Whether it’s critters or creatures, wildlife photography can shine a light on an unseen world. Before you get started, however, you should understand that taking pictures of wild animals isn’t like snapping smartphone photos of your dog. You’ll need some wildlife photography tips before you’re ready to tackle big game!
1. Research Your Subjects
This is one of the most common wildlife photography tips for beginners. When are the snakes awake? How high do the bluejays nest? How long will the wolves nap after consuming a fresh kill? If you don’t want to spend hours gazing through your viewfinder at an empty field, do some homework about your intended subjects. Knowing their feeding, mating and sleeping habits can save you a lot of trouble in the long run.
2. Get On Their Level
You’re welcome to play with all perspectives, of course, but one thing that you’ll notice in professional wildlife photography tips is the emphasis on “getting low.” This means crouching down and seeing eye-to-eye with your subjects. You can’t be afraid of dirt when you’re shooting the wonders of nature, so don some old, patchy clothes and get to shooting.
3. Shoot During Golden Hours
“Golden hours” are the times during sunrise and sunset when you’ll enjoy stunning natural light in your photos. Whether it’s a lion majestically staring into the dawn or a butterfly spreading its wings against the encroaching twilight, you can add a lot of visual interest to your photos when you take advantage of golden hours.
4. Use Color Gels
If you’re unable or unwilling to rise at the crack of dawn to utilize wildlife photography tips and tricks, consider using a cheat: color gels. These filters go over your camera lens and adjust the color balance of your shots, so while you might not get a true sunrise, you can at least turn up the golden hue of your photos. You can also use color gels to soften or sharpen the ambient light of a bright noontime setting.
5. Plan Separate “Day” and “Night” Shoots
Wildlife photography tips have to be adjusted for nighttime shoots since low-light settings come with different rules than daytime ones. Your flash will have to be tweaked; your ISO will need to be changed. It’s a lot to manage on the fly, so do yourself a favor and plan for separate photo shoots for nocturnal and diurnal animals.
6. Invest in a Sturdy Tripod
You won’t need your tripod for every photo, but it can be a big relief to your tired arms when you’re six hours into a desert shoot and the zebra still hasn’t shown up yet. A tripod can also be a valuable tool for getting clear, precise images without any human fumbles messing up the shutter click. It only takes one shaky finger to blur your photos irrevocably!
7. Increase Your Shutter Speed
You’ve probably seen shutter speed mentioned in a lot of wildlife photography tips, and this is because it’s one of the most important tools that you have. High shutter speeds are capable of catching lightning-fast motion like the fluttering of wings and the quick snap of teeth closing in for the kill, so you’ll need to get comfortable with them if you want clear stills of moving subjects.
8. Scout Your Location
This is another one of those common wildlife photography tips, but it’s a cliche for a reason. Where will you park? How far will you have to walk to escape the fumes, honks and strewn candy wrappers of everyday society? Do you need any permits to shoot in protected areas? Where are your best lines of sight?
Clear these things up before you venture into the great outdoors with nothing but your camera and a sense of purpose.
9. Pick Your Favorite Backgrounds in Advance
When you’re shooting in a studio, you have the luxury of picking your own backgrounds. When you’re out in the wild, however, you have to make do with whatever Mother Nature is willing to provide. A good tactic is to focus your efforts on specific backgrounds of grass, leaves, hills or mountains. Let the animals wander into your chosen backgrounds instead of trying to find backgrounds for chosen animals.
10. Think About Lens Length
Longer lenses are great for herds, landscape shots and distant animals that you can’t safely approach. Shorter lenses are better for close-up subjects that you’re shooting at the zoo or the local park. You’ll probably want to carry both kinds with you in order to take a variety of photos.
11. Use a Polarizer
Polarizing filters are nifty little tools that will reduce the glare factor of sunlight shining on water, snow and other reflective surfaces. They can also be used to deepen certain colors and contrasts. They aren’t expensive, so go ahead and try one during your next experimental session with wildlife photography tips.
12. Pack Carefully
When you’re miles from civilization, a well-stocked bag is essential. The bag itself should be lightweight and waterproof, and your gear should be carefully stored to avoid damage despite your crawling, crouching, and kneeling. You might also want to pack things like sunscreen and extra protein bars. You never know how long that you’ll be on location.
13. Beware of the Sun’s Position in the Sky
Speaking of long afternoons, the sun will be a constantly changing variable in outdoor photos. Since it’s always moving across the sky, you’ll need to make continuous adjustments to your camera angles to ensure that your shadows and contrasts stay in place. You don’t want to ruin the perfect action shot because the sun drifted across the field when you weren’t paying attention!
14. Focus on the Eyes
Ask any expert for wildlife photography tips and they’ll probably tell you to focus on the eyes. Even if you can’t get the animal to stare directly at you, a pair of sharp, detailed eyes will do wonders for the overall clarity of your photo. On the flip side, if the eyes are blurry, the whole photograph will feel “off.”
15. Get a Macro Lens
Macro photography tips can be fused with wildlife photography tips to create stunning close-ups of birds, insects, and reptiles. You’ll need a macro lens to start; then you’ll need to seek out macro photography advice. The effort will be worth it once you see your intimate portraits of nature’s littlest creatures.
16. Learn Your Camera Well
The “wow” moments of wildlife photography happen during short, intense bursts of action. You might only have 5-10 seconds to capture a fighting cheetah or leaping dolphin before the image is gone forever. You’ll need to know your camera like the back of your hand in order to focus, zoom, toggle and shoot at a second’s notice, so spend some quality time with your settings to be prepared for the “wow”s.
These are just a few wildlife photography tips for beginners. As you can see, there’s a lot to consider before you grab your camera and hop into the safari van, so take your time and plan things in advance. Feel free to sound off in the comments if you have any advice for wildlife newbies, too!