Wildlife Photography 101 a Beginner’s How To
How to Take Great Wildlife Photos | even if you are a beginner
Whether you are backpacking, hiking or on safari this guide will get you taking great wildlife photos in no time. Photos that your friends will ask, “Wow! Did you really take that photo? It’s amazing!” To achieve this, we’ll give you the basic tricks of the trade as well as some pitfalls and beginner mistakes to avoid. And of course, we’ll also advise you on the best photo gear for wildlife pics.
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Top 7 Tips for Wildlife Photography
Wildlife photography is not rocket science. Rest assured, most folks can easily master the basic skills. That being said, the skills are not commonly known. To get the best Wildlife Photos, there is a bit of specialized gear like a long telephoto lens and a camera with fast and accurate focusing — while not absolutely necessary, they will significantly improve your photos. The following seven tips will quickly get you taking top notch wildlife photos.
- Be in the right place | Patience is your friend to get a good wildlife photo. The best option is usually to sit still and let wildlife come to you! This works a surprising amount of the time. And always, when in doubt Keep Your Distance. Sometimes you’ll need to settle for a distant shot. That’s totally OK!
- The right camera settings | Camera settings for wildlife photography are specialized and vastly different from standard settings! We’ll show you the most important ones to get good focus, eliminate camera shake and get good exposure, etc.
- Focus and sharpness | is everything. Focus with a long zoom lens can be challenging. “Not quite in focus” can ruin 90% or more of newbie shots. In addition, zoom lenses are far more susceptible to “camera shake,” the second cause of “soft” unusable shots. We’ll show you how to avoid these common beginner mistakes.
- The right camera | Your best photos will come from a camera that accepts long zoom lenses and has fast and accurate focusing. We’ll give you recommendations for every budget — even recommendations for light cameras for backpacking and hiking.
- The right lens | A long telephoto lens is your best friend. A 600mm lens (12x) essentially gets you closer without disturbing wildlife and/or putting yourself at undue risk. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but your iPhone definitely won’t cut it. Even the standard “travel zoom” of approx. 200mm, while significantly better, won’t be enough most of the time.
- Light matters | Shoot in the morning and evening. The light is the most attractive and it’s also when animals are the most active. Also it’s hugely beneficial to have the sun behind you. Shooting into the sun is another great way to get a bunch of meh photos.
- Practice! before you go | We can’t stress this enough. Do this at home before you leave. Even taking photos of ducks at your local pond will make you far more effective when it counts for your key shot of a Grizzly Bear in Alaska or Rhino on Safari in Africa. Even though we are experienced, we do a practice shoot before every big trip!
For good wildlife photography you’ll first need to have an interesting subject. Second, and we stress, only if it’s appropriate, try to fill enough of the frame to get a sharp photo. This is where a long telephoto lens is essential — allowing you to fill a reasonable portion of the frame with your subject but NOT be too close!
When in Doubt Always Keep Your Distance
Modern outdoor ethics (like Leave No Trace, and the Reg’s of many natural areas — and even your personal safety) dictate that you always keep your distance from wildlife, especially in pristine outdoor settings! The rule of thumb is if you are changing the animal’s behavior you are too close. And this might be a much larger distance with dangerous animals like a Grizzly Bear, Black Bear, Moose and other animals that pose a serious personal threat — or animals that are nesting, breeding, or with young offspring. Sometimes you’ll need to settle for a distant shot where the animal fills less of the frame than desired. That’s totally OK!
Patience is your Friend
This where patience is your friend. Most times we find the best option is to sit still and let wildlife come to you! This works a surprising amount of the time. When you are ready to take a photo, raise your camera slowly ahead of time, hopefully while your subject is distracted. In this way, your camera is ready so when the animal is in the ideal position, you can take the photo with zero movement on your part. In summary, waiting for the right moment instead of forcefully trying to speed things up is always the best option.
The camera settings for wildlife photography are specialized and vastly different from standard settings! But they are critical to getting sharp focus, eliminating camera shake (another source of soft photos), and getting good exposure. You’ll likely need to refer to your camera’s manual, or hunt around in the menus a bit make these settings. Trust us, the improvement in photo quality is well worth your time and effort.
