Wildlife Photography – An Ultimate Expert’s Guide with 50 Top Tips
Follow these 50 wildlife photography tips to improve your wildlife photography skills.
Section 1: Wildlife Photography Tips Before the Shoot
1. Choose a Full Frame DSLR or Mirrorless camera with a fast Autofocus or Animal Eye Autofocus
The new mirrorless cameras provide real-time animal Eye AF for wildlife photography. When choosing what type of camera to purchase, consider investing in systems that can drastically improve your ability to capture fast moving wildlife.
2. Choose your first telephoto lens
Use a varied zoom focal length for smaller sizes when hiking or traveling and until you know what your ideal max focal length is as well as depending on your budget. You can find less expensive telephoto lenses from third-party manufacturers like Tamron and Sigma. I would have my Canon 100-400mm for hiking trips or backpacking and travel expeditions but then I would use my Canon 400mm f/2.8 for 100% wildlife designated trips.
3. Use fast telephoto lenses f/2.8 to f/5.6 – Meaning telephoto lenses with wide apertures
My telephoto lens is a 400mm at f/2.8 and it’s great for capturing wildlife, eliminating the background, and giving you excellent compression. The big battle of the telephotos lens choice is usually between the 500mm or 600mm, but that is very conditional based on where you are spending your time shooting. You can always find focal length but you cannot always find more light during dawn or dusk when you want to be shooting. I would be more concerned with getting a telephoto lens that allows in the most light with a wide aperture and therefore enables my Autofocus to properly work in addition to getting better image quality results with lower ISO values. Each location differs for desired max focal length but with my 400mm I use the extenders 1.4x and 2.0x depending on the current conditions so within my camera bag I have effective focal lengths of 400mm at f/2.8, 560mm at f/4.0 and 800mm at f/5.6 without all the extra weight. While shooting in Svalbard, I would suggest a focal length reach of 600mm to 800mm as the Polar Bears can be at quite a distance.
4. Buy used gear, Rent / Hire Gear (Big Telephoto Lenses)
There’s a variety of cameras and lenses in the used market. Many wildlife photographers sell their gear for upgrades. Don’t think that used camera gear is not as good. Plenty of photographers are continuously liquidating and upgrading their gear so when new gear is announced, go to places like Facebook marketplace, ebay or local camera shops and see what is available. For expeditions in the past, I’ve hired gear from local photography shops to see if I like the gear after using it in the field before putting in that massive investment in a fast tele lens. One of our most useful wildlife photography tips. On our Svalbard trip please see Svalbard Camera Rentals.
5. Use weather proof, sealed cameras and lenses
Wildlife photographers buy weather-sealed camera gear to shoot in all kinds of weather conditions. In order to become a better wildlife photographer, you can kiss your fair weather hobby goodbye. Wildlife photographers immerse themselves in whatever weather conditions and terrain that the wildlife endure. Therefore it’s imperative that you get the gear that can withstand harsh weather conditions. Again, this echoes the previous point that investing in premium gear allows you to take advantage of any opportunity without fear. While in Svalbard photographing Polar Bears and Arctic wildlife, you will have to contend with the salt water splashing up from the zodiac rides, sleet/wet snow during the spring season, and rain during spring and summer. Ask yourself, is it better to invest in a premium weather proof system now or risk ruining a cheaper system and then having to re-buy the more premium gear after?
6. Have a weather proofed camera bag
Protect all your gear and equipment by using waterproof backpacks / camera bags with drybags. I typically pack a dry bag large enough to put my biggest lens and camera combo inside if needed. In the Arctic, you can get an array of weather conditions and they can come out of nowhere so you need to anticipate the worst. Therefore within my weather proof camera bag you’ll find a collapsible dry bag, weather sealed memory card pelican cases, silica gel packets scattered throughout, reusable plastic camera sleeve to continue shooting and multiple super absorbent microfibre towels. In Svalbard, we explore the fjord systems by anchoring our ice breaking ship and using zodiacs. While we are exploring on zodiacs to go to different areas, there may be weather systems coming in and out during these times so it’s best to anticipate the worst for weather.
7. Prepare a checklist and plan your trip
To be prepared is half the victory! Make sure you know where you are going, have a GPS with you, and scout the area when you arrive. You need to let your family and friends know where you’ll be shooting so they can anticipate your return. If you’re photographing larger predators or there are larger predators in your area, bring bear spray, a knife, GPS (I use Garmin In Reach) and do not rely on cell signals. I do not go on wildlife expedition alone and it’s imperative to have experienced guides and professionals especially with large predators like Polar Bears.
