Wildlife Photography Tips for Beginners

1. Isolation

Most wild animals are hesitant to venture far from cover. Predators must conceal themselves as they stalk prey, which themselves must try to avoid being eaten, either by not being spotted in the first place, or by escaping effectively. Cover, often in the form of vegetation, can be a distracting element to a photographer and in the worst cases, can even make it hard to find the intended subject!

Long lenses coupled with a wide aperture are an excellent solution to this problem. When focused correctly, they will render the subject on a blurred, out of focus background (illustrated in the picture below). As both lens length and aperture increase, depth of field decreases, and many professionals carry huge lenses for this reason. These can be prohibitively expensive, but fortunately there are other options available. For DSLR users, telephoto zoom lenses such as the popular 70-200mm or 100-400mm are relatively cheap and allow for creative use of depth of field. Many of our clients also achieve fantastic results with relatively cheap super-zoom bridge cameras.

2. Understand your subject

Humans are mysterious to wild animals and must seem rather capricious. Most animals will consider you a threat, and indeed many animals will have experienced human hunters, either in the present day or in their evolutionary history. If you wish to get close to your subject, and not affect its behaviour, it is important not to behave as a predator would.

If you move directly towards your target, it is likely to move away. It can even help not to fix your gaze upon your subject, but instead to act disinterested. Sitting quietly and waiting for the animals to come to you can be surprisingly effective, especially with birds. Butterflies and other small animals can be less skittish, but still require slow, gentle movements in order to get close enough for macro photography.

3. Know your camera

Wildlife moments are often fleeting, so being ‘quick on the draw’ is vital. Most photographers keep their camera on a standby setting (rather than switching it off), allowing them to capture an unexpected opportunity almost instantly. Familiarity with camera controls is also important, as quick adjustments often need to be made on the fly. Not having to look down at your camera can be the difference between capturing these moments effectively or missing them completely.

4. When possible avoid using a flash

A sudden burst of light is likely to startle a wild animal and cause it to flee, causing stress to both the photographer and the subject! Unless carefully controlled, flashes produce harsh, unnatural light, which is the opposite feeling to the one wildlife photographers generally wish to convey.

In low-light conditions, a tripod and image stabilization are excellent weapons in the photographer’s arsenal. Be careful though, as the resulting slow shutter speed will only prevent inherent motion blur from the movement of the camera. It won’t freeze an animal’s motion!

5. Use shutter speed creatively

When there is enough light available, a fast shutter speed can be used to freeze the motion of fast-moving animals. Hummingbirds in particular require very high shutter speeds (e.g. 1/4000) to freeze their rapid wing beats.

Intentionally using slow shutter speeds can add compelling motion blur to the photograph. Experimentation is important here, as motion blur generally works best when important components of the image are sharp, providing an ‘anchor’. This effect can be achieved with flying birds with smooth panning, keeping up with the bird’s trajectory as the shutter is triggered.

6. Try macro photography

Macro photography can provide an interestingly novel perspective into the lives of small reptiles and insects, which often go unnoticed. A huge advantage of macro photography is that there is never a shortage of subjects. Whether we like it or not, insects and other invertebrates are always close by; Tigers and Polar Bears generally aren’t!

DSLR cameras generally require a separate dedicated macro lens for close-up photography, while on the other hand, many mirrorless cameras have a macro setting built in. Telephoto lenses can even be used, provided they have an adequate minimum focusing distance. Macro photography forces you to get close to your subject, so it is important to move slowly and avoid sudden movements, as explained above. Butterflies are excellent subjects for macro photography, as they have a proclivity for beautiful flowers, and their wings often display colourful, intricate patterns. A wide aperture often works well, as long as the plane of the butterfly is adjacent to the objective lens (each part of the butterfly is equidistant from the camera). This will ensure that the entire butterfly is sharp.