Before leaving, preferably the night before check a few items for their readiness. Is the battery charged? Simple enough I know but it happens all the time, some shooting partner has a dead battery! Is there a memory card in the camera? Now would be a great time to look at your lenses. Are they clean? Some of us forget to clean our lenses often enough. Were there dust bunnies on that last batch of images? If there were clean the sensor/s on your body/ies. All of these are very basic items, none the less, they are important items. Another good idea is to pack your camera bag the night before. No need tempting fate with a foggy head in the morning. Be sure to check for extra memory cards and batteries if applicable. There is nothing worse than being in the field and finding out these vital items are on the kitchen table!
Now you have arrived at your destination and you just can’t wait to get out there. Hold on, now would be the time to get few things set up just in case an opportunity for a shot catches you by surprise. Check the camera for shooting mode. I shoot Manual all the time. That doesn’t mean that the setting didn’t get changed by some gremlin while I wasn’t looking! There are few surprises worse than some bird comes flying by and you lock on focus and fire away only to find out you were in some other mode and shots are all lost. I have heard the grunts, groans and cussing caused by this plenty of times. Check your lens for the appropriate settings. Most Super – Tele’s have numerous settings on them for different circumstance, set it before you head out for the most likely scenario that you’ll come upon. Set the exposure. One can usually get the exposure close to, if not spot on, by using one of nature’s grey cards. Find something neutral in the distance and set the exposure for that. While doing that set the shutter/f stop for the type of shooting you will most likely be doing. I always default to an in flight setting. Static subjects allow more time to spin knobs and push buttons that a bird that suddenly flies by!
Now that we are out in the field there are some rules of thumb, best practices and tips that come into play. One rule of thumb that has been hammered into my head but so many seem resistant to is to use whatever ISO is needed to get the proper shutter speed. A blurry picture is worthless; a noisy picture can be dealt with, to a degree, in post. The same can be said for depth of field. If you need more depth because of a poor position on the subject you may have to bump the ISO. Now that you are snapping away, check the LCD/histogram. The built in light meter is only a guideline, trust the histogram/ LCD instead. If there are any clipping drop the exposure. If the clipping is absent bump the exposure. It is a fine dance to execute properly. So many subjects are both white and black/brown that the proper exposure is truly difficult. It would behoove oneself to check often. Proper exposure is something to be addressed in camera and not in post. See the Razorbill image for an example.
Once you acquire your subject take some time, at least some quick thought, about what you are doing. There are so many things that go into making an okay shot awesome. Top notch photographs are the culmination of many things; the smart photographer understands what and how to work the subject. Check the foreground. Are there sticks and twigs between you and the subject? See that in the field and you won’t have to worry about deleting that shot when you get home. How many times have you deleted a shot because you were in too much of a hurry to pay attention in the field? Now positioning for the background comes into play. Look behind your subject and see what will be in the bokeh. Is there a manmade object there? Bright spots of light? These all make for poor backgrounds.
Try to find something pleasing in the background and work around the subject to include that. Well while we are composing the shot we need to consider the lighting. Ideally we want the light to our back or a bit to the side. A bird for example with a bit of side light will offer a lot more detail as the light gets under the feathers and creates texture with shadows and a layering effect. See the Killdeer image for an example.
A proper light angle will create nice catch lights in the eyes of the subjects. Lighting can also be used to create drama; such as a well lit subject and dark background. Sometimes a dabbling of light can really set a shot off. Positioning of the subject is important for depth of field. For example, a head on shot means that most of the subject will be out of focus. This holds truer the larger the subject, with a small bird one may be able to pull off of a head on shot all in focus but I do doubt that would work with a Buffalo. A subject parallel to the sensor is much easier to capture with the whole body in focus. See the Great Blue Heron image for an example of being parallel and a deep DOF. Still keep in mind the F stop, close it down for the proper depth of field.
I hope the explanation of these techniques will help the reader when you are out in the field. There is so much to think about and usually very little time to think about it. With a little practice these things will come naturally, without any thought at all and your photos will benefit.