Wildlife Photography Tips: 9 tips to improve your wildlife photos

by Aug 1, 2022Photography

Wild Horses Galloping In Water In The Outer Banks

It is not difficult to take eye-catching images of animals if you know a few wildlife photography tips. These nine tips improved my wildlife photos immediately, and they will improve your photographs of wildlife, too.

No matter where you travel in the world, if you like to adventure outdoors, chances are you’re seeking to experience nature in all its glory – wild oceans, tumbling rivers, expansive landscapes, and, of course, wild animals. And, if you’re like many travelers, capturing a few photographs of the animals you may see along the way is part of the experience.

Wildlife photography is a passion and a calling for me. Has been ever since I purchased my first camera, an Olympus OM1, in 1978 before heading off to Kenya for a college semester abroad. But here’s the thing: Until just a few years ago, too many of my wildlife photos were of animal butts, slightly fuzzy, or just snapshots of a bird on a branch or a lion taking a nap. None were impactful in any way and often left me feeling disappointed – in the photos, not the experience.

That is until I started studying the works of wildlife photographers I loved and began reading articles by experts offering simple wildlife photography tips I could immediately put into practice. Before long, I was taking wildlife photos that I was not only proud of, but ones that began to win awards and recognition.

The tips here assume you already know the basics of composition and lighting. And, you’ll want to have at least a basic DSLR or mirrorless camera and a basic zoom lens. I know I’ve talked about how amazing smartphone cameras are these days, and I frequently rely on mine as a backup or stealth camera when traveling. But for wildlife photography — at least if you’re trying to get images that move beyond a nice snapshot – you’ll want to have more than a smartphone in your hand.

Maasai Mara Crocodile Attack Wildebeest

This photo, shot with a 200-600mm zoom lens, would have been impossible with only a smartphone camera.

Read on to learn a few of the wildlife photography tips that help me consistently take memorable photos of the wildlife I encounter.

Know your camera settings inside and out!

Wildlife will not wait for you to finish fumbling with your buttons and settings. You need to know how to change your focus settings, your aperture, your shutter speed, and your ISO quickly and smoothly, all without taking your eye from the viewfinder. And you need to do all this while keeping the subject of your photo in your field of view. It takes practice, believe me. In the photo below, during the Great Migration in Kenya, the wildebeest herd suddenly surged toward the river. I had no time to fumble with my camera settings, and light changed as the herd moved. The only way to capture this shot was to keep my eye glued to the viewfinder and make my camera adjustments as needed without looking at buttons and dials.

Wildebeest Wildlife Photography

Knowing my camera settings is the only way I was able to capture this shot.

Shoot in manual mode to have the most control

Nearly every great wildlife photographer I know shoots exclusively in manual mode. I also prefer having complete manual control of my camera, meaning I choose shutter speed (how fast a shutter opens and closes), aperture (the size of the shutter opening that lets in light), and ISO (how sensitive the sensor in the camera is to light). Together, these three components are referred to as the exposure triangle. By adjusting one, you affect the other two. Which means in full manual mode, you may have to quickly adjust up to three things manually – shutter speed, aperture, and ISO (or you can opt for “auto ISO” and only worry about two of the three). For this reason, there are some skilled wildlife photographers who prefer to shoot in what is called “shutter priority mode” when working with fast-moving wildlife, which means they choose the shutter speed and the camera chooses what it considers the best aperture and ISO (so long as auto ISO is set).

The one thing I do not do in manual when shooting wildlife is focusing. Here, I almost always rely on autofocus, and I primarily choose a “spot focus” or a single point focus mode (a narrow focus point) to get the best result. Spot or single point focus with tracking (so the focus locks onto a moving animal and moves with it) is a wonderful option offered by many DSLR and mirrorless cameras. I do not rely on autofocus when I am shooting macro, i.e. closeup, or when the animal is for example peering out from behind a bush. In these instances, manual focus typically works best as auto-focus will tend to want to focus on the bush or leaves, rather than the animal or its eyes.

Focus Point Hummingbird Carmel California

This was shot with spot or single-point focus with tracking on with the focus point placed right on the hummingbird.

What shutter speed you choose may affect sharpness

Even wildlife that is seemingly motionless could suddenly turn a head, or its fur or feathers can get ruffled by wind. Any movement, no matter how small, can lead to an image that looks slightly out of focus if your shutter speed is not fast enough. Which is why so many of my shots early in my wildlife photography journey seemed soft or fuzzy – I was shooting at a shutter speed that was too slow. Now, even if I am using a tripod with a gimble head (i.e., a special tripod head that balances camera and lens weight so the camera moves smoothly, both vertically and horizontally), I will most often opt for a fast shutter speed to ensure any movement of my subject doesn’t affect the sharpness of my image. In general, this means a shutter speed of 1/1000 for animals standing still, 1/2500 for animals in motion but moving slowly, and 1/3200 or more for fast-moving animals or birds in flight. Of course, the faster the shutter speed, the less time light is hitting your camera sensor, meaning you will need to compensate by shooting with a wider aperture or higher ISO to let in maximum light.

Wild Horse Stallion And Mares Galloping Through Water

Two wild horse mares and a stallion send water splashing as they gallop through the shallow water in Shackelford Banks North Carolina, in the Outer Banks.

Always get the eyes in focus

Eye contact draws a viewer into your photo. Even if a lot of your animal is in soft focus or even out of focus, if the eyes are sharp, the photo will still be strong. In the photo of the California Newt, below, I lay on my belly to get at eye level with the newt, and I made sure that the eyes were sharp, which draws the attention of anyone looking at the photo.

Eye To Eye With A California Newt

In a light rain, I lay on the forest floor just outside our home, and waited for a California Newt I had spotted earlier to walk toward my camera lens.

