12 Steps to Get That Perfect Wildlife Photograph

Featured image: Megan Coughlin / CC BY-ND 2.0

Wildlife photography is a difficult discipline, a branch of photography that demands skill, patience and special gear.

It requires telephoto lenses, which are long-focus lenses where the physical length is shorter than the focal length. The length of the lenses, though, depends on how close you can get to the wildlife and on the size of your subject.

Small and flighty birds, as well as shy animals, need very long lenses, which are heavy and bulky. These lenses are easy to use from your car, but if you’re trekking through the wilderness, it’s best to use a teleconverter, a secondary lens that sits between the camera and a photographic lens. Teleconverters are smaller and lighter, with various degrees of magnification that increase the reach of your camera. The only downsides are lower quality image resolution and units of light exposure, but these can be very worth it to get out in the wild.

But wildlife photography entails so much more than specific camera gear. Several renowned and practiced wildlife, nature and landscape photographers have given helpful hints on technique, composition and finesse on capturing a great wildlife shot. Here are 12 tips on photographing wildlife and how to nail the perfect picture:

1. Know Your Settings

Image credit: Diriye Amey / CC BY 2.0
Once you have the right camera gear, you’ll need to master your settings. Great photography moments in the wild last mere seconds. If you don’t know your settings well, you’ll miss your opportunity. Know the minimum shutter speed at which you can capture a sharp image. Know how to toggle between focus modes and know how high your camera’s ISO settings can go while still achieving good images.

Nature and wildlife photographer Morkel Erasmus tells Digital Photography School:

The really great action-packed moments in wildlife photography last on average (based on my experience) 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.

2. Do Your Research

Image credit: Diriye Amey / CC BY 2.0
Research the area you’ll be shooting in and the wildlife you’re likely to encounter. For example, learn when your subject is most active – if the animal you hope to photograph is active at dawn and at dusk, heading out midday will certainly be a bust.

Wildlife and timelapse photographer Joe Capra tells Mashable:

Research the wildlife that’s likely to be present at your shooting location. Try to learn about their behavior, movements and habitat. Research the location you’ll be shooting so you’re able to maximize your chances of finding the wildlife, the best places to shoot from and which direction sunlight will be coming from at various times of day.

3. The Subject

Image credit: Adam Meek / CC BY 2.0

Every animal species has unique instincts, behaviors, personality traits, characteristics, mannerisms and body language. Great wildlife photos capture an individual animal’s persona and essence. The best way to do this is to spend time with your subject, observing the animal in its natural habitat, getting to know it. After familiarizing yourself, you can capture a remarkable photo that portrays who that animal is.

One way to make photos of animals more interesting and unique is to get up close and personal. Changing your camera’s focal length by using a longer lens to capture animals as if face to face will create more artistic and abstract compositions.

Erasmus explains:

Since much of wildlife photography is based upon capturing fleeting moments of natural history, it pays to be able to somewhat predict your subject’s behaviour beforehand… 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.

4. Environment

Image credit: Javier Ábalos Alvarez / CC BY-SA 2.0
Often, wildlife photographers want to capture close-ups of the animal. These shots are usually pretty spectacular, but they don’t capture the surrounding environment, the place it has made a home for itself. An animal’s habitat can be a very powerful addition to a photo and its story. To capture this bigger picture, you’ll use a wider angle.

Cary Wolinsky and Bob Caputo, photographers for National Geographic among other publications, tell National Geographic:

Another thing to remember when photographing wildlife is the old ‘push/pull.’ Animals have personalities, and you want to show that. But you don’t want to be working really tight with long lenses all the time. You need to show their environment too—habitat says a lot. Back off and use wide-angle lenses to give viewers a sense of where the animals live.

5. Simple Backgrounds

simple background
Image credit: Airwolfhound / CC BY-SA 2.0
That being said, sometimes less is more. Simple, non-distracting backgrounds and smart use of negative space can create powerful and dramatic wildlife photographs. If the background is too chaotic or cluttered, your subject will get lost in the image.

Wildlife and landscape photographer Jeff Mitchum tells Mashable:

When you think about it, there is a lot more space than material to work with. So, why not make space and openness work for us? As photographers, we need to discover a delicate arrangement of space so contrast of subject comes alive. Contrast of space is critical because your subject needs to stand out.

6. Lighting

Image credit: Diana Robinson / CC BY-ND 2.0
Lighting is also extremely important to good wildlife photography. It’s best to head out in the morning before sunrise and later in the afternoon to catch the last bit of sunlight because the light at midday is often too harsh to capture a stunning image. Knowing how to work with good lighting, and lighting that turns out to be less ideal, is key.

