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Wildlife Photography: The Ultimate Guide for Beginners

15 min read

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wildlife photography.

Wildlife photography is an art that requires patience, skill, and a keen eye for detail. Whether you are a beginner wildlife photographer shooting squirrels in a local park or the photographer of the year heading to the Arctic to track polar bears, this ultimate guide covers the subjects you need to enhance your skills.

You’ll find wildlife photography tips and tricks to help you capture exceptionally good images of nature and wildlife. Learn about the best camera gear to use, how to choose the ideal location for your shoot, and techniques to ensure that your wildlife photos are stunning.

In addition, you’ll get an overview of camera settings, composition, and how to approach animals safely, along with some thoughts on ethical photography in the natural world.

What is Wildlife Photography?

This is a genre of photography that captures images of animals in their natural habitat. That may be in the jungle, on the frozen tundra, or maybe underwater. Wildlife photography often integrates action or movement, such as a jaguar running or a pelican in flight. It can also invoke powerful emotions with wild animals caring for their young or locked in a life-or-death struggle.

egret and chicks.

Many photographers do not consider animals in a zoo, aquariums, or other forms of captivity to be wildlife. The animals don’t behave as they would in the wild. They’re being fed instead of hunting for food, and they don’t face the dangers of their natural habitat.

Still, you can come away from a zoo or aquarium with nice photographs. But you should call those images zoo photos or animal photos, not wildlife photographs.

How to Dress for Photographing Wildlife?

When venturing out into the wild, it’s important to dress for the conditions. Choose clothes that are comfortable and breathable. It’s a good idea to wear layers that can be easily removed or added as needed. And don’t forget comfortable footwear with a good grip to navigate through nature safely.

Camouflage clothing or neutral colors such as brown, khaki, and green are great options since they blend in with the surroundings and won’t startle the animals.

wildlife photographer dressed for cold weather.

While some animals are color-blind, others such as monkeys, squirrels, and birds see a good range of colors. Avoid bright colors or busy patterns that could distract or scare off your subjects.

Dress appropriately, whether it’s a hot or cold location, wet or dry setting. Also, know the weather forecast and be prepared for bad weather. Equipped with proper attire and knowledge of the conditions, you can focus on getting the perfect shots of wildlife.

Know Where Animals Live and How to Find Them

As a photographer, knowing the animals and their habitat is essential to shooting great wildlife photos. Understanding animal behavior helps you anticipate their movements and capture breathtaking moments.

For instance, taking the time to learn about the habits of birds can lead to stunning photos of them in flight, interacting with other birds, or perched on a branch.

a flying bird.

Meanwhile, gaining local knowledge about the environment helps you choose the best light and background to enhance your subject. Whether it’s an African safari, a national park, or a city zoo, research improves your chances of capturing the perfect shot.

So, take the time to get to know your subjects and their surroundings. Be prepared, and you will experience the thrill of wildlife photography and the satisfaction of capturing animal photos.

wildlife image sea turtles on beach.

Approach Animals Safely

Understand that you’re dealing with wild animals. They’re very different from household pets and other domesticated animals.

Here’s an Important Tip: know which animals are dangerous. You want to be cautious around certain species that may view you as a meal or a threat. Many have powerful jaws and sharp teeth, which evolved to tear food and defend themselves. Wild animals stay in survival mode.

Maintain a safe distance. Of course, that’s a relative term. The safe distance for a deer may be 30 yards, but for a tiger or jaguar, it could be several hundred yards. Respect their speed. Bears appear slow, but they can top 30 miles per hour for short distances. A jaguar is capable is hitting 50 miles per hour.

Animals are protective of their offspring. A ranger at a national park in Virginia told me that if I see bear cubs, I look around and locate the mama bear. He added that if I get between a mama bear and her cubs, the bear will respond as if I am a threat. No doubt this applies to other species as well.

Some animals become aggressive when they mate. In North America, the bull moose is notoriously bad-tempered during mating season. On the African continent, a bull elephant intent on finding a mate is extremely dangerous to anything that is not a female elephant.

Talk to park rangers, safari guides, wildlife experts, and other photographers who can share their experience and knowledge. You can find out how to approach wildlife safely and not have to learn the hard way.

Be Patient

Many wildlife photographers seek to capture stunning moments of nature. But that can take a great deal of patience, perseverance, and endurance. Whether it takes little more than an hour or waiting all day in frigid conditions, traveling thousands of miles, or revisiting a place over several years, you may need to go to great lengths to photograph wildlife.

wildlife photographer at sunset with elk.

When you are in an animal habitat, approach slowly and cautiously. In addition to your personal safety, you don’t want to scare away your subjects. Some professional wildlife photographers suggest that you approach animals indirectly. Take a diagonal or circular path, be quiet, and take your time.

