Hunting with a camera: 12 tips to take your wildlife photography to the next level

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Wildlife photography is a challenging hobby to get into because it takes a lot of commitment. To excel in this field, you not only have to develop your camera-taking skills, but you also have to learn about the animals that you shoot.

Photo by Holger Wirth

If you’ve ever wondered how the photos in animal books and magazines were taken, then these twelve tips will help you understand how it’s all done. Once you become familiar with the basic techniques involved, you’ll realize that taking photos of wildlife can be a very rewarding experience.

01. Choose a good camera

There are many types of cameras out there, but only a few are versatile enough for shooting wildlife outdoors. The best choices you have are SLRs and mirrorless cameras. The mid- and pro-level models are typically weather-sealed, and they can be set manually and can accept different lenses.

Photo by Matthew Jake Kane

A regular camera constantly exposed to harsh elements will not last very long, so you need a camera that’s weather-sealed. Although the extra protection makes it more expensive, knowing that it can perform in different conditions is enough reason to invest in it.

Shooting outdoors can also be challenging even for the most advanced cameras out there, so you need a camera with manual mode. You're going to need full control when the situation becomes too complicated to use automatic features.

Photo by Geran de Klerk

Meanwhile with interchangeable lenses, your camera will allow you to take photos of insects from a close distance to large animals from really far away.

02. Use the right lens

The most common lenses people use for wildlife photography are telephotos because they can be used to shoot from long distances. Some of them feature optical stabilization (OS) to minimize shaking due to the extreme magnification, but these models can also be quite expensive. Thankfully, there are also cheap plastic ones you can use while you're still learning.  They may not have OS, but you can always keep them steady on a sturdy tripod and use a high shutter speed to minimize blur.

Photo by Przemysław Reinfus

For a starter lens, consider getting a telephoto zoom to allow more shooting flexibility. A few hundred dollars can get you an 18mm-300mm lens that you can use to take photos from up close to long distances. If you look hard enough, you can even find some that feature optical stabilization. If you want to get a telephoto with a fixed focal length (no zooming capabilities), look for one that's at least 100mm. The best models are from old film cameras because they not only feature quality glass but are also affordable and durable.

Photo by Marko Blažević

If you’re thinking of shooting insects and other small animals, you’re going to need a macro lens to take photos of them up-close. A 100mm lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8 should be enough for most of your macro needs.

Photo by Claude Piché

You can also convert your regular lenses by attaching them to your camera backwards (reverse mounting) with an adaptor or with extension tubes. If none of those options are available, you can always use a telephoto zoom to shoot at near-macro dimensions by zooming into your subjects from a considerable distance (not the most efficient but it works).

03. Protect yourself and your gear from the elements

Before you go out, make sure that you have all the essential gear to keep you and your equipment safe from the elements.

Photo by Paul Earle

First, you need a hat to shield you from the harsh sun or the rain. A boonie hat is perfect because the round brim doesn’t just protect your face but your entire head. You can even get a hat with a mosquito net to keep you safe from little critters.

Also, bring a raincoat that’s big enough to cover you, your backpack, and your camera. You can use it as a mini tent in case of torrential downpours.

When you’re in a colder climate, wear a thick jacket to keep yourself warm. You can also buy winter gloves specifically made for photographers that expose your pointing finger when shooting.

To keep your gear safe, buy a durable, waterproof camera backpack. Choose one that doesn’t have bright colors as this can be distracting to wildlife when you’re out shooting. A good model has different compartments for your lenses, cameras, batteries, memory cards, as well as extra space for clothes and a first aid kit.

Also, bring a rain cover for your camera and lens. It doesn’t matter if the weather’s perfect. The cover will shield your equipment not only from the rain, but also from dirt, mud, and other particles you might encounter outdoors. For added security, you can wrap a shower cap around the camera body or cover it with a clear food-grade wrap.

04. Use the right settings

The settings you choose on your camera ultimately depends on the shooting conditions, but there are general guidelines you can follow to get the shots you want.

