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Large male elk roaming through a field of yellow flowers.
Photography Tips for Beginners

6 Basic Tips for Stunning Wildlife Photos

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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

 
Large male elk roaming through a field of yellow 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 in a tree

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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Snowy Garden On a Winter Morning in Arizona
Photography Tips for Beginners

Why Photographers Should Get Excited About Bad Weather

I don’t know about you but I’m tired of hearing about the golden hour; perfect photos are boring. Seeking the golden hour may be appropriate for some situations, but a good nature and landscape photographer should never shy away from bad weather. Setting aside the fact that shooting in only one hour of the day is incredibly restrictive, bad weather photography contributes to the mood and atmosphere, sets your photographs apart from others, and forces you to get creative with the atmospheric conditions. So, grab your rain coat and let’s talk about what bad weather can do for you.

Clouds

Stroll Through Vast Sand Dunes
Exploring the sandy beach at Stora-Sandvik in Iceland

The threat of rain typically comes with cloud cover; a grey, overcast day is the best time to shoot landscape photography and any landscape photographer should look at a cloudy day with with glee – here’s why.

  • More people stay home if they think it’s going to rain which makes cloudy weather the perfect time for landscape photographers to shoot popular locations.
  • Cloud cover reduces harsh shadows created by the sun and increases the amount time for optimal lighting – waiting for golden hour is not a concern.
  • Long exposures are easier to achieve with the reduced light; sunny days may require many neutral density filters to achieve the same effect. Those beautiful soft flowing waterfalls will be a breeze in cloudy weather.
  • Moody, dramatic clouds really liven up an otherwise unassuming landscape scene such as the case in the example photo.
  • Sun rays peeking through the clouds creates depth, adds layers, and places emphasis on the subject it illuminates.
  • Picturesque sunset photos require clouds as the sun reflects off them to give that beautiful glow.

Fog

Foggy Morning at Red Bud Isle in Austin, Texas
Location: Austin, Texas | Camera: Canon EOS Rebel T2i | Lens: Canon EF-S 18-55mm

Morning foggy conditions lend themselves to beautiful, mysterious and spooky vibes that are unique to fog photography. In addition to adding a bit of drama to your images, photographing mist can mask unattractive backgrounds making it easier to capture nature’s beauty in urban environments and trick the viewer into believing the photo was taken in a calm isolated environment.

Snow

Snow in Sedona, Arizona
A magical blanket of snow covers the red Arizona desert.

Snowy, wintery landscape photos are magical works of art that give a sense of time and location as snow doesn’t happen everyday or everywhere. Snow can give a dreary vibe, but I associate it with joy and cheer because snow always meant no school… snowball fight anyone? When the snow is falling it’s fun to get creative with a macro lens and shoot closeups of snowflakes, icicles, or snow-covered plants. You can also add a sense of mystery by shooting the footsteps of a person not captured in the frame; who was here, where were they going?

Sun

Black and White Screech Owl Silhouette

Shooting in full sun gets a bad rep in photography as sunlight creates harsh shadow. But who said shadows were bad? There are a variety of types of photography that have a lot to gain from the sun, so leave the sun alone with your golden hour, he did nothing wrong. The sun is just misunderstood.

  • Light and shadows are an artistic technique used a lot in black & white photography.
  • Composition techniques such as leading lines and frame within in a frame use harsh shadows to help frame the shot and emphasize the focal point.
  • Lens flare or sun rays peeking through the trees would be impossible without a little sun.
  • Silhouette photography requires shooting directly into a brightly lit source casting such a harsh shadow that only the outer edges of the subject are visible.

Rain

Rain on the pink walls of the Museum of Modern Art building in Seattle Washington.
abstract, art, artistic, backdrop, background, pink, color, colorful, design, light, material, paint, pattern, poster, purple, surface, texture, textured, vintage, violet, wall, wallpaper

If you’ve read my About Me page, you’ll know rain won’t stop me; I find accepting the imperfections of rain to be freeing. With a little creative thought, rain sets the mood with a range of emotions from chaos to serenity or from sadness to romance. Here are some unique ideas to help you embrace the wet weather rather than fear it.

  • Fun props such as umbrellas and rain boots bring a splash of color to an otherwise gray and dreary day.
  • Photographing after the rain makes way for some unique perspectives using reflections. Get low and see the world from a different angle to get the best rain photos.
  • If you’re lucky you may be graced with a rainbow to liven up your landscape photography.
  • Rain droplets add a bit of texture and turn something ordinary into something extraordinary.

