Wildlife photography can be an extraordinary challenge because so many elements are out of your control. We’ve got you covered with all the tips you need to get started taking great wildlife photos.
Words by Aaron Chapman
Wildlife photography is a popular photographic genre that began as early as the 1850s with photographs of captive animals in zoos. But as the medium of photography evolved, with quicker lenses and film emulsions, the wildlife photography genre too evolved to allow more thrilling pursuits of both picture and animal in the wild.
“Wildlife photography is a great form of photography that connects us with nature.”
Wildlife photography allows a unique appreciation of nature and is suited to beginners, professionals and anywhere in between. As well as technical photography skills, a photographer needs an understanding of animal behaviour and basic bushcraft skills such as first aid, and animal and plant recognition.
From tiny insects to large grazing mammals, wildlife photography is a great form of photography that connects us with nature. Sharing the beauty of the world as seen through your lens is a great way to promote wildlife and encourage others to conserve our natural environments.
When setting off into the wild, you need to ensure you and your gear are protected against the elements. Some of the best wildlife images have been taken in the rain, but to photograph in inclement weather — check that your gear is weather sealed. Most digital cameras and lenses on the market are weather sealed because of the electronic components they protect, whereas most mechanical film cameras are built to last. Film or digital, take good care of your camera and do your best to avoid moisture.
Wildlife photography is often a game of patience. Wear a hat. Bring a water bottle. Apply sunscreen.
If you’re a beginner photographer, it’s best practice to use the ‘rule of thirds’ composition technique. Once you progress, and your confidence in photographing wildlife develops, try close-ups and unusual cropping with long telephoto lenses. The close-up is a hallmark of wildlife photography — but there’s a lot to be said for wider frames showing animals within their environments.
Camera Settings: Having the right camera settings is crucial to the fleeting moment of a wildlife photograph. More on this below!
Camera Gear: More on wildlife photography gear below, too. Aside from the camera and lens, you may want a sturdy tripod or monopod to lighten the load of a long telephoto lens.
Wildlife photography, depending on seasonal hazards and native predators, can be dangerous. Do your research first. Look into the area you’re intending to photograph. Research the local animals. You’ll need to perfect your approach — quietly, but most importantly, cautiously.
The Best Camera for Wildlife Photography
There’s no definitive best camera for wildlife photography, but there is a distinct difference in types of cameras that beginner photographers should consider if purchasing a new camera; full-frame sensor versus crop (or APS-C) sensors.
Although full-frame cameras offer greater image resolution and overall performance, crop sensors are recommended for beginner photographers because of the increased or magnified field of view.
To elaborate, a full-frame camera means your 70-200mm lens is exactly 70-200mm. But if you put the same 70-200mm lens on a crop-sensor camera, that 70-200mm lens once multiplied by the crop factor of 1.5, will have a focal length equivalent of 105-300mm. This is a significant advantage in the world of wildlife photography.
Other things worth noting when deciding on the best camera for wildlife photography are autofocusing and frames per second.
If you’re photographing wildlife in action, such as an eagle in flight, having a camera with good autofocus tracking is essential. The same can be said for a camera’s frame rate. When freezing action, you need both a fast shutter speed and a good frame per second rate. Most top-of-the-range DSLRs can capture around 10 frames per second, meaning you’ll never miss a moment.
Best Lens for Wildlife Photography
Wildlife photography is quite specialised, meaning you’re not going to get the best results unless you dive head-first into this photographic genre and build out your equipment accordingly. This section is split into three, offering general recommendations and insight into the best lens for different types of wildlife photography.
Most wildlife photographers sport an incredibly long telephoto lens, anywhere between 150mm and 600mm. The advantage of this is that you can capture up-close photographs of animals in the wild, but from a safe distance. The disadvantage of an incredibly long telephoto lens is the cost. A lot of glass, other materials and labour go into manufacturing such optically advanced equipment and the price tag often reflects these processes.
But, there are great entry-level telephoto lenses. Sigma offers a 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS lens for Canon, Nikon and Sony mounts at an extremely competitive price of $1,199. This lens is perfect for beginner photographers hoping to improve their wildlife images. You may also want to invest in a monopod as telephoto lenses tend to be reasonably heavy.
