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Wildlife photography is one of the most challenging yet rewarding forms of nature photography. The best wildlife images create a powerful emotional connection between the viewer and the animal, but success requires planning, timing, and technique. Here are a few tips for getting started:
Expect to burn through a lot of memory cards shooting wildlife. While you may occasionally be able to presage the decisive moment in a wildlife shot, more often than not it will
be difficult to know exactly when the body position, the facial expression, and the composition of the image in front of you will all come together as an animal is in motion. Continuous shooting, extra batteries and many, fast memory cards will improve your odds of getting an effective image. If I find that only one in a couple dozen of my landscape images are “good” by my own criteria, that ratio might be more like “one in a few hundred” shots for wildlife, the first time I photographed polar bears I shot two cards full of images in less than an hour, and netted three portfolio images.
Like human portraits, wildlife portraits gain life by making a connection between the viewer and the animal, and as with humans, the window to that connection is the eye. When the practical needs of nature photography (supertelephoto lenses, wide apertures) leave the photographer with a very narrow depth of field it is almost always essential that the eye, if nothing else, be in focus. Our brains are almost hardwired to notice faces and to look for the eyes, if the eyes aren’t sharp in the primary subject of your photograph, most times, just won’t work. Bonus tip: A tiny bit of fill light from a flash (maybe 1.5 or more stops down under the “correct” fill flash exposure) can help create effective catch light in the eye to enhance this effect.
With wildlife, particularly big game, learn a bit about your subject beforehand for the safety of
the animals, for your own safety, and for better photographs. Getting too close to many animals, particularly birds, to abandon their eggs or nest entirely. Your own safety is important too, in photographing polar bears from a Zodiac in Svalbard I knew that polar bears would not usually jump out into the water to attack, and working with a telephoto they mostly seemed uninterested in my presence. However, when one animal came to the shore and started bobbing it’s head up and down, I knew it was time to be out of there in a moment, this friendly looking gesture is the polar bears way of figuring out how far we are away. Spending time learning about your subject isn’t just about safety, either. The colorful puffins I photographed in the Westfjords of Iceland, I learned through research, are a lot more docile. While there were excellent shooting opportunities even in midday, near midnight (at dusk during that trip), it was easily possible to work within arm’s length of the birds, and I wouldn’t have known that without a little study beforehand.
Another lesson from human portraiture we can use in wildlife photography is the idea of composing based on facing and direction. In general photographs
of moving animals are best composed giving more room in front of the animal’s movement than in back. Similarly, when an animal is looking to one side or another in a photograph, providing room in the direction the animal is looking usually results in a more effective image. If you can show what the animal is looking at (particularly if that too is interesting), that can be even more effective.