Dan Bailey’s Top Tips for New Wildlife Photographers

Dan Bailey’s Top Tips for New Wildlife Photographers

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PHOTOGRAPHER: Dan Bailey
BASED IN: Alaska, USA
KNOWN FOR: Adventure and travel photography, with a recent foray into wildlife photography
SHOOTS WITH: FUJIFILM X-T2 Camera, FUJINON XF14mmF2.8 R Lens, XF18-55mmF2.8-4 R LM OIS Lens, XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8 R LM OIS Lens, XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR Lens

Introduction

Although he considers himself a relative newcomer to the field, Dan Bailey has rapidly accrued a wealth of valuable experience when it comes to wildlife photography. As a full-time outdoor, adventure and travel photographer since 1996, he has enjoyed the challenge of trying a new genre of photography that poses a very different set of challenges. Dan was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to offer fellow photographers some tips and advice for shooting wildlife photography with FUJIFILM cameras.

So, Dan, what is your favorite animal to photograph?

That’s a tough one. Although I’ve photographed a lot of different animals during the past twenty years, I didn’t really come up through the ranks as a ‘wildlife photographer.’ It all started because we have so many impressive animals up here in Alaska. I’ve just found myself shooting much more wildlife during the past few years, and it’s been a really fulfilling activity.

As amazing and impressive as the big animals are to photograph, like bears and moose, I’ve become very intrigued by shooting birds lately. To me, there’s something magical about birds, and the more I learn about them the more I want to try to capture them with my camera.

When you start watching them and noticing their activity patterns, you find that they’re such fascinating and complex animals. From a photography perspective, they offer a wide range of challenges and opportunities, from quiet, intimate nature photos, to full-on action imagery.

Dan Bailey's Top Tips for New Wildlife Photographers
Dan Bailey's Top Tips for New Wildlife Photographers
Dan Bailey's Top Tips for New Wildlife Photographers

Why did you switch to FUJIFILM?

The short answer is that Fujifilm makes cameras that fit perfectly with my photography style. Having shot FUJIFILM slide film for years back in the day, I’ve always been in love with FUJIFILM colors. Compared to my old Nikons, which were getting bigger and heavier, the X Series cameras are so much smaller, so they allow me to go light and fast through the world and still have professional capabilities at my fingertips.

In addition, the mirrorless technology of the FUJIFILM cameras offers some huge technical and creative advantages over DSLRs. One of the biggest advantages is that you have full-time fast autofocus, even if you’re composing with the tilting LCD screen. Also, the ‘WYSIWYG’ (what you see is what you get) nature of the EVF/LCD allows you to shoot in tricky light with full confidence, because you can see exactly what the picture is going to look like before you shoot it, even if you’re just shooting JPEGs.

Is there a noticeable difference in your workflow in the field and in post-production using FUJIFILM kit?

Definitely. In the old days, I was a huge advocate of always shooting everything in RAW and then processing later. However, in my six years with FUJIFILM cameras, my priorities and workflow have shifted in a big way. My goal these days is to make my creative decisions right there on location, and then use Fujifilm’s Film Simulation modes and on-board exposure tools, so I can walk away with images I love, instead of walking away with a bunch of files I need to go home and process later.

That’s not to say that I never shoot RAW or that I never process my images, but the FUJIFILM JPEGs are so good that I rarely find the need to do much processing these days. When I do have a scene with very tricky light, I’ll often shoot RAW + JPEG. The RAW files contain a huge amount of information, but when I am shooting RAW, and processing, it’s usually just a case of fine-tuning or rescuing extreme tones that were lost in the JPEG. Also, I spend enough time at my computer these days (don’t we all?), so I try to keep my processing time to a minimum. I’d rather spend my time outside making more photographs.

Dan Bailey's Top Tips for New Wildlife Photographers
Dan Bailey's Top Tips for New Wildlife Photographers

What is your favorite wildlife image to date and why?

Oh man, don’t ask me that! I don’t think I have an all-time favorite, but there are certainly some standouts. My moose in the reeds photo always jumps out at me because it’s just so bright and clear. The light was just perfect that evening and she’s got the perfect position in the frame approaching the pond.

I really like some of my bird images, like my three cranes flying, or my arctic tern photos. Like I said, there’s something really intriguing about birds, and I just think it’s magical to capture them in flight. I know there’s a very serious photography genre geared around this whole concept, and I can see why people are so attracted to this style of photography. My background is action photography, so I really enjoy the challenge of capturing birds in the perfect place in the frame and nailing that moment when they have the most impressive body position.

What is the furthest you’ve traveled to photograph wildlife?

Another tricky question. Like I said, shooting wildlife has been a relatively new part of my photography journey, so I’m sorry to say I don’t have a really exciting tale about how I traveled to the Himalayas to shoot snow leopards or something. That said, I do live in Alaska, which is considered a prominent wildlife photography destination, so I kind of have a built-in advantage there. I would have to say that flying out to Brooks Falls definitely ranks as one of my highlights.

Dan Bailey's Top Tips for New Wildlife Photographers
Dan Bailey's Top Tips for New Wildlife Photographers

What was your most challenging situation while photographing wildlife and how did you overcome it?

Photographing birds in low light is, without a doubt, one of the harder types of wildlife scenes to shoot. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to photograph things like arctic terns and eagles in the evening, and while they can be very active during these times, the light can be tough. Plus, they move very quickly. In these situations, you want to crank your ISO dial way up, because it’s better to get a grainy picture than one that is marred by motion blur or camera shake.

Also, that’s where my action photography background comes into play. Being able to anticipate and track the motion requires a good technical command of your autofocus system and a lot of practice.

How has the FUJIFILM system enhanced your experience photographing wildlife?

Having a lightweight and highly capable camera system is key. This is especially true when it comes to lenses. We all know that big glass can be essential for shooting wildlife, and the longer lenses in the FUJIFILM kit get it done without being too cumbersome.

A good example is the FUJINON XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR lens, which equates to a 150-600mm lens on a full frame DSLR camera. Back when I shot Nikon, I never owned a lens longer than 200mm, because I didn’t want to carry huge glass. The XF100-400mm is surprisingly compact, so it fits in my small photography pack, which allows me to travel really light.

Imagine being able to trail run with a 400mm lens in your pack. Before I shot FUJIFILM, this was unheard of. It’s also incredibly sharp and it has a very quick AF motor, so I don’t have to sacrifice any performance. When paired with the compact XF1.4X TC WR or XF2X TC WR teleconverters, you can get even more reach without adding much weight to your camera bag.

In addition, I love using different Film Simulation modes to impart different creative looks to my wildlife imagery. Sometimes I love the bold, saturated color palette of Velvia, while other times I find that a more muted look or even black & white helps enhance the unique nature of a subject. Again, it’s about making creative decisions right there on location and capturing imagery that matches my feelings in the moment.

Dan Bailey's Top Tips for New Wildlife Photographers
Dan Bailey's Top Tips for New Wildlife Photographers

What is an essential tip or piece of advice you feel fellow aspiring wildlife photographers need to know?

Number one tip: learn your autofocus system inside and out. Animals move – and most of them move pretty quickly, so you need to know how to make your camera focus and track this motion. Even if they’re not moving, you might need to adjust in order to get that eye in focus, or make sure the animal is sharp even if it’s hiding back in the brush. Shooting through a foreground can be a compelling technique, but if you don’t know how to manipulate your focus points, you just get a blurry animal.

In your opinion, what’s the best way to establish a unique style when photographing wildlife?

Like anything else, it’s just practice. Shoot as much as you can. Eventually you’ll start to get a feel for what you like and what you’re good at. The more you shoot, the better you’ll get, and as you refine your technique you’ll reduce the gap between the image you envision and the shot you create.

Just do what you love and, in time, you will develop your own personal style that’s unique to your own method and creative ideas.

Dan Bailey's Top Tips for New Wildlife Photographers
Dan Bailey's Top Tips for New Wildlife Photographers

If you could go back to your early days as a pro and do something different, what would it be?

I try not to think too much about this, because I’ve learned something important and had vital experiences at every single stage in my 21-year career. Everything I did was based on a decision that reflected a specific set of circumstances and events at the time. Change any one of those factors along the way and I might not have had the same experiences. It’s that whole butterfly effect thing.

I’ve been really satisfied with my career and although it’s certainly had its bumps, those bumps have all brought me to where I am right now. Maybe I could have spent more money on advertising, but would that necessarily have brought me more happiness? That’s ultimately what I strive for in my photography and my life.

The most consistent thing for me is that I keep doing what I love, and that’s what I’d recommend to anyone who’s doing photography, or any creative pursuit. If you’re smart enough to be the best photographer you can be, then you’ll be smart enough to figure out how to make your own success in life.

Dan Bailey is a compensated FUJIFILM X-Photographer.

To see more of Dan’s work, visit his website. This article is based on content that originally appeared on Wild Planet Photo Magazine.

To explore the full X Series lineup visit X Gear Chooser.

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