Go low and change your perspective

Too many photographers just stand and shoot, and then they wonder why their photos just look like a snapshot and don’t have the wow factor they were hoping for. Work to get your lens at the same level, or lower, than the eyes of the animal you are trying to shoot. In the lioness shot, below, I talked with our driver in the Maasai Mara and asked him if we could put our vehicle in front of the lioness and in a slight depression so that if she kept walking in the direction we all thought she would, I would be shooting up at her as she walked over the rise and toward the camera lens.

Queen Of The Mara

The sun was setting in the Maasai Mara as we spotted several lions in the pride moving through the tall grass. Our driver, Martin, positioned me perfectly for this shot so I could get low and shoot this lioness coming right toward the camera. This photo was recognized by the International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association with a gold medal in its 2022 photography competition, and by the the Professional Photographers of America as not only a photograph of merit in the 2022 International Photographic Competition (IPC), but also one of the selected merit photographs chosen to be part of the PPA’s Imaging Excellence Collection – showcasing the “the best of the best from the IPC.”

Always consider the photo’s background

The background in good wildlife photography is just as important and, in some cases, perhaps a bit more important than the subject itself. Distracting elements – for example, parts of a building, branches coming out of the subject’s head or back – will detract from the quality of your photo, no matter how amazing the animal image. The human eye naturally gravitates to objects in the background as well as bright spots or even words.

Blurring the background in your image by shooting wide open (with an aperture at the lowest number your lens allows, such as f/2.8), will also keep the focus on the animal, but don’t forget to consider what color the background is. No point in placing a wonderfully colorful bird against a background that has the same or similar colors in it. Go for contrast here. Like I did with the image of the American Oystercatcher in flight below. I positioned myself low and so green grasses and trees would be the background as the Oystercatcher took off. Far better than standing and having neutral sand from the beach as my background.

Aside from changing your perspective for a more eye-catching photo, another reason to go lower is to solve a background problem or to place a bit of grass or something else in the foreground to add a sense of depth and perspective to the image. If I’m shooting an animal and there are people, vehicles, or buildings in the background, I find quite often if I get down on the ground and shoot up, I can eliminate the distracting elements and focus on what I want in my photo – wildlife and a nice clean background. In the photo above of the lioness, there were plenty of other safari vehicles around. If I had I shot from a higher vantage point, they would have appeared in my photo.

American Oystercatcher In Flight

An American Oystercatcher taking flight in the Outer Banks of North Carolina near Beaufort.

Be prepared to shoot in any weather

If it is raining, or snowing, don’t just stay indoors and wait for better weather to take photos of wildlife. The animals are all outdoors, doing their thing, and so should you! The photo below, of a Thomson’s Gazelle, was taken in a downpour while on a photo safari in the Maasai Mara, and adds a wonderful level of moodiness to what might otherwise be a quite ordinary scene. The judges in the 2022 California State Fair photography competition thought so, too, recognizing the image as a “photo of merit.”

Just be sure your camera gear is well protected when shooting in the rain. I rely on Think Tank rain gear for my camera and often stow extra lenses and my second camera body inside a lightweight dry bag in my pack for added protection if the weather looks like it will be wet.

Thomson's Gazelle Stands In A Rainstorm

A lone Thomson’s Gazelle standing in front of a herd of wildebeest as the rain sheeted down in the Maasai Mara, Kenya. This photograph was awarded a “photo of merit” honor in the 2022 California State Fair photography competition.

Know the behaviors of the animals you want to photograph

One of the things I also love about wildlife photography is being able to spend time observing animals in their natural habitat. Good wildlife photographers are also good naturalists. Before you even head out on a safari, to shoot the brown bears in Alaska, or to the beach to capture photos of shorebirds, take the time to learn about the animals you may encounter. Understand an animal’s behaviors, body language, and the ways it hunts, feeds, and moves. If you know how an animal will behave, you will be able to anticipate action. Photographs of animals moving, flying, hunting, eating, or playing will lead to photos that are compelling and not just another image of an animal standing and staring into space. With the Reddish Egret below, I knew that when it hunts, it likes to spread its wings to cast a shadow over the water making it easier to see the fish below and to also attract fish which will gather in the shadows. I simply waited until I saw the behavior beginning, and I was able to capture the action.

Redish Egret With Wings Spread In Outer Banks

A Redish Egret with wings spread in feeding dance in the Outer Banks of North Carolina near Beaufort.

Be patient and have respect

All that brings me to my final tip: To be successful at wildlife photography, you will need patience. Bucketloads of it. It is exceedingly rare that a photographer simply shows up and immediately sees, for example, an osprey pulling a fish out of the water and snaps the photo. It does happen (a good reason to always have a camera handy). But all too often, you will find yourself sitting for hours, hidden and ready for an elusive fox to appear as it has for the last five nights. And then the fox doesn’t come this time, or the light is all wrong when it does, or the weather doesn’t cooperate and a storm chases you away. Patience.

To capture photos of the wild horses galloping, I spent more than a few hours standing in waist-deep (or sometimes chest-deep) water, with my camera mounted on a tripod and lens just above the water, waiting and watching. Horses spend a lot of time sleeping and eating. But if you are ready, watching and observing behavior, the magic of the wild horses galloping together can happen.

It is also worth pointing out, that with patience also comes respect. Respect for the wildlife you are encountering. As a wildlife photographer, I have always felt if I get a photo of my animal subject doing what it does naturally, I am happy. If not, it was still a great day outdoors. I have no respect for any photographer who scares animals to make them run or fly, offers wildlife food to get them to come closer, or has friends work to drive the animals toward the camera. In a perfect world, an animal should never know you are there, and if it does know you are there, it should never feel threatened by your presence.

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1 Comment

  1. Theo

    This was so great! Thanks for sharing this!

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