Barnyard Safari: How to Become a Better Animal Photographer

This is a guest blog post from award-winning photographer and RMSP educator Pam Voth who shares her inspiration for creating the Barnyard Safari class and how it can make you a better animal photographer.  Each Spring and Fall, she shares her passion for photographing animals in this adult education class she developed. This class offers students a chance to learn animal photography skills in unique settings in Western Montana. The next class will be held April 21 – 23, 2017. Click here to check it out and to register.


Origins of Barnyard Safari

I like to say that “safari” is a state of mind, and I am always on safari! I love photographing animals of all kinds, whether it’s dogs and horses close to home, tigers and monkeys in India, or rhinos and elephants in South Africa. In each of these situations, I am able to get out of my own head and just slow down and observe. It’s such a zen feeling for me to watch an animal so closely that I start to anticipate when a tilt of its head or glance of its eyes will create the perfect gesture and a lasting image. People have asked me how I can be so patient. I try to explain that, to me, the idea of being patient implies the concept of waiting. When I’m observing animals, my heart is full and my sense of wonder is on full blast. Time disappears. I’m not waiting. I’m just being.

Of course, having lightning quick reflexes and a good knowledge of my camera are equally as important to getting the shot, as that all-blissed-out being. It’s all about balance.

When I was in India a few years ago, I booked a 5-day tiger safari. For the first three days, I was in a jeep with two other professional wildlife photographers. We worked together really well as we all understood the dance. Be still, be quiet, be ready. And, when the tiger did something cool, we all got amazing shots.

On the last two days of my trip, I was in a jeep with photographers who were not as prepared to photograph wildlife. They were super thrilled about the prospect of photographing tigers. But, I think it was exactly that overdose of amped-up thrill that totally short circuited their brains. When a tiger came into view, they missed all kinds of great shots because their excitement got the best of them. They got flustered and fumbled around with their cameras. They didn’t watch closely or long enough to be ready for a great shot. It broke my heart that they had come all this way, but were not going home with shots that lived up to the experience.

It was that feeling of regret and heartbreak that planted the seed of an idea.

What if I could share my enthusiasm for photographing animals in a scenario that was much more relaxed and offered the chance for people to practice techniques without the worry that a) the animals wouldn’t show up, or b) that the animals would leave before we got the chance to capture the shots we wanted. That’s when my idea of a Barnyard Safari was hatched.

About The Class

In a barnyard, we know there will be animals all day long. We know they are not going disappear into the jungle or go running across the savanna out of range of our telephoto lens. And, if we use a little imagination, we can count on them being excellent stand-ins for wildlife. A herd of cattle becomes a herd of wildebeest. A flock of chickens can be reimagined as wild quail or snow geese. And, the emus or alpacas? Well, they are pretty exotic in their own right and offer a chance to feel closer to the wild things without the need for a passport.

(click images to enlarge)

The challenges of photographing in a barnyard are real, even with the guarantee of animals being present and contained. These are not trained animals who know how to pose for the camera. They do not sit and stay. They roam and mosey and nap as they please. And this is a good thing because it prepares us for real world wildlife photography. It is still up to us as photographers to get into the zen zone and watch closely. We get the very real opportunity to practice our observation and timing skills. You never know what they’ll do next. For example, during a recent Barnyard Safari last October, we were treated to witnessing the birth of an alpaca. She was born during our lunch break and within an hour, she had learned to stand, walk and nurse. The owner of Black Wolf Ranch informed us later that she named the baby “Safari.” Now, doesn’t that just give you the warm fuzzy feels?

The Barnyard Safari is a shoot and critique format class. We’ll visit a different farm each morning for a field shoot, then have free time in the afternoon to review and select images for sharing during the evening critique. Since our models are unpredictable, we keep the structure of our field shoots flexible. I will be available for one-on-one teaching, group lessons and spontaneous coaching as amazing opportunities to capture behavioral interactions occur.

Here is a sampling of some of the visual ideas we’ll explore together:

  • Be ready for the Yawn, Stretch, Scratch or Shake (all animals do these!)
  • Capture a portrait that expresses personality.  Watch for expressions & gestures, paying close attention to eyes, ears, mouths, and body language.
  • The Decisive Moment: watch for behavior and interactions between individuals.
  • Show animals in their environment, think about composition elements (rule of thirds, leading lines)
  • Focus on specific textural details: fur, feathers, scales, claws, beaks, hooves
  • Shoot the flock, gaggle or herd as subject. Watch for patterns or spacing that make the group look interesting as a whole.
  • Standing out in a crowd in two ways: 1) use your expert timing to capture one individual as it does something different than all the rest. 2) use a wide open f-stop to achieve shallow depth of field to single out one individual
  • Action shots three ways: 1) freeze action by using a very fast shutter speed, 2) show blurred action by choosing a slower shutter speed. 3) use a panning action, rotate your body and camera to track the moving animal as you press the shutter (this one takes a lot of practice!)
  • Capture the human-animal connection: we’ll have some opportunities to see humans interacting with animals during feeding or treat times.
  • Silhouettes: if we are shooting in a dark barn and an animal walks across the doorway, we can capture silhouettes.
  • Tell a story through your images: think like a photojournalist and tell a story about the animals or farm using a series of images

About Pam Voth

View Pam’s portfolio here

Pam Voth is an award-winning, internationally published professional photographer and filmmaker specializing in nature, wildlife, travel, lifestyle and commercial imagery. Her love of photography motivated trips throughout India, Africa, Central America, Europe and North America to capture images that embrace the beauty of wildlife, nature, landscapes and people. She loves people and loves being part of enriching their lives through experiences. She offers wildlife photography workshops and expeditions to groups and individuals in Montana and other wild places around the world through her venture Wild Sky Photo Safaris.

She will tell you the light makes her heart race. Students and clients will tell you her enthusiasm for nature and wildlife photography is contagious and a delight to be around.

Pam works with commercial clients in the hospitality and tourism industries. Her editorial and commercial images have been published in national and international publications including The New York Times, M le Magazine du Monde, National Geographic Channel, USA Today, Conde Nast Johansens, Relais & Chateaux, Virtuoso Life Luxury Travel Magazine, Big Sky Journal, Western Art & Architecture, Whole Foods Market Dark Rye, Business Insider, Fast Forward Weekly, PC Photo, Montana Magazine, Glacier Country Travel Planner, Central Montana Travel Planner, Five Star Alliance and many more.