Note: Be sure to check your camera for the following settings before every wildlife session.
- Set Auto Focus Area to center of frame | It’s likely called something like “Spot” or “Center.” The main thing is you don’t want the camera using the entire frame area for focus. Rather you want it to look for focus in the center of the frame which is where you’ll put the animal’s head. [On my Sony a7 iv I use “Tracking Flexible Spot” and back button focus]
- Set Exposure Area to center of frame | For the same reason as the focus. Your subject will be in the center of the frame.
- Put camera in Shutter Speed Priority | Usually ‘S’ on your mode dial. This will prevent camera shake (soft/blurry photos) when using a long telephoto lens.
- Set shutter speed | to 1/focal length of your lens in mm. E.g. for a 600 mm lens you would set it to 1/640 second. You might even want to go up a bit more, e.g. 1/1000s, and 1/2000s if your subject is moving fast and you aren’t holding your camera steady. [shutter speed is usually set via one of the 2-3 adjustment dials on your camera]
- Set Focus Detection to Animal | if your camera has this feature, we highly recommend it. Some cameras like our Sony a7 iv have the option for “animal eye detection” or “bird eye detection.” We find this works a reasonable percentage of the time.
Finally, always change your camera setting back to “normal” if you want to do landscape or general photography. We’ve been burnt on this more times than we’d like to remember.
Sharp photos are everything for Wildlife Photography. Again, “Not quite in focus” can ruin 90% or more of newbie shots. As such, quickly getting the animal in the center of the frame and focusing will make the difference between a mediocre photo and a superb photo. In general, you want to see in focus eyelashes, and pupils in the eyes of your subject.
- Put the head in the center of the frame, get focus and shoot | This is not the time for artfully composing photos. You need to get good focus and take the shot fast. Most times you’ll be cropping so much that composition is irrelevant.That being said, if you do have time and are closer to your subject, you can get focus and exposure on the head and recompose the frame for good composition.
- Use a fast shutter speed | zoom lenses are far more susceptible to “camera shake,” and are the second cause of “soft” unusable shots. Even with vibration reduction (VR) technology it’s best to use a fast shutter speed. Unlike landscape photography you have less time to hold your camera steady, and your subject may be moving — so it’s better to err on the side of caution. See camera settings above to determine the right shutter speed.
- Avoid objects between you and the animal | Unless you have a camera with very sophisticated autofocus, your camera will focus on closer vegetation leaving your subject out of focus and blurry.
- Take a bunch of photos | This increases your odds of getting a sharp photo with the animal in an attractive/interesting position. That is, multiple photos of your animal increases the chances of the golden combination of good focus, low camera shake, and an interesting subject.
- Check Focus Often | Unless you have one of the newest, fast focusing cameras with animal tech, you’ll need to keep checking photos to make sure you are getting good focus. In the field, frequently review photos and zoom in on the animals head to make sure you have sharp focus on the eyes. Hopefully with enough time to take more shots if it isn’t in focus. [Note that you don’t want to review photos at the expense of missing of a critical shot.
The following are some examples of camera gear that will do a good job at getting sharp, well-exposed wildlife pictures. We have given a few suggestions for each budget and level of sophistication. But there are limits. You are unlikely to get great photos of a chimpanzee up in a tree with your iPhone, or even a point and shoot camera with a 100mm lens. For the best photos, you will need a camera with good to excellent autofocus and the equivalent of 400mm or 600mm lens.
If you don’t already own a crop format camera, Super Zoom Cameras are your best entry level option. They are inexpensive and will take far better wildlife photos than your smartphone or “point and shoot” cameras. In addition, they are small and light. Except for the Sony Cyber-shot RX10 IV, these are reasonably priced cameras that have decent zoom range and will do a credible job photographing distant wildlife. The Sony Cyber-shot RX10 IV (and RX10 III) is in a class by itself with it’s large 1” sensor, zoom range, and excellent optics! And it is weather sealed, a nice feature for an outdoor camera.
- Panasonic Lumix DC-FZ80 (low cost, beginner kit)
- Panasonic Lumix DC-FZ1000 II (value pick! large 1″ sensor, decent 400 mm zoom)
- Sony Cyber-shot RX10 IV (amazing performance, large 1” sensor, but expensive!)
