From a “Camera owner” to a “Photographer”

For sometime now I have met a lot of people who get keen on nature and wildlife photography, buy the equipment (which costs and arm and a leg) and then are stuck on how to go about it. Most of them would start with joining some training workshops, which do not really teach them anything.

I believe that most training workshops for wildlife photographers in India are designed for a total beginners. Besides most of them are poorly designed and run by photographers who do not have their own basics right. There are a handful of photographers who design and run workshops that could be called meaningful. In most other cases they end up “training” new camera owners, in such a manner, that they have to be untrained before anyone can point them in the right direction.

In my opinion there are three bridges to cross for a nature and wildlife photographers and the first one is going from a “camera owner” to a “photography enthusiast.”

The workshops that I have heard of in India, are all focussing on what is generally known as “the technical stuff” and none really teach you anything about the “artistic stuff”. The technical stuff, for this level, is easy – really easy. Someone who knows it can teach all of this in theory in 2-3 days time. After that you would need a few months of practice and you were on the road. Till you don’t know this you are a “camera owner.”

There are basically very few controls that you have over a camera. If you know the “cause and effect” of focal length, aperture, shutter speeds, ISO, focus point, depth of field and how one effects the other – you have the technical stuff covered. Words like mastering exposure, shooting on manual mode, know your camera, processing, mastering sharpness etc etc are often “sales talk” that most people fall head over heels for. All this stuff is in the manual of the camera that you have. At this level, if and when you make a mistake, you should know that you have messed up as soon as you press the shutter. Once you reach this level, you can start calling yourself an “enthusiastic photographer.”

The second bridge that one has to cross is going from a “photography enthusiast” to a “photographer” and this can take some time to cross.

To get to the next level, which is when you can drop the “enthusiastic” part and call yourself a photographer, is the tough part. To get here you need to get arty and you can not get here till your  basic technical part is totally sorted out. The tough part is the art in photography. That takes a long time to learn and teach. There are text books for this stuff but it is best learnt on your own or from someone who is way better than you. Once you start getting decent compositions on most of your pictures (which, are as sharp or as blurred as you want them to be and are exposed how you like them to be), you become a “photographer.”  At this stage you need to get deeper and deeper into the technical part, which is now not so easy as it was in the earlier phase. Till you get here just keep it simple.

I, personally, think that I am somewhere in this level but I am at this level not because I think I am, I know I am here because others who are “photographers” say so.

The final bridge to cross is going from being a “photographer” to a “Pro” – most of us may never reach this stage and may not even want to cross this bridge. This is also a really tough bridge to cross. How tough – well there are thousands of wildlife photographers in the world but a handful (in tens) of Pros. That’s how tough this bridge is to cross.

In my opinion the technical part that you need to know to cross the first bridge of photography is pretty simple, specially when shooting wildlife. For shooting Landscapes you would need to be slightly more technically sound. There are only five basic controls that you have, so how tough can it really be. The five controls that you need to get right (and it takes less than a week to figure them out) are:

1. Focal length – the most important control as it determines (amongst other things) how much of the scene you are going to include.

2. Aperture value – which primarily determines how much of a depth of field you need. It is closely related to shutter speed

3. Shutter speed – Do you want to freeze the action or blur it. It determine that amongst others.

4. ISO – Double of halves the aperture-shutter speed combinations. ISO, Av (Aperture) and Tv (Shutter speed) determine your exposure. If you have a camera with high ISO tolerance then Auto ISO is great, specially when shooting on Shutter Priority. Auto ISO does mess up at times when shooting on Aperture Priority.

5. Point of focus – this determine the central point of your image. This is where most beginners go wrong.

Once you have the above figured out (it is no rocket science) you know your scene selection, exposure and focus. Now its a matter of practice to keep it sharp – which as the thumb rule goes means getting a shutter speed of one stop more than your focal length. For example if you are using a 300 mm on a full frame body your shutter speed to keep it sharp, while hand held, should be 1/500. If you have a cropped body or a camera with a huge sensor, it should be 1/1000 the of a second. Besides I would like to use a bean bag/monopod/tripod even at that speed. Once you got your picture selected, exposed and focussed properly you are on the road.

Then fine tune your exposure – when and how much to over or under expose. Again its not rocket science and one good way to figure it out is to keep the camera on exposure bracketing for +/- one stop and taking three pictures all the time. Just do this for one day outside your house in different lighting conditions and you will figure it out.

Once you have the above sorted you should be able to take GOOD pictures in most but the trickiest lighting conditions. By now you should stop shooting “record shots” except only for record. In fact from here on delete any pictures that is not sharp at 100% view, unless you wanted it blurred in the first place. All you need is a good book (say Nat Geo field guide for wildlife photography, John Shaw, Joe McDonald have some good ones – these were the ones I started with) and one week of full time practice to get you to this level – a level where you are qualified enough to sell stock images, though you will probably not sell at all. But you are good enough to qualify for stock libraries.

Now comes the tough part, the part that you have to learn on your own –  composition (in camera – and not while processing), seeing the shot, being different and spending a long time doing it – ideally till the end of your life.

Here are my standard settings (for +95% of the pictures that I have taken):

  • Aperture Priority or Aperture Value.
  • Aperture: For wide angle lenses (below 70 mm – f 8 or 11. For anything above 200 mm f 4.0 or 5.6 or f 11. For 70 – 200 range f 2.8 or 5.6 or f 11 or f 22 (for panning).
  • Shutter Speed: I mostly shoot on Aperture Priority so it is whatever I get, as I control this from the Aperture value. For sharp mammals in action 1/500 is great, mammal portraits 1/125 or more. For bird portrait 1/500 or more. Birds in flight 1/2000 or more. Panning 1/30 or less. The idea is to keep most pictures really sharp, unless I want the blur.
  • ISO: All my cameras have high ISO tolerance so I keep it at 800 or 1250 as default and go up liberally till 2500 and come down to 400 or less when I need lower shutter speed.

When you start getting pictures like these then you are on the right road. Happy shooting well.



Wildebeest migration

Wildebeest migration


White Rhino and calf


Impala in rain


Wildebeests crossing the river



Leo brothers