5 Most Common Mistakes in Wildlife Photography and How to Avoid Them

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Animals, especially wild ones, make such beautiful subjects that we cannot resist turning our cameras on them to capture images of these majestic creatures in their natural state.

Unlike a landscape, creatures are constantly in motion, and unlike most people, they can be pretty uncooperative when it comes to getting their picture taken. This can make for a lot of botched pictures. Here are a few tips on how to avoid some of the common pitfalls of wildlife photography.

1. A Tiny Subject

Three Brown Pelicans by Anne McKinnell

It’s tough to approach a wild animal – they are easily spooked. Because of this, many wildlife photos have more wilderness than wildlife, with the animal becoming a tiny speck in its environment. This can be effective in some situations, but for the most part you want the animal to be large enough in the frame to see the detail in its eyes. This is where a good telephoto lens can really help you out. Using a long focal length (over 200mm) will allow you to keep your distance while still filling the frame.

2. Blurry Image

Blur comes in many forms. Your entire image could be blurry due to camera shake; a problem which is magnified by the longer focal lengths needed for wildlife photography.

In landscape photography, using a tripod is a good technique to prevent camera shake, but a tripod is not as practical when photographing wildlife. Wildlife photography requires a more active shooting style – you’ll be moving around constantly – so unless you are using a lens that is too big to hold comfortably, forget the tripod. Also, because the animals are always in motion, you’ll need a fast shutter speed anyway. That leads me to the first method to combat camera shake blur: using a very fast shutter speed.

In landscape photography, you normally use a shutter speed that is at least 1/focal length of your lens. But usually that isn’t going to be fast enough when photographing wildlife because the animals are always in motion (even when they appear to be standing still). To avoid disappointment, you’ll need to use a much faster shutter speed to freeze both your own motion and the motion of the animal.

Here is my rule of thumb when photographing wildlife: if the animal appears to be still, use a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second. If the animal is moving, you’ll have to adjust the shutter speed based on how fast they are moving. I suggest a minimum of 1/1,000th of a second, or faster if the animal is moving faster.

Sleeping Steller Sea Lion by Anne McKinnell

Using a lens with image stabilization will also help prevent camera shake blur. A lens with a wide maximum aperture, say f/2.8 or even f/4, will let more light in, allowing you to use a faster shutter speed. Likewise, a camera with low noise at high ISO will let you turn up the sensitivity. All of these options will enable you to make faster exposures with better results.

Another type of blur is focus blur. This results from your camera being unable to focus, probably because your subject is moving and the AF motor gets confused. Some cameras and lenses have superior auto focus systems to others, but regardless of what you have, you can get the most out of it by setting it to continuous focus mode, usually called AF-C (Nikon) or AI Servo (Canon). This setting will track the subject’s movement in the frame and focus on it more quickly and accurately.

3. The Missed Moment

We’ve all been there. You see the perfect shot, frame it, and hit the shutter. But by the time the camera focuses and the exposure is made, the animal has moved and all you end up with is the second after the perfect shot.

There are two ways to avoid this heartbreak:

Anticipation

This is a skill that can only come with practice and a keen eye. If you can learn to see when the perfect moment is about to happen, rather than when it is happenning, you can hit the shutter right before the peak moment and cause the camera to snap at just the right time.

Orca by Anne McKinnell

Continuous Shooting

When animals are in motion, you’ll get the best chance at a good result by using continuous shooting mode (also called “drive mode” or “burst mode”). With this, you can take several images per second and choose the most successful.

Higher-end DSLRs and mirrorless cameras will have a much faster maximum shooting speed, but no matter which camera you have, there are a few things that will help get the highest continuous shooting rate.

One is a fast memory card – both SD (standard digital) and CF (compact flash) cards have a certain speed that they operate at, and a faster card will make sure that your camera doesn’t get bogged down trying to save the images.

The other is a fully-charged battery – as the juice drains, the camera can become sluggish, so it’s a good idea to keep an extra battery or two in your camera bag. For ultimate performance, you can buy a battery grip that fits on your camera. This holds two batteries at the same time for maximum speed.

4. Where Is Everyone???

Sometimes wild animals can be hard to find, and they’re not always where you want them to be. Before you can photograph them, you have to learn a few things about how to find them.

Know your animals

What types of animals live around you? Before you go out shooting, find out who they are, what they eat, when they sleep, and where they like to relax in between. If you’re photographing birds, research which ones are to be found in your area at which times of year. It’s also important to know how animals might react if, and when, they feel threatened – will they fight, or flee?

American Green Tree Frog by Anne McKinnell

Know the season

Some animals will be much more active at different times of year – particularly during autumn, as they rummage up enough food for winter, and in the spring when some animals come out of hibernation.

