Digital Wildlife Photography

John & Barbara Gerlach

© 2013 Focal Press

$34.95 hardcover unjacketed

John and Barbara Gerlach have cooked up a conversational, even folksy, introduction to the many issues photographers face when shooting wildlife.

In many ways, animal photography creates more challenges than any other specialty. Like street photography, it depends on decisive moments, but most photographers have a better idea of how people behave than how wild animals behave. Finding and approaching animals in the wild can prove difficult, and capturing the best shots requires immense patience. Like landscape photography, expense and access can mean that being able to anticipate light and position oneself for optimal composition can save you money and determine whether you will get any usable shots at all in the limited time you have in a location.

The Gerlachs bring their experience to bear on the subject with strong opinions and a thoroughness that belies the book’s brief 200 page length. They move from equipment choice to technique to artistic issues in a logical progression that reinforces with repetition all its lessons. A few people might quibble with their Canikoncentricity (he shoots Canon, she Nikon) but they base their preference solely on numbers of users, citing the ease of finding the right lenses and accessories, and most importantly, advice. They have taken over a million exposures, but they still value sharing with other photographers.

The most effective aspect of their approach lies in their advising photographers to abandon the habits of “walking around” photography in favor of a pragmatic, subject based approach. Too many shooters have become lazy, having found settings that provide decent results in a lot of situations. They are one step above “program” mode photographers, adjusting only one parameter, such as aperture or shutter speed or exposure compensation. The Gerlachs challenge the reader to expose manually, focus using the back button, adjust the ISO up when necessary, read the histogram, and, yes, use a flash sometimes.

They also spend a good bit of time in the middle of the book talking about image quality, not in the manner of gear heads who attribute IQ to shooting the most up to date camera, but as a function of proper technique. I took a seminar from Jeff Schewe in the early days of digital cameras, when 6 megapixel cameras crossed the threshold and were considered usable for photojournalism and web use. His message: if you don’t shoot on a tripod, don’t choose proper light, and don’t shoot raw, you might as well have a 3 megapixel camera. The Gerlachs show that sharpness depends more on a steady camera, intelligent focusing,  and fast shutter than on sensor resolution, and good dynamic range relies more on proper exposure than having the latest and greatest camera. Bad habits that inhibit IQ, like using a UV protection filter, not using a lens hood, or letting your lenses and sensor collect schmutz, are visited in depth.

The chapters on flash and composition are the icing on this many layered cake. They follow the general principles of photography, but focus on the particular issues that face wildlife photographers, who must frame their images for different purposes than say, street, still life, or landscape photographers. Wildlife photography is about behavior, and has more in common with cinema than painting in terms of composition. Flash not only illuminates but freezes action. And as always, they emphasize the welfare of the animals and delicate balance between their being used to humans and dependent on them or controlled by them.

For a book that was written in 2012, it remains fresh. The Gerlachs’ emphasis on technique and general principles keeps it current. They wrote the book to introduce readers to the new possibilities opened up by digital cameras, but they carefully left the nature of the improvements open ended. Photography instruction books should have top notch photographs, and the ones they include illustrate wonderfully both the best and worst outcomes of wildlife photography.

Some readers may find a lot of the material basic, and some of it out of their primary area of interest (hummingbirds? safaris?) but on the whole the book contains a treasure trove of information, at least for beginning and intermediate shooters.

I have attended a lot of seminars, and my test for books and talks consists of these questions: Did I learn something new? Was I reminded of something I had forgotten? Did I have something I always do validated? This book provided lots of yeses for all three questions, so I recommend it to anyone looking to master this difficult craft.