We share our planet with millions of different animal species. And while we get to see some of them on a daily basis, there are many we can only admire through the work of others. Wildlife photography offers any person the chance to marvel at the neverending beauty of all kinds of animal species. As you scroll through your favorite photography website, you might find yourself dreaming about capturing those kinds of images.
Most of the pictures you see are the result of many hours of work, patience, hardship, and a good amount of luck. Surely this is the secret combination behind the work of outstanding photographers across many different genres. So what does it take to become a wildlife photographer? These wildlife photography tips will help you take the first steps in this exciting adventure.
Do a lot of research beforehand
Wildlife photography is heavily reliant on animal behavioral patterns. Research is key to understanding where and when you should go to photograph certain subjects. Planning your expeditions without this information can lead you to Alaska in the middle of the winter in search of bears. Needless to say, that wouldn’t offer you the chance to take many pictures.
Before I started taking groups to exotic tropical destinations on wildlife photography tours, I had to do a lot of research to find out where certain wildlife was inhabiting and what the best time of the year was to photograph them. Once I had this information, I then read through online material and publications to learn the different behaviors of those species. Based on that, I was able to determine the best gear to take on each trip. On top of this, photographers on Instagram can also be a great resource for information and creative inspiration.
These are some interesting sites where you can start your research:
Choose the right gear
You don’t need high-end gear and a long list of camera accessories to take outstanding wildlife photos. In fact, patience and perseverance will play just as important of a role – if not more – in the outcome. As it’s the case with other genres, knowing what your camera is capable of is one of the most important aspects of wildlife photography. At the same time, you must be aware of the limitations of your gear to avoid disappointment at the time of your shoot.
I usually follow a checklist I create for each specific trip. This allows me to pack the essentials and leave behind everything else. Contrary to popular belief, overpacking can be much worse than underpacking. It’s actually one of the most preventable of all mistakes made by photographers. The extra load will make you feel weighed down and uncomfortable, and might even prevent you from fully enjoying the experience.
For example, if I am going on a photography tour of birds, I try to take my longest lens and two camera bodies. If I am shooting landscapes, I leave the tele lenses behind, as I personally don’t feel that they add any value to the trip.
Shoot in RAW
As a photographer, regardless of your chosen genre, make it a habit to shoot in RAW mode. There is a lot of discussion on the Web about shooting in both RAW and JPEG simultaneously. But, at the end of the day, JPEG files are an unnecessary addition, as you’ll just end up working with the RAW files. This is because RAW files contain massive amounts of pixel information when compared to JPEG files.
Overall, the additional data you get from RAW files compared to other file types gives you more room to make adjustments in post processing. As you won’t be able to have much control over the scenes you’re shooting, it’s important to be able to work with as much information as possible.
Use a low ISO
The ISO number of image sensors defines their sensitivity to light. Essentially, the higher the ISO number, the less light that’s required to properly expose an image. But as ISO increases, so does image noise. In order to avoid this visual distortion, it’s generally recommended to use the lowest ISO possible.
Some scenes, however, may require you to use a higher ISO in order to balance the exposure triangle. Knowing your gear’s limitation will allow you to do so without compromising the image too much. As long as you stay within a salvageable range, don’t be afraid of bumping up your ISO. After all, I would rather have a noisy image than a blurred one.
Rely on auto focus
As a wildlife photographer, I find it crucial to use the camera’s built-in focus tracking mechanism. Most wild animals are always on the move, making it nearly impossible to focus your shots manually. This is where the cameras auto focus tracking is critical for capturing a sharp image.
The auto focus mode is represented by AI Servo AF in Canon cameras and AF-C in Nikon cameras. While tracking a subject through your viewfinder, half-press the shutter button to start auto focus. Focus is tracked as long as the shutter button is half pressed. Make sure to read your camera’s manual for a full understanding on how to use this setting.
Carry a tripod
No matter what I am out to shoot, I always carry my tripod. Tripods provide stability and, funny enough, freedom. I mostly shoot in rainforest environments, and it is in this kind of habitat where I find the use of a tripod to be invaluable.
On most dull mornings I shoot using lower shutter speeds. As a result, the scope for error is much higher due to the risk of camera shake. Investing in a stable tripod and ball head is always recommended for those looking to enter the world of wildlife photography.
Learn the unwritten rules
For beginners, one of the most challenging parts of wildlife photography is learning how to act and behave on the field. Things that might seem obvious don’t always work when facing wild animals. Here are few general guidelines to remember on your journey to becoming a successful wildlife photographer:
Maintain your distance
Many people think that getting close to animals is the way to capturing jaw-dropping images. But, since you’re probably not trained to understand their behavior, this won’t end well. Trying to feed animals, regardless of how cute and innocent they look, can also end badly on both sides. The safest choice is to always keep a comfortable distance between you and your subject.
Put experiences over images
I have met a lot of clients who get really stressed about not getting the “perfect shot”. My answer to this is always the same: “there’s always next time.” It’s important to remember that witnessing certain wildlife scenes is a privilege that not many people have. Enjoy the moment instead of getting stressed about not nailing the composition.
Animals should not be manipulated or handled in any way for the purposes of photography. Wildlife photography must not be pursued in occasions where animals could get exposed to threats like physical harm, predation, anxiety, or impairment of reproduction. If absolutely necessary, a trained expert should be enlisted for this.
It is important to be mindful of other photographers or animal lovers who are sharing the field with you.
Anticipate each movement
This is a skill that comes with practice. A lot of practice. Being vigilant ensures that you do not miss that key moment you have been waiting for. In wildlife photography, certain moments happen very rarely and last for only a few seconds.
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All photos by the author. Supreet Sahoo is a nature and wildlife photographer based in the United States. See more of his work on his website.