Wildlife photography is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding and enjoyable forms of photography. Amazing wildlife photographers bring the wilderness to us and make exploring the nether reaches of the earth accessible for everyone. From National Geographic magazine to BBC documentaries, wildlife images are breathtaking and amazing. From these pictures and videos, we can learn about places and animals that we may never be lucky enough to see.
But as a consumer of wildlife and landscape photographs, you might not realize what goes into capturing those images. The best animal photographers are experts on the entire ecosystem within which they’re shooting. They know animal behavior and habits, and they know where to set up and when to shoot. They’re researchers and scientists at heart.
The best wildlife photographers are usually involved in research studies and work side by side with scientists. Many of the best wildlife photography jobs are not for publications but with research teams.
But looking at the professional wildlife photography jobs, you will only see the tip of the iceberg. Many hobbyists and amateurs enjoy taking wildlife pictures. It’s a natural progression for birders, one of the most popular hobbies in the world.
Wildlife Photography Camera Equipment and Lenses
Picking the right camera for your outdoor adventures is harder than it might first appear. You need something that you can attach various lenses to, so it should be a DSLR or mirrorless system. But it also needs killer autofocus for moving targets, and a fast burst mode to match. And it should be sturdy enough to handle the elements.
We all try to be kind to our cameras. But in the field, when a fantastic shot is calling, we also push the limits a little. One of the hallmarks of top-of-the-line equipment is how well it is weather-sealed. Top-end stuff usually has extra seals on all the buttons and rubber gaskets on the battery door, communication ports, and even around the lens to body joint. They can’t swim, but they can take a lot more trips out in drizzle or snow before you get problems. With extra seals, you’ll have more time to dry them and clean them before the moisture makes it inside to some delicate circuit board.
While most pro-level camera bodies now sport full-frame sensors, there is a slight advantage to shooting with the smaller-sensor APS-C format camera. These cameras use 35 mm lenses and give you a little bit of extra zoom. If you have a great 400 mm lens that you love, it will be closer to 600 mm on an APS-C camera.
Once you’ve got a nice camera body, the real tough choice will be what lens to attach. There are many sorts of animal photography, and it all depends on how close you can get to your subject. Most animals are skittish, and some are dangerous. It’s best to have the longest telephoto lens you can afford. If money is no object, then you want the longest telephoto lens with the widest aperture that you are happy carrying. A wide aperture is helpful since it will keep your shutter speed higher, and allow you to shoot in lower light. Here is an article on the Exposure Triangle, to help you learn how to leverage shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to your advantage.
You can shoot equally well with a prime or a zoom lens. But if the zoom lens is too short, you may find it staying on its maximum setting. Being too close to use a long telephoto is seldom a problem with wildlife pictures, so the primary concern is nearly always getting the biggest focal length lens you can.
But the best camera for wildlife photography isn’t just the one with the longest lens. Sometimes the great shot is a wide-angle that shows less of the animal and more of its behavior and environment. And sometimes a macro is the thing to capture the microscopic world of insects. If you would like to read more, here is a Complete Guide on Macro Photography.
Shooting Outdoors–Points to Consider
Wildlife shooting combines many different photography specializations into one activity. You’ve got to be the master of your equipment and know how to use it. You’ve got to be good at using low light, even when combined with a long focal length lens. And you’ve got to do all of this while outside in the elements.
Many outdoor enthusiasts love photography. It’s a way to share their love of being outside with others who don’t have the opportunity. But being in the elements comes with special considerations for your equipment. Most photography equipment doesn’t handle moisture well. It doesn’t like temperature changes, and it doesn’t like dust or grime. Wildlife photographers encounter all of these things regularly.
So what can you do? For one thing, you need to invest in a good gear bag that can protect your gear when it’s being carried or not in use. It should have some sort of rain shield to protect it and make it waterproof in downpours, but it should also be heavy enough canvas with weatherproofing to prevent drizzles or splashes from getting in.
You’ll also need something to protect the actual camera and lens from rain or snow for actual shooting. There are many aftermarket “raincoats” that give you access to the controls but keep at least a bulk of the moisture off. It’s a small price to pay to protect your expensive equipment.
