This article was updated in February 2024 with contributions from Jeremy Flint, Anne McKinnell, and Jaymes Dempsey.
Wildlife photography can be exhilarating, but it’s not without its challenges. Capturing the essence of wildlife through the lens requires more than just a camera and an interesting subject. It’s a blend of patience, timing, technique, and knowledge – and the path toward mastery is riddled with pitfalls that can prevent you from becoming the best wildlife photographer you can be.
Many beginners dive into wildlife photography with enthusiasm but find themselves frustrated by images that are blurry or unimpressive. These failures often stem from common mistakes that, while easily overlooked, have a significant impact on the outcome of your photographs. Recognizing and avoiding these errors early on can drastically improve the quality of your images – and that’s where this article comes in!
Below, I share the most common wildlife photography mistakes, and I also explain the changes you should make so you can ensure that you never (or, at least, rarely!) miss that perfect shot.
Ready to elevate your shooting? Let’s dive right in!
1. Not doing your research
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 – otherwise, you’ll come home with an empty memory card.
Know your animals
What type 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 deer, for instance, research which are found in your area and the habitat that they prefer. It’s also important to know how animals might react if, and when, they feel threatened – will they fight or flee?
Know the season
Some animals will be much more active at different times of year – particularly during autumn, as they look for food for winter, and in the spring, when some animals come out of hibernation. Pay attention to the different seasons, and consider whether your target subjects will be active when you plan to head out with your camera.
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).
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.
2. Shooting unsafely
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, as 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.
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 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.
3. Using insufficiently powerful gear
The gear you use in wildlife photography can make or break your ability to capture those fleeting moments in nature. Beginners face the dilemma of choosing between affordability and performance, and often purchase less capable equipment as a result. This compromise can result in frustration and dissatisfaction, because here’s the deal: wildlife photography, more than almost any other genre, requires a significant investment in gear for the best results.
Selecting a camera that combines durability with high performance is crucial, especially if you plan to shoot in challenging weather conditions. A camera with fast autofocus and a high-speed burst mode is indispensable for wildlife photography. Being able to shoot at 8 frames per second or higher allows you to capture sequences of movements, ensuring you don’t miss the peak action shots.
Similarly, the choice of lens is critical. A lens with a minimum focal length of 300mm is essential for most wildlife photography, while longer focal lengths like 400mm or more are ideal if you want to capture smaller or more distant subjects.
The speed at which a lens can focus is almost as important as its focal length; if the autofocus is ponderously slow, you’ll struggle mightily to capture breathtaking action. Additionally, a lens that offers a wide maximum aperture, such as f/2.8 or f/4, can be a game-changer in low-light conditions, allowing for faster shutter speeds and reducing the risk of motion blur. Finally, as with cameras, durability is another factor; the equipment needs to withstand the rigors of outdoor photography!
4. Failing to think about the light
Light plays a pivotal role in photography, and this is equally true when shooting wildlife. The quality of light can dramatically affect the outcome of your images, influencing not just the exposure but also the mood and feel of the photograph. Many beginner wildlife photographers are tempted to venture out at midday, attracted by the brightness of the sun. However, this can lead to images with harsh shadows and overblown highlights, robbing the scene of its natural beauty and depth.
The golden hours, just after sunrise and before sunset, are renowned among professional wildlife shooters for a reason. During these times, the sun’s lower position in the sky casts a soft, warm glow that can create extraordinary effects. Plus, wildlife tends to be more active during these hours, offering photographers the chance to capture dynamic shots in the best possible light.
Paying attention to the direction of the light is equally important. Frontlight, achieved by positioning yourself so that your shadow points towards the subject, can provide even illumination. This lighting direction is especially effective for highlighting details, making it a go-to choice for many wildlife photographers.
Of course, you can capture great wildlife shots in any light, but when you’re just starting out, frontlight is a great pick. And no matter how you proceed, understanding and utilizing the nuances of light can elevate your wildlife photography from good to great!
5. Capturing blurry images
Blur comes in many forms. For instance, your entire image can be blurry due to camera shake, a problem that 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 1/500s. And if the animal is moving, you’ll have to adjust the shutter speed based on their speed. I suggest a minimum of 1/1000s (faster if the animal is moving at ultra-high speeds).
Using a lens with image stabilization will also help prevent blur due to camera shake. Additionally, as I mentioned in a previous section, a lens with a wide maximum aperture, say f/2.8 or f/4, will let more light in, allowing you to use a faster shutter speed. Relatedly, a camera with impressive high-ISO performance will let you boost the ISO without significantly degrading the image quality. All of these options will enable you to make faster exposures with better results.
A second type of blur is focus blur. This results from your camera being unable to focus, probably because your subject was moving and the AF motor got confused. Some cameras and lenses have superior autofocus systems to others, but regardless of what you have, you can get the best results by setting your camera to its continuous focus mode, usually called AF-C (Nikon) or AI Servo (Canon). This setting will allow you to track the subject’s movement in the frame and focus more quickly and accurately.
6. Not being prepared
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:
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.
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 – 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.
7. Not getting close enough
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 300mm) will allow you to keep your distance while still filling the frame.
You might also consider different shooting approaches; for instance, if you can determine an animal’s behavior in advance, you can sometimes lie in wait until it comes close enough for a frame-filling photo.
Common wildlife photography mistakes: final words
Wildlife photography requires patience, skill, the right equipment, and more. And if you’re proactive, and you avoid common mistakes – like neglecting the quality of light or using inadequate gear – you can improve your photos, fast!
With dedication, practice, and a commitment to learning from the mistakes I’ve shared above, you can transform your wildlife photography from blurry snapshots into a powerful expression of your passion for nature. Happy photographing!
Now over to you:
Do you have any wildlife photography mistakes that we missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES