Category: Nature


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.


© 2010 Rocky Nook

240 pages

ISBN: 978-1-933952-56-7

Price: $39.95 (French flapped paperback)

I obtained this book in advance of a trip to Yellowstone National Park. Having never shot wildlife before, I was looking for some guidance.

The author is clear in his foreword that this book emerges from his experiences as a professional photographer and workshop guide in the Serengeti region of East Africa. The book is obviously of greatest utility to those who are planning a trip to that region, as much of the text details the natural features and wildlife there, but nearly a quarter of the book deals with general concepts of wildlife photography that apply to a wide variety of situations outside of East Africa. The part of the book that deals specifically with the Serengeti is useful as well. By following the author’s careful planning and execution of a successful safari shoot, one can develop one’s own method of researching the venue and local wildlife, as well as the practical matters, such as transportation, permissions, time of day, and applicable regulations.

The section on equipment, as with all books of this sort, is the weakest. With quickly advancing camera technology, the specific gear cited is soon outdated. Skrzypczak usefully ties specific recommendations to general principles (range of focal lengths, dynamic range, speed, depth of field, noise), but he often indulges in unsubstantiated generalities – was the 2007 generation of APS-C digital cameras really considered by anyone to be equivalent to 4.5×6 cm roll film? – and sometimes is downright wrong, as when he says that vibration reduction in lenses “increases the brightness of the lens by up to four additional f-stops.” On the plus side, he does alert the potential wildlife shooter that the enterprise costs big money, and that a lower budget means making hard choices, as does the need to travel light.

The sections on technique and composition are where the book really shines. Skrzypczak’s explanation of the use of the various autofocus options is the best I have ever encountered, and he includes a helpful graphic with each photograph in the book indicating which AF choice is best for each situation.  Similarly, each of his excellent technical and composition suggestions is put into practice in the chapters of the book which narrate his photography during each of the seasons of the year. The importance of learning the behavior of the wildlife also moves into the foreground, as that knowledge contributes both to the opportunities afforded to get the best shots and the safety of the photographer and the animals themselves. Also, as I always say, photography is problem solving, and seeing how he copes with tricky situations makes the reader a nimbler shooter. Protect highlights or let them go? Subject close up or in context? Background sharp or blurred? Preserve textures or edges? Shoot fast or wait?  One learns how to make all these choices instinctively, which becomes valuable when opportunities are fleeting and time tight.

The prose is clumsy and wooden in spots, but generally serviceable. The book was originally published in Germany, so I suspect that either the author or an editor translated it. The excellent photographs and the marvelous balance of informative text and images make the safari chapters the sort of narrative that one can dip into for a page or just an image at a time, if one likes, or read all the way through for a thorough idea of how an expert shoots wildlife.

I would warn the casual wildlife photographer away, but there is no such thing. This sort of shooting requires serious preparation and substantial financial investment in travel, guides, and gear, either through purchases or rentals. Anyone ready to take on a serious wildlife excursion would definitely benefit from this resource.



My sister called me from Yellowstone the day before I was to board the train to tell me that the government shutdown meant that the park would be closed to visitors, effectively scuttling my trip. I have always thought that puerile Tea Party nonsense was damaging to the country as a whole, but this time it was personal.

I was attending the New Atlantic Booksellers fall trade show when I got the call, so I had to quickly cancel all my hotel reservations, my lens rental, and of course the train. One bag had been checked ahead on Amtrak. They had already sent it on an earlier train – no one said they would do that – and they were totally incapable of locating the bag. The baggage department did not know which train was carrying it, when it would arrive in Chicago, or when it would make its way to Whitefish. A rude fellow in Philly answered my query about which train by saying “It’s gone!” and hanging up. Chicago said they would track it down and call me back. They didn’t. A guy on the Amtrak customer service phone tried to help but admitted that they had no system beyond the tags for tracking bags. When I questioned that from a security standpoint, he called it a “side issue.” It finally ended up all the way out in Whitefish, Montana. The attendant there said he would check it back to Philly on the next train, but that was a week ago. It’s a three day ride. (Update: the day after I posted this, I got a call from Amtrak saying my bag was in Philly. They treated it as lost luggage, so injury was not added to insult by being charged shipping fees.)