However, even with meticulous planning and research, the unpredictability of wild animals means photographers must remain constantly alert and flexible. Expect the unexpected.

Patience is key when it comes to wildlife photography, but a single shot can make all the waiting worthwhile. Be prepared and be patient.

The Best Time for Capturing Wildlife Photos

The best time to photograph wildlife is early morning or twilight. Often called the golden hours, these times offer the most compelling light and good opportunities to spot wildlife. You also avoid the midday sun and the harsh shadows it creates.

Diurnal animals, or animals that sleep at night and are active during the day, will be searching for food in the morning. These include elephants, butterflies, squirrels, deer, and many birds.

Animals that are active during the early evening hours include bears, big cats such as tigers, moose, foxes, and smaller animals like mice and bees.

Nocturnal animals are most active at night: bats, leopards, bears, raccoons, many reptiles, and wolves are busy at night. However, photographing animals at night can be particularly challenging.

A little research on the animals in your location will help you determine the best times to find them.

The Camera and Lens Combination for Wildlife Photography

Capturing the perfect shot of wildlife can be a challenging feat, but having the right camera and lens, in most cases a long lens, can make a big difference.

I began shooting wildlife photos with a Nikon D7100 and a Nikkor 70-300 mm lens. That’s a decent camera body, but the lens was an older model with slow auto-focus. Also, it was a bit soft in the 200-300 mm range.

Recently, I upgraded to a Nikon Z5 with a 24-200 mm lens. I sacrificed a little reach, but I got faster auto-focus and a lens capable of delivering a sharp image throughout the zoom range.

Good Gear is Critical

When it comes to wildlife photography, the great moments are fleeting. A camera with a fast autofocus system and burst mode capabilities is essential. Long lenses, such as a telephoto or super-telephoto lens, allow you to get close to your subject without disturbing them.

photographers camera and kit bag.

Additionally, a fast lens performs well when you want to shoot at first light of morning or in the golden hour of evening. Investing in a high-quality camera and lens improves the technical quality of a photo. Also, you gain control over the creative aspects of your photography.

Zoom lenses are widely used in wildlife photography because of their flexibility. However, a prime lens with a fixed focal length of 400 mm or greater and a fast aperture is a good option. It can yield images that are better in terms of clarity and color rendition. 

Also, you want to pack extra batteries, memory cards, a cleaning kit, sunscreen, bug repellent, and a large plastic bag to wrap around your camera in case of sudden rain.

A Good Canon Kit

The Canon 5D Mark IV body paired with a Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L II lens is an excellent combination for wildlife photography. To further increase your reach, a 2x extender doubles the focal length, turning that zoom lens into a more powerful 140-400 mm lens.

photographer with canon camera and telephoto lens.

A real game-changer is the Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 L lens for super-fast, super-tight close-ups or capturing animals in motion. With the right equipment in your camera bag, capturing great photos of wildlife is well within your reach.

Hunt With a Nikon

Nikon offers a range of options that deliver both impressive performance and affordability for wildlife photographers.

Their DSLR models, like the D5600, come equipped with fast autofocus systems, high-speed continuous shooting, and advanced features to adapt to changing conditions.

Additionally, Nikon’s mirrorless cameras, such as the Z50 offer similar performance benefits in a more compact body. Pair either camera with a high-quality lens, like a Nikkor Z 70-200mm f/2.8, and you’ll bring home amazing wildlife images without breaking the bank.

A Sony Designed for Wildlife Images

Shooting wildlife requires precision and skill, and the Sony A9 II makes the job easier. With its impressive 24.2 MP full frame sensor and 20 frames per second burst, it tracks different animals with precise detail.

Attach a Sony FE 100-400 mm f/4.5-5.6, and you cover a range from general purpose to telephoto. It’s small enough and light enough that you can carry it for long periods and shoot hand-held when necessary.

An impressive camera/lens combination enables you to turn awe-inspiring moments in nature into great shots.

Stabilize Your Camera With a Tripod or Monopod

Two options for minimizing camera shake are a tripod or a monopod. A sturdy tripod is great for getting steady shots in a stationary position, while a monopod provides added mobility when you need to move or change angles quickly.

wildlife photographer with telephoto lens and tripod.

Both have their pros and cons, so it’s important to consider your needs and the particular challenges of the environment you’re shooting in. A quality tripod or monopod is a good investment for a wildlife photographer for image stabilization.

Camera Settings for Wildlife Photography

A thorough understanding of your camera settings will help you capture the beauty of the animals you are photographing.

Balance the Exposure Triangle

You have to balance the three legs of the exposure triangle.

