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5 Things I Wish I Knew When I First Started Wildlife Photography

I first started photography almost 10 years ago, and I sometimes wonder where I would be if I knew what I know now, back at the start. I feel like I’ve learned the most important things about wildlife photography in the last 4-5 years, with the time prior to that being spent juggling schoolwork alongside my hobby.

The hardest part about getting really good at something is at the start. It can feel impossible to take a decent image when you’re comparing yourself to the stunning work you see online all the time. Maybe you’re even taking lessons, but feel like there’s some kind of barrier that you can’t bust through to photographic greatness above.

While we’re all still learning, whatever stage we’re at, I hope that some of these tips will help you fast track your photography. Hopefully, you can avoid some of the mistakes I made early on when I first started doing wildlife photography.

#1 Single-point focus is a must

There are few situations, other than perhaps birds in flight, where you would want to use anything but the single-point focus mode on your camera. If you allow the camera to select the best focus point itself, you’ll easily have an image of an animal with its body sharp but eyes out of focus. This kills the shot – instantly.

5 Things I Wish I Knew When I First Started Wildlife Photography

When you’ve switched to single-point focus, you can dictate exactly where the camera will look to focus. Point that little black square at the eyes of your subject and the rest will start to fall into place. Just be extra sure that you aren’t focusing on the nose, or beak, of an animal rather than the eyes. It’s an easy mistake to make in a small viewfinder. After that, no longer will you need to trash that super cute shot of a squirrel just because the eyes are not sharp.

#2 Semi-automatic modes are your friends

I want to address a common misconception I hear again and again. This is that anything other than full manual mode is cheating and not proper photography. While I insist that everyone should learn how to use their camera in full manual, there is no reason to add extra obstacles in your way to a great photo.

With wildlife photography, everything is moving so quickly and the light is constantly changing. Most of the time when shooting in full manual, you’re just introducing a load of unnecessary wheels to spin and adjust to account for the tiniest change in light.

5 Things I Wish I Knew When I First Started Wildlife Photography

Photo: Mario Calvo / Unsplash.com

But, that’s also not to say that photographers using semi-automatic modes aren’t capable of shooting in full manual. Having to continuously adjust settings in a fraction of a second will most definitely make you miss opportunities. Plus, when you really understand how full manual works, it takes only a little thought to adjust and perfect the exposure. It just adds time to the process.

Semi-automatic modes take away this chore, meaning you can focus more on composition and other, arguably more important, ingredients that make up a great photo. You can still have control over your exposure, fine-tuning it using exposure compensation. I have lost count of the number of shots I missed when I insisted on solely using full manual mode at the start of my photographic journey.

The shooting modes I’m referring to are Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and full Manual with Auto-ISO. Take a look at this article I’ve written about which of these is best for certain situations: Why Semi-automatic Mode is the Best Choice for Wildlife Photography

#3 Organization is key

Image: By alborzshawn

By alborzshawn

My biggest regret is never properly organizing my photos. I only started to do this vigorously back in 2015, which I am quite ashamed to say! I use Adobe Lightroom, and it just makes life so much easier. Creating a catalog of my images, I can keyword and easily find them all. Collections allow me to sort through specific shoots quickly, and the delete button is never too far away either with a tap of the X key on my keyboard.

Deleting images is something that we all need to do, but it’s never easy. But be brave, and if a shot isn’t up to scratch then make sure to haul it out of your catalog and into the trash. If you don’t, you’ll end up with hard drives full of thousands of pictures and you’ll never be able to find the good ones hidden within them.

It’s good practice to make sure you dig through all the photos from a shoot fairly quickly. Remove the blurred and rubbish frames so that you don’t procrastinate and find down the line that you still have to prune the images from a shoot a few years ago. Whoops!

#4 You don’t need to fill the frame

I always thought that a good wildlife photo filled the frame with the subject. If it was too far away, then there was no shot to be had. How wrong I was! The style of minimalist wildlife photography, having the subject small in the frame, is becoming increasingly popular nowadays. Perhaps styles and tastes have changed in the field since I first started out, but either way, it is something I wish I had experimented with more when I was younger.

5 Things I Wish I Knew When I First Started Wildlife Photography

This is great news for those of you who don’t have access to large telephoto lenses, too. It means you don’t need to go and shell out thousands for a 500mm prime lens when you can get shots that are just as good with a shorter telephoto (or even a wide lens).

Keep the subject small and introduce the environment around it into the scene. You might need to adjust your aperture to increase the depth of field, depending on what you’re trying to achieve. Since the surroundings will become a larger part of the shot, perhaps you want them to be more in focus than usual.

#5 You don’t need to stick to a normal aspect ratio

One thing that I’ve only started to do within the last year or so, is to play with the aspect ratio of my photos. You don’t need to stick to the standard that pops out of your camera. Try cropping into a square, or even creating a panoramic shot, to make long photos that capture a wider view than normal.

5 Things I Wish I Knew When I First Started Wildlife Photography

A colony of guillemots on the Farne Islands, Northumberland. One individual is attempting to land and squeeze into the group.

Experimenting with the aspect ratio of your photo makes them stand out too. Immediately people notice that the photo doesn’t fall into normal ratios, and pay attention to the shot. I really like these long, snaky frames. I feel they tend to work well with scenes that have a large number of focal points within them. For example, this image of the guillemots has so many different birds that you can look at in detail. The long frame creates a sense of a large colony of birds, and works well to get rid of the unnecessary sky above that would be there with a standard ratio.

In Conclusion

We can’t all be experts from the word go, I still have loads to learn about wildlife photography. But hopefully, some of these tips will help you to buck the trend and let you benefit from some of the things I wish I knew when I first started clicking wildlife photography.

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Will Nicholls
Will Nicholls

is a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from the UK. He has won multiple awards for his work, including the title of Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2009. Will runs a blog for nature photographers, Nature TTL, which provides tutorials and inspirational articles to readers. He also has a free eBook available called 10 Top Tips to Instantly Improve Your Nature Photos.

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