Wildlife photography can produce wonderful images. These images can seem very simple, but the photograph had to use the right tools and techniques to capture them.
Other photographers, especially those who are just starting out, can find wildlife photography especially challenging. However, if you can use the same practices, techniques, and tricks that the pros use, you will be able to perfect your skills and, eventually, take great shots.
Applying these tips immediately to your wildlife photography can produce better results right away.
Tips for Better Wildlife Photography
Here are some tips that can help you improve your wildlife photography right away.
#1. Use a sturdy tripod
If you’re serious about taking pictures of wildlife and the outdoors, you will eventually need a tripod. Tripods can help in a few ways. They allow you to use slow shutter speeds, and they can keep the camera steady when you zoom in with a telephoto lens.
This niche often requires you to wait at the ready for long periods. Having to hold your camera this long can be tiring. A tripod can save your arm muscles from getting sore and tired after an hour of keeping a camera at the ready.
For wildlife photography, you need a tripod with multi-angle legs. These allow you to adjust it to stand on uneven ground. Before you lock the legs, make sure that your camera is straight by checking the bubble in the level on the head of the tripod. It should be in the middle of the scale.
#2. Choose the right light
You cannot understate the importance of lighting. In wildlife photography, the most popular hours are the ‘golden hours’. This time is the first hour of dawn or the final hour before dusk when the sun is either just rising or just setting.
The golden hour is popular because the sun is just at the right height relative to the subject, the light is soft and diffused, and the tone is colorful enough to make for a good photograph. Quite often, photographs taken at the golden hour make the subject look like a golden reflector held against it, and overexposure is rare.
The light gets harsher as you approach midday, and it creates strong shadows, which form dark areas on the animals you’re trying to photograph, as well as on the ground. Taking your photograph in the right lighting can make almost as much difference in the final image as your camera.
#3. Use backlighting
The subject of lighting is so important that it warrants a closer look. In this case, we’re talking backlighting. Backlighting is excellent if you want to highlight certain features on the subject.
It works very well when the subject is in front of you, especially during the golden hour. In wildlife photography circles, backlighting is referred to as rim-lighting.
It involves taking a photograph that highlights an animal’s outline, with the furs on the edges clearly showing. It can add a subtle but powerful air of quality to your work.
Backlighting can easily backfire, however. If it is too bright, it can wash out the edges. Also, with backlighting, you need to ensure that the subject isn’t underexposed (unless you want a silhouette).
#4. Use a fill flash
Flash use is an advanced subject when it comes to wildlife photography. It takes lots of practice and more than a bit of knowledge. That said, it is worth the effort because it can make all the difference to your work by eliminating shadows.
Fill flash uses very little power and fills in shadows in your work. This filling-in is crucial if you’re working in harsh lighting. If you do it well, no one will even be able to tell that you used flash.
You often need to use a diffuser to soften or bounce the flash so that it does not add to the harsh light of the picture or create even more shadows. If you do this correctly, the effect is wonderful.
There are varying opinions about the use of flash in wildlife photography, as some think it is too intrusive. Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself.
If you are taking pictures in a place where you have time to set up, you can use a reflector instead of a flash. This reflective surface can throw extra light on the shadows without a surprising and disruptive flash.
#5. Use composition methods
Composition methods apply to wildlife photos just as much as they apply in other niches. Often, using better compositions can make your photos look better right away.
The rule of thirds is an essential composition practice photographers should understand. Split your frame into a grid that consists of nine equal squares (three rows of three).
Your subject should sit at the intersections of these squares to create a sense of balance. You can turn on the grid view on the screen to help you with the composition. Luckily, this feature is available on most modern cameras. Generally, it would help if you created lots of space where the subject is looking. This negative space can help make the picture more attractive.
Since you’re doing wildlife photography, don’t forget that the environment can be just as compelling as the subject. Your photograph is more than just an image of an animal. You can use it to tell a story about the subject, where it lives, and what it’s like to live there.
#6. Get close to your subject
This tip is, understandably, one of the most challenging aspects of good wildlife photography. You need to pay attention to the subject, study it, understand it, and do lots of planning.
Most animals won’t just sit around and let you get close to them. As for the rest, you’ll be hesitant to get close to most of them anyway. It’s not an easy thing to do.
Whatever you do, remember to be ethical in your work, which is to say, getting close to your subject should never involve harming or disturbing them. Ideally, you want the animal to barely notice you’re even there.
