Tips for Wildlife Photography

One of the best ways to truly see the nature and wildlife that surrounds us is through the lens of a camera. Distant raptors, tiny insects, quiet landscapes: All that nature has to offer takes on a new meaning when viewed as a potential photograph.

Whether you've been toting your camera on hikes for years, love to photograph the birds at your backyard feeder or are just getting started, we have photo tips that will inspire you to get outside, camera in hand!

In this post, I will attempt to provide you with some easy-to-apply tips or advice for improving your Wildlife Photography.

1. Use a DSLR camera:
I’m not really a camera snob and if someone is happy with their point and shoot camera then great! But when it comes to wildlife photography, a point and shoot just won’t give you the results that you want. If you don’t own one, try renting one.

2. Shoot with a long lens:
Wild animals are beautiful but they’re dangerous because they’re unpredictable. While you might be reasonably safe around a squirrel, any animal can get crazed if they’re spooked by your presence, so you don’t want to be getting up close and personal. This is the time when you want to be able to use a telephoto lens so that you can still fill your frame while keeping a safe and respectable distance.

3. Do research and be prepared:

A common misconception among wildlife photographers is that you must venture far from home in order to effectively capture visually arresting photographs. But even in your own backyard you can gather breathtaking portraits of wildlife.

Investigate the local species that frequent your region and be on the lookout for them (it goes without saying; you should try to always carry your camera). When scouting for wildlife, make a smart plan and take necessary safety precautions.

4. Gear and Stuff:

This sounds like the biggest cliché? But you know it’s true. The really great action-packed moments in wildlife photography last on average between 5 and 20 seconds. If you are not intrinsically familiar with the settings of your camera or the abilities of your chosen lens, you WILL either miss it or blow the images you do manage to capture.

  • Know what the minimum shutter speed is at which you can obtain a sharp image with your camera/lens combo;
  • Know the added margins that the in-camera or in-lens stabilization gives you;
  • Know how to quickly toggle between focus points or focus modes;
  • Know how high you can push your camera’s ISO setting and still achieve acceptable result;

5. Know Your Subject:
Get to know your subject’s behavior Read books and talk with hunters or experts on the species. Your local university may have researchers who special in the animal you’re trying to capture. Politely ask them for tips via email. Often they will be more than happy to share their expertise, provided you’re respectful of the animals. Some knowledge you will only gain through experience. 

Knowing your subject can make the difference between being ready and prepared for capturing that “golden moment” and watching it fly by you in agony. There is only one way to get to know wildlife…spend time with them. Don’t just hang around for a few minutes and seek out the next subject if the one you are observing or photographing isn’t delivering the goods. Sit with them. Watch them. Wait. This also ties into patience.

6. Follow the Light:
The quality of the light is what gives our images vibrancy and life. Painters know it and as a photographer you need to "see" the light and use it to your advantage. This means getting up early in the morning and being in the field before sunrise, and going out in the afternoon to make the most of the last hours of sunlight. The light over midday is generally harsh and robs images of that spunk that it needs. The exception is an overcast day, when the clouds act like a massive soft-box to filter out the light evenly.

Often we will find ourselves in a position where the light isn’t ideal or, heaven forbid, the light is sweet but from the wrong direction…and we also aren’t always in a position to move around to a better spot. The good news is that light from the wrong direction can add lots of mood to an image.

7. Patience and persistence:
The crucial photographic discipline of patience is essential in wildlife photography. Why do you think National Geographic film crews spend months on location? Those rare sublime moments of primal behavior are what make a shot compelling (but such opportunities come about in their own time).
It’s all about knowing where to be, what you are looking for in that particular species, and then waiting. When setting up your shot, be alert, keep a safe distance, find a unique viewpoint, and study your environment. In some instances, you may even be fortunate enough to encounter rare animals and behavior.

8. The Importance of Backgrounds:
In telling a visual story, your backdrop can often be as important as your subject. It provides an extra opportunity to communicate a message to your viewer.
In wildlife photography, backdrops allow the artist to provide a context to the rest of the image. This is usually accomplished in two ways:

· By using simple and non-distracting backdrops you are enhancing the
  importance of your subject.

· By establishing the natural environment or setting of the animal you can
  capture an accurate representation of its day to day existence. Overall
  this means, pay close attention to the dramatic tableau of your image
  when you shoot!

9. Shoot as wide open as you can:
The more you can open up your aperture, the more you’ll be able to focus on your subject while throwing the rest of the background out of focus. Shooting in the woods can mean a really busy background – lots of grass, plants, trees, etc. These can be extremely distracting if they’re all equally sharp. Blurring the background by shooting wide open allows your animal to really be the star of the photo.

10. Focus on the face, especially the eyes:
Generally you’re not going to want a nice sharp lion’s mane with a non-defined set of eyes. Treat your animal subjects like you would if you were shooting portraits by focusing on the eyes.

11. Use motion blurs:
One vivid way to depict animals is by capturing their movement and action. Getting wildlife on the move adds a layer of excitement to your images. Techniques like panning are a creative way to capture the motion of animals, where the dynamics of activity tells its own tale.

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