Note: be careful about the claimed “x” ranges of some superzoom cameras. You want all of that “x” to be optical zoom. E.g. some cameras that claim a 25x zoom only have 4x optical zoom and the rest is digital zoom (not nearly as good).
These are the most common SLR cameras. Crop format cameras are a step up from most super zoom cameras. They are a bit heavier and cost more but have the advantage of interchangeable lenses and more resolution and much better image quality. And they are are lighter and less expensive than full frame cameras.
- Sony a6600 Camera
- Tamron 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di III-A VC VXD Lens for Sony E moderate cost, great zoom range | (actually 27mm to a whopping 450mm equiv) is exactly what you need for a single lens that does it all. The lens’ downside is that it’s not quite as razor sharp as top-of-line, heavier and far more expensive dedicated telephoto lenses.
- Sony E 70-350mm f/4.5-6.3 G OSS Lens
Note: Nikon and Canon have similar setups. We are not picking favorites.
Full Frame Cameras
While heavy and expensive, Full Frame Cameras give you the absolute best wildlife photos. They are what we use most of the time. Full Frame Cameras have amazing focus performance, even focusing on wildlife with foliage and other objects between you and the subject. It does this with ultrafast eye/face recognition technology that works for both animals and birds. A game changer! Their large sensors have amazing image resolution and image quality. And their high ISO performance is a boon when using long telephotos lenses that usually don’t let a lot of light due to their small maximum apertures (usually in the range of f/5.6 or worse).
- Sony a7 iv Camera (reasonable price. Best wildlife performance except for the $6K Sony a1)
- Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS Lens or
- Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS Lens
- Sony FE 1.4x Teleconverter (optional, but a good asset if you have the 100-400 lens)
Note: Nikon and Canon have similar setups. We are not picking favorites.
Light and compact camera gear for good photos of wildlife
If you need a really small and light camera and/or are on a budget, we recommend one of the Super Zoom Cameras. While not up to Crop Format Camera image quality, they should take good enough photos for most folks.
But for better image quality try a Crop Format Camera like a Sony a6600 Camera with the moderately priced Tamron 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di III-A Lens. This combination will work well both for landscape and wildlife photos — although it’s better for landscape work. Actually, the Tamron lens is amazing for what it can do. Zooming from 18 to 300mm (actually 27mm to a whopping 450mm) is exactly what you need for a single lens that does it all. The lens’ downside is that it’s not quite as razor sharp as top-of-line, heavier and far more expensive dedicated telephoto lenses.
Morning & Evening are Best for Wildlife Photography
Almost always, wildlife photography is best in the morning and evening. During these times, the light is the most attractive, painting the animals in warm and appealing colors. It’s also when animals are the most active. If you can, try to scope out the area you intend to shoot early. Plan on where the wildlife will be and where you will be to have decent cover but still able to get a clean photo. This information will allow you to know how much time you’ll need to be comfortably in position before ideal light.
Plan to Have the Sun Behind You
Also it’s hugely beneficial to have the sun behind you. Shooting into the sun is another great way to get a bunch of meh photos. So check where the sun will rising or setting and plan your location accordingly.
After you understand the first 6 Tips for Great Wildlife Photography, the rest is just practice and getting used to your equipment. That is, you want the confidence that you can take sharp telephoto pictures of wildlife before you go on that big trip. You can easily do this by taking picture of ducks at your local pond. Or even your dog or cat at some distance from you.
Check your Photos
Again you have time mid-shoot, review photos for sharpness. Use your camera’s photo review, and then zoom in on the animal’s face. If the eyes aren’t sharp, the photo is likely unusable. We find the viewfinder mode more effective in the field. When you are at home can do closer inspections of your photos on your computer for sharpness and photo quality.
Bonus Credit | it’s not a bad idea to pull a few of your favorite shots into a photo editor and see how much you can clean them up and make them look pretty for practice.
Of all the photos we take, wildlife photos bring people the most joy & happiness
And happily, whether you are backpacking or safari, wildlife photography is not rocket science. If you follow our Top 7 Tips for Wildlife Photography you can be taking great wildlife photos in no time. And please feel free to comment below if you have any questions.
-Alan & Alison