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A Beginner's Guide to Wildlife Photography

March 17, 2017

CDLC Editor

After years of snapping cute cat photos, you are ready to take your animal photography skills to the next level. Wildlife photography is a challenging but rewarding hobby — all you need is time, patience, and a DSLR camera. With a few tips, you'll soon be taking spectacular photographs — whether you're capturing camels in the Sahara or squirrels frolicking on your sundeck.

Photo Credit: Rudy Winston

Putting Together your Camera Kit

Essential Equipment
● DSLR camera
● Telephoto lens
● Camera bag
● Spare battery packs
● Extra memory cards
● Tripod or monopod

Getting started with wildlife photography requires less equipment than you might think. While professional wildlife photographers often travel with lots of gear — specialty lenses, camera mounts, filters and even multiple cameras — an entry-level DSLR camera and a telephoto lens gives amateur photographers the ability to take high-quality wildlife photos with a focal range up to 300mm. The telephoto lens lets you zoom in to photograph birds or skittish creatures that you can't get close to, while visually compressing the distance between the subject and camera. Experiment with your camera settings to find the best ways to capture creepy crawlies, grazing deer, and everything in between.

Since you may be spending lots of time hiking around the great outdoors, you'll need something sturdy to hold and protect your gear. A good camera bag is as valuable as the camera itself. Look for one that can easily fit your equipment and is comfortable to carry for several hours. Consider a bag that is semi-weatherproof or water-repellent for extended outdoor use.

For long days on the trail, spare batteries and memory cards may save the day. The last thing you want is to be several miles away from civilization and stumble onto an enchanting woodland scene only to find your battery’s died or your memory card is maxed out.

While a tripod is not necessarily an essential in wildlife photography, it can be useful for long-range shots and will reduce blurriness in photos that might otherwise occur in handheld shooting. If you decide to add a tripod to your kit, find one that is lightweight and compact, yet strong enough to handle your camera setup.

Choosing your Destination

Before you book that once-in-a-lifetime African safari, try visiting local parks and trails with known wildlife activity to experiment with camera settings and shooting techniques. When planning an outdoor photo excursion, there are two major factors to consider in picking your destinations, which can each impact the quality and content of your photography: accessibility and activity.

Accessibility

The local zoo is great for practicing basic composition methods on exotic creatures. Take a trip to a zoo or animal sanctuary and you'll find animals within designated enclosures — and while they may not be striking a pose, you'll still have a better chance of getting close enough to snap a few portraits before closing time. Finding visible, active creatures in the wild will take a little more research and preparation.

Photo Credit: Eric Stoner

If you’re going to visit a state park or national forest, look for information about the area and the specific wildlife you're likely to encounter. Read up on the animals' habits and movements throughout your destination to maximize your chances of capturing images while they're active. In general, animals tend to be most active in the early morning or late evening, so if a regional park is on your agenda, make sure it will be accessible during your shooting schedule. Most state and national parks have operating hours like businesses and may be closed to visitors overnight.

Activity

When your subject is a stationary object or landscape, you can work at your own pace — and on your own schedule — but wildlife photography is different, and requires a lot of time and patience. Even seasoned photographers can spend hours waiting for that perfect shot of a deer by a stream or a flock of seagulls in mid-flight. To take authentic, compelling shots of animals, you'll need to stick around and observe the animals, and monitor their patterns and behaviors.

Photo Credit: Eric Stoner

Choose an area that you can easily return to often. You may start to identify individual creatures and recognize their personalities. The advantage to frequenting the same spots is you can habituate the animals to your presence. Soon, they will start to ignore you and go about their daily lives, allowing you to capture interesting aspects of their behavior. Getting to the point where you can anticipate how the animals will behave in certain situations and becoming familiar with their routines at particular times of day will not only improve the quality of your photos, but can also have a positive impact on your visual storytelling.

Photo Credit: Eric Stoner

Not ready to make a big commitment to the great outdoors? You can practice wildlife photography in your own backyard. Just steps from your patio is a miniature ecosystem with exotic creatures waiting to be discovered by your macro lens.

