Wildlife Photography Tips
Wildlife photography is a genre that falls into the larger scope of documenting the natural world. For the beginner, it’s the photography of large and small creatures that roam our planet. As the journey continues, many grow into nature photography to encompass the environment that the species live in.
Doing this does require a strong passion for nature because photographing species can be frustrating and challenging for much of the time. We’re guests in their world, so must abide by their rules and timetables. The list below is just a few basic tips for those who are new to wildlife photography.
“Our relationship with nature is more one of being than having. We are nature: we do not have nature”- Steven Harper
10 Ways to improve your wildlife photography
- Be prepared
- Light quality
- Histogram / Exposure
- Getting closer / Patience
- Be ruthless in editing
Always prioritise lenses
Anyone aspiring to photograph any of Earth’s creatures will need the correct photographic equipment to satisfy whatever genre they love photographing. Wildlife photography has its own set of unique requirements. The most crucial requirement for capturing wildlife is the need for longer focal lengths, or, simply put – longer lenses.
Lenses are by far the most crucial bit of kit you’ll ever buy. Having a range of the best quality lenses you can afford will go a long way to helping you take clear and sharp wildlife photos. Prioritise your spending or budget around your lenses and not your cameras.
Your camera is only the mechanism that captures the light from the scene in front of you, and although important, it’s worth remembering that it’s that same light that has to pass through several pieces of glass down any particular lens barrel. If you have a substandard lens, the best camera in the world won’t compensate for the light quality it receives. So, save up and buy the best lens you can afford, and then look for a camera you want.
During the professional film era of old, I happily used Minolta cameras and lenses. With the advent of the digital sensor, I switched to Canon. This was done purely because, at the time, they had the best image stabilisation technology that the market had to offer. Nowadays, the other brands have caught up and in some cases, surpassed Canon stabiliser technology. I’ll remain with Canon because they continue serving me brilliantly. It’s very easy to be sucked into the waves of bright and shiny new toys that hit the market every week. Remind yourself that you take the images, and cameras and lenses are mere recording devices.
Look at renting
Rent equipment in the country you’re going to go to if possible. It’s an option that few people talk about, and yet there are many places to rent. If you don’t have a large 500mm lens and are only making two or three trips a year, this is a great way to photograph and travel lighter. Some photographers and tour companies will have lenses for you to hire on your trip. Look around, as this is a great way to do wildlife photography.
Passion for your subject will hopefully mean that you’ve already done a fair bit of research about the species or the National Park you’ll be visiting. Get as much data as you can about the trip you’ll be going on. Whether it’s a self-planned trip or you’re going on a photographic tour, make sure you know what to expect from the park and the animals you’re going to see and photograph.
There’s so much information out there – look at travel guides, maps, magazines, fellow photographer’s trip reports and good old Google. Study images of the species and see what photos other photographers have taken. This is the starting point of your photographic process, i.e., the visualisation process.
Having a collection of mental images will help you when you get into the situation you’ve imagined or created in your mind. When you encounter the species and the action comes thick and fast, you can begin creating photos with these templates in your head. It all starts with good research.
The images in my mind’s eye are always the starting point, not the goal. You use these as bankers to allow the creativity to go from there
3. Being prepared.
Before your first session out in the field, get your equipment ready for as many possible opportunities as you can. I carry two cameras with me and will set one up for action photography and the other for any portraits that I want to take. Depending on the situation that unfolds in front of me, I can pick up the correct camera and lens combination when needed.
If you only use one camera for your wildlife photography, set it up for action photography, which means you’ll always be ready. Well, as prepared as you’ll ever be when photographing wildlife. I would suggest having your longest lens on as a default then, at least, you’ll get a close-up of the species (especially if they’re smaller subjects). After getting a few close-ups, you can change lenses to get wider images of the species in its environment.
Here are my two current setups:
For Portraits: Canon 5dMkIII with 500mm lens (occasionally with a 1.4x converter). Camera mode set to Aperture Priority (always giving me the fastest shutter speed). AF Mode – One shot (Allows me to select the focus point and then compose the portrait in camera). Set ISO to match the light available as I go.
For Action: Canon 1Dx with 70-200mm (occasionally with a 1.4x converter). Camera mode set to Aperture Priority (always giving me the fastest shutter speed). AF Mode – Al Servo (Continuous Focusing on the selected focus point). Set ISO to match the light available as I go.
I will occasionally swap the lenses over depending on the light because the 1Dx is fantastic in low light and, coupled with the 500 f/4, allows me to shoot in near darkness. The image below was taken on a trip to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in South Africa.
Regardless of the genre of photography that you love shooting in, getting down (or up) to eye-level is always going to give you a more intimate view. With wildlife photography, this is always going to be more challenging. Elephants and giraffes can be more challenging than hares and pheasants.
You also may not always get the chance. If you’re in a hide or vehicle, it can be difficult because your position is fixed. If you’re on foot, you can stand up or lie on your stomach to get a better angle.
Using a long lens and being further away can help flatten out the angle and cancel the height disparity. With the help of a longer lens, you can create the illusion of being at a low angle. CLICK HERE to see how I took this photo of the lovely Cut-throat Finch from a car window.
5. Light quality
Light is what photography is all about. In bright situations, the shutter speed shoots ups (increases), the ISO can come down, and wildlife is pin-sharp in the photograph. In these conditions, you shouldn’t fall foul of camera shake or blur if you get your settings correct.