Camp out

I don’t mean overnight (unless you’re into that), but it’s often a very effective practice to find a popular area – probably somewhere with a source of water, food, shade or shelter – where animals like to congregate. Set your camera up on a tripod nearby, and disguise yourself among some trees or brush (some photographers go so far as to buy ,or build, a blind to hide their presence).

Be patient

Animals work on their own schedule, so don’t try to fit a shooting session in between other appointments. Great photos take time, and you must allow nature to unfold at its own pace. Many animals are easily frightened, so being quiet, still, and inconspicuous will help put them at ease.

5. Animal Attack!

We don’t call it “wildlife” for nothing – the biggest mistake you can make is accidentally getting mauled. Animals are not adjusted to polite society, and can be pretty rough customers if you catch them at the wrong time, or in the wrong way. They spend most of their waking lives foraging for food, and a spat over a meal can turn ugly, fast. Never get in the way of lunch, unless you want to take its place.

Don’t approach a wild animal directly, and if they see you, avoid looking them in the eye. This is usually a sign of aggression. If you need to get closer, keep low and move in a broad zig-zag pattern to avoid frightening the animal.

Baby Aligator by Anne McKinnell

Be aware of when mating season (or “rutting season”) is for the type of animal you’ll be photographing. Male mammals are full of testosterone at this time of year, and can be aggressive, violent, and very dangerous. Avoid photographing at these times. Similarly, find out when animals are likely to be giving birth and raising their young. We all know how risky it can be to get in between a mama bear and her cubs.

Whenever you’re dealing with wildlife, always remember that any creature can be dangerous when provoked, and it’s very important to treat animals and their habitat with the utmost care and respect.

For more tips on wildlife photography try these articles:

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

  • Pixily Frame

    Great tips – thanks for sharing!

  • R.M.Watkins

    Another thing to take into consideration is wind direction. You can wear camo and be well hid, but if you are upwind of them they can catch your scent and take off. So try to find a location where you are down wind from them.
    Glossary: Upwind-the air is moving from you toward the animal. Downwind-the wind is moving from them toward you.

  • Al

    I think the term is “rutting season”

  • Johan Bauwens

    I actually like the pelican pics !

  • David W

    Haha I think you were meant to like all of the pics

  • Anne McKinnell

    Thank you! That photo wasn’t supposed to appear right under the title “A Tiny Subject” because it is a demonstration of making the subject larger in the frame by using a long lens đŸ™‚

  • Anne McKinnell

    Good point, thanks!

  • Anne McKinnell

    Oops, typo, thanks for letting us know.

  • Barry E Warren

    Great refresher and tips, The wildlife photography is challenging , I love it. This is my favorite style of photography. Thanks for all the info

  • Bonnie Rannald

    Thank you for the gentle reminder to treat animals and their habitat with the up most care and respect. I’ve been seeing posts on Facebook from a photographer who keeps getting to close to the animals, forcing them to re-locate.

  • Anne thanks for the advise on capturing animal images. Your absolutely right on the mark when you say “know your animals”. By the way nice shot of the pelicans. I have photographed pelicans several times but I have never been able to capture them in a tree as you have done.

  • grammarian

    Like the person who pointed out “rutting”, I have to point out it’s “utmost” rather than “up most” and it should be “getting too close….”

  • Bonnie Rannald

    So now DPS has the grammar police to enforce proper grammar? How cool is that!

  • Dave Glick

    I think the color saturation is exceptional in the pic of the pelicans. circular polarizer?

  • No. I only know this for sure because it was a 400mm lens and I don’t own a polarizer that will fit on it. That’s just what the colour really looked like. It was Florida đŸ™‚

  • The only time I have seen them like this was in Everglades National Park in Florida.

  • That would probably be why I have never seen it before. I have yet to make it to the everglades. It is an incredible image……

  • Nils Ohms

    Hi Anne! Fantastic site you run here. I admire your way of living, most of us could do it the same way, but we don’t! You do, thats why I admire you – well done! And I enjoy reading about your adventures and I enjoy your tutorials!

  • Ido Scharf

    SD means “Secure Digital”, not Standard…

  • Janice Hayward

    Hi Anne, Ron would be proud of you following your dreams! I sometimes shoot from my kayak which presents its own challenges with tides and currents and perpetual motion. I like to put the Nikon 70-200 mm and a doubler on my Nikon D7100 which gives me about 600 mm, if my math is correct. My best experience was capturing an eagle eating a fresh meal (a bird) in the Comox Bay, British Columbia, Canada. Great tips! I will use all of them.

  • It says “utmost” not sure where you’re looking, and where does it say “getting too close”? Let me know so I can correct it, thanks.

  • Darlene, they are referring to someone else’s comments, not the post itself.

  • Mary @ Green Global Travel

    These are all very important and help tips. I will keep them in mind. Thanks for sharing.

