Light(s), camera, action! Ordinary to extraordinary in three easy steps.

Okay, maybe not that easy. It does take some practice.

What I am trying to say is that by taking a tiny bit of extra time and putting some thought into your shots, you can end up with dramatically superior results.

Sure, there are times when you have to literally point and shoot. When I came across this burrowing owl and we locked eyes at the same instant, I could tell it was milliseconds away from flying off. Fortunately, I was able to raise the camera and fire in one smooth motion, getting the shot before it launched.


When you have the luxury of an extra minute or two, try challenging yourself to come away with the best image possible under the conditions you have to work with. I think these two photos of a mallard hen demonstrate the concept well.

The setup:

A duck. Sitting at the edge of a parking lot. In water an inch deep.

The response:

Oh, look! Click! Share. Done.

The result:


There is nothing wrong with that. Consider it a success if your principal intent is to document the fact that you saw a mallard hen.

Why not use the moment to try taking your photo to the next level? It only takes a little thinking and practice.

Here are 3 concepts to work on:

1. Light

Consider the available light. What direction is it coming from? How is it hitting your subject? Are there harsh shadows to avoid?

Normally it’s best if the light is coming from behind you so the subject is illuminated well. This is not always possible, but at least think about it and do what you can. Sometimes you can use less favorable lighting to your advantage and still come up with a unique image.


For the shot of the mallard hen, I had wonderful light to work with. The key phrase is ‘to work with’. The first shot totally ignores that fantastic golden goodness filtering through the trees. Work with the light, use it to achieve the best possible effect.

2. Camera

Where should you position the camera for the best effect? This step is all about angles. Shot #1 is taken from eye level looking down on the duck. Accurate? Yes. Compelling? No.

Getting away from eye level works wonders. More often than not, this means going low. Other angles can work, too – but for starters, just get below eye level and see what happens.

While you’re at it, pay careful attention to the composition in your viewfinder. Especially the background. You don’t want some random stick coming out from behind the head of your subject.

Move around. Experiment. Then evaluate.

For the final duck shot, I was sitting on the ground. I carefully scooted close enough to eliminate all traces of the parking lot in front of the duck. Then I moved to the side, changing my angle so the area behind the duck would be clear.

3. Action!

You’re all set. Great angle, great light, great background. Now you click, right?? No!


Even if it’s just a second or two. The most beautiful conditions will be wasted if your subject comes out looking like a lifeless statue. Remember, this is wildlife – emphasis on life. Your photo (where possible) should capture some aspect of that, no matter how subtle. This duck was dozing off and on, but I have learned that even the most motionless of creatures always end up doing something. They stretch, look around, fluff their feathers, etc. Wait for something. I waited for the eye contact.



That photo was taken under the same conditions as the first one. Same camera, same lens, same light, same subject, same photographer (me). Sure, the second one is post-processed and looks much nicer as a result. That is a topic for another article. For now just realize that you could process the first shot all you want and still not come up with anything great. You need to have a great image to work with first!

Next time you find yourself taking a photo of an ordinary subject, remember these three things and see what you can do:

Light, camera, action!

Posted on June 16, 2013, in photography. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. This is terrific. You need to put on some clinics.

  2. +1 to what Tim said.

  3. Good advice. It also takes that knack for being able to see in your minds eye how to frame the picture to take advantage of those things you mention. You have that ability and we all can do better too if we follow those idea’s you mention. Your Grandpa had that knack and did very well at it. I have often thought about that when I look at many of your pictures. I have been scanning his 35 mm slide pictures the past few weeks and will send you a copy as soon as I get them named so all will know what or who the picture is of. The only ones left to know most of the subjects is me and my brother, so want to get it done soon. Keep those pictures coming we all enjoy them.

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