Wildlife photography is one of the most exciting photographic genres out there. But it can be difficult to get started as a wildlife photographer because of all the gear, technical know-how, and additional knowledge required.
What is Wildlife Photography?
Wildlife photography is a popular genre of photography done by beginners, enthusiasts, and professionals alike. It involves shooting any type of animal (from birds to insects to butterflies to mammals). But wildlife photographers most commonly photograph mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds.
Note that wildlife photos don’t have to depict animals that are truly “wild.” You can photograph animals in a zoo, and plenty of viewers will still call it wildlife photography. But there is an ongoing debate among wildlife photographers about whether photographing captive animals is acceptable, and so it’s for you to determine where you draw the line.
The name of the game in wildlife photography—whether you’re trying to capture a herd of elephants on the Serengeti Plains or squirrels in your backyard—is patience. Wild animals are going to do what they’re going to do. Unfortunately, you can’t ask them to look this way, do something cute, or stand where the light is better. You have to be there, and ready, when they decide to look cute or do something interesting. Be prepared to wait, and wait, and wait—it takes a long time to get good wildlife shots, even longer to make great ones.
But it’s not wasted time. The longer you spend with an animal or a group of animals, the better you get to know them and their habits. You get to see the personalities of different individuals, and you’ll get to the point where you can anticipate what they might do at a particular time of day or in a certain situation. Knowing which cubs are more playful or in which spot a male likes to lie up will help you get your images. And, as is true of all kinds of photography, the more time you spend with your subjects, the more likely your images will be intimate and revealing. You know them better, and it will show.
Why Wildlife Photography?
What makes wildlife photography special?
1. Appreciating Nature
First of all, photographing wildlife helps you connect with and appreciate nature. That’s what draws many wildlife photographers in the first place–they love wildlife, they love nature, and they want to spend time capturing its beauty.
2. Helping the Planet
Wildlife photography can also be valuable for conservation purposes. By sharing your wildlife photos, you can portray the beauty of nature. And you can convey messages about the importance of maintaining habitats for your favorite creatures.
3. Feeling a Thrill
Finally, photographing wild animals involves a fun challenge. You may spend hours waiting and watching, with no real action. Then, just before the light fades, you get an amazing opportunity–one that comes with an incredible thrill.
Wildlife photography is a genre of photography that records the life of animals in their natural settings, like in a forest or underwater. So, wildlife photography often constitutes the images of animals in movement or action such as eating, fighting, or in flight. It also covers various organisms, including mammals, insects, plants, reptiles, rodents, and other invertebrates. Alternatively, it may also record the in-depth details of an animal’s appearance or its presence with its environment. Therefore, as an aspiring wildlife photographer, you require a sound knowledge of an animal’s behavior, habitat, and anatomical features. In addition, you have to be proficient in advanced photographic techniques and must be skilled in using various photography equipment.
Types Of Wildlife Photography
1. Mammals Photography
If you wish to photograph the mammals as most wildlife photographers do, you must consider the constant movements that make them tricky to capture. In addition, these animals are commonly found in the woods and appear only during dusk or dawn. Hence, the lack of light during their presence poses a fresh challenge to handle.
First, mammals are what most people think of when you talk about wildlife, and so mammal photography is closely associated with wildlife photographers. This category includes a lot of the classic wildlife subjects: polar bears, black/brown bears, wolves, bison, elk, deer, lions, tigers, etc.
2. Bird Photography
Second, bird photography has quite a few devotees, many of whom confine themselves solely to birds. Because birds are so small and fast, bird photography often involves the most expensive equipment (and a lot of frustration in the field!). The flight of a bird and its fast-paced movement intrigues you to photograph in the case of bird photography. However, considering the quick move of birds, you need to have a deep understanding of your subject’s behavior and always be prepared to act at the right moment.
Third, underwater photography is a less talked about but still impressive subgenre of wildlife photography. Photographers like Paul Nicklen capture gorgeous photos of orcas, sharks, seals, penguins, and more. Underwater photography is an eccentric genre of photography that offers interesting marine life forms and landscapes as subjects. This form of photography demands the knowledge of sophisticated equipment and techniques to access their subjects. However, you can access these subjects only with the help of scuba gears, swimming, snorkeling, and underwater vehicles using the automated camera.