On Digital Photography School, Erasmus writes:

Photography is all about painting with light… Often we will find ourselves in a position where the light isn’t ideal, or is from the wrong direction. Light from the wrong direction can add lots of mood to an image. Shooting into the light is tricky to pull off, but if you know your gear you can get some pretty interesting images from a less-than-ideal light position.

Image credit: Dolapo Falola / CC BY-SA 2.0
In addition, dramatic light can make for remarkable photos like the beautiful sunset-silhouette shots.

German wildlife photographer Gabriela Staebler discusses sunset-silhouette shots with Mashable:

Most cameras have various functions like ‘low light,’ or ‘sunset’ you can choose. The 10 to 20 minutes after sunset can produce a fantastic colored sky. If you use a digital SLR-camera: Select your exposure reading based off the brightest part of the picture. Focus on the animal and take the picture.

7. Perspective

lion cub
Image credit: Jason Wharam / CC BY-ND 2.0

The point of view of a wildlife photograph can make a world of difference because it’s about how you portray your subject. Most often, you’ll want to capture photographs at the animal’s eye-level or lower, a pretty big range. (Think about a snake versus a giraffe.)

Photographer Neil Paprocki, co-founder and scientific director of wildlife documentary/conservation organization Wild Lens, explains to Mashable:

I’ve recently been doing a lot of shorebird photography, and it’s easy enough to walk around standing up and take a photograph of a bird on the ground. However, you achieve a better depth-of-field and intimacy level with birds on the ground if you get down on your belly and see things from their perspective. This also allows you to approach birds far closer than if you just tried walking up to them.

8. Eye Contact

eye contactImage credit: Amanda Boyd / USFWS / CC BY 2.0
We think of the eyes as the window into the soul. Because of this, it’s important for your subject to maintain eye contact with the camera. Seeing an animal’s eye and holding its gaze can give life to the photo, capture that animal’s personality, and give you a powerful and emotional shot.
no eye contact
Image credit: Tambako The Jaguar / CC BY-ND 2.0
At the same time, eschewing the conventional “eye contact” shot can create incredible, standout photographs. You don’t always need eye contact in wildlife photography.

Erasmus reveals:

You don’t want your photos to always look like stock-standard images that every second photographer is getting… Sometimes it can work to shoot an image in which the subject is not giving the photographer eye contact, as this often means the animal is busy with something else, too busy to turn its attention to you.

9. Two’s A Crowd

Image credit: Uzi Yachin / CC BY-ND 2.0
Some animals are solitary and others are social, living in packs, herds, prides, etc. Photographing one animal at a time yields great photography, but photographing several together gives you a sense of the greatness and vastness of nature.

Erasmus says:

In wildlife photography – one is company, and two is often a crowd, especially when there’s food or shelter involved. If you have a good view of more than one member of a species – stay a while!

10. Go For Content

Image credit: Raúl A.- / CC BY-ND 2.0
Does a photograph with great content outshine one that is great by all technical standards? A technically superb photo that features a thrilling animal, such as the lion, in a boring composition is, as you might guess, boring. However, interesting compositions of “less glamorous” wildlife will nevertheless intrigue viewers.

UK-based wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas talks to Mashable about capturing great content, and going for something that hasn’t been seen:

This may mean concentrating on a specific animal and photographing it in more depth than anyone else, or finding a new way of photographing commonly seen creatures. The resulting photographs were widely published because the unique perspective really captured people’s attention.

11. Most Importantly, Patience

Image credit: SITS Girls / CC BY 2.0
Probably the most important virtue to have is patience. No wildlife photograph can be captured without patience, perseverance and poise. Nature and wildlife are unpredictable forces where nothing can happen for hours and anything can happen in seconds. Fortunately, whether it results in successful photography or not, any time spent in the field is not wasted. It’s time spent observing and familiarizing yourself with animals, learning about their personalities and behaviors for next time.

Wolinsky and Caputo explain:

The name of the game in wildlife photography is patience. Wild animals are going to do what they’re going to do. Unfortunately, you can’t ask them to look this way, do something cute, or stand where the light is better. You have to be there, and ready, when they decide to look cute or do something interesting. Be prepared to wait, and wait, and wait—it takes a long time to get good wildlife shots, even longer to make great ones.

12. And Don’t Forget To Have Fun

Image credit: Baker County Tourism / CC BY-ND 2.0
Lastly, have fun while photographing wildlife. It is an amazing way to spend time in the animal world, observing all the creatures in their natural habitats. If you enjoy being there, appreciate and celebrate the moment, it will translate onto your film.

Erasmus writes:

Don’t get caught up so much with the technical issues and your settings that you don’t take in the moments you are witnessing while out photographing birds and wildlife. We need to be mindful of the privilege of spending time in nature and being in places where the hand of man hasn’t quite exerted its full force yet. Enjoy what you are doing! What does it help us to spend so much time on this amazing artform if we are not enjoying the time spent?

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