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Wildlife photography is one of the most rewarding genres in the world because it takes a lot to master. However, it is possible to get a jump start with a lot of practice to become a great wildlife photographer in a short period of time.
In this article, we'll discuss how you can avoid a few of the common mistakes that generally everybody makes during their first few attempts to photograph wildlife. So, what are you waiting for? Scroll down and read our top tips on how you can improve your wildlife photography skills!
Wildlife photography can be hit and miss, so read on to find out our incredible tips for achieving better photos of animals! Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
If there's one thing that comes to mind first when photographing wildlife, it's that you should be patient!
The only way to take better wildlife photos is to have a lot of patience. Hours, days, weeks... it’s not about how much time you have to wait for the shot, as it's all about getting the shot.
You should not have any expiry date when it comes to wildlife photography. Of course, some wildlife will be easier to photograph than others. The bottom line is that you should understand that it’s very rare for animals to get close to you. It's also difficult to be in the perfect location at the right time of the day the very first time that you try to shoot them. So you'll have to be patient and wait!
As an example, in the photo below I had to wait all day in the bushes, after several days of dedicated photo expeditions to find the puma and with no sightings at all. Eventually, I was able to frame the puma cub right where I wanted, on the edge of the hill. Once I had found the puma family, I couldn’t move without the risk of losing them in the steppe. That cute tiny thing then spent all of the afternoon sleeping. It was only during twilight that he decided to move around, after 9 hours of stakeout.
It's important to be patient if you want to get the shot. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
My second tip is the hard truth. You'll need some great pieces of gear to be able to capture wildlife pretty much anywhere.
It won't be fair for me to say that it’s "not about the equipment and it’s all about the photographer". While it may be like that in many other genres of photography, in the case of wildlife photography, the quality of your equipment can make a big difference in many situations.
For example, if you are thinking about buying a camera for wildlife photography, you should pay a lot of attention to its high ISO capabilities and its frames per second (FPS) ratio. This is because, whether you want to or not, you will likely end up shooting in low-light conditions. In order to capture great images when the lighting is poor, you'll need to raise the ISO without introducing too much noise.
If you are in the market for a wildlife photography lens, the first thing you should check is its luminosity (the brighter the better) and its maximum focal range. From personal experience, I have never found myself shooting wildlife (in the wilderness) at less than 300mm. Never. Most of the time, animals won’t allow you to really get close to them, so having a 500mm or 600mm lens with you will be a great advantage.
There are currently many telephoto zoom lenses on the market that will allow you to cover a huge focal range (150-600mm, 200-500mm, 100-400mm, etc.). They are not as expensive as prime lenses but they are also not as bright. However, they don't weight as much as primes and they still offer great image quality.
Good camera equipment is essential in wildlife photography. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
It may seem obvious, but it’s not: I have seen many people losing out on capturing beautiful wildlife shots because they don't know how to work with their camera when the action starts happening.
In wildlife photography, the camera is not just a tool with which you take pictures; the camera is an extension of your arm – something that you should be able to work on even if you are blinded. This is because when you photograph wildlife, you will have to change the settings many times in a heartbeat, since the subject you are shooting can run, stop, fly or jump. Who knows what it will do next! The point is, if you don’t know how to change your settings rapidly, you are going to lose the shot. There’s no doubt about this.
It will take a lot of practice but you really need to learn to master your camera before aiming to master wildlife photography.
Know how to work your camera so that you can be ready for that perfect moment when it happens! Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
This suggestion may seem a little bit weird at first but it’s really important when it comes to shooting wildlife: you absolutely should be at the same eye-level of the subject you are trying to capture.
I see many people shooting wildlife from above. Unless it's a very specific situation, you won’t get the result you are aiming for if you don’t get low.
With a quick check, you can see that almost all the photos in this article were made from ground level. In most cases, I was standing at exactly the same eye-level of the animal that I was shooting (yes, sometimes it’s really uncomfortable).
Generally, by getting to the subject’s height level, you’ll be able to get a better bokeh effect in the background, which will make your picture stand out even more.
Getting down to the same height as your subject will yield better results in wildlife photography. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
The most difficult thing to do when you are shooting wildlife is to get close to your subject. It requires a lot of planning, attention and study to do that; 99% of the animals of the Earth won’t be confident with you and won’t get close unless you really put them in the position to do that.
The first rule to follow when you want to approach a new subject is to never disturb or harm them, in any possible way. The perfect approach is when they don't even see you, or at least they barely notice you.