4. Aerial Photography
Aerial photography is a pretty challenging genre that has taken birth recently. Wildlife aerial photography mainly deals with capturing the images of wild animals with the help of drone cameras. They offer a unique perspective of the subject under consideration. However, this photography is strictly controlled by law. Therefore, you need to be aware of the local laws abiding by it and understand the fear it instills among animals while photographing.
Main Challenges of Wildlife Photography
Photographing wildlife can be tricky for a few key reasons.
1. Getting Close to Wildlife
In order to capture beautiful photos of wildlife, you have to be close.
Really, really close.
It’s a common misconception that super telephoto lenses (lenses with focal lengths of 400mm, 500mm, 600mm, and even 800mm) will get you incredibly close to your subject. But the truth is that even the longest lenses still require some pretty significant skill on your part because most animals are skittish, and you have to find a way to close the distance.
This is the biggest challenge that wildlife photographers face. Therefore, getting close is the number one concern of the wildlife photographer; it involves several key considerations, including getting close physically (by stalking, using a blind, etc.) and getting close optically (with a camera/lens combination).
2. Finding Wildlife to Photograph
Even if you have the skills necessary to get close to wildlife, you won’t capture a single photograph if you can’t find wildlife to shoot!
Fortunately, it’s possible to find wildlife in most areas. But you do have to be patient, and you have to know where to look.
One of the easiest ways to get started with photographing wildlife is at a local park or preserve. Depending on your location, you may be able to capture some very cool wildlife just minutes from your house.
If you’re struggling to find wildlife near you, it is recommended that youb contact local park rangers or naturalists. They should be able to direct you toward some good habitat in your area, even if you think there is none!
There are so many people driving around the national parks in Africa and elsewhere that the animals simply ignore cars and it’s easy to get close.
Different animals are different, of course: Herbivores like impalas and gazelles tend to be pretty skittish and have greater flight distances than carnivores like cheetahs and lions, who can be very blasé. On hot sunny days lion cubs may crawl under your car to get in the shade.
3. Working With the Available Light
Wildlife photography generally happens out in nature, where you can’t bring your off-camera flashes, and your on-camera flashes are often too weak to illuminate wildlife from a distance.
So you’re often stuck dealing with the available light.
Add to that the fact that most wildlife is active around dawn and dusk…
…and you’ve got yourself a problem.
This is why wildlife photographers use the fastest lenses they can afford and why photographing wildlife is so frequently frustrating.
The key is take failure in stride. You’ll have plenty of bad days–but the good days will make it all worth it.
4. Dealing With Tricky Conditions
Some of the best wildlife shots are taken in adverse conditions: wind, rain, snow, sleet, you name it.
And if you want to capture memorable images, you’ll probably want to brave the conditions, too.
But this can be tough. Trekking through a snowstorm can be physically demanding, not to mention dangerous for your camera gear (and you!). So you have to be prepared, and you have to be determined!
How to Start With Wildlife Photography
If you’re looking to get into wildlife photography, you’ll want to start by getting the required gear. I don’t recommend you start off with a super telephoto lens and high end camera, but you should look for a DSLR or a mirrorless option and aim for a lens that offers at least 300mm on the long end (and 400mm is better).
Note that wildlife photography is one of the genres where an APS-C camera is a great choice, because the crop-factor will give you extra reach.
Once you have a decent camera and long lens, it’s time to get out and start shooting. As mentioned above, a local nature preserve or park is great for getting your bearings and practicing with your equipment. I recommend you practice stalking, where you slowly get close to animals (without causing them stress).
You might also consider visiting local animal sanctuaries, where you can photograph wildlife in relatively calm situations.
Over time, you’ll build up confidence, and you can start to go on expeditions that are farther away and take more planning, skill, and effort.
But always remember that plenty of great shots are available nearby–maybe even in your own backyard!
1. Begin With A Familiar Environment
If you are a beginner trying your hand at wildlife photography, you can very well start at the comfort of your home in your backyard garden, a flower bed, or a bird feeder. This way, you can take your time, exploit and learn creative techniques and understand your equipment. Additionally, frequently visiting the same place enhances your observation and improves your photography skills.