Keeping dirt and grime off the camera is also crucial, especially in dusty environments. Make sure your camera bag is well stocked with cleaning rags and a suitable dust blower.
The moral is simple: get the best camera you can with the best weatherproofing. But don’t trust it–that weatherproofing is the camera’s last line of defense. Invest in jackets and protective gear for you and your camera equipment to ensure that you can continue shooting worry-free no matter what the weather throws at you.
15 Tips to Take Your Wildlife Photography to the Next Level
Study Your Subject
Serious wildlife photographers spend a lot of time learning about the species that they are after. The more you learn about the wildlife you are shooting, the better you will be at photographing them. Study their habits and traits, which will give you a better idea of what to expect. All of this helps you get amazing photographs. What time of day do they like to come out? Where are they going? How common are they?
The more you learn about the ecosystem as a whole, the better you will do as well. You may be in British Columbia for amazing pictures of the moose, but you’ll probably snap some pictures of a grizzly bear if it wanders your way. Photographers seldom pass up an opportunity to add another species to their collection, so being familiar with all of the rare and exciting animals in an area is beneficial.
Be an Ethical Wildlife Photographer
The best wildlife photographers respect the animals and their environment. Wildlife photography is photojournalistic–the photographer is there to document the events and not create or affect them in any way. Here is an article on Photojournalism, a general guide with plenty of tips to help you get started on this career path.
Unfortunately, not everyone approaches it this way. Some unscrupulous photographers scare birds into flight or get so close to the animals that it startles them. The photographer’s goal must also be not to affect the animals’ behavior. Ideally, the animal should not know that you’re there and should go about their business. Feeding or baiting animals should never happen. Likewise, following animals or inducing their “fight or flight” responses, should never happen.
Many organizations have published guides for wildlife enthusiasts to encourage ethical wildlife interactions. Check out the Audubon Societies Guide to Bird Photography or National Geographic’s Ethical Photography for more information.
Prepare yourself for the elements along with your camera. Be ready for the weather, be it hot summer beach weather or frigid voyages north of the Arctic Circle. Layers are always a good idea since you can shed garments as the day heats up and put them back on as it gets colder.
Wildlife photographers tend to stick to one area for a while, so once you’ve found your spot, you can get comfortable. Bring cushions and blankets, or other things to kneel or sit on. Don’t forget good hiking boots, hats, and gloves too.
Think About Your Equipment’s Resale
Taking your expensive gear out into the elements is a form of abuse. Luckily, there are a lot of accessories you can find to help you protect your stuff. There are rubber protectors for your camera body, and neoprene sleeves to help keep gunk out of your lens. They even make waders to protect your tripod when you submerge it! The use of weather and bump protection means you stuff will last longer and it can help you maintain its resale value. That might be the last thing on your mind while you’re snapping polar bear photos, but you will appreciate it one day.
Be a Low Light Master
Knowing the low light characteristics of your camera can make a world of difference in your photos. Shooting with a long lens means you’re often working at the threshold of slow shutter speeds and high ISOs. Knowing the limits is critical. If you don’t, you risk coming home with a card full of blurring images.
Image stabilization is really important for lenses like these, and the best ones have optical systems built right in. It corrects for hand-shake and any disturbance made by the wind. It’s not perfect, but it usually buys you an extra three stops or so.
You’ll need to push the ISO a little sometimes. If you’re shooting a quick-moving animal like a bird, you probably can’t stop that motion otherwise. New camera bodies are great at shooting at high ISO, but you need to know your camera well enough to know when the ISO will cause too much noise and grain. These images can be unusable, even if they are technically perfect otherwise. Just because your wildlife photography camera can go to ISO 102,400 doesn’t mean you should!
You might want to read our article on 25 simple photography tips that will help you become better at your craft and take those stunning pictures that you always wanted.
Another part of your camera you want to know how to use is the autofocusing system. Play around with it in all conditions, especially with moving objects. If you’re after something that moves fast, be ready to use the continuous focus tracking with the burst mode. A lot of the images will be trash, but you will have a few keepers if you know your camera well.
Not all cameras can do everything well. Usually, mastering the simplest autofocusing mode is usually your best bet. Things often happen too quickly in the field to switch between modes on the fly. As a result, it’s better to find the settings you like and leave them dialed in. Center focusing in continuous mode usually gets the best results.