The most important thing for new photographers to remember is there is no such thing as bad weather, only different photo opportunities.


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3 Lenses lined vertically on a teal background- 3 lenses you need feature image
Photography Tips for Beginners

The Only 3 Lenses You’ll Ever Need

This blog post may contain affiliate links.  We may earn a small commission for any purchases made through these links. Click here for the disclosure statement.

Lenses can serve a very specific purpose – excelling at one style of photography but falling short in others. There is no one lens to rule them all which is why I am recommending 3 types of lenses that will satisfy the majority of your photography needs; macro, wide-angle, and telephoto lenses.

While the lenses below are specific to the Canon EF mount the recommendation for a macro, wide, and telephoto lens stands true for all body types.

Table of Contents

Macro Lenses

Macro lenses are strong at background blur and close-ups which makes them best for shooting food, flowers, products, portraits, and night photography.

Photo by: Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Vintage Canon FD 50mm lens on a vintage camera body

Budget Pick – CANON 50MM F/1.8 STM

The 50mm is esteemed as one of the greatest lenses of all time, and this lens is truly as nifty as they claim. I often recommend the nifty 50 as a great starter lens for new photographers, however, it does have some limitations and is not the only lens you’ll ever need.

Pros:

  • Price – New, this thing runs about $160
  • Wide aperture
  • Small and lightweight

Cons:

  • Not Wide
  • Long minimum focusing distance, .45 m (18 in)

Upgrade Pick – Sigma 70mm f/2.8 Macro ART Lens

The Sigma 70mm lens packs a lot into their lens for a far better price than competing lenses. While it’s not perfect, it provides great image quality and is a huge step up from the 50 mm lens.

Click here for an in-depth review.

Pros:

  • Sharp!
  • Color retention
  • Weather sealing
  • .26 m (10 in) minimum focus distance, almost half the distance of the 50mm lens

Cons:

  • Slow focus – manual and auto

Wide Angle Lenses

Wide-angle lenses can fit a lot more into the same size photo than other lenses, which makes them best for landscape, street, architectural, and real estate photography.

Photo by Leon Seibert on Unsplash

Sigma Lens on a Sony a7II camera body

Budget Pick – Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM

A focal length of 35 mm or less is generally accepted as wide-angle, so you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck with this 17mm lens.

Pros:

  • It’s pretty darn wide for its price range
  • Weather sealing
  • Small and lightweight in comparison to other wide-angle lenses

Cons:

  • Vignetting
  • Distortion

Upgrade Pick: Sigma 12-24mm f/4 DG HSM | A

Sigmas have built a reputation for sharpness and sturdy builds, and the ultra-wide Sigma 12-24mm lens is no exception.

Pros:

  • Ultra-wide view
  • Great image quality
  • Weather-resistant
  • Half the price of Canon’s similar build
  • Built-in lens hood

Cons:

  • Big and heavy
  • Doesn’t support filters.
  • Barrel distortion and dimmed corners at wider angles

Telephoto Lenses

Telephoto lenses typically refer to lenses with a focal length of 100mm or more and make objects closer than they appear. Telephoto lenses are great for shooting subjects where getting physically close is not an option, such as wildlife, sports, and concerts.

75-300 mm Lens

Budget Pick: Canon EF 70-300 F4-5.6 IS II USM

After many years of research, I have determined this lens is just too hard to compete with. It has the longest focal length available before a significant price jump and the image quality will make it hard to believe it’s a budget lens. Seriously, I highly recommend the Canon EF 70-300 mm lens.

Pros:

  • Affordable
  • Lightweight
  • One of the longer zooms in this price range
  • Image stabilization

Cons:

  • Highlights can have a halo effect
  • No weather sealing

Upgrade Pick: SIGMA 150-600MM F/5-6.3 DG OS HSM S (SPORTS) LENS 

Sigma’s 600mm lens is one of the longest focal lengths available, so you are sure to never miss a shot again. Be sure to have a tripod or monopod handy as shooting handheld with a lens of this size may get tiresome. But, using a lens with a 600mm focal length is a great way to shoot wildlife without interfering with their habitat. Or, you know, getting too close to a bear.

Pros:

  • Fast Auto Focus
  • Sharp images
  • Color Retention
  • Weather Sealing

Cons:

  • At 12 inches in length is could exceed the maximum lens length at sporting events and concerts
  • Weight – 6 pounds it will be hard to shoot handheld for long periods of time

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