My friend Duke had his trip to Acadia National Park snafued as well, so he took the time off to go to upstate NY for some waterfall shooting. He had for several years spent the first week in October taking a photo seminar in the Adirondacks, so he thought it would be a good substitute. After three days of dealing with hotels, luggage bozos, and other issues, I decided to join him in Ithaca for two days.

The weather predictions were suspect, but the two days served up perfect conditions for fall shooting – not cold, not too warm, not sunny, but not dark overcast either. Very little wind blew, and the only moisture came from the rock walls around us. Life gave us sour citrus, so we crushed and sweetened.

I arrived in Ithaca around lunchtime Thursday to find Duke snoozing in his car in the parking lot at Buttermilk Falls. Duke’s back gives him problems, so we parked a car at each end of the gorge so that the walk would be downhill.  It’s also the most efficient way to cover a narrow ravine, since you don’t double back over the same ground.

By nature a portrait photographer, I just love looking through a lens at the world. My cousin Jack is an accomplished nature shooter, so I always felt I could never produce work like his and didn’t try. Yellowstone would have been my first serious wildlife shoot, and I was looking forward to spending a week doing nothing but honing my skills.

Duke shoots nature and macro. Some architecture. Never people if he can help it. He claims not to even like people very much, belied by his friendly manner and his ability to attract loquacious strangers rivaling mine. I have learned a great deal from him about shooting nature; we go out to Longwood Gardens about once a month and capture the flora close up.

Last week was the first time, however, that I had spent serious time photographing waterfalls. I grew up in a swampy area so flat that you could not find a spot that you could place a marble and it would move. The local river flowed so slowly that it was called the Tar. Aside from a trip to the Delaware Water Gap a few years ago, where our camera club spent an hour or two shooting Childs Park and Dingmans Falls, I hadn’t spent much time on it. I had only recently ditched my journalist’s tripod and grip head for some serious landscape gear – an ash wood Berlebach with a 55mm ball head.

It always pays to shoot with someone who knows what they are doing, not so that you can ask incessant questions or get free lessons, but so you can observe. So much of photography is about pace, about knowing how to evaluate a scene, and knowing when to cut bait. Our actual methods differ. I bracket, and he does not. He uses neutral density filters, while I polarize. He chimps, but I just check every once in a while to make sure nothing is wonky. We worked our way methodically down Buttermilk Creek, using the afternoon to carefully frame and capture the variety of falls there.

Buttermilk Falls State Park, Ithaca NY
Duke hard at work.
Duke hard at work.

The next day, we used Google Maps, the Photographers Ephemeris, and the Cornell website to chart an excursion to the lower Cascadilla Gorge, which runs spectacularly through the campus, dropping 400 feet in less than a mile. We positioned our cars, and when we walked to the gate to enter the gorge, we found out that access was prohibited because of falling debris hazards from a construction project. The Cornell website had not a word about this. We went back to the bottom and shot the falls at the bottom of the cascade, but they were not spectacular.

Cascadilla Gorge, Cornell University
Cascadilla Gorge, Cornell University

We took off for Watkins Glen without eating lunch, and time lost in Ithaca was time well used there. The canyons of the west are enormous and brightly colored, but eastern glens have their own charms. One still gets to marvel at what a stream can cut out of its way over time. The relative scale is the same, but the balance between intimacy and grandeur in the gorge at Watkins Glen transcends mere size. Flora and fauna are an afterthought in the great canyons of the west, but they coexist in the more modest confines of this ravine. The color palette is cooler, and the detail crisper.

Watkins Glen
Watkins Glen Ravine
Falls at Watkins Glen
Falls at Watkins Glen

Sadly, because of the paucity of hotel rooms in the area during leaf peeping season, I had to bolt before sunset in order to make it back to Philly by bedtime.

It wasn’t Yellowstone, but with great company, good scenery, and new challenges in photography, this Finger Lakes falls outing suited me just fine.

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