Digital cameras have been a boon to most photographers, and most especially those who enjoy taking pictures of wildlife. The shy, contrary nature of animals in their natural habitat tends to make them tricky subjects to capture, so for the modern photographer there's real freedom in the knowledge that you can fire off hundreds of snaps at once, in the hope that one or two will turn out to be half-decent.
The other bonus is that with a digital camera you can check and review your progress at any point, right there in the field, and then have another go if anything needs adjusting.
My own camera is a modest Nikon Coolpix, and most of the time when I'm using it I just keep it on its standard automatic setting because frankly the rest of the functions baffle me. But with persistence and practice I've found that I can take quite good, sharp nature photographs – and if I can manage it, I reckon anyone can. So I wanted to pass on a dozen practical tips for other non-technologically-minded amateurs.
1. Choose a camera with a decent zoom – at least 20X.
That way you can not only focus in on more detail, but in getting your picture, you shouldn't disturb the animal.
2. Equally, a camera with a decent macro setting helps if you want to snap insects or small mammals.
On basic cameras, the macro setting just involves turning the dial to a little flower icon, a very simple procedure. But in this setting, the lens will let you focus in very close, enabling you to pick up amazing textures such as the hairs on a caterpillar's body or a butterfly's curled-up tongue.
3. If your lens cap is dangling and swinging around, it could frighten off a cautious animal.
I've attached a square of Velcro to my lens cap which holds it in place against the base of the camera.
4. To improve your close-up shots, practise on static subjects till you understand your camera's range of focus (how close you can go before things blur).
Flowers are useful for this, and leaves/berries, and spiders' webs and snails.
Frogs too will pose happily, as long as you're cautious in your approach.
5. Now for the outdoors. Get to know your favourite wildlife area, whether it's a garden, a park, a beach, a public footpath, a reserve or a scrubby old bit of brownfield.
Note any good sightings you have, because many animals are creatures of habit and like to hang around the same small patch. This means if you go back another day, you have a chance of a repeat show.
6. If you're after butterflies or other flying minibeasts, choose a cooler summer day rather than a hot one, since lower temperatures make the insects more inclined to settle.
7. If you know your animal's near, have your camera ready to go.
You don't want to miss a great shot simply because you're fiddling to get the lens cap off. This wood mouse was sitting under rubbish that had been fly-tipped in a wood, and I managed to catch him because I'd already set my focus to macro before I lifted his cover.
8. Be prepared to wait for that special shot.
Take a camping or fishing stool to sit on, and warm clothes, and find yourself a hidden spot where you won't be hailed by cheery dog-walkers. Listen to an iPod if you like, or just enjoy the quiet. By doing this I've seen foxes, polecats, shrews, mice, voles and weasels pass by, all unaware I was watching and snapping them.
9. If your camera's battery-powered, always carry spares. If it charges from a plug, re-charge it often.
10. Look around you for possibilities: skies make beautiful subjects, and stationing yourself within range of a bird feeder can get you some cracking pictures.
In the days of summer and early autumn, some stunning moths can be found sleeping on the walls around an outside light.
11. Fire off plenty of shots, even if you think you've already got the perfect one, even if you think all you're doing is replicating what you already have
There's no virtue in rationing yourself when your memory card might be able to store a thousand or more images. And animals can shift mid-pose, which means the shot you thought was great is, in fact, a bit blurry.
12. I've said I'm a dunce with technology, so I hope you'll understand this last tip does take that into account
When I put my photos onto the computer, I edit them with software called Picasa. It's free, and easy to download, and a piece of cake to use. Picasa lets you crop pictures, play with the intensity of the colours, and apply special effects like frames or borders or blurring. Really ordinary snaps can become vivid, striking or even surreal creations. When you've got the composition the way you want it, don't forget to save your images in a folder of their own, and maybe even print them out to make a special album. That way you can share your achievements with others, enjoy the praise you deserve, and above all, be an ambassador for wildlife.
(All pictures © Kate Long)