6 Basic Tips for Stunning Wildlife Photos

A Large Male Elk Roaming in a Field Of Flowers

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Wildlife photography is one of the most challenge types of photography because you need to be quick, can’t get close, and can’t guarantee a great shot; but it’s also one of the most rewarding. Good 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 opportunity because of inadequate equipment and/or skill is frustrating. That’s why I’ve put together a list of simple animal photography tips to help beginners capture stunning wildlife photos without the frustration.

Table of Contents

Taking Pictures Of Animals Requires Patience

Great Blue Heron Catches a Fish for Dinner
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. A couple hours is a more manageable time frame than months on site.

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.

The average person doesn’t have that kind of time, but spending a little time observing makes a difference. A couple hours is a more manageable time frame and is enough for wildlife photographers to gain the animal’s trust, learn their body language, and capture a few different behaviors. Slowly inch forward to get closer or get another angle; never make sudden movements or loud noises, and always respect the animals space and habitat.

Essential Gear For Wildlife Photographers

Ordinarily I would say equipment doesn’t make you a talented photographer, but with wildlife photography gear matters. You still don’t need expensive equipment, but a quality telephoto lens and a fast camera makes noticeable improvements to pictures of animals.

The Best Camera for Wildlife Photography

Critical features to consider when purchasing a new wildlife camera is the frame rate (FPS), the number of auto focus points, and the camera’s performance at high ISOs. The frame rate refers to the number of images the camera can take per second; a frame rate of 6 FPS or more increases the likelihood of capturing that perfect moment. Cameras with 45 or more autofocus points improve focusing speed and allow more control over where the camera focuses. Low light situations may need a high ISO to compensate for the faster shutter speeds, so you’ll want a camera that performs well and produces less digital noise at high ISOs.

Recommended Wildlife Cameras:

What To look For in A Lens For Animal Photography

A telephoto lens has a focal length over 200 mm and many will tell you that is sufficient; in my many years using a 300 mm lens, a 200-300 mm lens is sub par. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who live or work with wildlife or livestock, there will probably be a significant distance between you and the animal; any focal length less than 400 mm could leave the animal looking small and need substantial cropping. If your budget allows, I recommend at least a 600 mm lens. Besides the focal length, you will want a lens with image stabilization to reduce camera shake, a fast focusing speed, and is light enough to hand hold.

Recommended Telephoto Lenses:

You Don’t Need A Tripod For Shooting Wildlife

Most beginner wildlife photography tips will tell you to use a tripod, but I disagree. Animals aren’t waiting for you to capture the perfect shot and time is fleeting; tripods are cumbersome and time consuming. Hand-holding the camera gives you the flexibility to set up quickly, adjust positions to get the best angles, and capture gorgeous pictures on the fly. Prop the camera up on something in the environment or use your camera bag to stabilize the camera or this awesome trekking pole/monopod combo.

Camera Settings for Wildlife Photography

 
A Large Male Elk Roaming in a Field Of Flowers

To get started in wildlife photography, you need a basic understanding of the exposure triangle to capture sharp wildlife photos. Here is a breakdown of how shutter speed, aperture, and ISO impact wildlife pictures:

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 faster to reduce motion blur on fast moving subjects such as birds in flight.

Wide Aperture

The best aperture for wildlife photography is the widest aperture your lens will allow. Wider aperture settings create the soft, blurred background and allows more light to reach the sensor to compensate for the reduced exposure at fast shutter speeds. 

Auto ISO

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 in the custom settings. Most wildlife won’t stick around long enough for you to adjust your camera settings, so it’s crucial to be fast and 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 waste time altering the settings. I typically leave my camera in sleep mode and set to my wildlife custom setting, so all I have to do is lift my camera.

Recommended Settings For Wildlife Pictures:

  • Shutter Priority
  • Shutter Speed: 1/640 (for a 600 mm lens)
  • ISO: Auto with a max of 12800
  • Exposure Compensation: 0 or +1 to slightly over expose
  • White Balance: Auto
  • Auto Focus Operation: AI Servo
  • Auto Focus Select: Zone AF
  • Drive Mode: High Speed Continuous

Wildlife Images At home

Squirrel Snacking a Walnut

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’s not as rare or special to us as it would be to our viewers, so don’t forget about where you live!

For more inspiration check out my wildlife photography gallery

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Author Bio

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Delaney is a project manager by day and a travel and wildlife photographer by night who is using her skills for translating complex technical language into easy to understand concepts to make photography achievable at all skill levels. You have questions; she has answers.

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