Because there are so many things to take into account in such a short period of time, wildlife photography presents one of its greatest challenges. Even if you follow all the rules, uncontrolled circumstances may still prevent you from taking “the shot.” However, there are certain fundamental suggestions that are simple to remember and will advance your wildlife photography. I’ll cover eleven of my go-to advices for this kind of thing in this article.
Don’t Shoot in Harsh, Direct Midday Sun
Don’t shoot any animal that is directly lit by the blazing midday sun, if I could only preserve one guideline on this list. In those circumstances, getting a good shot is all but impossible. Typically, your subject will have sharp shadows and no catchlights in their eyes. Due to the shimmering effects of feathers and fur in harsh lighting, visual sharpness is frequently reduced.
It’s not only the subject, either. In this kind of lighting, backgrounds frequently have sharp, glaring highlights that detract from your subject (as in the shot below). Midday light photographs almost always receive 0 stars when I evaluate my photos from 0 to 5 stars during photo processing.
When the sun is at its highest, can you shoot? Sometimes, even during these challenging times of day, you may do anything if the sun is softened by clouds or if you are in a dense forest. And sometimes the sharp gaze is effective for very certain subjects. A few hours after sunrise or a few hours before sunset, typically when the sun is not higher than 30 degrees in the sky, is when I take the most (perhaps more than 95%) of my good pictures.
Upgrade Your Lens Before Your Camera
A better lens will typically achieve greater distances than a better body. For instance, investing in a lens with a 500mm maximum focal length will be far more advantageous than purchasing the newest and finest camera if your maximum focal length is 300mm.
Generally speaking, if you notice yourself cropping frequently or raising ISO settings excessively, it may be time to upgrade your lens. A new camera might give you a few extra pixels for cropping or marginally better high ISO performance, but a better lens will significantly improve your photos. It can be like night and day when comparing, for example, f/5.6 with f/2.8. The difference between, say, 200mm and 500mm is the same.
Try New Locations
I can think of plenty of stunning locations that would make terrible locations for animal photography. Sometimes it’s because the animals’ preferred locations are too far away, and other times it’s because the background features are too busy and distracting.
Animals can often be seen more easily in edge habitats, which are areas where two habitats converge, such as a river in a forest or a grassy plain adjacent to a lake. I definitely recommend eBird.org for birders because it lets you search hotspots. I’ve discovered a lot of fantastic locations for photography using these hotspots, even if they are more for discovering birds than for finding photo settings.
It was fascinating to notice that some allegedly “common” birds are rarely photographed if they solely inhabit outside of the United States when I recently looked at eBird’s comprehensive list of birds from most to least photographed. Therefore, it would be worthwhile paying close attention to resources like this one if you reside or travel outside of the United States.
Therefore, if you see that your images aren’t turning out as you had hoped, hold off on buying new camera equipment. Finding a new location will allow you to take much better pictures for much less money than purchasing a new camera.
Even while eBird is the one I’ve used most frequently, you may look for other wildlife topics on similar websites and forums. For instance, some people keep tabs on current reports of wolves and bears in different National Parks and post them online. All you need to do is know the kind of wildlife you want to capture on camera, and if you look hard enough, you’ll probably find some great, fresh spots to do it!
Shoot at Eye Level
The majority of shots will be much improved by shooting at or near eye level. This accomplishes two things: it improves your view of the animal and provides a farther-off background (and hence more subject isolation).
This typically entails getting down close to the ground oneself for subjects that are near to it. I frequently sit and kneel to take pictures at eye level. Cameras with rear tilting screens are greatly advantageous in this situation since you can set the camera low, as on a short tripod, and simply tilt the screen out to compose.
Watch Your Shutter Speed
Wildlife photography requires so much light, and it rarely has enough of it. It is essential to use a shutter speed that is as long as feasible while preventing motion blur and camera wobble. A longer shutter speed will result in more light hitting your sensor and improved image quality.
Even if a shutter speed of, example, 1/1000 of a second will undoubtedly prevent blur on a perched bird, you don’t actually require such a quick shutter speed. Additionally, birds frequently stop to study their surroundings; during these times, greater shutter speeds can be used without any problems. Even with lengthy focal lengths like 500mm, I mean “longer” to be in the region of 1/400 second, 1/200 second, or occasionally more.
Furthermore, it’s okay if you miss a few shots when your subject is just standing there. The sharp ones will readily compensate for it thanks to their high image quality. If I had adhered to the customary reciprocal rule of “1/focal length,” I may have easily ended up shooting at ISO 4000-5000 in the example above.