Photo by Francisco Moreno

The first thing you need to adjust is the ISO. Typically, it’s best to use a low ISO (100, 200, etc.) to minimize the noise in your photos. For low light situations, however, you can choose a higher ISO as long as it doesn’t affect the image quality. It all depends on the camera you’re using, but ISO 800 is usually enough to let you shoot in poor lighting without noise becoming too obvious.

Next, you need to set your shutter speed. If you’re shooting animals that move a lot, choose a fast shutter speed to avoid any motion blur. Using this setting also allows you to shoot quicker and avoid missing critical moments. For slow moving animals such as grazing deer, 1/1000 sec. should be enough. For fast-moving animals such as birds, however, you’ll need 1/2000 sec. or higher.

Photo by Ray Hennessy

Perhaps the most challenging part in shooting wildlife is knowing the proper focus settings to use for different scenarios. When photographing animals in motion, the best option is continuous autofocus. It actively tracks moving objects, so they remain sharp while you’re shooting. However, certain obstacles like snowflakes, leaves, or even other animals can easily confuse the autofocus especially when there’s a great distance between you and your subject. To avoid this, switch to manual focus so that you can adjust the lens exactly where you want it.

05. Use a sturdy tripod

Get rid of the cheap tripod you bought at the department store if you're serious about taking photos outdoors. Flimsy plastic legs can’t support a long lens attached to a heavy camera. To make sure your equipment is steady and safe, you need to get one made of aluminum or carbon fiber. Sure, it's more expensive, but at least you'll be confident it won't collapse under the heavy weight.

Photo by Hidde Rensink

You’ll need a tripod with multi-angle legs especially when setting up your tripod on uneven terrain. To secure the legs after adjusting, make sure you lock them, so they’ll stay in place no matter how they're positioned. To verify that the angle of your camera is straight, check if the bubble in your spirit level (the green circle or cylinder usually found on the tripod head) stays in the middle.

Photo by Bryan Minear

Another important element to consider is the tripod head. There are many types available, but the two most common ones that many wildlife photographers use are the ball head and the gimbal head. If you’re shooting with a medium telephoto that’s not too heavy, you can use a ball head because it rolls smoothly, and it's relatively easy to adjust. For longer, bigger telephotos, use a gimbal head to keep the lens balanced while you’re holding the camera.

06. Learn about the animals you’re shooting

Photo by Chris Greenhow

What makes wildlife photography complicated is you can’t tell animals where to go and what to do. The decisions you make rely heavily on what your subjects are doing. If you don’t know how to read their behavior, you’re going to end up missing a lot of good shots. The best way to increase your chances of capturing great shots is by studying your subjects. Before you go out, familiarize yourself with the animals you want to photograph.

Photo by Johan Mouchet

For instance, find out where and what time of day you can find your subject. Some people don’t realize this, but animals can be tough to find in the wild. Many of them are so good at hiding, you wouldn’t know they’re there unless you know how to figure out the clues they leave behind and what they’re like in the wild. The best time to find deer, for example, is at dusk when they feed. They also tend to congregate where there’s plenty of vegetation they love to eat (weeds, plants, wild grasses). Simple things like these ensure your time and effort aren’t wasted.

Photo by Garrett Parker

One great way to learn is to tag along local wildlife photographers and other nature lovers. Observe how they move around animals, so you’ll know what to do once you start going out by yourself. Joining people who know what they’re doing can help you pick up new skills you’ll never learn from reading books.

07. Practice shooting

Photo by Matheus Queiros

If you’ve ever tried following birds, squirrels, or even stray cats around, you know they’re very alert and usually run away before you even get close. This is mostly true for many other animals. Before you set out in the woods with your camera, practice shooting little critters in your neighborhood, so you'll know what to do once you encounter more elusive creatures in the future.

Photo by Thandy Yung

You can also hone your photography skills at the local zoo. It’s a safe place to take photos of even potentially dangerous animals since most of them are enclosed. What’s also great about these places is that they have animal experts that can share with you useful information about the different animals there.