2. Understand Your Subject
Photographing an animal at busy times of their day will lend you excellent shots as they are engaged with some action constantly. Therefore, as a photographer, you need to observe them closely to understand their activity timeline. This will help you know when they are ready for action, and you can be present at that time of the day to capture that decisive moment. Additionally, you can seek the aid of online resources to learn more about your subject’s behavior. This way, you can land up with an excellent image.
3. Practice Patience To Get Extraordinary Images
Once you learn your subject’s behavior, you still have to wait for the decisive moment to come. As wild animals are prone to do interesting or unusual things, you may have to wait for that unique moment to get extraordinary photos of your subject.
4. Stalk Your Subject To Get A Closeup
Stalk the animal or bird you are trying to photograph to wherever it leads. Then, at some point, you can stop and get as low as possible to get a closer view of your subject. This way, you can allow maximum frame space for your subject.
5. Let Your Subject Dominate The Frame
Wildlife photography relies on your passion for wildlife. It would help convey the mighty aspect of the animal you are photographing. For this, capture the intricate details of your subject to transport the viewer to the scene you are currently photographing. This effect can be achieved when you allow your subject to occupy the entire frame.
6. Be Mindful Of Privacy
When you try to fill the frame with your subject, it is natural to get close to the subject. However, you can opt to shoot them with a long lens to get a closer view without disturbing their privacy. Without a long lens, create a temporary structure called “the hide” for wildlife viewing.
7. Practice Burst Shots
Wildlife photography involves subjects that can’t respond to your commands. Therefore, most of their poses can be captured only when you take a burst of photos. This way, you can grab a bunch of moments that may constitute the decisive moment you may miss without these continuous shots.
High Frame Rate: A higher frame rate helps you shoot more frames per second, enabling you to achieve the decisive moment with ease.
Wildlife Photography Cameras And Equipment
Wildlife photography is taken mainly outdoors. For this reason, you must have a camera that is durable enough to withstand any weather conditions. Two types of cameras are generally used to shoot great wildlife images. They include:
These cameras consist of sensors that vary depending upon their sensitivity to light. These sensors are of two types. They include:
Full-frame sensor camera: A camera with a full-frame sensor is sensitive to light. Hence it yields a sharp and clear image even amidst darkness. Additionally, these sensors make your subject stand out from their background.
Crop Sensor Camera
A crop sensor camera helps a photographer zoom into a specific area. This allows you to focus on your subject.
How To Choose A Camera For Wildlife Photography?
Although you can choose any of the above types, there are some unique features to consider when buying a camera to shoot specifically for wildlife photography:
A Long Shutter Life Expectancy: Since you have to shoot many images, you have to get a camera with a shutter that has a longer life.
A Faster Shutter Speed and Silent Shutter Mode: Since you will be involved in shooting animals, you need to maintain the tranquility of the environment without disturbing the scene.
Weather-Sealed Camera Body: This feature protects your camera from getting exposed to extreme weather conditions. This way, it protects your equipment and ensures a longer life.
Outstanding Low-Light Performance: This factor concerns the camera’s ability to preserve the details of an image even in meager light conditions.
A Wide ISO Range: Choose a camera with a wide ISO range. This ensures you can control the amount of light required for good exposure. The light necessary is more for a low ISO value, while the light required is less for a high ISO value. Additionally, these values influence the shutter speed needed to photograph an image.
A Well-Functioning Image Stabilization: Image stabilization reduces the effect of handshakes or movement while shooting an image. Hence, it helps capture motion without blur.
An Interchangeable Lens Camera: Lenses help you get closer to an image or zoom out and include the surroundings. Hence, your camera must allow you to use other lenses to suit your different distance requirements.
Manual mode: When you’re shooting outdoors, you must customize the camera settings according to your subject’s requirements. Therefore, choose a camera you can operate in manual mode.
