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Check out our new Ultimate Guide to Nature and Outdoor Photography.
Taking photographs of wildlife can be one of the most exhilarating photographic experiences you can try. Spotting an animal in the wild can be thrilling, and being able to record that moment can be highly rewarding. However, wild animals can be a particularly challenging subject matter, so wildlife photography can often prove frustrating.
To help you get the most out of this compelling type of images, here are some tips to improve your wildlife photography.
No matter what type of wildlife you have chosen to photograph you will need to spend time getting to know its behaviour, routine and movements. Read up about your subject in advance, or search online for video or audio files, that can help you learn more about spotting your chosen subject. If possible, talk to experts in the field who know where, and when, to spot wildlife. If you are heading to a nature reserve or national park to take photographs, staff and volunteers are normally very willing to let you know of recent sightings, or give you some handy local advice.
Because you may only get a limited time in which to take wildlife photographs, getting to know your camera settings is extremely important. Familiarize yourself with how your camera and lens work before you get to the location so that you don’t miss an important shot by having the incorrect settings.
Before setting out, make sure you have packed all of the required gear, and you have spare memory cards and charged batteries. For wildlife photography, a telephoto lens is probably going to be essential, but do not overlook packing a wider angle lens to capture your animals as part of the landscape. Some of the best wildlife photographs show an animal in its environment and are not necessarily frame-filling portrait shots. If you are using a telephoto lens, a tripod or monopod can also form a useful part of your kit to minimize camera shake. A monopod offers greater flexibility of movement than a tripod when you are tracking wildlife on the move, but can still provide adequate stability for your camera to get sharp images.
Check weather reports for the day you are going to shoot wildlife, but do not necessarily be put off by bad weather. Animals do remain active during rainy or stormy days, and it is possible to get some dramatic shots in such conditions. You can buy special covers to protect your camera and lens in wet weather but, often, a durable plastic bag fixed in place with elastic bands can work just as effectively.
As with all genres of photography, lighting is key, and the best light for wildlife photography tends to be around sunrise and sunset. Animals also tend to be more active at these times of day, often searching for food. Therefore, make sure you get up early to be ready to take photographs in the golden light as the sun rises. Shooting into the sunset can transform a mundane subject into something special, so look for opportunities to capture dramatic wildlife silhouettes as the sun goes down (see image below).
As with all types of photography, composition can make the difference between a good image, and a great image. When composing wildlife photographs, remember basic compositional guidelines such as the highly effective Rule of Thirds. If your subject is looking to the left or right, leave an appropriate amount of space in the frame into which they can look. The same guideline applies if a moving animal is being captured – always leave room in the frame for them to move into.
Getting down to eye-level (or lower) with an animal can produce dramatic images. Taking a shot of an animal from a standing height looking down on it will usually lack any Wow Factor as this is the angle from which we are most used to seeing wildlife. Laying down on the ground so that you are at eye-level with, or looking up at, the animal will make your chosen subject seem large and powerful, and can add an element of drama to your final image.
A fundamental rule of wildlife photography is that the subject’s eyes must always be in perfect focus. However, the autofocus system on your camera can easily be tricked into locking onto another part of the animal. A helpful way around this is to set the camera to One Shot mode (AF-S for Nikon users), select the centre focus point in the viewfinder, lock the focus on the eyes by pressing the shutter release button halfway down and then, without releasing, recompose your shot. In addition to being perfectly focused on the eyes, the most compelling wildlife images have a catch-light in the eye. A flash, or speedlight, in your kit can be extremely useful for adding light to dark eyes when taking close-up animal portraits.
Getting the right focus becomes even harder when shooting an animal in motion. For moving wildlife, select a continuous autofocus mode such as AI Servo (AF-C) and select a single focus point in the viewfinder. Track the action by keeping the single focus point on the subject to ensure that remains in focus at all times, rather than the background or foreground.
Shooting in Aperture Priority mode can be extremely useful for wildlife photography. By using the widest aperture available (such as f/2.8) you will be able to use the fast shutter speeds necessary to produce sharp images. The narrow depth of field from using a wide aperture will also help to blur the background and, therefore, will isolate your subject and really make it stand out in the final image.
Do not be afraid to increase your ISO settings a little in order to keep the shutter speed fast, particularly if shooting in environments where lighting can be difficult, such as in a thick forest. A little bit of noise in your image is more acceptable (and easier to correct if you so wish) than an out-of-focus, or blurry image.
While there is no denying that a certain amount of luck definitely comes in handy, the real key to taking better wildlife photographs is patience. Not necessarily the patience required for your chosen subject to appear, but the patience to capture the perfect shot that you have envisioned.
When you do find an animal out in the wild, watch it for as long as possible and not just from behind the viewfinder. Spend time with it and learn its ways. While observing the animal, try to capture some form of behaviour that is unique to that species. Documenting such behaviour can produce compelling wildlife shots. Most importantly, enjoy the experience of wildlife watching as much as taking photographs.
One quick tip is to keep all noise (as in be quiet, not camera noise) to a minimum when you are shooting in the wild. Dress appropriately, tread carefully, and possibly most importantly, switch your phone to silent mode. There is nothing worse than framing a shot and having your subject scared off by a ringing phone.
There may very well be some periods of waiting and watching. Try not to get too focused on one particular subject, take a look around while waiting for your subject to return. You never know, there may very well be something more interesting waiting just around the corner.
If you want to put in more practice with your wildlife photography but don’t have much time to spare, a public park can be a great place to visit on a lunch hour or after work. Parks attract a range of wildlife such as geese, swans or deer and often you can get a little bit nearer to the action. A duck pond can produce many opportunities for action shots and is a great place to practice your skills at close range.
To take your wildlife shots from good to great, you need to be passionate about the natural world you are photographing. Take the time to appreciate nature and wildlife in all of its forms, wherever you find it. You do not have to go to an exotic location to do great wildlife photography. For example, macro photography offers a range of wildlife opportunities including spiders, beetles and flies. As someone who was once highly arachnophobic, I can now appreciate the beauty of spiders and, since photographing them, I do find them more fascinating than scary.
You could even make a few simple changes to your own garden to encourage more wildlife to come to you. Making your garden wildlife friendly can be relatively inexpensive and highly beneficial to local wildlife. Adding a pond or wildflower patch is both good for the environment, and may provide you with photographic opportunities.
Most importantly, take great care when photographing wildlife. Do not put yourself, or the wildlife, at risk and do not disturb their natural habitats in the process of getting your shot. Respect all wildlife, get to know your subject well and you will be rewarded with some great images to share with others, to inspire them to care as much about the natural world as you do.