I must say that even if it is not a field I practice every day, I have always been passionate about naturalist and wildlife photography. Which photographer has never dreamed of capturing beautiful pictures of wildlife, as we can see in National Geographic wildlife magazines? I am only a simple amateur, passionate about wildlife photography, but every time I had the opportunity to try my hand at it in a natural environment, I always enjoyed, and I have excellent memories. I think in particular of the discovery of the wilderness during my safari in Tanzania, of my shooting of Orang-Outangs in the jungle in Sumatra, Indonesia, or the makis and other birds that we often shot when I lived on the island of Mayotte, in the Indian Ocean.
After having guided you in the choice of your lens for wildlife photography (but also for your camera and accessories), I propose today to give you my advice for it. Because owning a telephoto lens and looking at galleries of the best wildlife photographers can inspire you, but it will not make you the king of wildlife photography! For those who are just starting out, I invite you to have a look at the articles explaining the basics of photography. You will find the essentials to start, to understand the basics and all the associated technical notions.
Wildlife photography can be a demanding or an easy discipline, depending on the type of animals you are interested in. Of course, it is easier to capture a cat on the couch than a buzzard swooping down on its prey. Nevertheless, in both cases, we are talking about wildlife photography, which includes different requirements and necessarily different equipment. For example, some small animals may require macro lenses, or at least a small minimum focusing distance, while others will require short focal lengths or, on the contrary very long ones. So, don’t get into complicated subjects too quickly and rather start with simple animals, such as most pets, which often don’t require any special technique but can help you to get familiar with certain animal reactions, and train you to be discreet.
But of course, when we think of wildlife photography, what directly comes in mind is wild animals, ourselves wandering in the wild looking for the unique shot that few people could take, and mainly big professional cameras that cost an arm and a leg. Fortunately, the latter are not necessary, even more so nowadays when you can get equipment at very reasonable prices, as you will see in the article on wildlife photography equipment. What will make the difference is the preparation of the shot – and I’m not just talking about putting your camera on a tripod and turning the knobs to adjust the settings. Indeed, you will have to get to know the animals, their behaviors, where to find them and how to spot them, which is only the beginning because you will also need time to master approach techniques such as stalking and shooting. All the more reason to start by selecting a type of animal in particular, the one you are most interested in, among mammals, birds, insects. You’d better not disperse yourself too much as there would be a large mass of information to integrate about all kinds of animals (when we tell you that it will take you time!). We agree that you don’t get ready and shoot a bear, an owl, a lion or a hare the same way…
There are also a lot of environmental constraints. Obviously, you will not necessarily find the animals you are interested in on every street corner, and you will have to move in places where you will sometimes have to stay for hours, with a regularly changing weather and light… which will force you to prepare carefully each outing with phases of tracking, where you will spend more time looking and planning than taking pictures.
You can start by selecting the species you want to photograph and find out where they live (logically, if you are looking for deer in the village square, you will probably be disappointed…). You must then learn as much as possible about its behavior, whether it is diurnal or nocturnal, what it eats, whether it lives in a group or not, whether it migrates, its habits and everything that will allow you to facilitate your research. Not forgetting of course to know how to spot the signs of its presence (footprints, remains of meals, including after digestion, hair, shelters etc.). Be careful to also be able to recognize them physically, some species are quickly identifiable but others look alike and can be confused (well, usually you wouldn’t confuse a tiger with an elephant, we agree, haha). You can find all this information in specialized books or on the internet.
Once you know where they are, you will have to find a point of view and observe (a pair of binoculars is not a bad idea), in order to define in which areas they pass, where they rest, where they look for food, etc. You can also take notes of the places and times, and what pictures you could make with that, especially if you try to follow several species at the same time. Don’t forget also to think about the wind direction when choosing your observation point, as most animals have a very developed sense of smell and you might scare them away. You can use accessories too, such as shelters, mentioned in the article on equipment, or dress up in camouflage clothing for example (we agree that for your pets in the garden, it is not necessary, right?). Don’t hesitate to come back regularly to the same places to add observations in your notebook.
Of course, I am talking here about the stalking technique, which consists in avoiding as much as possible disturbing animals in their daily life. In theory, a good hiding place will often allow you to get close enough to the animals, as long as you have well prepared your outing by making the right observations. However, you will sometimes have to build a “burrow” so that the animals get used to it. This is a technique where patience is an essential quality, as you will spend a lot of time doing some tinkering and monitoring. Another technique: the approach, or photo walk, consists in going to directly meet the animal. Basically, you don’t wait for them to arrive, but instead you go and find them. This technique requires a lot of skills because it also requires a lot of preparation and observation. You will have to be discreet too, since you’ll have to carry heavy equipment, and disappointments will often be numerous for those who do not know how to do it well.
Once all these observations have been made, the place you’ll stand defined, and once you know at what moments the animals you are interested in can be immortalized, you will still have to direct your viewfinder, choose the hours and locations where you will have better light, orient your camera in the most suitable direction…
Generally, the first and last hours of the day offer beautiful low-angled light. Target in priority, and when possible, the lightened places where these animals usually pass. Don’t hesitate to do a few “blank” tests when the animals are not yet on the spot, so you can refine your framing and appreciate the different shots – even if it means moving slightly or going into a dive or low angle, in case of unsightly background. The movements of most animals being fast and difficult to anticipate, you will sometimes have to make do, and follow them even if the harmony of the shots is broken. In this case, remember that with long focal lengths and relatively large sensors (even micro 4/3), the depth of field is quite short, and backgrounds will often be blurred. You must therefore make sure to properly center the animal.