To be able to do that, you should study and read a lot about the animal’s behaviour. During which time of day is it usually out – midday, night or evening? What does it eat – is it carnivorous or a herbivore? In what kind of environment is it possible to capture the animal and this behaviour?
These questions are just a few examples of things you should ask yourself before even taking the camera in your hand, if you want a chance of getting close to the animal that you are seeking to photograph.
Getting close can be either a good or a bad thing. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
As I said in the last point, most of the time, you’ll want to be at a close distance to your subject. However, there are times when you may want to be quite far away, either for your safety or to try to include the animal in the whole landscape. This kind of contextualised wildlife photography can result in some incredible shots if you are aiming to show the surrounding landscape together with the wildlife.
For example, in the photo below of an arctic hare during a white-out storm, I wanted to showcase the pureness of the surrounding landscape together with the subject. I could manage to get closer shots (and I did), but I found myself liking this one the most as I was able to provide some context to the animal in its environment.
While you may need to stay far away to get the shot, sometimes you'll need to stay away for your own safety! Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
The bokeh effect is one of the most powerful techniques to take more interesting images when shooting wildlife.
Personally, I always try (if possible, of course) to play with the depth of field by following two easy rules:
Put something between yourself and the subject in the foreground, possibly quite close to the lens; the result will be a greater depth of field and a nice blurry foreground.
Separate the subject from the background as much as you can. You can do this by getting to the eye-level of your subject and by getting close. The result will be that the subject is perfectly in focus while the background will be completely out of focus.
Shallow depth of field can enhance a shot. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
An important topic still needs to be tackled: the autofocus.
Let’s start with the fact that you will hardly ever shoot wildlife using manual focus. Now, the only question that remains is: which focus mode should you select when photographing wildlife?
The answer is: select the continuous mode.
By selecting the continuous autofocus mode (AI Servo on Canon, AF-C on Nikon), the camera will keep the focus on the subject using all of the focus points, from the moment that you slightly press the shutter button until the second that you actually take the shot.
This mode is not infallible, but it’s as close as you can get to making things easier for you, especially if you are shooting moving subjects.
In a situation where the subject is standing still, I personally prefer to manually select the point of focus from the grid. This way, I can precisely select the point where the eye of the animal is, since that is where I want the focus and to have the maximum sharpness.
Continuous autofocus will help to ensure that you'll get the subject in focus. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
This tip may seem a bit confusing, so let me explain myself. There are some general compositional rules in photography (not specifically in the wildlife genre) such as the Rule of Thirds. In fact, you may have read many photography guides already which have suggested that you follow these compositional techniques, specifically at the beginning when you are still learning.
On the one hand, these guides are right. By following the rules, you can practice your composition skills and improve your photography a lot, particularly when you are starting out and you still need to learn everything.
On the other hand though, rules can kill your creativity. Every once in a while, you should try to “escape” the guidelines and do it your own way. That’s how you’ll develop your own style of photography and how you can be noticed in the wildlife photography world.
The rules of composition were made to be broken. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
I briefly talked about this earlier, in relation to getting close to your subject. If you have gotten this far, then it probably means that you are really interested in trying to do some wildlife photography or improving your skills, so I really want you to understand that you should behave appropriately whenever you are around wildlife.
You should always remember to be a nature and animal lover before being a wildlife photographer.
It is important that you never disturb wildlife. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
Never disturb the animals or cause them any harm; in today’s world, it's unfortunate that there are many people will do anything just for the sake of self-satisfaction or a few seconds of popularity on the web. So please, don’t be one of those humans. Behave appropriately and don’t harm the wildlife just “for the shot”. If, on a certain day, you can’t get close to your subject, then photograph it from far away or don’t photograph it at all.
This is where we come back to the need to be patient. You will need to know when the moment is that you can start taking pictures as much as when it’s time to stop and leave the subject alone.
Wildlife photography can be very rewarding. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
As you can see, wildlife photography is one of the most beautiful genres in photography if you are a nature and animal enthusiast. When you are able to realise the shot that you were aiming for finally coming to life on the back of your camera, you’ll understand why you spent all that time waiting for hours, days or even weeks beneath the sun, rain or snow. It's a rewarding genre of photography and while it may not be easy at first to achieve good results, you'll get a lot better with practice. The satisfaction of taking a great wildlife shot will be priceless!
Join us on a wildlife photography adventure in Namibia! This is a wonderful extension of our 11 Day Namibia Photography Tour. Photograph animals in the wild and try out the tips that you've learned above!