8. Use a sturdy tripod not to shoot but to aid in fatigue
Strong tripods allow you to mount heavy telephoto lenses and with proper wildlife gimbal heads you can of course shoot birds and activity that is consistent. I do not recommend tripods for wildlife as they are too slow to set up and for most of my setups I need to be shooting right away. If you’re in a blind then it makes sense to balance your camera on a tripod until the moment happens but overall I just use tripods to save my energy and strength for when the wildlife arrive. While on the icebreakers in Svalbard there is always a slight vibration in the boat when idling the engine therefore these conditions are not ideal for using that tripod as it’s original intention. I use my Wimberley WH-200 Gimbal head and Gitzo tripod when we are on land near Arctic Fox dens or focusing on reindeer.
9. Get a bean bag
Bean bags are another excellent way to support your camera and lens and I way rather prefer this method as you just toss the bean bag on the ground and then you’re set up. Alternatively you can drape it over the ship’s edge or car door effortlessly. I use one from Lens Coat and fill it with buckwheat grouts. When you use the bean bags on the icebreaking ships they absorb some of that vibration that I previously spoke about and they aid with fatigue. Consider this option over a tripod while in Svalbard.
10. Learn about the animals you are shooting
If you want to take great photos of animals, you have to study their behaviour. Always get to know your subjects before you go out shooting. Understanding wildlife behaviour is imperative to predicting movements so that you can quickly change your shutter speed as needed. For example, I know that when a Polar Bear is hunting seal during the spring time (April to June) in Svalbard that I should set my shutter speed to 2x the reciprocal of my focal length because the bear will move extremely fast and that 1/focal length shutter speed will cause a missed shot or blurred result of the most important behaviour to capture.
11. Practice shooting before you go into the wild
Even if you are ready for the big adventure, you can still practice shooting animals in your neighborhood, local park, local estuary or even your pets. Believe it or not but to build muscle memory and to improve my autofocus capabilities I photograph my two cats at home while they are playing. The house light is quite dim compared to the outdoors and this environment mimics dusk/dawn so you can get a firm understanding of how to balance your shutter speeds with those auto ISO values that populate in addition to pulling off shots of moving wildlife with slower shutter speeds. This is only for those hobbyists or professionals who understand the rules, have the skills and resourcefulness in technique to pull this off.
12. Use lens teleconverters
Teleconverters allow you to get closer to your subject. However, you lose one to one and a half stops of light when you use the 1.4x and you’ll lose 2 stops of light for the 2x. With a 400mm f/2.8 with a 1.4x converter you can now shoot at 560mm but your max aperture is f/4.0 (one stop loss) and with a 2.0x converter you can shoot at 800mm but at f/5.6. WIth a Canon 100-400mm and a 1.4x you can shoot at 560mm but your widest aperture is now f/8.0 which can be an issue. This aperture is sharp for landscapes but for wildlife it’s not ideal. The reason is because you put more pressure on the shutter speed and ISO to perform under the low light conditions. Additionally, if we use our rule of the 1/reciprocal of focal length for shutter speed then all the pressure is put on the ISO and therefore introducing a lot of grain into the image in order to pull off a sharp shot.
Section 2: wildlife photography tips – Camera Settings :
13. Use the proper camera settings for wildlife photography
Every photographer sets up their camera differently, but I will always teach my photography students the same practice of shooting manual the efficient way. Choose your widest aperture, your shutter speed is set to 1/focal length you’re shooting at so for example 400mm then your shutter is 1/400th and if you’re on a moving boat 2x the reciprocal 1/800th at 400mm. Then your ISO should be auto. Auto!? Yes. Your camera is smarter and faster than you so let it do the work. The only thing I would consider is to set a maximum ISO speed to 16,000, but this is camera dependent (full frame/mirrorless). Customize your camera according to your taste and preferences. You will miss way less moments by simplifying your settings and therefore become a better wildlife photographer.
14. Capture the moment using fast shutter speeds
High quality lenses allow you to raise your ISO without adding significant noise to your images. This way, you can choose shutter speeds up to 1/2000th for birds in flight and therefore improve your ability to take sharp shots. Most amateur photographers actually shoot at way to slow of shutter speeds and therefore have soft focused shots either from missed focused or camera shake. As stated above default to 1/focal length but for fast moving wildlife, 2x the reciprocal of the focal length. For birds in flight you need a faster shutter speed if they are moving towards you than you would if they were moving parallel to you.
