Photographing animals in captivity, such as a zoo or aquarium, provides certain challenges. Barriers might exist preventing you from getting the exact angles or lighting you want. Crowded exhibits might also make photography more difficult. In the end though, these controlled environments make it relatively easy to get quality shots of your target wildlife. In my opinion, this is a viable and relatively affordable option for many.
Recently I have had opportunities to photograph some animals in their natural habitat, and I can tell you that while it has numerous obstacles, it is way more exhilarating and rewarding when you get the perfect shot.
Based on my recent experiences, here are 6 tips for photographing wildlife in the wild:
1. Hire a guide or go on an excursion or organized tour. Unless you are experienced in the inner workings of the region and location, find someone to accompany you who knows the area and the patterns of the wildlife. If you are shooting in areas with dangerous predators, know that your camera will not protect you from animals. Be prepared and make sure you are with someone who is familiar with all the scenarios you may encounter. An experienced guide also has a great chance of finding what you want to see. For example, on a whale watching trip, the naturalists and captains have communications with other vessels and they know the patterns of the whales since this is what they do daily.
In Ketchican, Alaska, we went on a planned excursion to a small island where black bears live. Our guides gave us tips on what to do if a bear approached us, how to handle it is the bear charged at us, etc. There are no sure things in nature. There is always some risk involved.
2. You cannot control what wildlife you see when you are outside of a captive environment. We saw black bears and whales while in Alaska. It was amazing. But I knew someone who went on the exact same bear watching trip four days later and they did not see a single bear. Ouch!
But the thrill of seeing animals outweighs that risk. The image below is a number of humpback whales bubble-net feeding in Juneau, Alaska. This is not something you’d ever see in an aquarium.
3. Plan to stay a while… if you can. You may not have this option, but if possible, try to have a long window of time at the places you are visiting. The longer you are looking, the greater chances you will find the wildlife or even the specific shots you want. Of course there are still no guarantees.
We arrived at the bear watching location, near a salmon hatchery, with 1.5 hours to watch and photograph. The bears wandered and hunted. Ten minutes before we had to leave, the bear caught his lunch. If I had left prior, I would have missed it. If I had an extra hour after this point, who knows what else I might have gotten to capture. I’ll never know…
4. Be flexible. Even though you may not see what you hoped for, you may see something else, equally interesting. Don’t have tunnel vision or you set yourself up for disappointment. You may be on the lookout for whales, when you come across sea lions or a bald eagle. Capture the unexpected wildlife too. They just might be your favorite images.
5. Accept that you may not always be able to pick your exact background, lighting, etc. It’s not usually possible to set up strobes and an external flash may not even have enough reach. You might be at the mercy of the weather, such as heavy overcast clouds or even rain. Do the best you can to isolate the background if it is distracting by shooting with a wide aperture. If you cannot get enough light, such as in poor conditions or in a forest, you may need to use a high ISO and/or add exposure in post-processing. Definitely shoot raw if possible for more flexibility later.
In this shot I took while photographing whales In Juneau, Alaska, a small fishing boat came between the whales and the boat I was on. Instead of getting made, I photographed it. In the end, it actually worked well as you could get some perspective as to just how close the whales were to the boat.
6. Be prepared. Make sure you research ahead of time to get the equipment you need to capture the photos you want. Lens rental is a great option if you need certain lenses just for one trip. I rented a Canon 7D and Canon 100-400 lens so I would have the ability to shoot at 400mm on a crop sensor. Though I prefer the lower noise level of my full frame Canon 5D MKIII, this gave me extra reach. When photographing bears and whales, there were times where I needed to be at 400mm, and possibly longer would have been even better. If you think you will need multiple lenses, one for wide angle and one for telephoto, you may wish to carry multiple camera bodies with the lenses attached. This is what I did in Alaska. Switching lenses in dusty or wet environments, can damage the camera if you are not careful. Plus sometimes you want consecutive shots – one closeup and one far away.
Also pack other items you need for your adventure, from food and drinks, to weather protection for you and your gear.
This post is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to shooting wildlife, but is meant to share helpful tips and things to consider. There is so much more to getting great shots of animals in nature – from preparation to safety to gear, etc. We wanted to provide a different perspective than the usual articles that are available. Please tell us your best tips for photographing wildlife in the comments below.