From cute squirrels in your backyard to majestic moose in Maine, taking photos of wildlife can bring you closer to nature. Learn what you need to get started.
Wildlife photography is among the most challenging—and the most rewarding—genres of photography. It takes an enormous amount of patience and dedication, but it offers an up-close look at some of Earth’s most beautiful species in their natural habitats—something most of us don’t ever get to see in real life.
If you’re interested in trying your hand at wildlife photography, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll go over the equipment you’ll need, how to take the best photographs, and lots of beginner-friendly tips. We’ll also share plenty of stunning photos to inspire you to go out and try it for yourself.
Let’s dive in!
When you think of wildlife photography, you might think of photos of fierce lions and majestic elephants on the pages of National Geographic. Those definitely count, but wildlife photography is so much more. It’s simply about capturing any kind of wildlife in their natural habitat—from the butterflies in your garden to the squirrels in a city park to the moose you spot on your camping trip.
Before we get into how to photograph wildlife, let’s take a look at a few inspiring examples.
Up close and personal, wildlife portraits let us see animals like we’ve never seen before.
You need to follow the animal for a while to capture an action shot, but it’s absolutely worth it.
One animal is great, but capturing two animals interacting is even better!
Remove all color and let the eyes focus on the action and the story.
Frogs and insects are perfect candidates for macro photography—taking up-close photos of small things to make them appear larger than they are.
In order to take high-quality photos of wildlife, you’ll need a professional camera, a long lens, and a few other pieces of equipment.
Investing in a great DSLR or mirrorless camera will make it much easier to take the perfect photo at just the right moment. Look for something with:
Like with any genre of photography, it’s nice to have a variety of lenses to choose from, but when it comes to wildlife photography, you can’t do without a telephoto lens.
A telephoto lens has a long focal length and allows you to zoom in on your subject from far away. This is especially useful in wildlife photography because, more often than not, you won’t be able to get physically close to the animals. Some can be skittish and will disappear quickly before you’ve had a chance to photograph them. Others are simply too dangerous to approach.
Another great reason to use a telephoto lens is that it will give you that highly coveted blurred background effect, called “bokeh”. It will help separate your subject from the background and make it stand out.
Telephoto lenses come in a wide range of focal lengths. Anything above 60mm is considered a telephoto lens, but they go all the way up to 800mm. The longer the lens, the more expensive it tends to be, so get the maximum length you can afford. If you’re on a tight budget, consider getting a used lens—they have great resale value.
A camera with a long telephoto lens can be uncomfortable to carry for long periods of time. Not to mention, when you need to use a slow shutter speed to compensate for low light, holding the camera in your hands can result in blurry photos. For these reasons, wildlife photographers often rely on a tripod.
That being said, there are certain situations when using a tripod is impractical. Sometimes you just need the flexibility to move and change your position quickly (but also very inconspicuously). In these cases, as long as there is sufficient light to use a fast shutter speed, you can get away with not using a tripod.
Some of the best wildlife photographs are taken in the middle of a blizzard or rainstorm. There’s something captivating about seeing the animals in their environment, dealing with whatever weather conditions nature throws at them.
Don’t be afraid to go out in bad weather—use this as an opportunity to capture some unique photos. That being said, make sure you invest in high-quality gear to protect you from the elements. You’ll need warm clothes, a raincoat, rain boots, and the like. Don’t forget to protect your camera and lens, as well. Even though it’s weather-sealed, an additional rain cover wouldn’t hurt.
Your goal when photographing wildlife is to snap the perfect photo without being seen or heard. Wearing camouflage can really help with this, as can using hunting blinds. You can find both at your local outdoor gear store.
Every genre of photography has its own set of best practices. Here’s how to use camera settings, lighting, and composition to maximize your chances of capturing the most stunning photos of wildlife.
To take sharp, well-exposed photos, you’ll use three main settings:
Before you start shooting, familiarize yourself with the elements of the exposure triangle—aperture, shutter speed, and ISO—and how they work together to allow light into the camera lens.
With wildlife photography, it’s important to have full control over the aperture, which will determine your depth of field, as well as your shutter speed, which will help you take sharp images of quickly moving animals. In manual mode, you’ll be able to set both of these settings, while your camera will automatically adjust the ISO—its sensitivity to light—to compensate.
Animals rarely stay still, so you’ll need to track them with your camera until you’re ready to take the perfect shot. Continuous focus allows your camera to keep your subject in focus while you track it.
For fast-moving animals like squirrels and birds, you can use burst mode. This allows you to take 8-10 per second (or more, depending on your camera’s frame rate), so you never miss a great moment.
If you’ve done any kind of photography before, you’ll know that the absolute best time to shoot is the “golden hour”—the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset. The sun is low in the sky, which provides soft, even lighting and eliminates any harsh shadows.
Alternatively, you can shoot on an overcast day when the clouds can act as a natural diffuser for the sun. Just keep in mind, if you’re shooting animals or birds in water, overcast weather can make the water look gray and gloomy.
Chances are, when you come across an animal, you won’t get to spend a lot of time thinking about composition. That being said, keep these simple tips in mind and try your best to follow them when you can:
For example, if the animal is facing to the right, make sure it looks like there’s room for it to keep moving in that direction. Otherwise, the photo can look awkwardly cropped and claustrophobic.
Make sure the animal is the focus of the photo—remove any distracting branches or tree trunks from the foreground and use a shallow depth of field to blur the background.
If you’re shooting a chipmunk, for example, lie down on the ground and position your camera at their eye level.
The most captivating photos show the animal looking directly at the camera. If that’s not possible, try to keep the eyes visible and in focus.
Up-close portraits are great, but you can also tell a story by zooming out and including some of the animal’s surroundings, showing them in action, or even capturing two animals interacting with each other.
Technical aspects of photography aside, here are a few more tips on how to take your best wildlife photos.
Do a bit of research before you go out to shoot. Knowing the different species you might come across, their behavioral patterns, and their level of comfort around humans will help you better anticipate their actions.
Professional wildlife photographers sometimes spend weeks trying to get one perfect shot. If you’re dedicated, you won’t mind spending long hours sitting and waiting, or walking across a creek to get the perfect angle. Your perseverance will be rewarded in the end.
Wildlife photography is unpredictable, and you have no control over how the animals will behave. That’s why it’s important to know your camera well, practice changing settings quickly, and always be ready to take the perfect photo when the opportunity arises.
Start small and see whether wildlife photography is for you. Simply bring a camera on your next hiking or camping trip—you never know whom you might run into!
Masterclass: Ultimate Field Guide to Wildlife Photography
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