15. Take sharp images
Capturing sharp photos in wildlife can be challenging. I wouldn’t get stuck on the zoom vs prime debate. Primes are sharper generally as they have one focal length but that usually is not what is causing beginner and intermediates to have soft, unfocused photographs. It’s usually too slow of shutter speed, not anticipating the behaviour, misunderstanding of camera movement techniques and tracking for Autofocus and using the shutter to half press to gain focus. See point 40 for the proper focusing technique for wildlife photography.
16. Use silent continuous shooting mode to keep a low profile
The newest cameras provide a silent shooting mode so you can be stealthy and don’t disturb your subject if there is a quiet situation or unfamiliarity with you and the wildlife. If the wildlife are at a distance just use the regular high speed continuous burst setting as the silent shooting isn’t as fast. Just be aware of your situation and adopt your drive modes as needed. This mode is not essential in Svalbard as we are typically at greater distances and the Polar Bears know we are in the area, but if you were to shoot Arctic fox at their dens, this mode would be advantageous.
17. Use your camera’s custom memory
Save your camera settings and recall them at any moment in time or have them as a fast starting point for situational encounters. My C1 mode is set up for large moving mammals f/2.8, 1/800, ISO Auto with maximum 12,800 ISO and my C2 mode is set up for fast moving critters and birds f/2.8, 1/1250, ISO Auto with maximum of 16,000 ISO (as the shutter speed needs to be faster, even up to 1/2000th).
18. ETTR and Light Metering Modes
If you want to properly exposure for a scene with high dynamic range then your best bet is to use the Matrix Metering or Evaluative Metering. If you are shooting portraits then I would suggest spot metering. ETTR is a technique which stands for Expose to the Right. You’re better off slightly overexposing a scene given that the dynamic range of the scene isn’t too drastic (ie. hot spots on white fir) so that you can take that extra image data and reduce it in post processing. If you underexpose a scene then you’ll need to add information that wasn’t present in the RAW image and therefore compromise the quality of the end result.
19. Use back-button focus for more convenience, better AF capabilities and tack sharp shots
The best way to keep your subject in focus even after taking a shot, is by decoupling the focus button from the shutter. You want to never use half press for wildlife. When you’re trying to hold still, follow the wildlife you could have an issue of accidentally triggering the shutter and therefore losing focus, missing focus and losing track of the wildlife subject. Back button focus allows you to fully hold down the AF button while in AI Servo mode and then trip the shutter as needed while keeping sight of the subject and eliminating the potential for error.
20. Always shoot RAW
The new cameras support 14-bit RAW files. Even if you shoot in low light, you can still raise the shadows to reveal more details if necessary. This is an obvious tip but just understand that shooting in RAW gives you significant shadow and highlight recovery.
21. Know how much to raise the ISO within your AUTO ISO speed settings
Most recent cameras are great in low light. That said, make sure you know how much to increase the ISO value before introducing too much noise to your images. This is dependent on your camera that you’re using and your post processing skills. If you under-exposure your image with trying to push your ISO down, you’ll have to increase the exposure of the shot in post processing which will provide a poorer result than if you just used a higher ISO in the field.
22. Use AF Continuous Mode
AI Servo is the best mode to shoot wildlife and other moving subjects. This is all you need to know is that the other AF modes are not for wildlife.
Section 3: wildlife photography tips – On the Shoot & Working with Wildlife
23. Automate Settings with Muscle Memory and Hone in on Creative Compositions
Use the rule of thirds in your shots. For better subject framing and composition, enable the “rule of thirds” grid in your camera. This means the important parts of a scene should take up ¾ of your shot and your subjects should intersect on the corners of your image. Depending on where your wildlife subject is heading, leave negative space in the direction they are heading.
24. Be patient – know when you have to press the shutter
Taking a photo is different than creating it. Make sure you are patient enough to press the shutter at proper intervals. Saying ‘Spray and Pray’ is very cringe worthy. Don’t do that. I shoot in bursts of 3-7 photos in anticipation of a behavioral event.
25. Shoot birds in moderate light
Intense light on a clear day might not be ideal when shooting birds. Instead, a cloudy day will allow you to shoot without introducing shadows from the harsh sunlight. I photograph birds in flight on bright overcast days. Also shooting with 45 to 90 degree lighting can produce some beautiful results.
26. Portraits: You don’t need to show the entire animal in your shot
If you have a big telephoto lens, you can focus on just a part of the animal to create a striking portrait image. This is super powerful with you have different facial expressions as it will elicit an emotional connection with the viewer.
27. Use Lighting to your advantage
Don’t be afraid to shoot against the sun. You can create dramatic images, especially if the animal you are shooting has fur or a lot of hair. The backlit rim lighting effect has to be one of my most favourite lighting conditions to shooting. Additionally, I like 45 to 90 degree lighting on my subjects to create dramatic images. Communicate with your professional instructor and your professional guides when you’re in Svalbard, in order to have the zodiacs positioned in the group’s favour.
