Spring release by John Mullineux 

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: action photography in the field

How do you capture a great wildlife action shot?

Photographer John Mullineux reveals the method behind his dramatic high-speed image Spring release, which earned his place as a finalist in Wildlife Photographer of the Year in the Behaviour: Mammals category.

After a long, tense wait it was over in a flash - or rather, the click of a shutter.

The crocodile lunged, the impala hurled themselves at desperate angles, and John Mullineux was on hand to tell the story with his camera.

Seeking a subject

Kruger National Park in South Africa was in the grip of a long drought when John arrived on a two-week photography trip.

He says, 'I have never known what to expect from the park other than something interesting. I didn't know what that something would be this time around.

'I have a library of images and subjects in mind - poses, interactions and scenes - but ultimately what I shoot is what the bush offers me.'

John made his way to one of his favourite locations in the park, the Sweni bird hide.

He says, 'I shoot from hides, a car and on foot. Each has a benefit and trade off, but I enjoy the flexibility. It keeps things interesting and makes my portfolio more varied.

'A hide is the most fun for me, though, as I can shoot comfortably with all three of my cameras, with different lenses and have a good range of movement.'

John at a hide at a coal mine near his home

John had intended to photograph yellow-billed storks at a nearby waterhole, only to find that the water had all but disappeared. He instead turned his attention to a nervous scene that was developing at the water's edge.

'The supremely dry conditions forced animals to drink from the few waterholes with any water. I could see a high concentration of crocodiles lying in wait.

'One crocodile had dug itself into the mud in ambush. Only its eyes were visible. I chose my camera settings, composed the shot and then waited.

'I took my other camera and turned my attention to other activity in the area, but kept a watchful eye on the crocodile, anticipating that it might strike.

'Eventually the impala were so desperate for a drink that their thirst drove them to an edge where the crocodile lurked.'

Lying in wait

While John was shooting the scene he saw five unsuccessful attacks by the crocodile on different groups of impala. He was able to capture images from each attack.

The whole scenario played out over several hours, but it was worth the wait. Just like the crocodile, John had to be ready at the key moments.

He says, 'Once I reviewed the images later - wow, this one immediately caught my attention - the variety of positions and tangible angst in the leapers coupled with the explosive splashing crocodile made this stand out.

'The key to seeing these action moments is to be in the bush as much as possible at the optimal times.

'To get this image I travelled the park for two weeks, every morning out the gate at sunrise, and each evening I would shoot until there was no light. As you gain experience you learn to read the bush and increase your chances of capturing a moment like this on camera.'

John in the field at a private game reserve


Camera set-up

Capturing subjects moving at high speed is one of the biggest challenges of action photography.

John explains, 'I use cameras with a high frame rate that can be set to have a high shutter speed.

'There is a little planning to be done before reaching a sighting and anticipating the pending action.

'For Spring release, I used a shorter focal length to maximise depth of field, large aperture with maximum tolerable ISO to maximise shutter speed and maximum frames per second, as each attack sequence lasted under two seconds.

'Generally I stick to my standard setup. However, sometimes if the light is harsh or dim, the scene is between bushes or there is a pleasing grouping of trees or mountains, then I will try think of something different.

'But a good action shot is often exciting without the distraction of the fancy photographic technique required for more common or portrait style moments.

'It is about anticipation and reaction. It is about listening, looking and feeling what nature is doing at that moment.

'It is also about being flexible to an unexpected scene, adjusting for light conditions and thinking clearly at the key moment. So you can practise various camera skills, but you need to rely on your artistic instincts when nature says, "Here you go!''' 

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