  • Paul Marshman

    Lots of good advice here, but the one tip I would add — and it’s an important one — is to pay attention to the light. Ideally, you want the sun over your shoulder so it illuminates the bird or animal and puts a catchlight in its eye. Sidelight can work, but avoid shooting into the light unless you like black silhouettes. And speaking of dark animals, in some cases using flash is the only way to get a good picture.

  • David Corito

    I shot this at the Miami Zoo I think it’s interesting how the children are so intense and the Ape could care less

  • all fixed now

  • ah gotcha, no wonder I couldn’t find it LOL

  • R A Harris

    Annie, Great tip for shooting photography. I am glad you can follow your dream and travel as you do and shoot wonderful photos.

  • ANS

    thanks for the pointers

  • ccting

    one of the common photography tip: “Come closer, and closer again”.. u just need to come closer to the crocodile …. lol

  • BDPP

    In my experience taking photos of waterfowl, I seem to need to take MANY shots to get that one, really good image – something like 50 to 1. I am curious what your ratio might be? And would this be something for others to realize as well, that you must accept the fact that you are going to burn a lot of “film” to get what you want?

  • Todd Michael Katke

    Wonderful articles as progress into spring and sun coming up earlier, I find getting out one hour before sunrise to look for birds is very important to capture the golden light from sidelight, backlight, frontlight. Patience and perseverance pays off with Bird photography.

  • Adie Garden

    I’d say less, one in ten, I used to take bucket loads but consciously control my finger now and unless the light’s near perfect and the wildlife is “performing” I won’t click, learn to trust your intuition more đŸ™‚

  • Frederic Hore

    You can add another sixth tip to the list, and that is to BE QUIET! Nattering nabobs are a good way to scare off skittish wildlife. They will hear you long before you see or hear them.

    Having led many photo field trips in Canada, I can’t tell you how many times I have to tell people not to talk, use their cell phones, unwrap noisy cellophane wrappers from candies, to walk quietly, etc.

    Even worse is when you have scouted a location, you are carefully observing and photographing a scene solo, and another photographer or tourist comes along and wants to strike up a conversation. Last December, I was photographing a beautify bird near the Iguazu Falls in Argentina, when two approaching strangers, talking loudly, scarred it off.

    Enjoy the peace and quiet – be one with your environment!

    Cheers,
    Frederic in Montréal
    http://www.RemarkableImages.ca

    Below: Adele Penguins get ready to go swimming in the Lemaire Channel, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica. Nikon D800, Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 at 86mm

  • Ellen J. Landphere

    Planning, scouting, light, knowing your subjects… Great advice here for wildlife photography! I’d like to add one more tip: be prepared to adapt and work with what you have. I planned a trip to Yellowstone with hubby and cameras for almost a year only to have Mother Nature throw terrible wildfires into the mix to obliterate much of the landscape and many animal photo ops I had envisioned! It was still an awesome trip and we saw some great stuff – but just be prepared to think outside the box at any time!

  • Marlowe

    I love your site, topics are always relevant regardless of date published…cheers!

    [url=http://lowepro.smugmug.com/Wildlife/i-BfZz4BP/A][img]http://lowepro.smugmug.com/Wildlife/i-BfZz4BP/0/L/IMG_1410-L.jpg[/img][/url]

  • Adrianne

    The ape “couldn’t” care less (if he could care less that means he cares a lot already). This is a common mistake people make.Great photo, though. Thanks for sharing.

  • TaffysMom

    You want to treat the animals and their habitat with the “utmost” not “up most” care and respect.

  • TaffysMom

    It IS cool. Bad grammar kills: “Let’s eat, Grandma.” vs. “Let’s eat Grandma.” Get it?

  • Ajmal Hassan

    Nice n thanks very much

  • Stoffers

    I agree with the whole “could care less” it irks me too, though I think the reason the ape couldn’t care less is because it’s realized that it now gets to live in a box for the rest of it’s life while people gawk at it many hours a day.

  • Higbe33

    I use a tripod most of the time. Last year had a sparrow land on the lens while I was behind the camera. A tripod takes patience, but worth it. Here is a RTH chasing two red-shouldered’s. Think the RTH heard the motor drive? đŸ˜‰

  • Vince Contreras

    I always appreciate it when someone–in a nice way–corrects my grammar. Especially when I’m trying to publicly share information or give advice, I don’t want to sound illiterate and wind up diminishing credibility in what I have to say.

  • Jacques du Toit

    In regards to number 5, one of the funniest things I have read, though probably shouldn’t be funny with this warning. I was reading some article probably about 3 years ago on National Geographic, about the hazards and dangers of being a Nat Geo tog. There was a black panther that attacked one tog, then later it said another attack by black panther – same panther different tog, I found that hilarious.

  • Jacques du Toit

    It does not mean he cares a lot, it just means there is already some caring. But yes, it is a phrase mistaken far too often

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