When it comes to photographing wildlife, you need an abundance of patience. Wildlife photography involves capturing images of animals in their natural habitats, which means you’re often at the whim of the animals you want to photograph. The art form is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires a combination of technical skill, perseverance, and a deep understanding of animal behavior to make memorable images of animals in action.
Wildlife photographers often spend long hours in the field lugging around special equipment such as telephoto lenses, tripods, and camouflage gear to get as close as possible to animals without disturbing them. They wait patiently for the perfect shot, sometimes enduring extreme weather conditions, dangerous terrain, and unpredictable animal behavior. And yet, when you capture the essence of an animal’s personality in an image, like the grace of a cheetah in full stride or the fierce determination of a lioness on the hunt, it suddenly becomes worth all the efforts leading up to that moment.
Keep reading if you want to become the next Frans Lanting or Cristina Mittermeier. We cover the gear you’ll need to take stunning wildlife images, tips for understanding wildlife behavior, shooting techniques, and safety and ethics when interacting with wildlife.
When it comes to choosing a camera for wildlife photography, there are a few features to keep in mind. The first is the camera's autofocus system, which needs to be fast and accurate to capture moving animals—especially fast-moving animals. The camera should also have a high frame rate to capture action sequences, a high ISO range for low light conditions, and a sturdy enough, weather-sealed body to withstand the elements you’ll likely be putting it through.
Autofocus: One of the worst feelings in wildlife photography is when you have a shot lined up, but it comes out blurry because you didn’t focus quickly enough. That’s why an excellent autofocus capability is one of the most important factors to remember when buying a wildlife photography camera. Look for a camera with a high number of autofocus points. The higher the number, the more accurate your focus will be. And remember, a manual focus won’t cut it—it will be too slow.
High frame rate: You’ll need a camera with high (and silent) shutter speeds and the ability to shoot more than six frames per second. Some high-end cameras will shoot closer to 12 to 20 frames per second. If you can shoot in rapid-fire burst mode, you’re also more likely to catch animals in action more clearly. You might even be surprised at what you capture when you look back at your images. You might capture scenes you couldn’t see with your naked eye as they unfolded.
High ISO range: Some of the best wildlife activity happens at dusk and dawn. You’ll need a camera with a high ISO range that can adjust for darkness to capture low-light scenes. Unfortunately, high ISOs can bring noise into your images. That’s where a low aperture comes in handy. While cameras with low aperture can create a bokeh effect, if you’re interested in positioning wildlife against blurred backgrounds, look for a camera with an aperture that lets in as much light as possible, for example, between f/1.8-4.5.
Some great beginner cameras for wildlife photography include the Nikon D850, Canon EOS 90D, and the Panasonic Lumix FZ2500 / FZ2000. The Nikon D850 can shoot seven frames per second and has excellent low-light capabilities. It’s a good all-rounder camera for wildlife photography. The Canon EOS 90D has the highest resolution of any APS-C camera you can purchase. It also shoots 4k videos if you’re interested in creating video content of wildlife. The Panasonic Lumix has a versatile zoom range, great image quality, and multiple burst modes. Ultimately, the camera you choose will depend on the type of wildlife you enjoy shooting. It’s also important to remember that the feel of the camera in your hand and ease of use are just as important as the tech specs.
To photograph wildlife well, you need to understand their behavior. Knowing how the animals you want to shoot live out their days can help you with timing, composition, and safety:
Timing: Understanding when animals are most active can help you anticipate the best time to capture images. For example, if you know certain animals are more active in the morning or evening, you can plan your photography accordingly.
Composition: Knowing how animals move and interact with their environment or even one another can help you compose your shots. You can capture images showing the animal's behavior or relationship with its surroundings during key moments. For example, a bird feeding its freshly hatched babies in the early morning shot against a soft sunrise.
Safety: Understanding animal behavior is also essential for the safety of the photographer and the animals. Knowing when to approach and stay away from an animal can prevent accidents or injuries.
Now that you understand why getting to know wildlife habits can be helpful, here are some tips on how to observe animals in action.
Choose the right time and place: The best time to observe wildlife behavior is when animals are most active, often in the early morning or afternoon. Choose a location that animals are known to frequent, such as a watering hole or a feeding area.
Be patient, quiet, and observant: Observing animal behavior requires endurance, silence, and attention to detail. Sometimes it can take hours or even days to make the image you want. Watching and observing animals in the field will give you insight into their behaviors, movements, and interactions.
Use binoculars and telephoto lenses: Binoculars and telephoto lenses enable you to look closely at animals without disturbing them. Telephoto lenses offer the benefit of zoomed-in views of an animal while also capturing the moment.
Research animal behavior: Aside from observing in the field, you can learn about your subject by reading books, articles, and scientific papers on animal behavior. You can also join wildlife groups to better educate yourself on their habitat, diet, and movement patterns. The added information can help you interpret and understand the behaviors you observe in the field.
Respect wildlife: When observing animal behavior, respecting wildlife and their habitats is essential. Be mindful that you are in their home. Do not disturb animals or their habitats, and avoid getting too close to them. If you’re looking for ways to get close to animals without disturbing them, camouflage and long lenses can help you capture images without disrupting their natural activities.
From mammals to birds to sealife, there are many different types of wildlife to shoot. That being said, if you’re new to wildlife photography, try starting with the familiar. Go to your local park and shoot the wildlife that lives there. For example, birds at bird feeders or squirrels scurrying up trees. Shooting in a local and familiar environment can make wildlife photography feel more approachable.
Below, we’ve listed some methods to help you capture the wildlife shots you want:
Capture the eyes: Zooming in on your subject's eyes can convey emotion and bring life to your images. If the eyes are the focal point of your image, they should be in sharp focus. A shallow depth of field can help amplify this effect. For example, if you photograph a lion, capturing its intense gaze and piercing eyes in the middle of a hunt can convey its power and strength.
Fill the frame: Filling your entire frame with a subject can create a dramatic impact and emphasize the details of an animal. Suppose you’re photographing a butterfly. Filling the frame with its colorful wings and intricate details can create a depth that emphasizes its unique beauty. You can capture the fine details of the butterfly's wings and fill the frame with its delicate features.
Create negative space: Negative space is the area around the subject that is left empty. This technique helps create a sense of balance and can give breathing room for your subject to shine. If you’re making an image of a deer in the woods, negative space can help create a sense of scale and balance. By leaving space around the deer and using the surrounding trees and foliage to create negative space, you can highlight the animal's presence in its natural habitat. The negative space adds context to the image, like the direction the deer is headed.
Get low to the ground: Getting low to the ground can help create a unique perspective and make the subject appear larger than life. This technique works best when shooting animals in their natural habitat. For example, if you’re shooting a herd of elephants in the grasslands, getting low to the ground can create a unique perspective and make the elephants appear larger than life.
Anticipate movements: Wildlife animals are unpredictable and can be tough to catch in their element. Let’s say your subject is a group of monkeys in the rainforest. By observing their behavior and movement patterns, you’re more likely to predict when they will jump or swing from branch to branch. Knowing your subject and its patterns will help you anticipate the right moment to take the perfect shot.
Shoot in burst mode: Burst mode is a shooting technique that involves taking multiple images in a single click, which can help capture particularly fast-moving animals. Most cameras should have some version of this mode. For example, if a flock of birds is taking off from a tree, shooting in burst mode can help capture their quick takeoff movements. If you can shoot multiple shots in a single click, you can capture the birds' wingspan and the details of their feathers even as they’re soaring into the sky.
Now that you know some of the basics of wildlife photography, it’s time to get out there and get shooting.