Photographing wildlife is one of the most technically demanding and exhilarating genre of amateur and professional photography. Learn how to master it in our complete guide packed with wildlife photography tips.
What you’ll learn:
Wildlife photography can take you right around the globe and back again. As a wildlife photographer, you can capture cheetahs chasing antelope in sub-Saharan Africa or frame robins basking in your own back garden. You can work on land, in the air or at sea. On snow-capped mountains or sun-kissed coastlines. In your local woodland or deep within a national park. Wherever you are and whatever you’re shooting, you’re sure to find this type of photography a demanding discipline.
For all the reward, certain wildlife photography involves risk. Photographers are urged against getting too close to animals - so always keep your distance and do not directly approach them.
You need a whole range of skills to become a good wildlife photographer. These go from technical proficiency with your camera to the so-called ‘soft’ skills we value at work and home. It can certainly benefit you to develop your:
When you think of wildlife and animal photography, your mind may well go straight to the glamour - a herd of springbok galloping across the South African plains, for example. But when you’re just getting started, it’s much better to make those first tentative steps small ones.
To capture the type of shots that come to mind when you think about wildlife and animal photography, you should invest in a good camera such as a DSLR or mirrorless model.
The best-known serious camera, the DSLR is an ideal camera for wildlife photography. It stands for digital single-lens reflex and has a mirror inside that’s used to create the photograph. DSLR cameras are top quality for all kinds of photography. They combine large image sensors (such as full frame and APS-C) and fast shooting speeds with great flexibility with lenses.
With a DSLR, you start with the camera body and then purchase different interchangeable lenses depending what you’re shooting.
Mirrorless cameras are the main alternative to a DSLR and make an equally good wildlife photography camera. They offer similar specs to DSLR cameras, but work differently. Whereas a DSLR uses mirrors to capture the image, mirrorless cameras do not (hence the name ‘mirrorless’). The main advantage they give you is greater freedom to perfect the image while you’re framing it. With no mirror inside the body, these cameras are also lighter and smaller than DSLRs.
You’ll find these camera features particularly important when working with wildlife.
To get the best camera settings for wildlife photography you need to understand the exposure triangle - that is shutter speed, aperture and ISO and the relationship between them.
Shutter speed is all about the length of time your camera shutter opens when taking a shot. It’s controlled using Shutter Priority, which is marked as S or TV on your camera dial.
Shutter speed is measured in fractions of seconds. With fast shutter speeds (1/125 or faster) you can freeze movement. This makes it an essential skill to master for wildlife photography. When you see a photograph of a cheetah at full stretch or a bird splash-landing on the surface of a lake with its wings outstretched, it’s likely been taken with a fast shutter speed.
Aperture is all about how much light gets into your camera. The aperture is a tiny hole that you can make wider or smaller by controlling your camera’s aperture priority setting. To understand how aperture works, think about how your eye pupils dilate or contract to deal with different light.
Aperture Priority is marked as A or AV on your camera dial. This size is measured in f-stops. With a wide aperture you can capture shallow depth of field, where the subject is in sharp focus and the background is blurred - adding mood and drama to a shot.
ISO can make your photographs lighter or darker depending on how it’s set. It’s all about your camera’s sensitivity to light and is generally used to compensate for poor natural light - whether too bright or too dark.
Rather than being controlled on your camera’s manual dial, it’s normally adjusted using a button on the back of your camera and/or on its touch screen. Slightly higher ISO (400) can give you better results if you’re photographing birds at a nature reserve on a cloudy day.
Finding the right lens is super-important when considering the best wildlife camera for you. Most wildlife photographers use DSLR or mirrorless cameras designed to work with interchangeable lenses. The best lenses for wildlife photography include:
The standard zoom lens is to the wildlife photographer what the trowel is to a bricklayer. This essential tool gets you up-close to the action from a safe distance and an is key part of your toolkit. It has a zoom range, which means you shoot at various set focal lengths. What makes a good zoom lens?
Often confused with a zoom lens, a telephoto lens also makes objects in the distance appear closer. But it works slightly differently to a zoom and has a longer fixed focal length and more powerful magnification. It’s because of this increased focal length and powerful ability to make distant subjects appear closer that the telephoto lens is loved by wildlife photographers. Telephoto lens options include:
This type of lens is all about getting super up-close. When you see incredibly detailed shots of colourful insets and plants, they’ve generally been shot with a macro lens. It even has its own name - macro photography. What makes a good macro lens?
The great thing about wildlife photography is that nature is all around you. You can travel far and wide to iconic locations or simply step into your own back garden or local park. Here are some key places to go:
As well as your camera and lenses, there are other bits of kit you need to become a wildlife photographer. These include:
Photographing wildlife brings many challenges. With each species being different, there’s no one-fits-all approach. But these wildlife photography tips should help.
Photographing wild animals.
When photographing animals in the wild, be it a solitary sheep on a moorland trail or a hare rising from a cornfield, it’s important to follow the rules outlined above. Keep your distance and respect their space. Because of this you’re likely to need a camera with a zoom lens.
“If you use a mid-range lens, you will capture the bird, but it will be a tiny speck” - photographer Jeff Carlson on nature photography.
When photographing your own pets, it’s a bit different. These animals are domesticated, so they are used to people. Cats and dogs are much happier to sit for a portrait than wild deer. With pets, you can try to get a reaction.
“Learn how to make really weird noises and don’t be shy — you usually get only a few reactions per sound.” - photographer Carli Davidson on nature photography
The best-known wildlife photography is often that taken in exotic locations such as the Masai Mara or Amazon Rainforest. Powerful zoom lenses will take you much closer to distant animals such as zebras speeding across the plains or a herd of giraffe. When it comes to insects or small frogs, a macro lens can help you to get super-close for a photo rich in colour and detail.
Wildlife doesn’t work a nine to five. Some species come out at night, others rise with the sun. Here’s how you can get better results at different times.
Light changes throughout the day. The shots you take at dawn will look different to those at dusk. During the day, the best time to shoot is during what photographers call golden hour. Golden hour comes not once but twice - just after sunrise and just before sunset. What makes it special is the soft, warm light that makes your photos look sumptuous.
After sunset and before sunrise, it gets trickier. Photography is all about light and after dark it’s in short supply. There are things you can do with your camera settings to avoid having to use your flash. Slower shutter speed lets more light into the camera to compensate for the darkness, but you’ll need a tripod to steady your camera.
There’s lots of detail in this guide. But the key takeaway for any aspiring wildlife photographer is this: patience is a virtue. You need to track the animals, spend time setting up your gear and wait for them to wander into your shot. It might take hours, it might take days. Wildlife photographers know how to play the waiting game. To master the art, so must you.
To become a professional wildlife photographer takes investment, skill, patience and luck. Many specialists are undiscovered amateurs who head out with their cameras at weekends. To become professional, you need to:
Now you’re ready to grab your camera, step outside and put all this knowledge into practice. Take your wildlife photography to the next level by editing with Adobe Photoshop.