Learn how to take better photos of wild turkeys, their habitat and the hunt, and frame more memories.
Capturing the moment in a photo requires the right camera equipment, good lighting and a bit of know-how. Before you delete another blurry tom or unglorious sunrise, follow these 10 tips to take images you’ll treasure.
- Get a big lens. Wild turkeys are skittish and won’t stick around if they sense you’re near. Even if you are in a blind and the birds come close from a hunting point of view, they’re usually too far away to get them full-frame with a cell phone or point-and-shoot camera. You can take stunning landscape and people shots with cell phones and pocket-sized cameras, but to get good images of live turkeys, you need a DSLR camera with at least a 300mm fixed or telephoto lens. Most professional wildlife photographers shoot with a 500mm or longer lens. A telephoto lens gives you the flexibility to zoom in or out, though often they are slightly less sharp at the most extended (most magnified) end of their range.
- Get lower. Most people take photos of turkeys from whatever position they are in, usually standing or sitting, or they might kneel down. It’s not low enough. You need to get eye to eye with the turkey, which might mean lying on your belly. As a general rule when photographing wildlife, the best photos are at eye level with your subject or looking slightly up at it.
- Get closer. In other words, fill the frame with your subject. If you want a compelling shot of a wild turkey, get closer — not physically, which might spook the bird, but optically. If the turkey is in your face, you can see more detail, and the photo feels more alive.
- Focus on the eye. Another mainstay of wildlife photography is having the eyes of the animal in focus. When humans look at other people or creatures, including photos of turkeys, we automatically look into their eyes. If the eyes are not in focus, the rest of photo also seems dull.
- Pick your moment. While it’s possible to take great photos any time of the day, the odds go up greatly during the “golden hour,” just after sunrise and just before sunset. What’s more, the sunniest days typically have the harshest light, especially midday, causing extreme shadows and bright spots. High overcast skies, which create even light, make better photos of wildlife or people. That said, for scenic shots, a blue sky is always more desirable. If the sky is gray or white, zoom in so you see little or none of it.
- Follow the Rule of Thirds. Pretend the frame has a tic-tac-toe grid on it. Some cameras will show you this through the viewfinder or on LCD screen. Instead of putting the subject dead center, place it on the left third, right third, upper third or lower third of the frame. The spots where the lines of the grid cross are visual strong points. If you position a dominant element of the photo, like the turkey’s eye or your hunting buddy, on a strong point, your image will be compelling indeed. Likewise, when shooting a landscape, put the horizon or shoreline on the upper or lower third of the frame, or place a strong vertical component of the scene, like a tree, fence line or road, on the left or right third of the frame.
- Limit the space above the head. Too much background above a turkey or a person’s head is often a result of centering the head in the frame. The subject is probably too far away, too. If you place the head of your subject on the upper third of the photo, the space above it is usually right.
- Level the horizon. Sometimes in the effort to follow the Rule of Thirds, it’s easy to forget keeping the horizon level. As importantly, if there’s water involved, the shoreline should be level so that the water doesn’t “drain out” of your photo.
- Let trees “grow” straight up. And telephone poles and fence posts … If an object normally is straight up and down, be sure it’s like that in your photo (and not “growing” out of a turkey’s or person’s head).
- Keep it simple. You often hear how great photos tell a story. That’s true, but the story should have a simple plot. If you take a photo of a friend with her first trophy turkey, concentrate on the two of them. Forget trying to show the oddball tree under which she dropped the bird, the snowcapped peaks in the distance or the ducks in the nearby creek. You might catch some of that in the frame, but the photo will be stronger if you literally focus on the main story, your friend and her tom, then reframe the next shot much wider to capture the scene.
Which brings up a parting thought. Shoot a lot! Too often that singular shot has a disappointing, unplanned issue, like your friend’s eyes are closed. Instead of taking one frame of a post-hunt pose, take a half dozen. The more you shoot, the higher the odds of getting one worth gobbling about.
PROS AND CONS OF CELL PHONE PHOTOS
With each generation of cell phone camera, picture quality has improved. For taking scenic shots and hunter snapshots with their turkeys, new phones create captivating images. The advantages of a cell phone camera are portability and that it’s auto everything – focus, color saturation, contrast, flash. You just point and shoot. However, cell phones still haven’t caught up to DSLRs when it comes to wildlife photography. Here’s why:
- Cell phone cameras primarily use a digital zoom rather than an optical zoom. A digital zoom relies on the number of pixels and the size of the pixels, both of which limit how close you can zoom in. It’s usually not close enough.
- Cell phone cameras have smaller sensors, so less information is being recorded per photo, which limits your ability to crop shots after the fact.
- Cell phone cameras have a small lens of varying optical quality. For sharp digital photos, the more information the camera captures through a quality lens will result in better images.
(GOOD) Photo follows Rule of Thirds: Hunter is on the right third of the frame. Hunter’s eyes are clear despite branches and other flora in the foreground. She’s looking into the frame which pulls the viewer into the action.
(BAD) Hunter is too small in the frame. Piece of grass covers one eye, which is distracting. Large tree she’s using as a backrest and the hunter are centered in the frame. As a result, she’s aiming her shotgun and looking out of the photo instead of into it, which excludes the viewer from the action.
(GOOD) Photo follows the Rule of Thirds: The hunter is on the left third of the frame. In addition, her eye is on a “strong point” of the frame, upper left. The frame is filled with the hunter. She is in your face. You can see and feel her concentration/intensity, which makes you feel as if you are there.
(GOOD) Photo follows the Rule of Thirds: The strongest element of this simple landscape, the barbed wire fence and paths to either side of it are on the left third of the frame. The fence draws the eye into the photo. The effect is augmented by the power line in the “strong point” of the photo (upper right), which also leads the eye deeper into the photo.The horizon is level and on the upper third of the frame. The photo was shot during the golden hour. Even the tall grass looks richly colored rather than pale and dead.
(GOOD) The photo follows the Rule of Thirds: The head of the turkey and its beard are along the left third of the frame, and its fanned out tail and the trailing edge of its mantled wings are along the right third of the frame. The eye is clear and at eye level. (You’re not looking down at the turkey.) The turkey fills the frame. The head room works because if the head were framed higher, the tail would be cut off. Plus the head is on a “strong point” in the frame (top left).
(GOOD) The photo follows the Rule of Thirds: The head of the turkey is on the upper third of the frame, and the beard is on the lower third of the frame. The edge of his body is at the left and right thirds of the frame. The eye is clear. The photo’s angle is lower than eye level with the turkey, so the shot is slightly low to high, which makes this tom like the king of his neighborhood as he struts his stuff. The turkey may be centered, but he fills the frame, so he seems to be walking right into your lap.
(GOOD) The photo follows the Rule of Thirds: The horizon line is along the top third of the frame, and the sunrise is at “strong point” (upper left) instead of centered. The trees and grass are growing straight up, which is a helpful reference given that the topography of the horizon is not perfectly straight.
(GOOD) This is a basic photo showing a hunting blind, a shot that many hunters take to show others where they were. It follows the Rule of Thirds: the elevated blind is on the left third of the frame.The trees and grass are growing upward in the correct direction.
(GOOD) This photo follows the Rule of Thirds: The two thumbs are on the left third of the frame and they are both on “strong points”, on the upper left and lower left. The hands and turkey call fill the frame.
(GOOD) This photo follows the Rule of Thirds: The hunter is on the left third of the frame. He’s looking into the frame. The path leads the eye deeper into the photo, as if you are walking along, too. The trees are growing straight up, and though it’s impossible to separate the hunter from the trees to the left of the path, nothing too bold is “growing” out of the center-top of his head.