However, while photographing moving animals, avoid using a shutter speed that is too slow. Although greater shutter speeds can be effective for birds that are soaring slowly, like raptors, I prefer to keep to 1/2000 of a second or faster when photographing motion, such as flying birds. There is a lot more to say about this subject, and for more information, I highly suggest Libor’s great book on birds in flight.
Constantly Evaluate Your Background Possibilities
I am aware that there are numerous potential landing spots when I arrive at a site. As a result, I examine the potential branches with my eye and via the lens to choose the optimum locations. I can just ignore the places that will cause issues if I am aware of this knowledge prior to any bird landing somewhere.
If you work on it, it will come naturally. You should be saying to yourself, “Yeah, this area over there is excellent. However, disregard it if a bird landed to the left. Of course, you can still take a photograph if it’s a rare species or one you don’t have, but you’ll also be aware of the best locations to capture pictures.
The Chiricahua Mountains, which are visible in this hummingbird’s background, are an example of how I occasionally like to add some variation and texture to my backgrounds:
Try Different Focal Lengths
Due to birds being the most popular wildlife subject, long focal lengths like 500mm, 600mm, or even 800mm are most common in wildlife photography. But you can also utilize shorter focus lengths for wildlife.
The macro lens, which normally has a focal length between 60mm and 150mm, is a well-known illustration; nevertheless, there are other specialized macro focal lengths outside of this range. However, a macro lens makes it possible to capture images of far smaller wildlife.
Additionally, there are a plethora of opportunities while photographing animals with standard or wide-angle lenses. These focal lengths can produce interesting photos by revealing more of the context of an animal’s environment. When you need to get this near to your subject without scaring it away, you might need to employ inventive approaches like a remote camera.
Different focus lengths can not only open up new perspectives on the world but can also provide you with a mental break from your typical photographic approach, sparking new ideas.
Try Different Subjects
Is your area of expertise mammals? Test birds. Do you only take down birds? Consider butterflies. The birds are easier to photograph at particular periods of the year, at least where I reside. Millions of geese and rare ducks like mergansers and goldeyenes swarm to smaller bodies of water during the fall migration in Eastern Ontario. But in July, photographing birds is like looking for water on the moon, so I attempt to take pictures of insects.
I suggest a handbook if you’re just starting out in wildlife photography to help you identify the species you’re photographing. You can use this information to learn more about an animal’s habitat and habits as well as to decide what species to photograph next.
Know When to Use Exposure Compensation
Exposure compensation still holds a lot of significance in my opinion, even with the sophisticated metering systems and the wide variety of metering settings seen in modern cameras. No matter what metering setting you choose, if a very small amount of white is present on an otherwise dark bird against a black background, the camera will overexpose. Introducing exposure compensation. Simply put, I know to reduce exposure compensation to -1 EV in these circumstances.
With mirrorless cameras, exposure adjustment is very simple. Simply change the exposure while seeing through the EVF. If your camera has a blown highlight or zebra warning, turn it on and adjust the exposure until the warnings are completely gone.
Shoot in Raw
This advice is applicable to all forms of photography. Of course, shooting in Raw as opposed to JPEG has countless benefits. Shooting in Raw will give you more room to recover tone information because wildlife photography is notorious for having difficult lighting conditions.
Additionally, some cameras have noise reduction turned on in JPEG mode, but this noise reduction won’t be as effective as what you can achieve in post-processing. Additionally, white balance can be improved in Raw, and I’ve found that certain cameras’ auto white balance has a hard time with greenery like grass or leaves.
Naturally, this also means that you need to spend some time learning how to use your Raw developer’s advanced capabilities. You may give a photo that extra 5% to make it truly stand out by pushing your files to the maximum.
Try to Incorporate Interesting Behavior
As much as I appreciate the bird on a stick, capturing some behavior in your photograph adds even more intrigue. This includes everything from animals in motion (birds in flight are a common topic for a reason) to relationships between various species. The majority of animals also spend a lot of time eating, which makes it easy to capture interesting photos of them.
Because many animals are constantly moving and eating, you won’t usually have to wait long to observe activity. I advise using a higher shutter speed and high-speed shooting (like 10FPS) to capture these actions because they occur very quickly.
I sincerely hope some of these pointers will assist you in discovering fresh wildlife opportunities. When I’m out in the field, I use the majority of these tools whether I’m photographing birds, mammals, macro subjects, or any other kind of wildlife.
I’ve been shooting for years, but I’m still continually picking up new wildlife photography techniques, so please feel free to leave a remark with any of your own!
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