A Beginners Guide to Wildlife Photography

How to get started as a hobbyist wildlife photographer

Portrait of majestic red deer stag in Autumn Fall

The best way to start shooting wildlife is to explore your immediate environment. Depending on where you live, there could be nature reserves, shorelines, bird sanctuaries, or even zoos that offer you plenty of opportunities to shoot wildlife photos. Practice focusing, composition, and nailing the exposures. Improve your work using Photoshop to produce an image you could be proud of. Compare your work with those photographers you look up to and try to improve your work.

Key Takeaways

Where can a hobbyist practice if living in urban Australia?

Koala on eucalyptus tree

Sydney and Melbourne have many places you can visit to capture wildlife photos. Cockatoo Island near Sydney (7 km) is where you can find a lot of sea birds that you can photograph. Shelly beach, close to Sydney, is yet another place to practice wildlife photography. Both these destinations are great for birding enthusiasts. Taronga Zoo in Sydney is another excellent location for extensive game wildlife photography. Healesville Sanctuary in Badger Creek near Melbourne and Lake Wendouree, about two hours drive from Melbourne, are excellent destinations where you can find a lot of wildlife, including birds, to photograph throughout the year.

Beginner wildlife photography gear

Telephoto camera lens

A good thing about wildlife photography is that you've many good lenses to choose from at a relatively low price. On the flip side, however, inexpensive lenses will only get you that close enough, and the quality of the images will not be as good as the ones that inspired you to get into wildlife photography in the first place. Inexpensive lenses don't always have wide-open apertures, a requirement that's the hallmark of a good wildlife lens. Lenses such as the 300mm f/2.8 or the 400mm f/2.8 are ideally suitable for wildlife photography. They have the desired focal length and a fast aperture that collects a lot of light to go with it.

If you don't have a fast long lens, don't worry. Plenty of reasonably priced lenses, such as the 200-500mm f/5.6 and the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6, can do the job for you.

Lens autofocus button

In terms of cameras, get a decent camera with a decent autofocusing mechanism and fast continuous shooting speed. The bare minimum continuous shooting speed will depend on the kind of wildlife you're planning to shoot. Suppose it's a water bird like an Egret or a Heron, commonly found in the wetlands of Australia. In that case, you need a slightly faster shutter speed, say around 6 to 7 frames per second, than if you're planning to shoot less fidgety elephants. Even then, 6 to 7 frames per second are the bare minimum for shooting wildlife photography.

Reliable autofocus is a must-have. Not every camera and lens combo has quick and reliable autofocusing. Some lenses respond very well when paired with the right camera. Choose a camera and lens pair that works well together, and you will have a better time nailing the shots.

Can you practice wildlife photography with a mobile phone?

Photographer with a long optical telescope zoom lens on mobile

A smartphone offers a lot of challenges to shooting wildlife photography. A smartphone with its built-in lens cannot zoom or change the focal length on demand. The built-in lenses are not long enough to fill a frame with a subject from a distance. That said, dedicated telephoto lenses are available for mounting on smartphones. These lenses are available in different zoom magnifications, such as 36x, 28x, and 20x. You can use these lenses to shoot wildlife photography. However, these lenses don't connect with your smartphone camera like regular lenses connect with interchangeable lens cameras. Therefore there isn't an autofocusing option on these lenses.

Capturing wildlife in motion

Siberian tiger

Panning and using the continuous shooting mode (burst shooting) are two techniques that are very useful when photographing wildlife. Panning entails moving the camera in a tracking motion as the subject moves from one side of the frame to another. This involves both measured hand-eye coordination and image stabilization features where only any movement perpendicular to the camera movement is stabilized.

Modern cameras come with eye focus and eye tracking, and those are also very useful when tracking animals and locking focus on the eye/face. But these cameras are expensive. As a beginner photographer, you've to train yourself to track focus and keep the autofocusing point on the face as you track.

Best camera settings for wildlife photography

Shot of a hummingbird in flight

The first thing to keep in mind when shooting wildlife photography is to push the shutter speed to a higher number constantly. So, choose shutter priority as your shooting mode. The aperture will be dialed in by the camera automatically. Leave the ISO on Auto ISO with a maximum limit. The best shutter speed is usually in the vicinity of 1/2000 sec or higher, depending on the available light and the subject. The faster the subject, the faster should be the shutter speed. Birds, for example, should be shot at 1/3200 or faster.

Further sources of improvement and inspiration as a wildlife photographer

People watching photo in art gallery

One of the best ways to improve your photography is to train your eye. Photography comes from appreciating what is visually pleasing and acceptable, which you can teach yourself by looking at the work done by other experienced photographers. You can look at wildlife magazines, visit wildlife photography exhibitions and scourge social media to check work done by other photographers.

Using Photoshop to fine-tune your images

Hopefully, by now, you have a fair idea of how to get the best results when shooting wildlife photography. But there could be instances where your camera may inadvertently capture unwanted elements, or you may want to retouch a photo further after taking it. Learn how to use Photoshop’s many tools to improve and retouch your photos.

Let's say you've inadvertently captured something in your composition that you want to remove. The best solution is to use the content-aware fill tool. Camera RAW is a powerful tool in Photoshop that allows you to do much of the tweaking of your wildlife images before you bring them into Photoshop for further adjustments. You can play around with exposure, contrast, and highlights to fine-tune your images.

Getting the best shot

Wildlife photography is a vast genre involving many other techniques and approaches. However, getting the basics right is very important. Things like picking the right tools, using the proper techniques, and basic editing techniques are essential to achieving the best results. With more practice, you will get better at these things and be able to nail the best shot with regularity.