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How to shoot wildlife photography – beginners guide

May 23, 2022

An introduction on how to shoot Wildlife photography – For those who enjoy getting back to nature then wildlife photography can be a very therapeutic and rewarding genre to shoot, although be warned – patience is needed! Animals (especially wild ones) do not stand where you want them to, do not respond to your instructions and often are quick in their movements making it tricky to focus. In this guide we’ll tell you everything you need to know to get started, and get taking great wildlife photographs!

Lead image: James Warwick, Getty Images


Welcome to the AP Improve Your Photography Series – in partnership with MPB – This series is designed to take you from the beginnings of photography, introduce different shooting skills and styles, and teach you how to grow as a photographer, so you can enjoy producing amazing photography (and video), to take you to the next level, whether that’s making money or simply mastering your art form.

Improve your photography from AP and MPB

Each week you’ll find a new article so make sure to come back to continue your journey. The start may seem basic to some photographers, but it’s an important step in making sure you’re comfortable with your equipment and the basics of photography, as it’s part of the foundations that help build into great photographs, and once you know these, you’ll be able to play with them, and understand further articles in this series.


Before you begin the best way to become a better wildlife photographer is to research research research. The more information you know about your subject the better images you can shoot. Find out about their habitat, diet, is the animal dangerous, timid, aggressive, do they live in packs or alone? Not only will this ensure you are fully prepared when out in the field, it also means you will become better at anticipating their movements.

It’s also a good idea to research other wildlife photographers so you can learn from the best. Photographers like Mattias Klum, Will Burrard Lucas, Frans Lanting and Amy Gulick to name just a few will fill you with inspiration. Have a look at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year past and present winners too as there are so many inspiring images in there too. You’ll also find a vast array of articles on wildlife and nature photography in the Wildlife photography section of this website.

King Penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) Adult with chicks, South Georgia Island. True Wildlife photography

Do your research before you begin so you know the habits and behaviours of the animal you want to photograph well. Copyright: Kevin Schlafer / Getty Images

Don’t kit yourself!

If you are new to photography then you may think you need lots of fancy and expensive long lenses to shoot wildlife, however this simply isn’t the case. All you need to get going is a camera and lens. We’ve spoken to many wildlife photographers who at the beginning of their career’s simply made do with what they had. For example wildlife photographer Sam Hobson made his name using a wide angle lens (not your typical go to lens for wildlife). His wide angle award winning Bristol city fox images are incredible and well worth checking out.

If you do want to invest in a more traditional long zoom wildlife lens the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Contemporary DG OS HSM is a great budget option. One of these second hand can be picked up for around £700. There’s also a range of other lenses that are well suited to wildlife use.

For those with a smaller budget an extender is worth considering. This piece of kit fits in between your lens and camera body so make sure you purchase one that is compatible with your camera system. An extender’s job is to increase the focal length of your lens. For example a 2x extender on a 200mm lens will convert the lens to 400mm. A x1.4 extender on a 200mm lens will increase the lens to 280mm. It’s worth noting that the extender will decrease your widest aperture setting. For example if your lens can open up to f/2.8 with a x1.4 extender aperture setting will become f/4. With a x2 extender you will lose 2 aperture stops so your widest setting will become f/5.6.

Extenders vary in price, and we’d recommend hunting around on the second hand market to save money.

If you have a bit of budget an extender can help you get that extra bit of reach, as long as your lens is compatible

If you have a bit of budget an extender can help you get that extra bit of reach, as long as your lens is compatible.

Watch and observe wildlife

Although it’s tempting to start snapping as soon as you spot an animal, you’ll get much better results if you stand back, observe and assess the subject and environment first. Watch how the animal behaves. Are they okay with your presence? Where is the light coming from? Where is the best background? Is their behaviour predictable? Are you in the best position? Sometimes by slowing down and shooting less we can achieve more. Be prepared to return to the same location and have perseverance to get a good shot. Don’t feel disheartened if you don’t achieve what you want right away – Rome wasn’t built in a day!

You also need to know when to stop. The welfare of the animal needs to be put above your needs to get a great shot. For example mothers with new-borns will feel very threatened if you are too close, and avoid clambering around on rocks when birds are nesting. This is why you need to research thoroughly as there is no excuse for ignorance. Leave each environment you’ve been in with no trace.

Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) at clifftop edge, Hermaness National Nature Reserve, Unst, Shetland Islands, Scotland. Wildlife photography closer to home.

Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) at clifftop edge, Hermaness National Nature Reserve, Unst, Shetland Islands, Scotland. Research is vital so you understand where and when you can photograph nature. Image: James Warwick, Getty Images

Wildlife camera setup

There is no right or wrong shooting mode for photographing wildlife, and each photographer will have their own approach. As a good starting point we find it easiest to shoot in Aperture priority mode. In this mode you can fully control the aperture setting and the depth of field effect in the scene whilst the camera works out the shutter speed setting. Although your camera is working out this aspect you do need to be aware of what your shutter speed setting is reading. If it’s firing too slow (you can often hear when it is) try opening the aperture to a wider setting or increasing your ISO to let in more light.

  • Put your camera into Aperture priority
  • Check the light – increase your ISO setting if need be.
  • Open the aperture wider if you need more light.

If you don’t yet have a grasp on what shutter speed, aperture and ISO are we suggest you spend some time getting to know these settings on your camera and to experiment seeing the different effects they can achieve. For a refresher, have a look at our guide to exposure, aperture, ISO, shutter speeds and more.

