priority exposure mode.

Often represented by an S or Sv on the camera mode dial, Shutter Priority mode sees the photographer dialing in a manual shutter speed and leaving the selection of the appropriate aperture to the camera’s brain.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As with any automatic exposure mode, Shutter Priority is particularly helpful in changing light situations, though it’s useful in any situation in which it’s the shutter speed you primarily want to control.

Ladybird Wildlife Center in Austin, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For instance, when I’m shooting birds I want at least 1/500th, I can set the shutter speed in Shutter Priority and let the camera pick the correct aperture to accompany it.

Related: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Moose Farms Maple Sugarworks, Vermont © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be aware though if your shutter speed is too fast for the available light you may end up with underexposed images. This can be corrected by dialing in a higher ISO.

Worth Pondering…

Great photography is about depth of feeling, not depth of field.

—Peter Adams

10 Essential Photography Tips Every Photographer Needs to Remember

From just-starting-out to novice to experienced, there’s something we can all learn to improve our photos

Photography is a beautiful journey, filled with adventure, and an occasional killer photo. Regardless of where you are on that journey—just starting or embarking on a professional career—these 20 quick little tips will help you and your images stay in focus.

Highland Hammock State Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. No matter how pro you get, it’s still a passion play

Don’t lose the spark that got you into photography. Your passion for creating beautiful images of things that interest you is the underlying motivating force behind every shot you take. When that spark goes out, it also leaves your images. So, treat your inspiration and creativity as the most vital skill you have. Honor it, cultivate it, and nurture it.

Usery Mountain Regional Park near Mesa, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Lighting is everything

You can always get to know light better. Whether it’s landscape photography or birds, lighting is the most important part of photography. Try different ways of capturing light.

Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Park, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Establish your own composition rules

Whether it’s an adherence to the rule of thirds, a love of circles, filling the frame, dramatic lines, or repeating patterns, your choices in how you frame a shot defines your photography.

St. Mary’s, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Shoot like a pro, think like a student

As good as your photos get, there’s always room to learn and improve. When you keep a student mentality, it keeps you curious and focused.

Twin Falls, Idaho © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Zen and the art of Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO

Here’s what you need to know about the big three: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Each is designed to give more light with a payoff. Understand what each element takes away as it increases light:

  • A larger aperture gives more light but takes away the length of your depth of field (blurrier backgrounds)
  • Slower shutter speeds give more light but make your images blurry with camera motion or subject movement
  • Higher ISO offer more light but adds noise to your image

When shooting in manual, know what the controls take away as well as what they give you.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Leading your viewer

As lines recede in space, they converge. We know it as perspective. Photographers use leading lines to engage the viewer by drawing their attention into and through an image and to create a dynamic feel. Experiment with the height of your camera, how you position it to look down a road or meandering stream, and where the lines all lead. Kneeling down can dramatically change the way a photo will feel. Likewise, looking down from a high point will alter the perspective. And don’t forget to turn around. A stellar shot may be behind you.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Move closer

As the legendary photographer, Robert Capa used to say, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” To get the composition you need, sometimes you need to get close—really close. Moving in close to foreground subjects adds incredible depth to a photo. In most cases, you’ll want to shoot at a small aperture to maximize the depth of field in the resulting image.

Parke County, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Always have your camera with you

Put your camera in an unassuming backpack or another option, and keep it near at hand—just in case. You can’t take a photo if you don’t have your camera handy.

Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. There won’t be a next time

I’m sure I’m not the only one who says “That’s a great scene, but I’m just too tired, or I’m in a hurry. I’ll return later when there’s improved quality of light or come back another day.” There’s rarely a next time—and if there is, conditions have changed.

Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Learn by adjusting

In the beginning, you go out and shoot, and some images look good and some don’t. Then you adjust and get a higher percentage of good images. As you move on from there, never stop those little adjustments. That one step closer to the subject, a slightly steadier hand, experimenting with leading lines—these little things will improve your photography one small adjustment at a time.

Want more on photography? Right this way!

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Once the amateur’s naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur.

—Alfred Eisenstaedt