If you want to practice getting close, you can start with small animals, such as insects. For all animals, you need to do your homework and answer some questions. When does it come out? What is its chief diet? What kind of environment is best for capturing the animal in its element? Where does it go at specific times of the day? Often, the best way to get close is to put yourself in position before the animal arrives.
#7. Use simple backgrounds & make negative space work for you
Some of the most beautiful photographs are also some of the simplest. Often what that means is that the images have a simple background that draws attention to, rather than distracts from, the subject. Your subject, by definition, is what should stand out in the photo. A distracting background will cause your animal to get lost in the scene, which might detract from the overall quality.
To take a good photograph, you need to understand how space works. After all, there will probably be more of ‘everything else’ than the subject. The trick is to make the ‘everything else’ blend perfectly with the subject to create a work of beauty.
You can achieve this blending through contrast. Have the empty (negative) space contrast with the subject to make the animal stand out. It’s hard to give an exact formula for this sort of thing. It’s the kind of thing you have to practice and improve over time. However, a good rule of thumb is to keep things as simple as possible, especially in the beginning, when you’re just starting to learn.
Contrast your subject to the bare sky or the water or a dense bush. Get good at this, then try to add some sophistication, one step at a time. You’ll be surprised how good you get after a relatively short time.
#8. Find a unique vantage point
The first rule to remember is to get on the animal’s level as often as possible. Getting at the eye level of the subject lets people see the environment from a unique perspective. It also helps to make you less threatening – less noticeable even – to the wildlife you’re trying to photograph.
What makes excellent wildlife photography stand out is that it brings the viewer on the level of the subject and, in a sense, gives them the sensation of being right there next to the animal.
Getting on the level of the animal also helps to make it stand out and dominate the photograph. You should, however, be dressed to get down on the ground without worrying about dampness or dirt.
9. Position yourself between your subject & the light source
It would be best to position yourself between the subject and the source of light. In wildlife photography, the light source is the sun almost every time. When you do this, the light will fall on the subject directly and not cast unnecessary shadows. You should understand that shadows ruin the quality of many otherwise excellent photographs.
If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, you should stand south of your subject. The sun gets skewed slightly south in the Northern Hemisphere, which means standing south of the animal will give you an optimal vantage point for the right lighting.
Conversely, if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, you should stand north of your subject. If you’re close to the equator, the sun will be overhead, so you should stand either east or west of your frame, depending on the time of day.
The golden hour, which we’ve talked about already, is the exception to this rule. It is an excellent time to have the animal between you and the source of light, as it creates beautiful silhouettes, and the sunlight isn’t harsh enough to create sharp shadows anyway.
#10. Use a macro lens for small subjects
If you plan on shooting small animals, go for a macro lens. Macro lenses can bring a new element to your photography. These lenses have a wide aperture (f/2.8 or more should be okay). Alternatively, you could attach a regular lens backward, known as reverse mounting, and use extension tubes or an adaptor.
You can also consider using slow shutter speed to capture fast-moving subjects, as most flying insects or birds can be. A slow shutter speed is good at conveying speed and may help you catch some great moments that you would not have been able to capture otherwise.
#11. Use a telephoto lens for faraway subjects
In telephoto wildlife photography, you need two essential things: the ability to take pictures from far away and stability, so the lens doesn’t shake when zoomed. Telephoto lenses are vital for wildlife pictures because they allow you to seem close to the animal.
Some of these lenses even have optical stabilization, or OS, to reduce the shaking to a minimum. The best focal length should be something like 500mm to 600mm, considering how shy animals can get when you get too close. 300mm is typically the minimum you will want.
Professional grade telephoto lenses with OS can be quite expensive, and they might be inaccessible to beginners. You can cut a few corners, however, to get started right away. For example, plastic lenses are far cheaper than regular metal ones.
You can also buy a tripod to stabilize your lens and forego OS altogether. A high shutter speed might also minimize the resulting blur from zooming in up close.
For a few hundred dollars, you should be able to get a lens with a focal length of up 300mm, though for a little less, you can get one with a fixed focal length of 100mm. Don’t do anything less than 100mm if you want good results.
These tips can improve your photos, and they are easy to implement. Though it can take time to get things just right, you can start seeing improvement right away with many of these tricks.
However, the most important tip I can give you is that you should have genuine fun while exploring wildlife photography. That’s the first step to creating outstanding work.