A camera can be rated the best depending upon the lens you use. Hence, deciding on lenses plays a vital role in achieving the quality of your image. Each lens has got its purpose, some of which include:Types of Lenses
Purpose of Photography
Fast lens: Captures animals in motion
Wide-angle lens: It gives a wider field of view. Animals have personalities, and you want to show that. But you don’t want to be working really tight with long lenses all the time. You need to show their environment too—habitat says a lot. Back off and use wide-angle lenses to give viewers a sense of where the animals live.
Teleconverter: Extends your lenses to imitate a telephoto lens
Macro lens: Allows you to get closer to the subject
3. Camera Settings
A shooting camera has to be set in any one of the below-mentioned shooting modes:
To capture compelling wildlife photography, you need to choose the suitable shooting mode based on your subject, the effect of light, and its surroundings.
The availability of light plays a vital role in deciding the ISO. If you encounter the below- mentioned situations, choose the ISOs accordingly.Low LightHigh ISO (800)Bright Light SituationLow ISO (100, 200, etc.) Reduces noise
The movement of your subject decides the shutter speed you have to use to capture the image without blur. If you are shooting animals or birds that move in the below-mentioned paces, choose a shutter speed accordingly.Fast-moving subjectHigher shutter speed – 1/2000 sec. or higher.Slow-moving subjectLower shutter speed 1/1000 sec
Remote Shutter Releases
Sometimes, you would not like to click images with a 50mm lens, and you cannot get closer to animals, birds, insects, or reptiles to photograph. So, you can use a remote shutter release, which releases the shutter without physical contact. Remote shutter releases are suitable for long exposures while your shutter is open for longer durations. In addition, it helps to capture photos without shaking. As your wildlife photos are relishing once-in-a-lifetime clicks, you can use these wireless shutter releases for your advantage.
Although you need to focus on the subject, sometimes you have to consider the environment in which they reside. Depending on your subject’s background and motion, you have to opt for the below-mentioned focus settings:
Moving SubjectContinuous autofocus
Presence of an obstacle
The distance between the camera and subject is more
As you will be using large lenses for wildlife photography, using a tripod or monopod helps you keep the camera and lens steady. You can prefer monopods to tripods as they are lighter and more compact than tripods. Suppose you don’t have a tripod or monopod. In that case, you can try fastening your camera by placing the lens on a rock or your backpack.
I have a mount that fits on my car door that I can attach a ball head to. It’s handy to have the camera mounted next to you so you can easily move the car for a better angle without having to put the camera down. The longer the lens, the more susceptible you are to camera movement—with really long lenses, even the slightest motion can cause blur. Try to use as fast a shutter speed as possible, taking into account what kind of depth of field you want. (The larger the aperture, the smaller the depth of field. Really long telephotos have very little depth of field at any f-stop.)
Ensuring Safety While You Photograph
1. Keep Your Whereabouts Posted
As a wildlife photographer, you might want to venture into the field alone to avoid scaring off animals. However, you may encounter a challenging situation that could worsen at times. To protect yourself from these situations, ensure to keep someone informed about your whereabouts and time of return. If a partner accompanies you, still, it is good to tell someone not joining you about your journey.
2. Check For Inclement Weather
To avoid yourself from getting caught amidst inclement weather conditions, study it in advance before your venture into the fields. This way, you can safeguard yourself and your equipment from showers. Additionally, you can avoid thunderstorms or lightning that can be potentially dangerous. Further, having a waterproof cover for your camera bag and a rain cover for your camera helps save your equipment.
3. Leave Room For Essential Survival Tools
In your excitement to carry the photography tools, remember to accommodate your bag with survival tools like the below. In the event of an emergency, these resources will help you survive.
Plenty of water
A fire starter
Knit beanie hat
First aid kit
4. Prepare Yourself For The Unexpected
The forest is often habitated with animals. Hence, it is good to research the different animals that throng the area you photograph. This will help you to be prepared to face any situation. For example, bears panic and attack when they look at big cameras. To tackle such a situation, you may carry bear spray to ensure safety. Additionally, beware of poisonous snakes and be prepared on what to do if they bite.
5. Dress Appropriately
Appropriate clothing, footwear, sun or insect-resistant lotions are necessary to protect yourself from several issues like hypothermia, sunburn, injuries, and illness. On the contrary, you will need woolen clothing and equipment to protect you from cold when photographing in colder places. Remember not to overdress yourself. Additionally, the clothes you wear should not make much noise while you move as this will alert the animals of your presence.
