How to Capture Wildlife Photos: A Beginner’s Guide
We all have genres that we usually shoot, but sometimes we want to try our hand at photography outside of our comfort zone. It’s possible to start getting great shots in other areas without them becoming a full-time occupation or costing a fortune in extra kit. Here’s how to do that with wildlife photography.
There are different breeds of wildlife photographers. At the top of the food chain is Photographicus Obsessius. They study individual species, so they know all of their behaviors and can call them by their Latin names. They get up at 2 a.m., travel 80 km or more, and sit uncomfortably for many hours with a long lens, hoping to capture a less spotted, larger-crested yellow-bellied sapsucker that does not perform her mating ritual only once a year between five and seven in the morning on March 28. They only leave the house if they are dressed in green camouflage. Armed with a $20,000 lens mounted on their camera, they look great.
Thank God for them. As experts in all fields, they are usually vocal about their passion and do a lot to help promote awareness and protect the wildlife they photograph. The world needs more people like this, especially given the scary and real man-made mass extinction event the planet is experiencing. Plus, they usually get stunning photos. However, it doesn’t have to be you or me.
At the other end of the scale are those of us who love wildlife and want to take decent pictures of it, but don’t want to put in so much effort. We still want to get good shots, though. I fall into this camp. Photographers like us usually shoot landscapes or photos of our family or pets. But once in a while we want to capture photographs of the local birds and bees. If you’re with me here, the good news is that it’s totally possible, and you can start by using the kit and the knowledge they already have.
When we think of wildlife photography, we often imagine rare species with extraordinary behavior or close-up portraits of creatures with blurred backgrounds. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Most of us are surrounded by wild animals. I’m lucky because I live in a small coastal town in a rural county. This place is teeming with birds, and on my early morning bike ride I will also regularly encounter deer and a host of small mammals like hares, rabbits and various mustelids. Then in the sea are seals and dolphins. But even in cities, wildlife encroaches on the environment. Urban areas always have something to capture, be it flocks of feral pigeons, gulls, foxes or insects. Having nature on our doorstep, in our parks, streets, backyards and gardens means there is always something to photograph.
It doesn’t matter if the topic is a common sight for you. Many people ignore the mundane, so photographing it can show the beauty of nature to your audience, those who otherwise might not give this creature a second look. Moreover, when we capture their unusual behaviors and all creatures have unusual habits, we can share with the world how amazing even ordinary animals are.
We can, of course, attract these creatures to us. Hanging a bird feeder, turning off the water, and planting insect-friendly flowers will bring wildlife to you. To prove the point, I’m sitting in my garden typing this on a hot summer morning, and I just filled the bird feeder with seeds. I know the birds will visit within five minutes. I have a short telephoto zoom, 40-150mm lens, mounted on my OM-1 camera, but I could also use even more basic tools to get these shots. The photos of sparrows and pigeons that accompany this article are all taken today.
Probably controversial in some camps, I use aperture priority (A on most cameras, Av on Canon). Why? The light reflected from a bird sitting on the wall, in the shade of my shelter, or flying overhead varies, and I can quickly switch between them when something catches my eye. In manual mode, this means wasting time changing settings. Therefore, I might miss the shot. In aperture priority, the camera does the heavy lifting.
I set the shutter speed in the camera menus to an absolute minimum of 1/1200th of a second, sometimes faster than that if I want to stop the motion completely. The ISO was on auto with a maximum of 12,800, which I know will give me good quality images with controllable noise levels. This will vary from camera to camera; only experimentation with yours will tell you at what ISO your images become unacceptably noisy.
At these short distances and focal lengths, f/4 is a good aperture for me, as I get the whole bird in focus. I switch to continuous autofocus with AI bird tracking and recognition. It’s not available on all cameras, but check if it is on yours. My camera also has a unique feature called Pro Capture. This buffers and saves a few frames before the shutter is fully pressed, taking my reaction time out of the equation.
Once I learn a bird’s behavior, I can usually anticipate what it’s going to do anyway, so I turn off Pro Capture. I find that half the fun of action photography with wildlife is reaching the decisive moment through learned skills. Being able to turn off the technology and manage photography without that help gives me a greater sense of accomplishment. Nevertheless, Pro Capture is a great way to avoid the disappointment of missing the action, which is very important for most photographers. I use it to photograph less familiar species where I haven’t discovered the telltale signs that the creature is about to do something interesting.
Don’t be afraid to zoom out. This gives you a better chance of getting the animal in the frame; it is difficult to track a fast moving subject with a long lens. Also, your camera probably has a lot more megapixels than you need, so there’s plenty of cropping possibilities. But more importantly, including the surrounding environment can add context and interest to the photo.
Because the environment and the sky are brighter than medium gray, I added 0.7 stops of positive exposure compensation. On my camera, that means rotating the front dial two clicks. On entry-level cameras, this will require pressing a +/- button and turning the single adjustment wheel, called a control wheel by some brands. Yes, it’s counterintuitive, but increase exposure when shooting a bright scene.
It’s not just birds that I photograph; insects are there too. Even without a macro lens, they make great subjects.
Walking around with my camera gives me plenty of opportunities to photograph wildlife, but I find the secret is to stand still and wait for it to come to me. Dressing in green military combat fatigues is not necessary in an urban environment, and there is usually no need elsewhere. Soft colors will do. If you stand still, most creatures will ignore you. Also, don’t stare at wild animals as they will see you as a threat and run away; you have two frightening forward-facing eyes, like their predators.
You can decide in time that you want a longer goal. You get what you pay for, and many cheap 75-300mm lenses are fine at certain focal lengths, but don’t give great results, especially at their extreme settings. It’s worth saving up or checking second-hand deals on better lenses. If a cheaper lens is all you can afford, experiment to find where it gives the sharpest images. You’ll find a sweet spot with a combination of aperture and focal length that delivers great results.
Are you an established wildlife photographer? How did you start? Or do you, like me, usually shoot other genres, but also enjoy capturing images of animals. Maybe you’re just getting started. It will be great to hear your stories and see your photos too. Please put them in the comments.
Thank you for taking time to read this. If you enjoy Fstoppers editors’ articles and find them useful, please share them with your fellow photographers. We really appreciate that. Also, if you liked this one, you might also find this article helpful.