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One of the most challenging types of photography is wildlife photography because you need to be quick, can’t get close, and can’t guarantee it; but it’s also one of the most rewarding. Wildlife photos give us the opportunity to admire the details of animals we would never get to see otherwise. Have you ever been that person pointing at a tiny, dark speck in a photo trying to prove you saw a bear on your hike? I’m right there with ya; missing a photo op because of inadequate equipment and/or skill is frustrating. That’s why I’ve put together this list of simple animal photography tips to help beginners capture stunning wildlife photos without the frustration.
Watch BBC’s Birds of Paradise (free on YouTube!) and you’ll see what I mean by patience. Most professional outdoor and wildlife photographers will camp out in one location for weeks or even months waiting for the perfect photo opportunity. Those of you reading this probably don’t have the unlimited time and money the professionals do, but that’s the bar.
I don’t recommend spending months in the field, but spending a little time observing the animal can make all the difference. Stick around for an hour or two to gain the animal’s trust, slowly inch forward (but not too close), and don’t make any sudden movements or loud noises; the extra time will increase your chances of capturing the animal doing something interesting. I spent an hour and a half with this heron and in that time I witnessed him fish a few times, fly to a couple different spots, and learned the body language he exhibited before flying or fishing. Now that is a much more manageable time frame than months on site.
Essential Wildlife Photography Gear
Ordinarily I would say equipment doesn’t make you a talented photographer, but with wildlife photography gear matters. You still don’t need a lot of expensive equipment, but you will need a good telephoto lens with a focal length of 300 mm or more and a camera with a burst or continuous shutter mode. The Canon 6D Mark II is a great beginner wildlife camera because it offers a high speed shutter mode, fast auto focus, and lower digital noise at higher ISOs for an attainable price.
To get started in wildlife photography you just need a basic understanding of the exposure triangle to capture sharp wildlife photos. To break it down all you need is a fast shutter speed, wide aperture, and high ISO.
Fast shutter speed
If you are using a telephoto lens, you must use a faster shutter speed to accommodate the higher sensitivity to movement in longer lenses. The slowest shutter speed for sharp hand-held photos is “1/focal length”, so if you are using a 600 mm lens then you will want a shutter speed of 1/600 or even faster if you or the subject is moving.
Since wildlife photos require a faster shutter speed, you must compensate for the exposure and allow more light to reach the sensor by widening the aperture.
The animal will move, potentially in and out of various lighting conditions; you need a variable that is flexible and changes as quickly as the animal moves. Using auto ISO automatically adjusts the camera’s sensitivity to light, allowing you to adjust the shutter speed or move from shade to light without having to tweak your settings with every little change in the scene.
Save A Custom Setting
The secret to spectacular wildlife photos is all in custom settings. Most wildlife won’t stick around long enough for you to adjust your camera settings, so it’s critical to be fast and always ready for the unexpected. Save the optimal wildlife settings to one of your custom modes, which are marked as C1 & C2 on Canon and U1 & U2 on Nikon, that way you never have to spend time altering the settings. I typically leave my camera in sleep mode and set to my wildlife custom setting, so I all I have to do is lift my camera.
Recommended Wildlife Settings:
- Shutter Priority
- Shutter Speed: 1/640 (for a 600 mm lens)
- ISO: Auto with a max of 12800
- Exposure Compensation: 0 or slightly over exposed
- White Balance: Auto
- Auto Focus Operation: AI Servo
- Auto Focus Select: Zone AF
- Drive Mode: High Speed Continuous
Forget the Tripod
Most beginner wildlife photography tips will tell you to use a tripod, but I disagree. Animals aren’t waiting for you to get your perfect shot; the time you have is fleeting and tripods are cumbersome and take time to set up. Hand-holding the camera gives you the flexibility to set up quickly, adjust positions to get the best angles, and capture great wildlife photos even on the fly. If you need to stabilize the camera for some reason use the environment, your camera bag, or this awesome trekking pole/monopod combo.
Wildlife Photos At home
The pandemic has taught me you don’t have to stray far from home to see wildlife – in fact, I’ve recently learned Austin is a birding mecca. While you won’t find the crown jewel of wildlife such as bears and lions everywhere, you can find something unique in any location.
In my suburban condo I’ve seen birds, mice, squirrels, lizards, frogs, and snails; and in the Texas Hill Country I have access to everything from rare birds, bats, horses, cattle, coyotes, deer, and more! We tend to forget about all the awesome wildlife photo opportunities that are close to home because it is not as rare or special to us as it would our viewers, so don’t forget about where you live!
For more inspiration check out my wildlife photography gallery