Do you want to capture beautiful, powerful, eye-catching images of wildlife?
As a professional wildlife photographer, I’ve spent years developing the techniques needed to get consistently great shots. And in this article, I aim to share my secrets, from the perfect wildlife lighting to the best ways to capture those once-in-a-lifetime moments.
So no matter your skill level, if you’re looking to take your wildlife photography to the next level, you’ve come to the right place.
Know your gear
This sounds like a huge cliché, but it’s absolutely, one-hundred percent true .
The really great, action-packed moments in wildlife photography last, on average, between 5 and 20 seconds. If you’re not deeply familiar with the settings of your camera or the capabilities of your chosen lens, you ‘ll either miss the shot or ruin the images you do manage to capture.
Here’s what you need to know:
- The minimum shutter speed at which you can obtain a sharp image with your camera/lens combo
- Any added shutter speed margins that the in-camera or lens stabilization gives you
- How to quickly toggle between focus points or focus modes
- How high you can push your camera’s ISO setting and still achieve acceptable results
Now, you need to be able to make most, if not all, of the necessary adjustments to your exposure/focus settings without lifting your eye from the viewfinder . That way, you can make changes on the fly without fumbling around (and potentially missing the action
Know the wildlife
Since much of wildlife photography is based upon capturing fleeting moments of natural history (read: interesting poses or behavior ), it pays to be able to predict your subject’s behavior beforehand.
Granted, not every species is as predictable as the next. But there are patterns of behavior ingrained into every animal species. Knowing your subject may be the difference between capturing that “golden moment” and watching in agony as it flies by.
Spend time with your subject. Don’t just hang around for a few minutes and seek out the next subject if the one you’re observing or photographing isn’t delivering the goods. Sit with wildlife. Watch wildlife. Wait.
My understanding of lilac-breasted rollers allowed me to capture the image below; I knew what it was going to do to its grasshopper lunch, and I was ready for it:
Know the wildlife photography “rules,” but don’t be afraid to break them
First, know the absolute basics: Proper exposure and the use of the histogram , as well as compositional guidelines such as the rule of thirds . Ingrain them in your brain. To capture fleeting moments, you need to have complete mastery over exposure and composition.
Second, know the wildlife-specific rules. For instance, eye contact with the subject is a big deal, as it gives life to the image. In the case of bird photography, you can take this a step further: the head should be at least parallel to the camera sensor, and ideally turned a few degrees toward the viewer.
Once you know the guidelines, and once you know when and how to apply them, it’s time to start breaking them. Experiment with composition and exposure. Test the boundaries.
Photograph when the light is great
When I started shooting, here’s the first piece of advice I ever got:
Stick to the hours of golden light (i.e., the time just after sunrise and just before sunset).
This means getting up early in the morning and being in the field before sunrise, and going out in the afternoon to make the most of the last hours of sunlight. The light at midday (mostly between 11:00 and 4:00, at least where I live) is generally harsh and looks, well, bad .
The exception is on overcast days, when clouds act like a massive softbox and filter out the light evenly. On those days, you can shoot all day (as long as there are willing subjects!).
In wildlife photography, you need to know how to use the light to your advantage. Often, you’ll find yourself in a position where the light isn’t ideal, or heaven forbid, the light is nice but is coming from the wrong direction (and you aren’t in a position to move to a better spot).
The good news is that light from the wrong direction can add lots of mood to an image. Shooting into the light is tricky to pull off, but if you follow my first tip (know your gear!), you can get some pretty interesting images from a less-than-ideal position. The image below is one such photo; it uses backlight to create interesting silhouettes and atmosphere: