Taking Your Best Shot: Tips From a Pro to Help Enhance Your Hunting Photos
All photos by Kody Van Pelt, except where noted.
There is nothing quite like a crisp morning in the duck hole; the wind is perfect, a cold front just passed through and you are surrounded but the sights and sounds of what might be your best morning of hunting yet.
Everyone has memories of their favorite hunting moments, whether it is the people you share the experience with, the eager pup ready for the next volley or the tired smiles and feathered piles at the end of the day.
If you’ve ever wanted to capture those moments, then break out that nice camera that’s been gathering dust in the closet and take it hunting. Not only has camera technology come a long way over the years, so has the availability of technical information for prospective photographers.
Here are some simple tips to help you capture those special moments from your hunts.
Shoot, shoot, and shoot some more. Not every photo is going to be poster worthy, but sometimes the best shots are the ones you weren’t expecting. I typically delete 90% of the photos that I take on a hunt, but it gives me higher odds of capturing the exact moment I want and more options at the end of the day.
If you have access to a DSLR camera and you are shooting in auto mode, you are leaving so much to be had. It’s like having a six-burner gas range in your kitchen and using the microwave. Auto mode is convenient and it aims for the middle ground. Essentially your camera is guessing the settings that will make everything look … okay. Why leave it to your camera to decide? Manual mode allows you to control the aperture, shutter speed and ISO (image sensitivity) on your camera. Shoot in manual as much as possible and you’ll see improvements. I recommend learning about aperture and shooting in aperture priority mode to ease into full manual shooting.
Play The Angles
Change up the angle. Whether shooting with your phone or on a high-dollar camera, avoid shooting from eye level. Almost everything looks better from a change in perspective, especially in hunting situations. Taking a shot from a lower angle allows more focus on your subject and the context of the environment, while shooting from a higher angle adds a new perspective to a typical scene. Change it up and get something with feeling. If you have a subject such as a dog or kid, get on their level to capture more personality and scale.
The Eyes Have It
The eyes are where the emotion is, so whether it’s a person or a dog, try to focus on the eyes, specifically the eye closest to the camera.
Each hunt is special in its own way so figure out what makes it stand out and capture that. It could be a special friend in the blind that day, a banded or significant bird, or maybe a weird weather pattern. Maybe it’s all three. After five inches of snow in Stuttgart one year, we set up our layouts in a snow-covered cornfield, which I had never done before. Then I watched a friend from Maryland shoot his first specklebellies (one being banded). I’ve never had a day like it since but I look back on those photos often.
Photo by Clay Kirkpatrick
Aiming for the eyes, playing with angles and handling your duck limit with care are ways to create above average photos.
People and Groups
Sure, you’re going to take the normal shoulder-to-shoulder, awkward-smile group photos, and there is nothing wrong with the classics, but don’t settle for that. Be candid and capture the spontaneous moments — a buddy taking a spill for example — as they happen because those are going to be the shots that bring back the laughs and memories years down the road.
Play The Field
While setting up a group photo use what’s available in the field to make the shot unique. It could be a fallen tree, a beaver dam, an old rusted pump engine or your duck blind. Believe me, looking back a few months or years later, you’ll be glad to have a stack of unique group photos rather than repeats of the standard, year-to-year tailgate photo.
Handle With Care
Keep your birds looking good. A good pile pic can show the world your hunting prowess or make your buddy sick for deciding to sleep in. Keep your birds dry, don’t let the dog munch on them and hang them by their feet and not their necks when possible. There’s nothing less flattering than a waterlogged mallard dangling from its neck. Foot hanging allows the birds’ color and contrast to come through and, let’s be honest, it makes the strap look bigger.
Focus on the kids. They are going to grow up quickly and these are them moments you’ll cherish. So capture that first bird smile, the look of awe when 40 mallards drop into the honey hole, or the mid-day snack and nap. You will be glad to have those photos to look back on
Swift shutter speeds help capture motion, while candid shots can bring out the humor and humanity in a day's hunt.
Birds and Dogs
Capturing moving subjects like eager dogs or ducks in flight requires a fast shutter speed to avoid unintentional motion blur and to freeze water droplets or wings. Tying into previous tips; if shooting in manual, shoot for a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second. You may have to open your aperture or bump your ISO for low light photos.
Just like shooting ducks with a shotgun, shooting good photos of birds requires them to be as close as possible. Your shots will be sharper, and not much beats a back-peddling bird full-frame.
Keep the sun at your back. Not only do you hide better, you avoid glare off your glass and sun flares that can wash out your shot. An added advantage to keeping the sun at your back is you get better color and contrast on your subject and you can get away with a faster shutter speed, which is crucial.
If you’re solely after wildlife photos, shoot bird photos after the season or at the end of the hunt. Working birds in shotgun range is tough enough and your hunting buddies might not appreciate holding off the trigger for your photo, or you flaring the only good group of the day. If you have a group of folks that are okay with letting feet hit the water then great. If not, wait till the end of a good hunt and respect the group. Often it is easier to go out after the season closes to get duck photos when the birds are more relaxed and there is no pressure to fill a limit.
Photography is as much an art as a science. Yes, it requires a lot of time and effort to learn the settings and get the full value out of a camera. But it is also an expression of creativity. Sometimes breaking the so called “rules” yields the best shots. Don’t worry if the photos aren’t perfect, just be glad to have a visual reminder of the great times you had during the season. So get out there and shoot what you want, how you want to. It is the best way to learn.
If you have questions or a pro tip of your own shoot me a message on instagram: @k.v.p_photo