To begin, I invite you to reread the article about the rule of thirds, but remember that although it is called a “rule”, it is only a convention. It allows you to achieve a certain visual coherence quite easily, but above all, it encourages you to think about your composition all the time, even when you don’t follow it. Unless you want to make a particular effect, I advise you to apply the same kind of principles as for a portrait. Aim for the eye, leave room for your subject, ideally in the direction of his movements. If it moves to the right, leave room on the right of the image, ditto on the left, top or bottom, and orient your camera according to the morphology and posture of the subject in order to give a better dynamic to the image. For example, a standing giraffe lends itself more to a vertical orientation than a fox lying down.
Unlike architectural photography, you will rarely have buildings, roads or any other construction offering geometric references, and yet you can easily find some and use them as leading lines, whether it is trees, branches, ground relief … in short, use the environment around the animal to direct the eyes on your images, it can only be beneficial. To go further, I also invite you to reread the article on composition in photography, it may be useful!
For most animals, you will generally need to control your exposure time more than your depth of field. This is especially true with long focal lengths where it will be very short anyway. So, it’s best to use S/Tv (shutter speed priority) mode and let the camera decide on the aperture. In any case, it will usually be set to full aperture, which you would often have chosen in many cases where the light would have been lacking, or when a very short exposure time would have been needed. Regarding ISO sensitivity, the camera will also take care of it automatically, unless you want uniformity in your shots. In this case, you can switch to M mode and set all your settings by yourself, and then the other articles on this website can help you with this.
For the light metering mode, everything will depend on the framing and the space occupied by the animal you are shooting in this frame. You can refer to the article on metering modes to learn more, but let’s say that, by default, center-weighted metering will be a good compromise. If the subject is small or backlit, you can switch to spot metering. Be careful, on a Canon DSLR, you will have to center it since the spot metering on these cameras is only on the central AF points.
Concerning the autofocus mode, a mode allowing to follow the animal movements will obviously be much more suitable, for example a continuous mode (AI Servo at Canon). For relatively slow animals, you can limit this mode to a single AF point and then follow it yourself. However, for others more restless, it will be better to use a tracking on a number of AF points more or less large. A larger number will cause a loss of reactivity but less risk of losing the subject, so it’s up to you to find the best compromise depending on the animal and its movements.
For the burst, the high-end cameras will often offer you a better comfort and will have an advantage over the others. Indeed, in the field of wildlife photography, the moments are very elusive and a good burst will be really interesting. Spending hours observing an animal and missing the right moment because of a bad reactivity of the camera, either on the burst or on the autofocus, is always frustrating. Be careful not to overdo it, though. The noise of some cameras will eventually alert animals, not to mention the fact that you will quickly saturate your memory card!
The exposure time is often the most important parameter. Depending on your equipment, on the animals and the way you want to transcribe the movement, the choice of your exposure time may vary, from 1/10th to 1/8000th of a second. It will also depend on the focal length of your lens, whether it is stabilized or not, or if you use a monopod or a tripod. In full frame, the “rule” advises a shutter speed of 1/focal length (1/300th for a 300mm, for example) handheld, without stabilization on the lens and the camera. In APS-C, it will be necessary to multiply the focal length at least by 1.5, or even 2 for more security (1/500th for a 300mm, to use the same example). In Micro 4/3, it will have to be multiplied by 2 or even 3 (1/1000th for a 300mm). Obviously, if there is a stabilization, as on most micro 4/3 cameras or recent Sony cameras, you can use longer exposure times. But overall, it is the animal and its movements that will define the shutter speed needed. Being able to shoot without motion blur at 1/10th of a second when the animal is unable to stand still is not very interesting.
As said above, with long focal lengths, the aperture will not be so important. Well, actually, it will be, but you will probably want a lens opening to the maximum to get more light and then avoid increasing ISOs. Remember, a lens that opens to f/2.8 will allow you to shoot an animal twice as fast as if you had a lens with a maximum aperture of f/4. Also, with a lens with a larger aperture, you’ll be able to blur your background better and achieve more beautiful bokeh. In situations where you don’t lack light (or if there are a lot of animals in the frame), you can always use smaller apertures like f/5.6, or f/8 if you want to increase the depth of field a bit or improve the level of detail in the image. Some telephoto lenses, especially zooms, are often worse at larger apertures.
ISO sensitivity pose always the same problem. Ideally, we would like to be able to set it to its lowest value, but the light conditions rarely allow it. This is particularly true when you need to use short exposure times, especially since this kind of pictures does not often allow to use a flash, and even less to install lighting systems! You will have to deal with the sensitivity necessary to ensure the desired exposure time, so do not be too demanding for that part. Fortunately, current cameras know how to manage quite well the increase in ISO and you will be able to go up to 3200ISO on most formats, and even more on the larger ones. I have seen myself shooting animals in Tanzania, or in the jungle in Sumatra, with ISO6400 without too much trouble.
As you can see, wildlife photography is a demanding field, like many other fields in photography. However, few are as demanding as it is, especially in relation to the camera equipment. If you want to have satisfactory results, you must therefore prepare your shots well, invest a lot of time in it and be patient, because there is always a lot of waste. Personally, I got into the habit of shooting in RAW and doing post-processing afterwards.
That’s the end of this article, I hope these tips will help you to “trap” our little beasts. Don’t forget to have a look at the other articles on this site, the one about wildlife equipment and the one where I give advice to succeed in taking pictures on safari among others.