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5 Tips for Getting Started with Wildlife Photography for Beginners

There is just something about the natural world that seems to touch us humans to the very core of our being, especially when it involves wildlife of any form. When we hear the words “wildlife photography”, wide open planes of the African Savannah with herds of zebras, wildebeests and antelope come to mind.

But that is just one part of the natural world pie! Don’t get me wrong, visiting Africa and going on safari are really high on my bucket list of places to visit and things to photograph, but I get equally excited when I am hiking in a national park that is frequented by bears, bison, eagles and pronghorn deer. There are several brilliant wildlife photographers out there, and every image they produce has a jaw-dropping reaction from most of their fans and followers. If you spend some time and really study their work, you will notice a consistent method to their approach. There are some simple basic guidelines that budding wildlife photographers can follow to creating their own Kodak moments!

Here are a few things to keep in mind for a safe, productive, and exciting wildlife photography trip.

1 – Research and planning

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I spent three hours of the afternoon exploring the wonderful forest lodge at Jim Corbett National Park in India because the park roads closed in the afternoon hours to allow animals to move about freely in the jungle without the noise created by countless jeep safaris – something that is not mentioned in most guide books.

Traveling itself is one of those tasks that needs an incredible amount of planning and research. So it is no surprise that when you are planning a wildlife photography expedition, you need to add a lot more to the mix. Scope out the best places to photograph animals, the best time of day, travel times to and from, as well as any permits and paperwork needed, well ahead to time to avoid any disappointments once you get to the location.

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Once we were back in the park on our safari, I was able to see this juvenile elephant walk across the path on his way to the deep jungle.

2 – Selecting the right gear

This is a very important part of any photographic expedition and quite possibly an article in itself. Choosing the right gear for your wildlife excursions is key. A lot of factors will determine what lens and cameras you need to carry with you.

Are you primary going to be traveling in a car? If so, you could bring more than one camera, and a long telephoto lens. Are you going hiking/camping, and will you be constantly on the move while looking for animals? If so, then maybe you’ll need to limit yourself to one camera, and a medium telephoto lens to reduce your load. Is there a possibility for you to get up-close and personal with the animals? Then, carry a smaller focal length like an 85mm or 50mm lens.

Are you planning on photographing landscapes too? You may need a wide angle lens if so. Will you have access to your computer frequently? If not, you may need a portable external hard drive to backup your images. How many batteries do you need?

As you can tell, having a plan for where, and what you are looking to photograph, is really critical in determining what gear you pack.

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Driving around in Yellowstone National Park one December morning found me face to face with this coyote (above) – who was simply enjoying his morning run. I was too surprised to remember the appropriate lens choice, camera setting, etc. I just took the snap, and while it may not be technically perfect, it is one of my favorite images. Just look at the trot in his paws.

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On the other hand, a photographic expedition into Yellowstone National Park a few days later gave me a chance to use a 400mm super telephoto lens to capture this moose feeding along the hillside.

3 – Safety

When doing wildlife photography, it is very important to keep safely in mind. It doesn’t matter if you are going on safari, or hiking alone in national parks. Wild animals by nature are unpredictable, and it would behoove us to remember that we are in their space, and we need to be respectful of that.

Rules and guidelines in wilderness areas are there for a reason – your safety and security. Make sure you follow them so that you, or others around you, don’t get hurt or injured. Whenever possible, travel in a group, or at least with one other person. There is security in numbers, and that can work to your advantage.

Seek help from experts who have made the journey before you and listen to their advice. Hiking a nesting area or denning area is never a good idea, for a reason! Take care of your gear. Especially if you are away in remote locations, you don’t want to be careless and risk your gear malfunctioning just when you need it. Dust and dirt are difficult to clean when you are out in the field.

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On a 10 mile alpine hike in Glacier National Park in Montana, USA, the only gear I could comfortably carry was my 24-70mm lens and I was able to snap this picture. Not the closeup I really wanted, but this conveys a message unlike any closeup shot I could have gotten. Bonus points for spotting what everyone was looking at!

4 – Practice and patience

Wildlife photography, like most other genres, needs a lot of practice, and an even greater amount of patience. People spend hours and hours to get the perfect shot – often in less than perfect conditions like the cold, rain, and even overnight in a bind waiting for the sunrise shot. So depending on what you are looking to photograph, be prepared to be patient and wait it out.

Practicing is a little harder to accomplish unless you happen to live close to a national park or wildlife frequented area. A good alternative may be to spend time at the local zoo and try to capture photographs of animals there. A lower cost alternative to testing out your gear as well as playing around with settings.

You could also try this – Guide to Attracting Critters to Your Garden for Backyard Wildlife Photography

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A pond close to my house is a watering hole for many birds during the spring and summer months. I am always out there practicing trying to get a clear shot of these cranes feeding. Perhaps one of these days, lady luck will be on my side!

5 – Enjoy the experience beyond the camera LCD

I don’t know about you, but I absolutely hate experiencing my vacation through the back of my camera. My life is quite busy and hectic with kids, family, and a full time business. Vacations are always a welcome, and much needed break to get away from it all, and time to do the things we all enjoy.

Yes, I absolutely want to capture moments through my camera, but I also want to be physically, and emotionally present with my family. I am just as happy seeing that exotic bird or that elusive wild animal with my own eyes, as I am getting a shot of it – I don’t need to prove it to the world!

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While we were hiking in Glacier National Park in Montana, we saw a wolverine – yes, we truly did! About 10 minutes after this photo was taken, the path turned really narrow with a steep incline, so I did the most sensible thing I could do, and put the camera away. A few minutes after that, we saw a brown patch of fur run along the path! A ranger later confirmed that a wolverine was frequenting the area we had just hiked. Yes, I have no photographs to prove it, but I have the most wonderful memory of seeing one of the rarest (to see) animals in the wild! Wolverines are a shy species, so don’t expect to see one out in the wild. They live in dens made out of snow tunnels, rocks and boulders and can be found in remote forests and tundra.

What are some of the most interesting wild animals you have photographed? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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Karthika Gupta
Karthika Gupta

is a culture, people and travel photographer, based in the Chicago area. Her images are fun, fresh and natural, and her love for nature makes it way into most of her images. She also has a Free Travel Photography Demystified E-Course, a 5-Day video series to help you improve your travel photography.

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