Sumatran Tiger looks up at the treetops. Experiment with how you like to shoot with your camera. We recommend you trying aperture priority as a starting point. Justin Lo , Getty Images

Sumatran Tiger looks up at the treetops. Experiment with how you like to shoot with your camera. We recommend you trying aperture priority as a starting point. Justin Lo , Getty Images

Make sure it’s sharp

There are three key things to consider for achieving sharp wildlife shots, the shutter speed, aperture setting, and focus:

Shutter speed

Make sure your shutter speed is reading at least 1/500sec if the animal you are photographing is moving or for very fast movements 1/1000sec. If it is stationary then you’ll be fine with a setting of 1/200sec or above.

Using a fast enough shutter speed will ensure your subject stays sharp even when it is moving.

Using a fast enough shutter speed will ensure your subject stays sharp even when it is moving. Image: Steven Greenfiled / 500px, Getty Images

Aperture setting

How much of the animal do you want sharp? For example if you are close and focus on the eye at f/2.8, the eye will be sharp but the face will blur. This can look great if it is what you desire but if you want other features like the nose to be sharp then you’ll need to close the aperture down. In this example the Rhesus Macaque monkey in the foreground is in focus and one behind is soft as the image was taken at f/2.8.

In this image the aperture has kept the foreground Rhesus Macaque monkey sharp and blurred the other in the background. Copyright: Claire Gillo.

In this image the aperture has kept the foreground Rhesus Macaque monkey sharp and blurred the other in the background. Copyright: Claire Gillo.

Focus

You want to be spot on with your focusing. Our preferred method is to use the single point AF setting on our camera and set the focus to the tracking feature. That way if your subject is moving (even little movements) you’ll have more of a chance of keeping it sharp. Trying to predict where your subject will move into the frame helps with this aspect and again this is where your research comes in handy.
On many mirrorless systems pinpoint focusing has become super easy which will help you greatly in this genre of photography.

Track your subject and predict where they will enter the frame to achieve sharp shots.

Track your subject and predict where they will enter the frame to achieve sharp shots. Jeremy Woodhouse, Getty Images

You don’t always have to be sharp

There are some circumstances in wildlife photography when a slow shutter speed is more appropriate than a fast. For example capturing the motion of flocks of birds flying across the sky or panning with a moving animal to blur the background and give the feeling of motion. Experiment with this technique to produce something different from the norm.

A flock of snow geese took off at day break over a pond.

With the right subject slowing down the shutter speed setting can get you some great results. Image: John Fan Photography, Getty Images

Push the ISO

Any photographer will tell you that they love a low ISO setting as they then don’t have to deal with noise, however when it comes to shooting moving subjects like wildlife you have to be prepared to push the ISO up and embrace the grain. It’s more important to have your subject sharp and a little grainy than completely unusable.

Don’t get bogged down with your images being technically perfect either. Sometimes a great image of an animal can be a little blurred. It comes down to context and what you have captured in that moment. Don’t immediately dismiss a technically flawed image if the image has character or tells a great story.

At ISO 800 the image is noisy however the scene of the Rhesus Macaque monkey family is still effective.   

At ISO 800 the image is noisy however the scene of the Rhesus Macaque monkey family is still effective. Copyright: Claire Gillo

Background is just as important

The background setting of your wildlife image is undoubtedly just as important as the main subject whatever your approach. If you want to shoot a strong animal portrait then look for a plain background to frame your subject against. In some circumstances (definitely not all) you may even be able to drop in a plain background behind. For example if you set up a bird feeder in the garden you could do so in front of a studio backdrop and choose whatever colour you want behind. Although there is much we can’t control in wildlife photography, sometimes we can create better conditions for ourselves to enhance our luck.

Three Harvest Mice playing around and entwining their tails together to stop them from falling, a good clean background and lichen branch as their support a macro photography day. The background is just as important as your subject. Plain backdrops create the ideal setting.

The background is just as important as your subject. Plain backdrops create the ideal setting. Image: Lillian King, Getty Images

In a wide angle wildlife image the setting is vital as well. You want to use the scene to tell the story. Experiment with different camera angles – often coming down low gives an alternative take on a scene that we are not used to seeing.

Eastern White-bearded Wildebeest herd on the move - remote camera(Connochaetes taurinus). Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. July 2014.

Low angles work particularly well for wide angle wildlife images. Image: Anup Shah, Getty Images

Keep wildlife photography local

Although it is tempting to want to rush off to the other side of the world to capture those amazingly rare species only a handful of people have ever seen – don’t! Firstly, if you are an environmentalist which many wildlife photographers will be, it’s not very environmentally friendly to travel long distances. Secondly the chances of you getting a decent shot in those extreme environments are very low.

We recommend that you look to see what’s on your doorstep and keep your wildlife photography as local as possible – even in the city there are many wild animals around. Another advantage to shooting locally is you can keep returning to the same spot day after day or night after night, and eventually capture that amazing shot you set out to achieve.

Don’t travel to the other side of the world to find rare and exotic species to photograph. Concentrate what’s on your doorstep and tell the story there. Local wildlife photography    

Don’t travel to the other side of the world to find rare and exotic species to photograph. Concentrate what’s on your doorstep and tell the story there. Copyright: Claire Gillo

Stay in one spot

It may seem tempting to run after your subject, however you’ll probably find you have more success if you stay in one spot with your camera ready. This is especially true if shooting small and fast animals. Often when you start tracking them they either get spooked and run away or you end up with blurry shots of them on the move.

A great setting for wildlife photography is in the garden. If you spend just ten minutes sitting still you’ll be amazed at the amount of wildlife you have all around. Again sometimes by observing first and watching for behavioural patterns you will have more luck in getting the shot.

The garden is an excellent location for all kinds of wildlife. Garden wildlife photography

The garden is an excellent location for all kinds of wildlife. Copyright: Claire Gillo

Article: Claire Gillo


Tune in next week, for the next article in the series of the AP Improve Your Photography Series – in partnership with MPB.

Find the latest Improve Your Photography articles here.


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