When you’re not photographing lions and cheetahs, you may want to turn your eye towards the softer side of nature. A macro lens is ideal for capturing the intricate beauty of wildlife and lets you get up close and personal with your subjects.
A macro lens allows incredibly close focusing, meaning you can be within inches of a butterfly, flower or other calm and willing animals, to capture beautiful and detailed intricacies while making the small subject appear life-sized.
Macro lenses come in a variety of focal lengths and price points so it’s best to do some research to determine what’s right for you. You can always tell if a lens has macro qualities by the inscriptions on the rim of the lens.
We’d recommend finding something around the 100mm mark to ensure you can get a nice and creamy depth of field. The Canon EF 100mm F2.8L Hybrid IS USM Macro Lens retails for approximately $1,500. If you’re using a different camera brand such as Nikon or Sony, use the Canon 100mm as the benchmark for price and try to find a lens with an equivalent or similar focal length.
If you want to begin wildlife photography but don’t want to invest in a wildlife-specific lens, the 70-200mm is a great starting point that you’ll be able to use in multiple scenarios.
These lenses offer high performance and cover a range of focal lengths suitable for all genres of photography. Some wildlife photographers find the 70-200mm to be a bit too short, but that all depends on the wildlife you’re photographing and your budget, of course.
Household brands like Canon and Nikon may charge a pretty penny for these lenses as they are typically superior lenses. However, Sigma’s 70-200mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sports Lens is of equal optical quality and available at a much lower price.
Wildlife Photography Settings
Best Aperture for Wildlife Photography
When determining the best aperture for wildlife photography, always consult your creative vision and ask what you’re trying to achieve in the image.
For example, if you’re trying to capture a relatively close image of a deer drinking from a ravine, then opt for a wide aperture such as f/2.8. This will create focus on the deer (subject) with the bushes behind the deer (background) blurred due to the shallow depth of field the wider aperture provides.
But if the deer is accompanied by fawns and is drinking from a ravine in front of a majestic mountain scene, stop down, or narrow the aperture, to anywhere between f/9 and f/16 to create a larger depth of field, which will ensure both foreground and background are in sharper focus. This technique also shows perspective with the size of the animal compared to its environment. Your aperture may also be determined by shutter speed and ISO.
Best Shutter Speed for Wildlife Photography
Your shutter speed will be determined by your subject and your creative intent.
Horses merely grazing the paddock won’t require as fast a shutter speed as horses galloping. To freeze this frame without any motion blur, set your shutter speed to 1/1000th of a second to begin with and then adjust accordingly.
It’s important to remember that if shooting handheld, you want to try and avoid dropping your shutter speed below the focal length i.e. if you’re shooting with a 400mm lens, try and keep the shutter speed at 1/400 or faster. Most telephoto lenses also have in-built stabilisation to offset camera shake.
As a fast shutter speed reduces the time your camera’s sensor is exposed to light, you may need to compensate by widening your aperture or increasing your ISO to achieve a balanced exposure.
Once you’ve built up your confidence photographing wildlife, you may even want to experiment with slower shutter speeds to emphasise motion blur and create movement within the image.
Best ISO for Wildlife Photography
As a general rule, try and keep your ISO as low as possible to try and limit the digital noise in the image.
Assuming you’re out in the daylight hours, we’d recommend allowing your aperture and shutter speed to dictate the image and adjusting your ISO only when necessary. ISO is less of a priority in this scenario but wildlife photography does often mean you’ll be photographing in low light as dawn and dusk are when wildlife can be most active. For low light, still set your ISO as low as possible. Start at ISO 800 and bump up as needed.
Wildlife Photography Tutorials
As further reading, check out Behind the Image: How Mandy Sham Shoots Captivating Wildlife Photography. There is also a great pool of resources online if you’re hoping to improve your wildlife photography game. Sign up for a Masterclass in Wildlife Photography on Skillshare, or learn some extra nature photography techniques for Adobe Lightroom.
Aaron Chapman is an artist and writer based on the Gold Coast, Australia working across a range of mediums including photography, sculpture and public art. Chapman’s work is motivated by themes of home and memory, and in particular, childhood.