In an age where digital cameras are more affordable than ever, many people aspire to become wildlife photographers. From hobbyist photographers who enjoy capturing the wildlife in their own backyards to seasoned photographers who love capturing wildlife during international travel, the right photography advice will make your wildlife photos really pop. With a few tips up your sleeve and lots of practice, you'll learn to create stunning images of your favorite wildlife in their full element.
Learn your camera settings
The ideal opportunities for amazing wildlife photography happen quite rapidly, often in a five to 20-second time frame. If you're relying on your camera to choose the correct settings in auto mode or you're busy fiddling with your camera settings, you'll miss your opportunity. Understanding ISO, aperture, and shutter speed and learning how to shoot in manual mode will help you dial in the settings to create a desired aesthetic with ease. For example, if you want to freeze the fast action of a cheetah running, you'll need to select a high shutter speed and then set your ISO and aperture accordingly. Familiarize yourself with your focal points as well, so you can change and select them as needed.
Pay attention to the light
The golden hour takes place during the first hour of light and the last hour of light in the day. When the sun is low, the light is soft, which is very flattering for your subjects. Bathed in golden light, a natural scene takes on a magical quality. While it's possible to create stellar wildlife images in any lighting, many wildlife photographers strive to shoot during the golden hour as often as possible. When you're shooting in more harsh light, work to create balanced images with rich colors and minimal shadows and blown out areas.
Get to know your subjects
The majority of wildlife photography revolves around capturing tiny moments of natural history. As such, being able to predict your subject's behavior often proves beneficial for getting the much-sought-after shot. While some species are more predictable than others, every animal species has ingrained behavior patterns. Learning these patterns will help you predict and capture that behavior.
The best way to get to know your subjects is to spend with them. When you expect to spend a few minutes in a given location and get a great shot, most of the time, you'll wind up disappointed. Return to favorite spots over and over again to get to know the wildlife there or allow several hours, or even several days, to spend in a new location.
There is a common misconception that the photographers for National Geographic and other popular photography publications get great wildlife shots quickly because of their extensive experience. In reality, most of the time, wildlife photographers spend hours, if not days, waiting to get the perfect shot. You may return to the same spot for several days in a row until you see the mother lion out with her cubs or the impala bounding across the terrain after its prey. Enjoy your time waiting, soaking up the beauty of the natural environment.
Shoot from varying perspectives
An amateur photographer will approach a scene, snap a picture of something interesting, and then move on to the next subject. The angle at which you portray your subject makes a huge difference. When you shoot wildlife, strive to bring your viewer right into the scene. In many instances, the best way to achieve this effect is to shoot from the perspective of your subject. Move to create a more intimate shot that tells a story.
Pay attention to the background
Shooting against a cluttered background is distracting and unprofessional. In a natural setting, you have little control over the background, particularly in the midst of an exciting moment. However, being aware of the background will help you adjust your position to minimize distractions. For example, if you notice a large tree branch right behind a cardinal, take a step or two to the right, so the branch isn't directly intersecting with the bird.
Learn the rule of thirds
Understanding the rule of thirds and other common photography techniques will help you improve your skills in any segment of photography, including wildlife photography. The more comfortable you become with the rule of thirds, the more you'll be able to use it unconsciously. Composing images properly on the spot is key for wildlife photography when the ideal moments for great shots often pass very quickly.
Most wildlife photographers are passionate about animals and would never dream of intruding on a wild animal's habitat. However, even the most well-intentioned individuals sometimes get caught up in creating the perfect shot and get closer than they should. Be mindful of the natural habitat and strive to take great pictures without encroaching on an animal's home.
Don't get hung up on shooting in an exotic location
You don't have to shoot wildlife in a romantic setting to create great images. While it's always fun to travel, you can work on your skills and get some great shots in any setting with wildlife. Make the most of the opportunities you have in your own neighborhood, and seek out other opportunities for nearby wildlife photography. A weekend trip to a state park an hour away will prove inspiring and fulfilling without breaking the bank.
Don't get hung up on having the perfect lens
Many wildlife photographers insist that owning a certain, high-end lens is key for great wildlife photography. An expensive lens is not critical for wildlife photography. There is also no one single lens that will produce great results for every photographer. Some wildlife photographers love to use a telephoto lens while other photographers prefer to shoot wide-angle wildlife scenes. Start with the lenses you already own. As you improve your skills, you'll be able to determine your next lens purchase based on your shooting preferences.
Most importantly, enjoy your wildlife photography. Even when you don't see a lot of animals or you aren't able to get the exact shots you want, embrace the process. Spending a day at your favorite local park or out in a bird sanctuary with friends or family is still an enjoyable day, regardless of the photos you take.
Written for Lux Optima by: Rose Clearfield | Photos by: Trison Thomas, Leonard von Bibra, Niilo Isotalo and Jonatan Pie