COON RAPIDS, Minn. — Growing up in northwestern Nebraska, David Tieszen developed a strong interest in photography at the local 4-H club. He took a photography class in college and has attended a handful of seminars since, but said he’s largely self-taught.
Today, he’s amassed an impressive library of more than 23,000 “keeper” images of wildlife subjects ranging from insects to big game animals and everything in between. The lessons he’s learned during his time in the field can help you take better photos, too.
“Like many other photographers, I’ve learned by trial and error,” Tieszen said. “And I’ve learned as much — if not more — from my mistakes as I have from my successes.”
Spend as much as possible on lenses
“There’s an old adage among photographers that the camera doesn’t make the shot,” Tieszen said. “That might be true, but the lens matters a lot in wildlife photography. When I was first starting out, I bought and sold three relatively expensive lenses that weren’t good enough.
“Not everyone can afford to spend $9,000 for a professional-grade 500 mm prime lens, but photographers with aspirations of selling their photos should spend as much as they can afford. Tamron and Sigma both offer 500-600 mm zoom lenses that work well for amateurs.”
Learn to shoot in manual mode
“Wildlife subjects and their backgrounds change very quickly,” Tieszen said. “Being able to quickly adjust camera and lens settings leads to better images. I shoot with all settings in manual mode, except for focus.
“The autofocus functionality on today’s digital cameras is so good that there’s no reason to use manual focus. It’s difficult enough to get into position to take a shot when dealing with uncooperative subjects.”
Learn about your potential subjects
“A friend who recently retired from wedding photography asked me for a few tips to get started photographing wildlife,” Tieszen said. “I told her to learn everything she could about the big game animals she wants to shoot.
“I’ve heard horror stories about photographers traveling to national parks to shoot photos of elk only to discover that the animals had already shed their antlers. A background in hunting is helpful, but not necessary. Do your research and spend time in the field.”
Wear camouflage clothing
“Camouflage clothing does not make photographers invisible to animals,” Tieszen said. “The animals are going to eventually see you, but it might be enough to buy the second or two needed to get the shot.
“I’m usually mindful of where I wear camo. If I’m in western South Dakota shooting pronghorns, I wear it head to toe. But if I’m photographing birds at a park in the Twin Cities metro area, I dress a bit more conservatively.”
Use a camera rest
“Next to my lens, my tripod is my most important piece of equipment,” Tieszen said. “I might use a monopod or a bipod when I’m actively stalking an animal, but prefer a tripod when I’m more stationary or in a blind. I like to weight my tripod with a bean bag to further reduce movement and vibration.
Professional-grade tripods might cost $500 or more but any kind of camera rest is better than nothing. I’ve used tree limbs, rocks, even the hood of my car to help stabilize my camera. Get in the habit of using a rest whenever it’s available.”
To see more of Tieszen’s stunning wildlife images, visit dtwildphotography.com.