Shutter Speed: You want a fast shutter speed to eliminate motion blur. Animals move quickly, and freezing their movement requires a fast shutter speed of at least 1/500 second. Faster-moving creatures require an even faster shutter speed.

Aperture: An aperture setting that renders sufficient depth of field to get the entire animal in focus.

ISO: ISO is a critical factor, as wildlife photography often takes place during dawn or dusk and in low light conditions. Auto ISO allows for flexibility with aperture and shutter speed. It can be challenging. However, today’s cameras allow you to shoot at high ISO values and still come away with low noise photos.

camera settings.

Camera Modes

Some photographers set the camera to Shutter Priority mode, selecting the shutter speed manually and letting the camera auto-adjust aperture and ISO.

Other wildlife photographers shoot in Aperture Priority mode. You take manual control of the aperture and the camera automatically determines shutter speed.

Autofocus Modes

For wildlife in motion, set your camera to Continuous or Servo mode. In this setting, the camera continues to focus while you half-press the shutter button or use back button focus. Constant focusing is essential for wildlife moving quickly and erratically.

Deciding on single point autofocus or utilizing multiple points of autofocus may take some experimentation. Find out what works best for the situation you’re in. If the animal is stationary, I recommend single point. For animals in motion, multiple points of the autofocus system give you a larger window for tracking.

Many modern cameras feature program buttons to quickly select different autofocus modes. This allows you to change focus modes while keeping an eye in the viewfinder.

Lastly, utilizing burst mode will allow you to capture multiple shots in succession, increasing your chances of getting that perfect shot.

Metering Modes

For photographing animals in the wild, I recommend two metering modes.

Measuring light across the entire frame is called Matrix metering by Nikon, Evaluative metering by Canon, and Multi metering by Sony. In this mode, the camera measures light across the frame and provides a final metering value; however, this mode is biased to the autofocus point. That makes it the go-to metering mode for most wildlife photography.

Spot metering, a name where Nikon, Canon, and Sony agree, measures light over a small area of the frame. This metering mode measures about 4-5 percent of the frame. Many cameras allow you to move the spot metering area by moving the focus point. With some, you can also choose the size of the spot.

In either of these modes, the camera identifies the focus point as the primary area to meter the light.

Master your camera settings, and you will be able to capture wildlife photos in a variety of situations.

Composition Tips for Wildlife Photography

One of the most important aspects of capturing wildlife images, or any type of photography, is composing your shot effectively. Composition is the arrangement of visual components within a photograph. This includes placement of your subjects, along with lighting, framing, and other factors.

When it comes to wildlife photography, composition makes the difference between a mediocre snapshot and a breathtaking photo. A well-composed photograph captures the animal’s natural beauty, habitat, and character. It makes the viewer feel as though they are right there in the moment.

It’s important to understand the basic principles of composition and how to use them in the field. By using leading lines, framing, rule of thirds, cropping, backlighting, and other techniques, you can create images that truly stand out.

1. Leading Lines

Leading lines are a powerful tool in wildlife photography. These can be anything from a winding river to a tree branch, drawing the viewer’s attention to the subject of the photo.

wildlife photo of owl on wire with leading lines.

By allowing leading lines to guide the eye, photographers can tell a more immersive story. In addition, leading lines create depth in an image, adding dimension and perspective, elevating a wildlife photo to a work of art.

2. Framing

Another wildlife photography tip is framing. Again, how to best highlight the subject. For example, use branches, leaves, or even rocks to create a natural border around the main subject.

photo of deer with natural framing.

Alternatively, frame the animal using negative space, allowing it to stand out against a plain background.

image of bird with negative space.

Whatever your approach, the key is to experiment and find what works best for the specific situation you’re in. With careful use of framing in your wildlife photography, you can create images that are not only technically sound but visually stunning.

3. Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds creates impact in photography. Instead of placing the subject in the center of the frame, divide your picture into thirds both horizontally and vertically, creating nine equal boxes. Then, position the subject where the lines meet.

polar bear image with rule of thirds.

This creates a visually balanced image and draws the viewer’s eye directly to the animal. Keep in mind that the rule of thirds is just a guideline, but it creates impact in your wildlife photos.

Feel free to break this rule when centering the animal leads to a more compelling image.

wildlife photo of pelican in flight with centering.

4. Cropping to Enhance Composition

Creative cropping elevates the impact of an image. You may do this in-camera or in post production. You remove the unwanted portions of an image, creating a stronger composition.

This balances the elements of the picture and draws the viewer’s attention to the key elements of the photograph.

photo of lion with tight cropping.

Cropping eliminates distractions, improves the framing, and makes the animal stand out. Also, it can create a sense of intimacy, allowing the viewer to connect with the animal or bird more intensely.

Done with a good eye, cropping improves the overall quality of the image.

