As you start in wildlife photography, you will find yourself growing fonder of nature and the calmness it brings. You get to document species’ behavior and capture wildlife the only way it should be captured: in a photograph. Therefore, if you’re interested in wildlife photography, you should learn about animals, protecting their habitats, and respecting their behavior.
Wildlife photography requires a relatively big budget, lots of time, and making peace with the fact that you may end up with just a few good photos after spending weeks shooting. But wildlife photography means more than taking the perfect shot. It’s about being part of the ecosystem, spending time in nature, and enjoying the magic moments of meeting animals in their habitat. Wildlife photography teaches you to love your surroundings, be kind, and enjoy the present moment.
Aside from the philosophical part of wildlife photography, there is also a more practical side. Check out the following tips to get you started and practice as much as you can.
1. Research your subject’s habitat and behaviors
Before being featured in National Geographic, any famous wildlife photographer was an enthusiast who took pictures of the local wildlife. You can start locally and grow from there.
Do your research and find out where you can spot wild animals in your vicinity. When is the best time of the year to see them? At what time of the day are they most active? It doesn’t have to be exotic animals. Even the most common wild animals are hard to photograph.
One of the most overlooked tips for wildlife photography is how proper research dramatically increases your chances of going home with a set of great shots.
Look up associations and communities of wildlife enthusiasts and researchers, or check with the local authorities. If you’re passionate about a specific animal or bird, you need to know its behavior before taking photos.
Knowing which kind of trees woodpeckers prefer allows you to spot woodpeckers’ nesting holes. They are much easier to photograph when you know where they will land, rather than pointing your camera at the treetops just to see them fly away. When you find out that most larger birds prefer to take off into the wind for extra lift, it is easier to position yourself to get that take-off shot.
2. Learn from the masters of wildlife photography
Each photographer has a particular approach and technical secrets acquired from years of experience. If you like specific photographers, study their work, engage in conversation, or read their books and testimonials. Analyze their images. How is the light, and where does it come from? How is the photographer positioned relative to the animal and the light?
You’ll see that they focus on a location (e.g., Africa), a family of animals (e.g., big cats), or a compositional style (e.g., animals in motion).
Specialization allows them to become experts in an area and produce fantastic work. Try not to follow a bucket list of animals that you have to capture. Instead, spending more time specializing in fewer subjects allows you to get better shots of them with perfect lighting and more interesting postures or gestures.
3. Plan your photo sessions in detail
Wildlife photography often requires challenging logistics. You’ll spend a lot of time preparing your photo sessions, especially if you choose remote locations. Before packing your camera, you should learn about the details of the species you want to photograph. However, you will increase your chances if you also research the location, the best time of the year to travel there, weather, the best time of the day to encounter animals, travel conditions, equipment, and whether you should hire a guide or not.
Most of the time, you’ll carry your gear in a backpack, making it essential to choose wisely and have everything you need at hand. Wildlife photography requires telephoto lenses with a focal length of at least 400 mm, fast autofocus capabilities, and large apertures. Also, you want the lens to be as light as possible. The Tamron 150-600 G2 is a great starting lens for wildlife photography, even though you can get great shots with even a 200mm lens. To extend the focal length of your lens, you can take a teleconverter with you. It’s not as good as a lens with the focal length you need, but it’s cheaper.
You will also need a stable but light tripod that can get very low and allow you to photograph small animals or hide in the grass. Your travel-size backpack should also contain batteries, memory cards, a charger, and perhaps waterproof cases or rain covers. You might also consider whether you need to bring a portable hide with you to increase your chances of remaining undetected.
4. Know your gear by heart
Speed is essential in wildlife photography. Any methods that can help you press the shutter release faster are good to go. Therefore, learn to use your camera and lenses before trying to capture shy animals.
It is not only the buttons you should know by heart. You also need to get used to specific techniques, like handholding a heavy lens while framing a moving subject. Using a 600mm prime lens, you will have trouble framing a moving animal if you haven’t spent hours practicing beforehand. However, if you start practicing getting the animal within the viewfinder and acquiring focus as fast as possible, you will be ready when you need to.
Begin with getting far away, moving subjects into the viewfinder as fast as possible. When you feel you are pretty successful, move on to faster moving subjects closer to yourself.
I prefer to use manual mode for finding the correct exposure. However, shutter speed priority can also work well. Most of my missed shots have been due to using a shutter speed that is too low. If you use a large aperture—like f/4 or f/5.6—you can get enough light to shoot with a faster shutter speed and keep the ISO relatively low. Speaking of ISO, I prefer to use Auto-ISO and let the ISO change automatically with the shutter speed and aperture changes. Of the three components of the exposure triangle (aperture, ISO, and shutter speed), ISO is the least critical for getting a great shot, in my opinion.
Remember to make an exposure test at the location before spotting any animal to check the exposure and adjust settings.
As everything usually happens very fast in wildlife photography, you usually don’t have time to adjust the focus manually, so use autofocus mode. A single point focus mode is very precise and allows the camera to focus on a single animal feature (e.g., the eyes). However, if you find this too complicated, or if the subject is far away, you might prefer to use nine focus points instead.
5. Make the animal the main character
Based on your subject’s behavior, wind direction, the position of the sun, and terrain, you can choose where you want to position yourself and the camera. After that, it will be tough to change your position without scaring your subject away.
One of the most crucial things in wildlife photography is to focus on the animal’s eye. It will add depth and create a meaningful composition.
Try to place the camera at the animal’s eye level even if it requires you to lay on the ground or climb on a tree. It’s their story, and you should frame the world from their perspective.
Another helpful technique borrowed from portrait photography is to leave space in front of the animal to allow the viewer to follow its gaze. If you can capture the animal interacting with another animal or making a gesture, your image will become much stronger and enjoyable to watch.
Also, don’t forget to observe the surroundings before pressing the shutter release. Place the animal in context as you would do with the character of a play. Make sure the composition is well-balanced, doesn’t include unwanted elements.
6. Take a lot of pictures of the same scene
Set the camera in burst mode or continuous drive mode to take a succession of several shots each time you press the shutter release. Especially when photographing moving animals, it’s extremely easy to end up with bad images, in which the animals look like ghosts or are cut in half at the edge of the frame. You won’t have time to check your photos until you finish your photo session. So take as many photos as possible and prepare to cull your images later.
7. Don’t interfere with the animals’ Lifestyle
A great photo doesn’t justify bad behavior. Animal welfare always comes first. It’s unacceptable to hire beaters to chase the animals in your direction, offer food to animals, or scare them to make them run or fly. All you should do is photograph the animals in their natural habitat without interfering in any way. They shouldn’t know you’re there.
To increase your chances of taking good photos, plan your photo session around the golden hours. Sunrise and sunset are times of the day when the animals are active. In addition, the light becomes an active element in composition and provides golden light, shades, or silhouettes.
Wildlife photography requires commitment and dedication. It can be uncomfortable and expensive but it’s one of the few ways to get close to wild animals. In a way, you become their friend and have the unique chance to observe their behavior. If you want to get into wildlife photography, you need to acquire both knowledge about animals, technical, and storytelling skills. First and foremost, you are in for a lot of unique experiences and get to spend a whole lot of time outdoors.