1. Be okay going home with nothing.
Wildlife photography takes a lot of patience. It requires sitting for hours at a time waiting for the bird or deer you've been waiting to photograph to show up. Add to this various factors like the weather, time of day, season of the year, and it can drive any impatient person insane. Sometimes you go home with tons of amazing shots, sometimes you go home with nothing. During this particular shot, I was looking for a herd of deer that roams the Old Quarry Trail in Kanata. I've visited the trail numerous times and can't seem to catch any of them. I did not end up with the deer shots I wanted that day, but I did get a good shot of this Chickadee. Bottom line is: be willing to spend hours in the field and be okay to go home with nothing to show for it.
2. Bring bird food!
Rudy Pohl is an Ottawa-based, wildlife photographer whose work I have been following online. In one of his blogs entries, he notes that it is essential for beginner wildlife photographers to start learning field craft. He notes that field craft is more than just about hiding in the bush in camo attire waiting for wildlife; it is also knowing wildlife migration patterns, food preferences, feeding locations, and habits. It is about knowing that "Great Blue Herons always crouch down just a little immediately before they take to flight." During this particular shot, I knew nothing about Chickadees - I did not even have bird food with me! If there was field craft test during this photo-walk, I would have surely failed. Luckily, though, hikers or bird-watchers before me had left some breadcrumbs on one of the tree stumps and the birds were going crazy for them. Lesson learned: visit Bulk Barn for bird seeds before looking for birds.
3. Set a maximum ISO
ISO is the sensitivity of your camera to light. If your camera is set to auto ISO, depending on your aperture and shutter speed, your ISO will increase or decrease. Make sure to set a maximum to your auto-ISO (see your DSLR manual). For this shot, I set the max ISO to 800, but you can increase or decrease it depending on the amount of noise you are comfortable with in your photos. Max ISO is particularly helpful because depending on the wildlife you are shooting, you will have to increase your shutter speed. If you have try to freeze a wood-pecker for example, you will likely require a high shutter speed to get a sharp photo. If set to auto-ISO, your camera will try to compensate for the loss of light by increasing the ISO value. My previous shots before this had ISO values of 15000 and above. The photos were useless to anyone due to the visible noise!
4. Take a billion photos.
Some photographers will argue that you learn a lot more from your shots if you only have a limited opportunity to take them. Hence, if you use a film camera, you have, lets say, 32 frames and that's it. You have to make sure that every shot is amazing: properly exposed and composed, subject is clear, etc. I do not believe that this should be the case with DSLR photography in general, and with wildlife photography in particular. A separate blog is probably required to elaborate on the former. For the latter, however, it is important to note that animals are transient, unless they are caged in a zoo. You might have the ability to shoot them dozens of times in one go, but they do only stay still for a few seconds before flying or galloping away. Take as many shots as possible with the correct camera settings. You will delete most of it after, but you are at least guaranteed some shots that are sharp or capture certain wing movements or poses. This shot is one of the three photos I kept from the hundreds of shots I took that day.
5. Golden-hour rule does not always apply.
I am a firm believer of the golden hour(s): the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset. It is during these hours that the sun is quite low in the sky and you get soft lighting, as opposed to mid-day where the sun is overhead, which can produce hard shadows. For this shot, though, I did not find the golden hour helpful. Being on the trail with lots of trees - branches and leaves covering the sky - it was already dark. If you add to that the golden hour, high shutter speed, and relatively low ISO value, my camera was struggling to catch light. In hindsight, I could have gone earlier in the afternoon where the sun is still quite high in the sky and rely on the surrounding trees and leaves to provide shelter for my subject or to diffuse the light.