Wildlife photography is a very popular area to specialise in, and for good reason. It gives you a great excuse to spend extended periods of time outdoors, keeps you fit, and allows you to develop a real appreciation for the natural world. But it can also be a very challenging field too, especially since your subject is often running away from you! I’m going to share with you 11 of my top wildlife photography tips so you can start improving your nature photos straight away.
Wildlife Photography Tips & Best Practices
Read on and by the end of this article you’ll hopefully have learnt something new to help you on your journey to becoming the next Art Wolfe.
1. Shoot on Eye-level
When you’re standing up and shooting an animal on the ground, your angle of view is pointing downwards. This detracts from the photo, making the perspective seem strange. It also decreases the distance between the subject and the background, getting rid of your chance for that nice, soft bokeh (background).
Instead, get eye-level with your subject. It brings the viewer down to the animal’s level, creating a much more interesting perspective. It will most likely increase the distance between the subject and the background, removing distracting elements by throwing the backdrop out of focus.
2. Learn About Your Subject
Getting to know the animal you’re photographing can be a really helpful trick. If you know about an animal’s typical behavioural traits, you’ll be able to predict movements or particular things you can focus on capturing. Do some reading online, or in textbooks, to learn a bit of background about the animal you’re looking to photograph. In fact, you can do this quickly by watching videos on YouTube to study how different animals move, behave, and act.
For example, some animals are very territorial at particular times of the year. You might be photographing deer stags, and you can expect males to fight during the rutting season (October time). If you know about this beforehand, and the types of behaviour that signal a fight is about to occur (in this case parallel walking, roaring, pawing the ground etc.), you stand a better chance of capturing it on camera.
3. Use Your Lens Hood
Lots of people ignore their lens hoods, especially for shorter focal length lenses. I’m not sure why, as they really do help. Lens hoods are great at preventing annoying lens flare, something that is pretty apparent when you’re shooting towards the sun. They also eliminate stray light coming from the sides, improving contrast and clarity of a photo.
Even though we’re mentioning it on a list of wildlife photography tips–using a lens hood is helpful with all kinds of photography. So next time you’re heading out with your camera, stick the lens hood on and it’ll make a slight difference – even if you don’t notice it initially!
4. Experiment with Light
This is a great tool in your arsenal for creating a special photo. Light makes or breaks an image, and you need to know how to use it to your advantage if you want to come away with something unique.
My favourite type of lighting is backlighting. This is when the sun is positioned behind a subject, and you shoot towards it. It’s risky, as exposing the picture is difficult at times. It gives a nice halo to your subject, rim-lighting them and giving a very ‘magical’ feel to the scene. If the sun is particularly low, you can underexpose your photo to just reveal the golden outline of the animal.
Side-lighting is a little different, where the light source comes from… you guessed it… the side. It has a different effect, pulling out contours and casting interesting shadows.
5. Think About Your White Balance
If you’re shooting in JPEG format, rather than raw format, you need to get your white balance right in camera. This is the setting that works around presets (unless you delve into the advanced Kelvin settings) like ‘Cloudy’, ‘Fluorescent’, and ‘Direct Sunlight’. If you feel like your pictures look pretty flat with not much colour, adjust your white balance–you’ll be surprised what happens when you take it out of ‘Automatic’. I find that ‘Cloudy’ is a good bet, or around 5,400 Kelvin.
6. Use the Background to Your Advantage
The background of your photo plays a big part in bringing together the scene. If it’s full of distracting elements, like sticks ‘protruding’ from an animal’s head, it’ll detract from the image. Usually you’ll want your background to be soft and out of focus, isolating the subject from its surroundings. However, this is definitely a rule that can be broken.
Something I like to do is have a second animal blurred out in the background, but still distinguishable. I feel it adds depth and a 3-dimensional feel to the photo. All you need to do is find an animal that lives or moves in groups, so you can position yourself to line-up two individuals together. Seabirds are a great example of this.
7. Don’t Forget About the Foreground
Often ignored, the foreground can be used to your advantage too. Sometimes I like to create a ‘mushy’ foreground to fade the animal into the photo. In this image, I’ve used some purple heather in the foreground to create this effect. A wide aperture (low f-stop number) creates a shallow depth of field and throws the flowers out of focus.
It’s also a great technique for hiding ‘ugly’ artifacts in the foreground. It makes everything look dreamy and quite arty.
8. Try Getting Eye Contact
If an animal makes eye-contact with your camera during a shot, you instantly introduce a load of impact to the image. Take a look at this bear:
Pretty intense, huh? Combining the eye-level perspective with eye-contact, this photo makes it feel like the bear is measuring you up for size. An easy way to get an animal to look at you is to make a quiet squeaking noise. They’ll probably look over to see what the sound was, and then it’s your chance to hit the shutter.
9. Be Ethical with Your Photography
Ethics in wildlife photography are really important. You should never put your photo before the welfare of an animal. If you do, you’ll be disregarded by the majority of the nature photography community–not something you want to happen if you’re serious about your camera!
Simple rules to follow are you don’t live bait animals, and if anything you’re doing appears to be affecting an animal’s behaviour drastically, stop and retreat. But really, if you’re any good with your field craft, you shouldn’t be getting in the way anyway. Using a wildlife blind is a good way to conceal yourself enough to get close to animals.
Ethics are not just a matter of the wildlife we are photographing. We should apply them to nature as a whole. As Sarah Marino explains in her terrific blog post, Leave No Trace: A Discussion About Impact On Wild Places, nature and landscape photographers should strive to leave as little impact on the locations they photograph as possible.
In her article, Sarah describes a handful of prime shooting locations where plant life has been desecrated by careless photographers. The good news is, if more photographers become aware of their impact, we stand a good chance of curbing the destruction. Read through Sarah’s article when you have a chance. She shares some excellent thoughts on the matter.
10. Experiment with the Shutter Speed
You don’t always need to freeze the action by using a fast shutter speed. Instead, slow things down and try to introduce motion blur into your shots. This image of a puffin in flight was taken at 1/160th second. I panned my camera along with the bird, allowing me to freeze the head and body, whilst simultaneously blurring the background and the wings.
It’s hit and miss, and you will probably need to take quite a lot of frames to get it right. But, once it works it can really improve your photos and let you offer something a little different to normal. This pan and shoot technique is one of my favourites and something I like to do to change up from the usual static portraits of wildlife.
11. Try a Wide-angle Lens
A popular technique nowadays is to put down your telephoto lens and try out a wide-angle. It’s really fun and great for incorporating a habitat into a photo. Instead of aiming to blur out a distracting background, you instead introduce it into the scene and use it to tell the story of the subject.
Using a YongNuo remote release, I was able to trigger the camera from my hide as the squirrel approached the lens. I had left the camera out in the woodland with a few hazelnuts in front of it. Soon the curious squirrels came down to investigate, and eventually (with some luck) I was able to capture a shot like this.
You have to manually focus, so predicting where the animal will be is the trickiest bit. Aperture priority mode is useful for managing changing lighting conditions. Combine all this with learning about your subject’s behaviour, as mentioned earlier in the article, and you have the recipe for a great shot!
Wildlife photography is competitive, no doubt. With so many fantastic wildlife photos online, we are all going to feel a little inferior at times. I go through the motions of this a couple of times each year, but getting out again with my camera and shooting something new let’s me stay inspired and get through any mental rut I may be in with my camera!
If you’re feeling like you need to give your photography a push, try out some of the techniques I’ve laid out in this article. These wildlife photography tips do work, but you’ll need to be persistent and give it the time required. After all, if it was easy then everybody would be doing it!
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