5. Backlighting

Backlighting adds drama and contrast to wildlife photography. With the sun or other light source behind your subject, the shape and form is highlighted against a beautiful glow.

With creative use of exposure settings, you can create silhouettes, adding an element of mystery and intrigue to your photos.

image of dragonfly with backlighting.

By incorporating backlighting and silhouettes into your wildlife photography, you can capture the unique beauty of the creatures you’re photographing.

6. Photograph the Animals in Their Habitat

Showcase the vastness of their territory by capturing an animal or a group of animals from a distance. Using a wide angle lens, photographers depict the animals’ natural habitat and call attention to the importance of preserving it. You can showcase the beauty of nature, as well as the issue of shrinking habitat that many of these animals face.

By capturing wildlife in their natural setting, the viewer is able to appreciate the beauty of these creatures and the significance of protecting their environment.

pronghorn on savannah showing environment.

7. Desaturate Your Wildlife Photos

Wildlife photography in black and white can produce breathtaking images. By removing the color, the focus is on the textures, patterns, and shapes. The dramatic contrast between black and white can bring out the intensity and beauty of the wildlife.

From the intricate stripes of a zebra to the haunting stare of a wolf, black and white photography has the power to evoke emotion.

wildlife image of wolf in black and white.

The Ethics of Wildlife Photography

National Geographic has listed three principles for the wildlife photographer: “Do no harm, keep it wild, and follow the laws.” National Geographic also addresses the issue of photographing animals in captivity, something a professional wildlife photographer would discourage.

Ethics for photographing wildlife begins with “respect for the birds and their environment,” according to the National Audubon Society. Of course, Audubon concentrates on birds, but the principles apply to all wildlife. The welfare of the animals and their habitat takes priority over the desire for a photograph.

ethical wildlife photography with penguins.

Don’t disturb or stress the animals, especially when nesting. Avoid lures. Don’t feed or bait wildlife with scents or food. Also, don’t chase or surprise wild animals for the sake to getting a picture. Show respect for people and property.

In practice, ethics in the wild begins with awareness and empathy. As our growing population encroaches on animal habitat, more species face extinction. As we venture into the animal world to capture that great image, “do no harm” should be our goal.

Post Production for Wildlife Photos

After you load your wildlife images in your computer software, begin with a plan. Study the photograph and ask what and where is the action? What is the story you wish to convey?

Crop the image to highlight that action and advance the story. Eliminate distracting elements or anything that doesn’t contribute to the story. During crop, you can make use of the rule of thirds, leading lines, framing, or other compositional principles to achieve your goal.

After the crop, do you have sufficient resolution for this to be a useful photograph? If not, you may be able to salvage the photo using Lightroom’s Enhance function. This employs Artificial Intelligence to double the width and height of the photo. That means the enhanced photo has four times the resolution of the cropped original.

screenshot of Lightroom enhance window.

Make the basic adjustments to exposure, white balance, blacks and whites. You may also want to experiment with lens profiles. Then, dial in noise reduction as needed.

At this point, you may – or may not – want to convert the image to monochrome. Trust your artistic vision to make this decision. Does color or black and white advance the story?

Fine tune the image with adjustments to shadows, highlights, saturation, etc. These are global adjustments. From there, you may want to tailor specific areas of the image using Photoshop’s Adjustment Brush, Clone Tool, Healing Brush, and other functions.

Use your imagination, then dig into the features of Lightroom, Photoshop, or your favorite post production software and create a dramatic and majestic final image.

In Closing

Wildlife fascinates many photographers who strive to capture the beauty and diversity of the animal kingdom. Photographers combine their skills, knowledge, and gear to produce images of animals in their natural habitats.

These moments are both striking and poignant. From eagles soaring across the sky to elephants ambling through the savanna, wildlife photography is a window into the natural world. It is breathtaking and educational.

Through the lens of a skilled photographer, we see the details of animal life, the struggle to survive, and the behavior of the creatures that share our planet. Whether it’s to raise environmental awareness, call attention to an endangered species, or simply to appreciate the beauty of nature, wildlife photography is a truly great art form.

I hope the tips covered in this article help you in your pursuit of wildlife photography or inspire you to give it a try. If you have any questions or experiences to share, please include them in the comments section below.

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Daniel has been providing photographic and written content to websites since 1995. He maintains a photo gallery on Pictorem.com, showcasing his most recent work. In addition, Daniel is active in stock photography, with portfolios on Adobe, Getty/iStock, and Shutterstock.
Daniel has been providing photographic and written content to websites since 1995. He maintains a photo gallery on Pictorem.com, showcasing his most recent work. In addition, Daniel is active in stock photography, with portfolios on Adobe, Getty/iStock, and Shutterstock.
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