Capturing Animals on Camera

The two keys to successful wildlife photography are patience and preparation. While you may be waiting for several hours, great action-packed moments in nature last on average between 5-20 seconds. Being comfortable with your camera and having the ability to quickly switch between settings is crucial in catching these spontaneous and fleeting moments. When adjusting your camera settings, keep three basic elements in mind—lighting, composition and speed.

Lighting

In a studio setting, you have full control over lighting and diffusers. Outside, however, you’re subject to the whims of Mother Nature. Dark clouds can suddenly roll in just as you’re set to capture a fox peeking out of his den and mess up your ISO setting. (ISO determines the camera's image sensor's sensitivity to light). The higher the ISO setting, the less light is required to create a well-exposed image, but higher settings can create grainier images. Ideally, you want to use the lowest ISO possible, however a higher ISO used in combination with a fast shutter speed is beneficial in capturing wildlife in motion. Optimal ISO settings can vary depending on weather conditions. The optimal ISO for a sunny day would be 100 or 200, while a cloudy day would call for a setting between 400 and 800 or even higher depending on whether action needs to be caught requiring a faster shutter speed.

Photo Credit: Eric Stoner

The best lighting for most outdoor photo shoots is during the golden hour — that time around sunrise or sunset when the light has a more golden appearance and hits subjects from the side, creating nice shadows and textures. Midday light is typically harsh, as cameras struggle to cope with the bright spots and dark shadows in the middle of a sunny day. On overcast days, the clouds act as a large diffuser, which is better for macro shots of bees perched on wildflowers or long exposures of ducks floating on a secluded pond.

Photo Credit: Eric Stoner

Avoid using a flash because the light is harsh and can be frightening to small animals. Also, like humans, animals can photograph with a similar look to red eye when using flash.

Composition

Instead of framing your subject precisely at the center of your viewfinder, follow the old rule of thirds by using your camera's visible grid display (if your camera has it) for more dynamic framing. Experiment with different angles and focal lengths, while keeping the background as simple and neutral as possible. Get up close with your subject, either physically or with a telephoto lens. Get low to capture that eye-level perspective. Keep in mind that wild animals are unpredictable. Be respectful of their space and know that the best perspective is not always readily available. If your subject isn’t ready for its close-up, shoot at a wider angle to show off its habitat.

Photo Credit: Eric Stoner

For wildlife on the move, autofocus is a great tool for capturing bursts of activity. The continuous focusing (AI Servo AF) feature allows the lens to constantly maintain its focus for multiple shots. This feature is ideal for bird photography. To engage the autofocus, place the selected focus area over your subject and half-press the shutter button. Focus will be tracked for as long as you follow your subject while maintaining pressure on the shutter button. Keep in mind, if your selected focusing area moves off of your subject, your camera will tend to focus on background details, so try to maintain good tracking of the subject as it moves by using the active focus points. To use continuous shooting mode, hold down the shutter button as long as you want to capture the action.

Photo Credit: Eric Stoner

Speed

From galloping horses to hopping bunnies, capturing moments perfectly depends on the right shutter speed. A faster shutter speed of 1/1000 sec. will freeze most action, preserving the moment when all four hooves are in mid-air. A slower shutter speed from 1/50 to 1/500 sec. allows your photos to convey some sense of movement, adding a slight blur to those hopping bunny feet.

Wildlife photography can be a time-consuming and physically challenging hobby that may have you enduring inclement weather in every season to record the natural world. However, sometimes the best moments appear first to the naked eye, even in poor conditions or after hours of waiting. Remember to look up from your camera every now and then and simply enjoy your surroundings — it may mean spotting an unexpected subject, and capturing that perfect shot.

Photo Credit: Eric Stoner
CDLC Editor
CDLC Editor

Your guide to exclusive product insights, photo tips, galleries and more.

CDLC Editor

Your guide to exclusive product insights, photo tips, galleries and more.

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