28. Use foliage (or icebergs) to frame your subject
Sometimes you might have trees or foliage in front of you or around your subject. Use it for a more creative shot. In my case there may be ice or snow in Svalbard and what I like to do is create depth in the image by including these foreground elements while shooting with a wide aperture to frame the subject.
29. Show the animals in their environment
You may want to capture the animal and create a detailed shot with your super-telephoto lens. However, sometimes you have to zoom out and show the place the animal lives. Photographing wildlife in their habitats allows the viewer to understand where the animal lives and flourishes. As a conservation photographer, I find myself shooting a lot of these scenes to showcase the wildlife’s home that we need to protect.
30. Narrow your aperture to include the background and to photograph multiple subjects
Often, we choose to separate our subject from the background, but in some cases, you could close your aperture to show more information of what’s behind it and also other animals in a pride, pack or family. You may in fact want to shoot the scene at f/8.0, if the lighting conditions allow, in order to get more than one subject in acceptable focus.
31. Get on the ground
Sometimes we may have our subject perfectly positioned, but the background looks dull. If you get low, you can change the background scene and color and distance between the subject and the background. In addition to establishing a connection with the subject. An elevated perspective is not ideal at all when shooting wildlife as it’s from a privileged perspective.
32. Fast moving wildlife requires matched panning speed
Animals rarely sit still. Make sure you are in sync with the wildlife’s movement. You must track and follow wildlife at the same speed as they are moving in order to get tack sharp images.
33. Beyond just eye contact, look for the expressions
Take photos of a Polar Bear when it’s yawning, an Arctic fox is napping or a seal when they close their eyes. These expressions can tell beautiful stories of the wildlife in that current moment.
34. Forced to shoot mid day? Go for black and white
Create dramatic shots by shooting in black and white. During mid day is when you have a lot of natural contrast. Just ensure that you keep the shadows out of the eyes of the wildlife subject.
35. Approach the animals carefully
Do not disturb the animals. Always be careful on how to approach them. You need to find the combination of letting the animal know you’re in the area so that they do not feel threatened if they are a larger predator and always approach indirectly. Avoid positioning yourself upwind from any animal. One of the most important wildlife photography tips. We are dedicated to conservation and need to ensure our impact is minimal.
36. Look for behaviour patterns, especially when you are shooting birds
Birds are tricky subjects to shoot. They move fast and sporadically and they can be tough to follow. However, if you first identify the bird’s flight pattern you can anticipate their movements and be better able to track them and to capture them.
37. Use a battery grip and carry extra batteries with you
Using a battery grip will give you enough juice to shoot a whole day—the more batteries you carry with you, the better.
38. Don’t lose track! To track fast moving subjects
It’s a lot easier to lose your subjects in your viewfinder than you think. Regain the location of that subject with your eyes then angle the camera back in that direction to find where the subject is. Don’t spend too much time looking through the viewfinder trying to find the subject as it’s a smaller area to scout.
39. Be there and live in the moment
Don’t let the camera distract you. Always be present and live in the moment and take the moment in. When behaviour is predictably boring or uneventful, take this opportunity to survey the habitat and enjoy the moment.
40. Dress properly – Layer and Protect Extremities
Make sure you wear proper clothes when shooting wildlife. You need to stay warm in cold climates and keep safe in warm temperatures. In order to stay healthy and safe this is a no brainer, but the other side of this is that if you’re out in the field throughout the entire day temperature ranges vary so greatly in addition to your sensitivity to these temperature fluctuations. Say for example, you’re hiking to get to the wildlife and then you have to set up a blind and be stationary, you’re going to get cold. Layers are essential whether that’s in the Arctic or in Africa. Keep in mind it’s not always about the temperature but the clothes you wear can protect you from insects as well. While in Svalbard, I have an Arc’teryx Winter Shell, then a mid layer puffy jacket, then a sustainably sourced wool sweater and base layer with long underwear. I have two pairs of gloves, one bulky pair for harsh conditions and one pair that is lighter but both are tactical gloves and can be used easily with my cameras, to handle memory cards and battery changes. I also bring a balaclava to protect my neck while cruising on the zodiacs and a warm toque / thick beanie.
41. Make sure your camera is using the fastest memory cards
The size of your camera’s buffer will determine how fast the images will be stored on the memory card when using the burst mode. Using fast memory cards is absolutely necessary. Do not cheap out on memory cards as they will compromise your abilities in the field.. Always check you have the correct memory card for your camera for optimum performance.
