By Bill Buckley
Most of us end each waterfowl season with a handful of pictures, usually of hunters posing with the day's harvest of ducks or geese. That's too bad, because these images do little to capture the many other experiences that make waterfowl hunting so compelling. Sure, we want to remember a great hunt, but what about the vivid sunrises, frosty boat rides, camaraderie in the duck blind, and heroic retrieves?
After more than two decades of working as a freelancer for Ducks Unlimited, I can honestly say that you won't get interesting photographs if you pick up a camera or smartphone only when it's time to pick up the decoys. The good news is that it's never been easier to take quality photos and share them with family and friends. The following tips will help you capture the most memorable moments from your days afield.
Be Ready to Shoot
You don't call ducks when your shotgun is still in its case. Before first light, have your camera out and ready too. Since the most action usually occurs early on, set your camera's ISO setting to around 1000. Then set the shooting mode to either Aperture Priority or Manual and select the largest aperture (the smallest number) your lens allows. A large aperture and high ISO will enable you to take photos in low light with shutter speeds fast enough to overcome camera shake and most motion blur.
While direct sunlight is necessary for stopping action, you can capture beautiful sunrises and your buddies setting out decoys well before shooting time. As the morning brightens, start lowering your shutter speeds. In daylight, higher ISOs produce pictures that are grainier and less saturated than they would be at normal settings of 400 and below.
Check Your Images
Frequently check the camera's display panel after you shoot photos to confirm that everything looks right, especially the exposure and sharpness. This will let you know if something's wrong and allow you to correct any problems quickly.
Follow the Sun
Good lighting is all about managing contrast and knowing where the sun is every time you take a picture. Immediately before sunrise and after sunset, shoot directly toward the sun for colorful, backlit pictures with plenty of detail. As the sun rises, the light will become progressively harsher, and in general you'll want to keep the sun at your back. In bright sunlight, get close to your subject and zoom in tight, or shoot in the shade to avoid unwanted shadows.
Don't Just Stand There
The most boring photographs come from standing in one spot and shooting from eye level. For better results, change angles and locations as much as you can. In general, you'll get more dynamic photos from lower angles. When photographing dogs, being at or below their eye level is rule one.
Improve Your Composition
Avoid centering your subject. Instead, use the "rule of thirds." This means that an image should be composed so that the subject is slightly off center and the horizon doesn't fall in the middle of the image. Fill the frame with details that tell a story. For example, zoom in on your buddy calling but have the decoys, a dog, or another hunter in the background. Also, look out for objects poking into the frame, such as a branch or cattail. These unintended objects can ruin otherwise great photos.
Perfect the Hero Shot
You've got to have this picture, so employ the following tips. Look where the sun is; even if it seems straight overhead, it's not. Move so it's behind you. Then make sure everyone's filling the frame, with their heads in the upper third of the image and birds turned to show off their plumage. You'll have infinitely better pictures if you take the time to keep birds dry and clean, with their feathers and wings smoothed down. Limit shadows on hunters' faces by having everyone tilt their heads and caps back a bit, and then have everyone smile. Like photography, waterfowl hunting is supposed to be fun.