When you first come to a new photo area, spend some time scouting locations. Look for places where the animals might congregate, like streams and lakesides. Find good hides, where you could hang out and wait for the action to come to you. It’s not always easy to find the best spots in one go, so it pays to plan leisurely trips where you can explore and find new spots.
When you do find a good spot, it’s usually good every day around the same time. Animals are creatures of habit, and they tend to stay in the same area and return to the same places. Like a fisherman who knows the best spots on their lake, learn the best spots for photography in your wild area.
Plan the Composition
Animals don’t take your direction or go where you want them to, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan your images. You can still plan your framing and shooting direction, and then wait for the animals to cooperate. Animals are nearly always low to the ground, so with your telephoto lens, it pays to plan most shots from close to the ground.
The background is important and often overlooked in these types of photos. From down low, it’s easier to get more scenery in the background. A little bit of background can add an entire story to the image. It adds location information, and maybe even the season or time of year. A good background helps you capture the environment and ecosystem, not just the animal.
With this in mind, you might also want to consider zooming out occasionally. Making the animal smaller and adding the scenery will blur the line a little between wildlife and landscape photography. And that’s a good thing because the best animal images are shown in their natural habitat.
Patience is a Virtue
Be patient. There is a lot of waiting around for this type of photography. Usually, the way the best shots are taken is by noticing a particular type of animal has a habit of returning to a specific location at a particular time of day. So you make yourself comfortable, plan your shot, and wait. And sometimes you wait and wait.
Like fishing or hunting, sometimes you come home empty-handed if you are after one particular shot. But with photography, chances are you were able to get shots of something else, or something close to what you wanted.
One important component of all of that waiting is to stay in the moment. If you’ll excuse the pun, you need to keep your focus. Distraction means that you’ll miss your moment.
Blinds are used by hunters to help them blend in with their backgrounds. Think of them as camouflage. As a photographer, they help you get better photos by keeping the animals calm and unsuspecting. They’ll walk right up to photo hide if it blends in well enough and as long as it’s downwind. There are pop-up tent blinds available online, or you could use hunting blinds that are already there. You could also improvise your own by hiding in bushes and behind knolls and rocks.
Watch for the Little Stuff
With all of this talk about long lenses and composing landscapes, don’t forget to look down too! Macros can be fun and filled with insect life. It’s a different type of shooting, but it’s well worth the effort.
Keep Your Head Up
Don’t focus all your attention through the viewfinder because with such a small field of view, you are likely to miss some action. Use your eyes and keep scanning the area for movement and changes. Watch for signs of predators or big animals moving, like birds taking flight or crunching twigs. Bringing binoculars is a good idea too, so you can see farther and get an idea if you’d have better luck at your next spot. Our Guide to Underwater Photography offers tips and techniques to take your photography to a whole new level.
If you have noticed that shooting photos of animals and hunting them has a few things in common, you are correct. Another great technique that’s being used by professionals with wildlife photography jobs is to use camera traps. They set up a video or still camera in a remote location. They then let a motion trigger to start recording. Since the human photographer isn’t around, animals are much more likely to get close and to go on about their normal routine. The “traps” can be left for however long the batteries will last, or the weather will allow. Scientists have used the technique for a while, but lately, it has caught on as the best camera for wildlife photography.
Get Out There!
Hopefully, all of these tips have gotten you excited for your next photo adventure. Now is the time to plan a safari or photo travel adventure. You can practice near home, but it’s getting out there and seeing new things that keep us excited and hungry for more.
Remember, the key to making big trips is not to buy special gear for a trip. Practice using your gear before you go, so you will be good at using it before you get there. You don’t want to waste your trip learning equipment.
No matter what part of the world you’re coming from or where you want to visit, wildlife photos are a great hobby or profession. From birding that can be done in the city to photo adventures that take you to the farthest reaches of wilderness, capturing real moments in the natural world and sharing them is a powerful tool for conservation and education.
Curate your best work and regularly update your portfolio website by adding work from recent adventures. Your website is your showcase window to the world and the first point of contact with potential clients and collaborators. Here’s a great article on how to create a photography portfolio website.
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