6. Respect Personal Boundaries
In interest to weave an image, you may be stalking a subject without realizing their anxiety. As such animals may harm you, stop stalking them to ensure your safety while respecting their feelings. Additionally, refrain from chasing the animals and think of their welfare. Further, be mindful of overcrowding animals that scare away your subject and put you too at risk. Finally, beware of some small animals as they can be dangerous too.
Compositions In Wildlife Photography
1. Balance Your Images With The Rule Of Thirds
A compositional principle like the rule of thirds helps you arrange your image in a way that appeals to your viewer. For this purpose, divide your photo and fit them into a three-by-three grid with the essential elements at the grid points and linear elements along the grid lines. For example, in the image below, the elephant’s head is placed on one of the top two intersections to get a balanced picture.
2. Focus On The Eyes Of Your Subject
Firstly, your viewer looks for an image’s eyes. Hence, they have to be sharp enough to attract your viewer’s attention. As a result, you need to focus on your subject’s eyes. On the other hand, when an animal is in motion, you can focus on the part of the animal nearest to the eye. This way, you can get your subject’s eyes in focus too.
3. Attract Your Viewer’s Attention With Negative Space
Although wildlife photography gives you a solid subject to fill your frame, you have to pay attention to your image’s background. A good location will guide your viewer’s eyes towards your subject. Therefore, you can choose a background that contributes to negative space, such as a good greenwash from nearby plants or a lovely, neutral white sky. These backgrounds help you compose an impressive image.
Improving Your Wildlife Photography
1. Scheduled Shooting Times To Golden Hours
The golden hour marks a couple of hours before and after sunset. A perfect scene is set for wildlife photography during golden hours as the surrounding light is soft and appealing. Since your camera balances the warmer tones, it adds elegance to your images, making them look more pleasant.
2. Entice The Animals To Your Chosen Spot
As a photographer, you might have planned a location to photograph your subject. To proceed as per your plan, you can entice your animal or bird to the chosen spot. For example, if you want a bird to come to a piece of log, you can create a setup with feeders or water to attract your subject to the selected spot and photograph them.
3. Practice Mindfulness
Despite your research to understand your subject, you might miss the decisive moment when you get distracted and get your eyes off the viewfinder. Hence, remain alert always until you click to ensure capturing that decisive moment.
4. Use Blinds To Make Yourself Invisible To Wildlife
The essence of your images comes out when you remain unnoticed without a glint of sight and sound. For this purpose, stoop down and lay flat on the ground, moving forward and backward slowly without diverting your subject. You can also try buying proper blinds for photographers or do one yourself using an old tent with a few holes cut in it. These often have camouflage colors that make the animal ignore you. Before using it for photography, you need to place these blinds in the area you want to photograph to allow the animals to adapt.
5. Use The Right Camera Settings And Techniques
Once you are ready to click, ensure maintaining the settings as per your surroundings, subject, and light availability. Additionally, you can convey emotions through the creative use of photography techniques. This way, you can get an incredible photo that leaves an everlasting impression on your viewer.
Although wildlife photography comes with its obstacles, it is always a pleasure to get drenched in the beauty of nature while capturing the intimate moments of wildlife. This genre of photography lets you use the effect of natural light to your advantage and produce awe-inspiring photos. Additionally, you can try unraveling wildlife stories to attract your viewers. It helps promote a positive human relationship with other life forms. When you’re out photographing wildlife, don’t just pay attention to what are called the charismatic megafauna—the big animals that get most of our attention. Of course we all want good photos of the big guys, but there are many other forms of life around. Some of them are really beautiful, and all of them are interesting. Whenever you’re out there, whether hiking or sitting in your car waiting for something to happen, look around. You’ll be amazed at what you might discover. Photograph that too!
I have included a few of my wild animal photos below:
Phototraces.com, “Introduction to Wildlife Photography: A Guide For Beginners. “; NFI.com, “Wildlife Photography-Everything You Need To Know. “; Nationalgeographic.com, “Shooting Wildlife (With a Camera).” BY Bob Caputo and Cary Wolinsky;