The few hours after sunrise and a few hours before sunset is widely hailed as the Golden Hour. Because of the low angle of the sun, the pictures are incredibly warm, so render your subject well-lit and without harsh shadows. If you want to get beautifully lit photographs, get out early and stay out late. You’ll also be able to experiment with front, side and backlight and delve into the haunting world of the silhouette.
The best images always tend to be those that have a large tonal difference. They have great cool tones from the blue sky mixed in with the warm tones of a well-lit subject or scene. This makes the subject pop up out of the image in a 3D-type effect, as illustrated below.
6. Histogram for checking exposure
What is the Histogram? It’s the graphical digital representation of the true raw data of the photograph that you have just captured.
The histogram is the graphical digital representation of the raw data of the photograph that you have just captured. It is the most accurate way to check exposure. Understanding how to read the histogram is not as difficult as it looks – it’s literally a graph showing the balance of dark tones (shadows), mid-tones and highlights in the image you’ve taken. An overexposed image will have more highlights, and an underexposed image, more shadows. The aim is to have an exposure that has an upside-down bell curve shape.
The meter in the camera is not as complex or forgiving as our eyes. Extreme contrasts (ranges) are complex for the meter to read correctly. You will need to override this meter in many circumstances, and histograms are a great way to help you.
While you can manually set the LCD brightness at the back of your camera, it means that when you check the image you have taken, you have to try and guess whether you’ve under or overexposed the photograph. These LCD brightness settings allow you to see the image (you could be outside in bright sunlight) but not see the correct exposure. By all means, check for correct focus on the back of the camera, but use the histogram to check your exposure.
To make your species the focal point of your photograph, you need to have as few distractions as possible. Having a clear background will make the subject stand out and distance itself from its surroundings.
However, it’s not always possible to do this in wildlife photography. If a lion is sitting under a large bush, there will be distracting branches and leaves, not to mention shade issues which will clutter the image. Move the vehicle if you can to limit the background distraction, or wait until the species is out in the open. The lion cub below has been captured by moving the car a meter forward each time.
8. Getting closer / Patience
“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
It takes slow and methodical fieldcraft to get near animals in the wild. In some countries, like many in Africa, animals are pretty used to jeeps and 4×4s, but you still need patience to get close. The main goal of wildlife photography is to capture images of relaxed species doing natural things as you approach.
I start out with a few banker shots with the longest lens I have. I also shoot wider environmental images showing animals in their habitat first. Then I edge closer and gauge the animal’s reaction. They will take notice of you – seeing movement is one of their best defence mechanisms, after all. At this point, I wait to see if the animal goes back to doing what it was doing when I started. If it does, I edge a little closer and then wait. I might take an image or two before continuing the slow progress. Continue this for as long as it is safe for both you and the animal. If you cause it to get up and walk away, you have gone too far and have caused distress which isn’t great
9. Be ruthless when editing
The social media world is filled with enough poorly lit and badly composed photographs. To get noticed and elevate your work above that level, you need to become your work’s harshest critic. Emotion for your work needs to be thrown out the window, and you need to learn to embrace the delete button. If it is not of a high standard, delete the image.
The purpose of life’s little journeys is to grow, and if you’re a creative, you need to grow creatively with each shoot you do. Over time, you’ll learn to review your work as a staunch critic. It doesn’t matter how rare the wildlife sighting may be. If the image is of poor quality or composition, delete it. Okay, maybe keep one to record the sighting if that’s your thing, but don’t share it. If it is not good enough for you, it should not see the light of day.
To push your work, you must also study others, and then try and emulate them to lift your creations above average. Being ruthless about what you keep and share elevates you from a happy snapper to a serious amateur. Eventually, you’ll keep honing your photography and editing skills and learn to be even more ruthless. This will lift you from a serious amateur to a skilled photographer that even seasoned professionals will acknowledge.
10. Wildlife Photography Ethics
The welfare of the subject that you’re photographing always comes first, and I’m not just talking about physical harm. Causing animals distress forces them to expend valuable energy that they might need later. When an animal is standing still and staring at you, it is seldom out of curiosity. That is a human emotion. The animal instinct is to assess whether you are a threat or not.
If the animal goes back to doing what it was doing, you can carry on photographing it. If it starts to look around, with the view to leave, you’ve gone too far. Leave it be. Remember, it’s about putting the animal’s welfare above your need to get the shot. Don’t get sucked into the hype that you have to get the shot at any cost. That isn’t the behaviour of someone who cares about wildlife or wildlife photography. It’s selfish, the worst of all human emotions.
Some ethical pointers
- Beware of some tour operators too who forget their role in this. While they have to balance the fine line of getting you on the shot, their job is also to adhere to these ethics and back away when it is necessary.
- Don’t force an animal to change its behaviour. Lions sleep for most of the day. It is highly unethical to shout, rev your car engines or pressure them to wake up and move.
- Don’t approach nests or dens unless you have an experienced guide to help you.
- Finally. Be honest when captioning your photos. If they are captive or habituated animals, say so. Don’t try and pass off zoo animals / enclosed animals for wild animals. You will only look foolish and dishonest.
- Remember that it’s about putting the animal’s welfare above your need to get the shot.
Other Photography Tip links
10 Basic Street Photography Tips
10 Basic Travel Photography Tips
20 Basic Photography Tips for beginners