42. Use scopes and binoculars
Track your subject from a distance. Scopes and binoculars are essential tools for wildlife photographers. You need to preserve both your strength and your battery life for your camera. Utilize other gear that is lightweight and makes it easier to track wildlife. We use scopes in Svalbard on the ships as they have greater range over large open areas and they are ideal for tracking but when you’re out in the field, binoculars are your best bet.
43. Be a non-threatening presence
Hides and camouflage gear are great stealthy options for wildlife photographers. You’ll see a lot of wildlife photographers have their lenses covered up with camo. This is not by accident, you want to blend into your environment as best as you can. Too much eye contact, too direct of approaches and moving sporadically or moving fast are threatening to any animal, therefore avoid these threatening antics.
Section 4: wildlife photography tips – After the Shoot & Post Production
44. Back up your images when you’re traveling
This goes without saying but when you’re in the field or on a photography tour or expedition, the process is to shoot as much as you need or possible and to have a good amount of memory cards for the entire trip and then after each shooting session to back up your images onto an external hard drive and then if you’re expedition is longer, then you’ll backup that hard drive to an additional backup hard drive. You’ll have the original file on the memory card, the first backup on the hard drive 1 and then the secondary backup on the other hard drive. You’ll put your memory cards in a systematic location in your bag for those that are used and a different location for those that are empty. Your hard drives should be kept in two different locations that are dry, free from dust/sand or any other exposure in waterproof cases. Additionally, your hard drives should be dust proof, shockproof and water resistant. I use Lacie Rugged at the moment and I’m waiting for SSD drives to drop significantly in price and to drastically increase their capacity in addition to being more element resistant.
45. Edit your images
Photo editing is another critical step before printing your photos. Check out our wildlife photography course on www.artica-studios.com for more details about seeing these tips and techniques in action in addition to our specialized editing techniques specifically for wildlife photography. Get creative with post processing and watch your images become works of art.
46. Print your images
Seeing your images on paper makes you feel like a true artist. You can either use the process in step 49 to understand the process or you can find high quality printers in your local area to do so. Printing your images always is a rewarding experience and it brings your wildlife encounter to life and it’s a conversation piece to tell your story as a photographer.
47. Educate yourself
Buy books and study other wildlife photographers’ work, invest in photography online courses and spend time learning on YouTube. You can also attend photography workshops, photography tours with photography expert leaders and learn the secrets of wildlife photography from experienced photographers. Don’t forget to check out our photo tours and expeditions here. Having a combination of theory and practice will help you transform into a wildlife photography authority. Even as a professional wildlife photographer, I attend other wildlife photographer’s workshops as my learning process is never ending. I say ‘Educate yourself’ in the Post Shoot section as I believe you need to be the harshest critic of your own work and to go in the field and attempt to execute your learned theory and then re-assess.
48. Don’t be afraid to fail
The more you practice, the better you become. Don’t worry if some of your images are not so good. Keep shooting! Acquire knowledge and gain experience. To echo a previous point about educating yourself, there is only so much you can learn conceptually and being able to translate your knowledge into skill, technique and great work takes a lot of time, effort and failure. Remember, failure and frustration are the fastest ways to learn and to master skills.
49. Sell your wildlife images
You can make money out of wildlife photography. You can sell your images online or showcase your work at a local event. In addition to the editing course, we teach photographers of all types including wildlife and landscape photographers how to sell their images. You can sell your images and turn your hobby into an affordable one or re-invest your earnings into gear upgrades or even pay off photography expeditions. I created this 10 Day Print Selling Machine Challenge to help you with this, it happens once per month with hobby and professional photographers all over the world: www.artica-studios.com
50. Keep the wildlife and yourself Stay safe
The most important tip of all is to never endanger the wildlife and to get them into a fight or flight position. If an animal attacks it is because it was likely provoked. If a wild animal attacks or demonstrates aggressive behaviour, the authorities may have to euthanize the animal – just because they used their protective instincts. This is a heartbreaking reality and it happens time and time again in National Parks and areas around the world. As wildlife photographers, the animals’ needs and animal safety are the priority. There is nothing more important than respecting their space, their habitat and for the photographs to be the secondary priority. Never risk your life or the wildlife’s health and wellness for a photo. We always want to lead by example and if we deem a situation is stressful for the animal when they are trying to preserve their energy or to hunt or feed, we will happily leave them be. The most important of our wildlife photography tips!
I hope to see you on a Svalbard Polar Bear and Arctic Wildlife expedition. You can see all our upcoming tours here. See you in the high Arctic!
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