Every now and then I find a quiet place, plunk myself down, and leaf through my photo albums. Each holds a library of cherished memories. These sacred books are treasured diaries of my most personal hunting experiences and accomplishments. With today's digital technology, it's easier now than ever before, to capture and file those memories in perpetuity.
Our hunting activities expose us to a myriad of successes, failures, trials, and privileges. From glorious sunrises to panoramic views, interactions with wildlife, shared adventures, and more - each element of the hunt instills a memory. Hunting allows us to bond with nature, family, friends, and our primordial inclinations. With the advent of digital cameras, capturing quality photos is simple. For the most part, gone are the days of cumbersome film canisters and waiting to see if your images actually turned out. Instant gratification is the name of the game as digitals allow us to review the photo at the push of a button. But just snapping the shutter won't guarantee a quality picture. Relatively foolproof automatic settings will usually bring a satisfactory result. But today's cameras allow us to do a lot more. Only by learning to manipulate your equipment to capture the essence of the moment and properly compose the shots, can you ensure quality photos.
As a writer, and even as a professional outfitter, pictorially documenting adventures afield goes hand in hand with the job. Think about it. When you scan your favorite hunting magazine the stories are great, but strong images bring them to life. Allowing the reader to live vicariously, they create a visual link to the experience in the field. Personalizing this, photos provide a visual connection allowing us to reminisce in living color.
We invest a great deal in our hunting trips. Each outing brings with it a wealth of new experiences and memories. Some excursions are annual events, while others are once in a lifetime adventures. Hard-earned cash, vacation time and, often immense physical energy is expended to make our dreams reality. So why would we settle for poor quality photos, or dare I say no photos at all?
I've learned to take lots of photos. I can always delete them, but failing to snap the shutter is simply a missed opportunity. Particularly with today's cameras, your only limitation is the size of your memory card. Whether you're using a compact point-and-shoot camera or a bigger SLR, different cards are available. As a rule, always keep at least a 1 GB card (e.g., Sandisk) in your camera. I like 2, 4, or even 8 GB cards myself. At high resolution settings I can usually capture and store a minimum of 400 images on the smallest of these. As a rule, always bring an extra. If the one in your camera fills up or malfunctions, an extra card can be an economical insurance policy.
The author Kevin Wilson with his chamois in Austria
Too often we focus all of our photographic energies only on the hero shot alone. Posing with a trophy is great and requisite to documenting memories, but they are really only the culmination of a hunt. Each hunt involves so much more than just the kill. Take time to capture photos of other aspects as well. For instance take pictures of the hike, vehicles used, cooking meals, sleeping accommodations, longer distance photos of sunrises, sunsets, mountain vistas, frost laden tree branches, incidental wildlife, life in camp, tents, packs, any dilemmas or hardships you faced, and if you're on an exotic hunt be sure to capture images of any unique cultural aspects, etc.
Austrian hunting guide
Don't be stingy; take plenty of photos. Compose the shots from different angles, zoom in, zoom out and be creative. Take photos from up high, down low, and at variable angles. Remember, everyone sees things from their own point of view. Sometimes by considering a different perspective we can capture a different aspect of the hunt. You'll appreciate these "B" roll images when you revisit them later.
Caping a ram in sheep camp
Most of us lack discipline when taking photos. Take your time composing each shot. Consider the horizon; is it level? Take the photo from a variety of angles and perspectives. Either too lazy to click the shutter more than a few times, or in a rush to head home, unfortunately many of us are sorely disappointed when we collect our photos from the lab only to find we don't have as many as we thought. Your resulting images should tell the whole story of the hunt from start to finish. Digital cameras are a lifesaver in this regard, allowing us to snap the shutter at will. They give us the opportunity to review, discard or save, and consider taking more images until we get what we're after. As far as the hero shots are concerned, always clean the animal as much as possible. Wipe away excess blood and ensure the animal is posed in a tasteful and respectful manner. Lung shots on big game will usually cause blood to drain from the mouth.
Some folks have a God-given ability to hold the camera still, but believe me they are few and far between. Yes, even with image-stabilizers, stability and clarity are a problem. Regardless of what camera you have, use a tripod. Self-timers are great, and in fact necessary for taking photos when you're alone in the field.
Most high quality photos are well lit. Whenever possible use a fill flash, particularly in low light or in harsh light where shadows are intensified. With the exception of distant panoramic photos, a fill flash is imperative in most settings. One of the most common pieces of clothing worn by outdoorsmen and women is a hat. Brimmed caps are particularly bad for creating unwanted shadows and obliterating the subject's face. Remember, capturing the subject's eyes is very important. Eyes and facial expressions set the tone and communicate the mood of the photo.
One of the challenges with digital cameras is that bright, or even low-light, can fool the built-in meters. Today's cameras have an auto setting, and in many instances that's what most of us use. Unfortunately, inherent light meters are sometimes fooled by opaque surfaces. This can be especially true in lower light conditions on overcast days, at dawn or dusk, or when bright sunlight is bouncing off of a snow covered landscape. In instances where I'm unsure whether my camera is reading the light correctly or when I'm using a manual aperture setting, I like to use the white balance setting and bracket my shots by going up and down by one stop. In lay terms this simply means overexposing and underexposing a few shots to ensure that I get at least one that will turn out to my liking. Fortunately digital cameras allow us to view images and adjust accordingly to get the desired quality.
As a rule, use the entire frame. Contemplate what the end product will look like. Determine the focal point and compose the shot accordingly. Close-up images are often most interesting. Think about what you like to look at. Close-ups allow the viewer to see detail and really get the feeling they are there experiencing the situation first hand. In many instances, your camera's viewfinder may show more or less what the end product will look like. Zoom in and out to different settings to experiment. In many instances we have the option to edit photos on our home computer but beginning with a strong image from the outset is always better.
Generally speaking, I use two cameras. One is a primary and the other a secondary, or back-up. Decisions about which model to buy, when to use them, and when to leave one or the other at home most often depends on budget, what kind of hunting you do, and your ability to carry them. A high-end compact point-and-shoot camera (at least 6 megapixels) will run you a few hundred dollars. A higher end digital SLR (single lens reflex) will usually run you over a thousand. The sky is really the limit with the latter as lenses alone can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.
For most of us, and myself in particular, when I'm limited to an ultra-light pack (i.e., sheep hunting in the remote backcountry), I take my compact Nikon Coolpix 7.1 megapixel camera. It fits in the palm of my hand and is ultra-lightweight. This little beauty has 3x zoom capability, a built-in flash, a sizeable LCD screen, video capability, and it takes very high quality photos. Alternatively, my primary camera is an SLR - a Canon EOS 40D. While more versatile, it is also heavier and more cumbersome. With variable lenses, my favourite and most adaptable is a 70-200mm f 2.8 image stabilizing telephoto lens. This lens is fast and very effective in low light conditions. Alternatively, for most applications, a basic 17-85mm EFS lens is sufficient.
Most importantly, learn to use your camera effectively. You might have the finest camera in the world, but if you don't know how to use it, it won't do you much good. In instances when you have other people take the photo of you, consider using the 'auto' mode. This will simplify things. As far as your own photography goes, learn to use the advanced settings to capitalize on the creative modes. With these in mind, if all else fails, probably the most valuable tip I can offer is to ensure that the sun is behind the photographer as the photo is taken; this will help illuminate the subject and cancel unwanted shadows.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com .
Member of OWAA & OWC.