Photo by Irina Blok

08. Keep a low profile

Photo by Joshua Tree National Park

Animals scare easily, so unnecessary noise and movements can end up chasing them away. To avoid scaring them off when taking their photos, you need to stay calm. Slowly approach them when you know they’re not looking at you, and once you reach a safe distance, gently pick up your camera and press the shutter.

Photo by Joel Herzog

Do keep in mind that your shutter makes a lot of noise which can spook your subjects, so press it only when it’s necessary. Consider using your camera’s silent shutter feature if it has one. Additionally, although it may be tempting to switch to burst mode when shooting wildlife, you need to use it sparingly. It’s perfect for shooting action (such as when there are animals running) but only when your subjects are too preoccupied to hear all that unnatural noise coming from your equipment.

Photo by Alice Donovan Rouse

09. Apply rules of composition

Photo by Joe McDaniel

Like anything else in photography, follow the rule of thirds. Divide your frame into a grid like the one you see in the image above, then place your subject on one of the intersections to create balance in your photo. If you’re having a hard time imagining the lines, you can switch on the grids on your camera screen to help you compose.

Photo by Mason Jones

A photo also generally looks better when you provide ample space where your subject’s head is pointed. For instance, since this iguana is looking to the right, you need to reframe your shot more towards the same direction to give the animal enough wiggle room. Otherwise, your photo might look claustrophobic.

Photo by Harshil Gudka

Additionally, in many cases, the environment is just as beautiful as the animals you photograph, so always incorporate it in your photos. Take your viewers on a journey and show them where your favorite creatures live and what it’s like to be there.

10. Be patient

Observe what’s going on and pay attention to your subjects’ movements. What do you think they are doing? What do you think are they about to do? If you study them long enough, you’ll know how to anticipate their actions. Be patient and wait for the right situation to happen.

Don’t get into the habit of always looking into the viewfinder or the screen. The frame only shows you so much of what’s actually going on. Observe your surroundings with your bare eyes, so you can see everything better. Only look into the viewfinder only when you’re ready to shoot.

11. Look for good locations

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

When searching for locations to photograph animals, wildlife parks are the best places to start. They typically offer a list of animals found on the premises, and many of them even show you exactly where and how you can find the animals.

Many of these parks are vast, so map out your desired locations for shooting, or you might end up getting lost. Once you get to your location, explore it first before setting up your equipment. Look for scenic areas and natural features such as mountains, trees, or flower fields you can incorporate into your photos.

Waiting for animals can take a long time, so you should also look for a spot where you can lie down safely and comfortably for hours. Since some of them come out during different times of the day, you need to get there before dawn and stay until dusk.

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Photo by Pexels

Also, take note of the rules and regulations of any given area you visit. Know what you can do and what you’re not allowed to do to avoid putting yourself or others (including animals) in harm's way.

Photo by Sergey Pesterev

12. Don’t be afraid to shoot in bad weather

If you want to take unforgettable nature photos, then you have to be prepared to shoot in rough conditions. There’s nothing unusual about seeing pictures of animals in bright sunny weather, but to see them struggling in the snow? Now that’s something people would want to see. Strive to shoot images that offer viewers a glimpse of what it’s like to live in unforgiving environments.

Photo by Ray Hennessy

In wildlife photography, sometimes it’s the lousy weather that creates the most dramatic shots. Shooting in dense fog, for instance, can give a place a mysterious aura, while taking photos in the snow provides a whitewashed background that creates stark contrasts and helps isolate your subject.  

Photo by Jonatan Pie

Just remember to take proper precautions before you start working in poor weather. Even though your camera is weather-sealed, do your best to keep it dry. Also, make sure to cover the lens if it's not in use. It can become prone to dirt and mold if it gets wet.

Of course, you shouldn't forget your health and safety as well. If you want to keep shooting wildlife, you’ll have to do anything you can to avoid getting sick. So wear proper clothes to stay warm and dry.

Photo by Jacco Rienks

When you get into wildlife photography, just remember that it takes years to master, but you’ll never stop learning from it. If you keep at it, your hard work will eventually pay off. This hobby doesn’t just make you a better photographer, it will also help you develop a real passion for nature.

Make sure you check out Canva's amazing library of wildlife photography for more ideas.

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