10 Tips to Improve Your Wildlife Photography


Wildlife photography can produce spectacular results for the well-prepared photographer. Light Stalking's newest writer, Chase Guttman, takes us through some tips to ensure your own wildlife photographs really pop.

1. Do research and be prepared. A common misconception among amateur photographers is that you must venture far from home in order to effectively capture visually arresting photographs. But even in your own backyard you can gather breathtaking portraits of wildlife.

Investigate the local species that frequent your region and be on the lookout for them (it goes without saying, you should try to always carry your camera). When scouting for wildlife, make a smart plan and take necessary safety precautions. Remember, with patience and creativity, even the most common wildlife can be vividly portrayed as an amazing subject.

2. Patience and persistence are the name of the game. The crucial photographic discipline of patience is essential in wildlife photography. Why do you think National Geographic film crews spend months on location? Those rare sublime moments of primal behavior are what makes a shot compelling (but such opportunities come about in their own time).

It’s all about knowing where to be, what you are looking for in that particular species, and then waiting. When setting up your shot, be alert, keep a safe distance, find a unique viewpoint, and study your environment. In some instances, you may even be fortunate enough to encounter rare animals and behavior.

Peter Guttman
Peter Guttman

3. Backgrounds, Backgrounds, Backgrounds. In telling a visual story, your backdrop can often be as important as your subject. It provides an extra opportunity to communicate a message to your viewer.

In wildlife photography, backdrops allow the artist to provide a context to the rest of the image. This is usually accomplished in two ways:

  1. By using simple and non-distracting backdrops you are enhancing the importance of your subject.
  2. By establishing the natural environment or setting of the animal you can capture an accurate representation of its day to day existence. Overall this means, pay close attention to the dramatic tableau of your image when you shoot!

Read more on photographic backgrounds here.

4. Follow the light. Remember that lighting is an essential element of photography because it's the brush that allows us to paint our canvas. The greatest opportunities in terms of lighting, tend to come about in the earliest and later hours of daylight, when the sun falls on the subject less harshly.

Photographing within these time parameters has two major benefits: For one, this special form of lighting contributes to an atmospheric feeling that enhances the mystique of your photographs.

Secondly, during these blocks of time diurnal animals are most active, creating a hotspot for animal spotting and shooting.Lighting in its most beautiful and rare forms should always be utilized to the fullest extent.

5. Use motion blur. One vivid way to depict animals is by capturing their movement and action. Getting wildlife on the move adds a layer of excitement to your images. Techniques like panning are a creative way to capture the motion of animals, where the dynamics of activity tells its own tale.

Chase Guttman

Chase Guttman

6. Be as unobtrusive as possible. As I’ve discussed in my article on how to get better candid photography, the only way to accurately capture authentic behavior is by not being a distraction. This same idea applies here. Act quietly, blend in with the environment and patiently observe.  Be careful with camera noises and flashes which may impair your ability to be unobtrusive.  The better you fit in, the better your shots will be.

Peter Guttman
Peter Guttman

7. Use a telephoto lens. Your primary goal in wildlife photography should be similar to your portrait photography goals. They both should portray a personality. In order to do so, photographers must try to get intimate with their subject.  In portraits, the subject’s face can certainly be isolated with a wider angle lens, but this wouldn’t be advisable with a wild animal.

Instead, I recommend a telephoto lens (one that is capable of a large focal length or zoom), to allow you to safely isolate your subject through framing. In this way, you can best capture an animal's personality or essence.

8. Focus Manually. It often works better to manually focus, because many animals blend into their environment and in automatic mode the sensor might focus on the wrong object. Staying in manual can be one’s personal insurance of getting the focus right.

9. Keep shooting. Make sure to put your camera in continuous shooting or burst mode to ensure you never miss the perfect moment.  Shoot a lot, even when you're in doubt because you never know what will end up being the prize winner. After all, one of the wonders of digital photography is that images can be deleted after the fact.

Timing is also a key factor here, so be alert in order to accurately anticipate wildlife behavior.

Chase Guttman

Chase Guttman

10. Composition is the icing on the cake. Composition is the process of visually organizing the essential elements of your image in a logical and effective way. It's the key to turning an average snapshot into a visual statement. Look for rich textures and colors or experiment with different perspectives — these factors will help make your photographs stand out.

If you have your own tips you'd like to contribute to the conversation, feel free to share it below.

Chase Guttman is an award winning New York City Assignment Photographer. You can follow him on Twitter or keep up with his great photo tips blog.

About Author

Chase Guttman is an award-winning travel photographer, whose love for travel and adventure has allowed him to photograph his experiences in over 40 countries. You can reach him on his website.

Mirror up! Using long lenses means using rock solid tripods or monopod plus, and shoot mirror up as often as you can. Don’t settle for anything less than razor sharp images.

Trying to catch birds in flight or even deer running makes manual focus impossible. I have found that setting my camera to “center” focus point only is the best compromise when shooting wildlife. I shoot Canon and only L series lenses. The zooms have “constant manual focus” so if the animal is stationary, I can autofocus and then fine tune the focus manually IF THERE IS TIME. If there is no time, I am not caught in manual focus setting and miss the shot.

Hey Mark,

You’re completely right. In action photography manual focus is less feasible. But, when you’re trying to capture a relatively still creature in its native environment, I find it important to go manual. This is because if your animal is near shrubbery for example, auto focus might focus on it instead of your subject. Generally speaking, auto will be better for action shots. But having the kind of control you described is ideal.

Get down at eye level with or even below your subject. Don’t worry about getting a little dirty. Use a tripod that will allow you to place your camera near the ground or make some other arrangement to hold your camera steady close to the ground. Then compose, focus and wait for the right moment.

Once you’ve gotten as close as you can, the behavior you wished, sharp focus, then … be prepared to crop and/or get a bigger lens

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