Wildlife Photography: 9 Tips for Photographing Animals in Nature

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Wildlife Photography: 9 Tips for Photographing Animals in Nature

Wildlife photography is exciting and fun.  And once summer hits, or if you live in a warm climate, photographers of all specialties may want to give it a try.

Thank you to Patricia Downey for this great article.

Living in southwest Florida with its abundance of wildlife is bliss for me. While photographing wildlife can be quite challenging because of the unpredictability of nature, over the years, I’ve picked up some insights that may be helpful to the beginner photographer. While the examples illustrate a subtropical environment, most of the following pointers can be adapted to whatever environment you find yourself in.

picture of great blue herons

1. Type of lens: While most wildlife photography situations require a telephoto lens for safety reasons (more about that below), you will typically find that wild creatures are not comfortable with close up encounters with humans. There’s really no reason to rush out and get a 600mm prime lens. I use an 85-400 lens for most of my wildlife photography. I use it with a Nikon D200 which does not have a full size sensor. That means that my 400mm has a telephoto length of approximately 600mm. Before buying this lens, I rented it a few times and am very happy that I tried it out beforehand. It helped with my decision to purchase it. I shoot primarily in available light and rarely use flash with an extender.

2. Shutter speed and aperture: Over time I’ve found that an aperture of f8 and 1/500 second shutter speed will work for me in a lot of situations. While 1,000 sec shutter speed is optimal for freezing wings in flight, I like the faint blur that indicates movement. In the example below, I was using a 200mm lens with 1/320 sec shutter speed with an aperture of f11.The emphasized blur was intentional as I wanted to highlight the eyes and unique beak–which brings us to our next tip.

image of roseate spponbill bird

3. Focus on the eyes: Unless you are after a “horror alien planet” look, focus on the animal’s/bird’s eyes. Just as with humans, we like to see a glint of light in animals’ and birds’ eyes.


4. Attire and accessories: After a few near fainting episodes in the Floridian heat, I set up a plan that includes my “shooting outfit”, appropriate footwear and a pouch for around my neck that carries extra memory cards.  If, like me, you shoot in raw, this last item is a must.  While there are wonderful backpacks and vests specifically made for carrying cameras, lenses and accessories (they really are worth the investment), here in subtropical climes I wear a light fishing shirt that has lots of zippered pockets to hold filters, etc.  Footwear is another consideration.  I will sometimes need to wade in and out of water, so flip-flops are not the best.  Instead, I wear sturdy water shoes.  So, plan ahead on the best attire for your area.

5. Using a tripod: I use a tripod 75% of the time when shooting wildlife. Not only does it give me better stability, thereby avoiding camera shake, it gives me a rest from holding heavy telephoto lenses. Remember to set your lens vibration reduction setting to the “off” position while using a tripod. Of course, there are times when you’ll need to handhold your camera. Shooting birds in flight is one example. Keep your elbows very close to your sides while standing with feet wide apart to provide stability. I also find that taking a deep breath and holding it as I depress the shutter, aids in minimizing camera shake. Even if you have a stabilization mechanism on your lens, doing this will help you to get a crisper capture.

great blue heron in flight

6. Where to find wildlife: Obviously, search engines such as Google, Yahoo or Bing would be a place to start. You can also find very helpful resources at your local Audubon Society and State Parks. People who work or volunteer at these places love what they do and are very willing to advise on the best local places to find all types of wildlife. My husband Jim is a firm believer in his mantra, “follow the food” and this is certainly true when I’m looking for wading birds like egrets, herons and spoonbills to photograph. I also check the tides because these birds will congregate at low tide to fish.

picture of a reddish egret bird

7. Best time of day: The old adage of shooting during the golden hour (1-2 hours after sunrise and before sunset) is very good advice. I will take what I get, though, since nature is so wonderfully unpredictable. Even though I try avoid times when the sun is directly overhead, I’ll roam everywhere, any time in pursuit of those critters. You may also want to consider the best time of year if you are planning a trip. Spring and nesting season is a great time for colors and wonderful shots of chicks and baby critters.

image of great egret chicks

8. Safety: This is probably the most important item to remember when shooting wildlife. Keep your distance. Here, in Southwest Florida, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen people behave like idiots around alligators and other wildlife. The thing to remember is the word WILD. Do not try to pet or feed it. Such behavior inevitably ends up with disastrous results. And, please respect it and its natural habitat.

image of an alligator

9. And of course, practice, practice, practice: For wildlife photography, get into the habit of experimenting with different settings and find what’s comfortable and optimal for you. Take a basic photography course and learn to use the manual settings. For affordable teaching check out John Greengo’s photography sessions. Read as much as you can about the wildlife you want to photograph and their behavior. Finally, take joy in what you do and have happy safaris!

Patricia Downey is the owner of Photos under the Sun, located in Southwest Florida.  She creates wildlife greeting cards and fine art.  Her illustrated wildlife stories on her blog.

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Wildlife Photography: 9 Tips for Photographing Animals in Nature