Wildlife Photography Tips to Try in 2019
Updated: Mar 13, 2019
Wildlife photography is one of those niches that many new photographers shy away from. Can we blame them though?
With the oversized, overly expensive lenses the pros use creeping up into our Google ad feed, and wildlife photography trips costing more than a year's worth of mortgage payments, we as photographers are led to believe we must spend our life savings to get one good shot of a lion while on safari in Africa.
I'm here to tell you this is far from the truth. Working on perfecting the few tips below can have big effects on improving your wildlife photography skills.
You may never go pro, spending years travelling to far-away environments in search of elusive wildlife subjects. But who wants to spend days on end waiting to get a "perfect" shot anyways? Wildlife photography should be about fun.
If you have an upcoming trip planned to a destination where exciting wildlife can be found, take the below tips with you and come home with great shots to share with family and friends.
Be an expert on your gear
You don't need to spend $10,000 on a camera to get great shots, but you are guaranteed to miss a good shot you just waited an hour for if you don’t know how to use the gear you do have. What minimum shutter speed can you use for the camera and lens you’re using in order to obtain a sharp image? Do you know how to change your focus points and modes? Know how to make the necessary adjustments to your exposure and focus setting without looking away from the viewfinder, and you won’t miss another shot.
Know your subject
If possible, try to learn some habits of your wildlife subject. Photographing wildlife can be difficult because of a subject’s unpredictable and uncontrollable behaviour, which is why it pays to be able to somewhat predict their next move. Spend some time with your subject over the course of your trip and get to know their ingrained behavior. If you’re on a few day or weeklong safari, pay close attention to the habits of the wildlife and by the end of the trip you’ll be capturing the “magic moments”. On a visit to Etosha National Park in Namibia, after a few days I noticed the elephants always arrived at the waterhole in a herd around mid-day. Watching a herd of elephants slowly make their way towards a waterhole, as the dusty earth clouds around them and other species scatter to make way for the King of the Jungle, is an incredible experience. By understanding a few characteristics of the elephant, I was able to capture the photo below.
Use light to your advantage Unless it’s an overcast day where the clouds act as a massive soft-box to even out the light, avoid shooting between 11h00 and 16h00 when light is typically too harsh to shoot appealing images. Photography comes from the Greek words phos (“light”) and graphis (“paintbrush”), meaning the art form at its core is based on the idea of painting with light. Know how to use the light to your best advantage in wildlife photography and you’ll be happy with the results. During sunset I sat with my camera waiting for the nearby giraffes to walk into a perfect position to silhouette them against a sunset sky (below), which created a memorable image.
Don’t fixate on focal length It’s common for many new photographers to become fixated on having the longest/biggest lens possible for their wildlife photography trip. While it may be necessary to have a long lens to get any shot at all in certain large spaces, what’s more important to consider is the chance to shoot wider. Often photographers will shoot close-crops of wildlife, which completely removes them from their defining environment and has an affect of making them appear captive (like in a zoo). Resist the temptation to shoot close up sometimes and try shooting at a wider angle. With the zebra photo below, by shooting wide I was able to showcase the animal's behaviour of having a dust bath on a hot afternoon.
Show the subject’s personality When you’re photographing wildlife, don’t start clicking the shutter right away. Instead, spend a bit of time watching the subject’s behviours closely and wait for something interesting to happen. When I was photographing the cape fur seal in South Africa, at first I found the animals a bit loud and obnoxious, and their natural environment filled with a foul smell. After spending a bit of time with them however, waiting patiently to observe them a bit closer, I was able capture their personality and show the vulnerable side of their character. In the end, I found them to be quite adorable.
Look for multiples Any photograph of a solo animal is great, but a photograph with two or more of a species provides an opportunity for interaction and in general makes for a more interesting portrayal. The photo below is a great example of when having two zebras gave symmetry to the photograph and showed a close interaction between the animals.
Patience is everything Patience is important in photography, but it’s especially important when it comes to wildlife photography. Every moment is a new opportunity to photograph something interesting, but sometimes it takes many moments until that something interesting happens. If you want more than a basic photograph of a lion when on a self-guided tour through an African game park, for example, then it requires patience. You may need to visit a spot for days before something interesting happens, as with the photo below taken in the Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana. Lions don’t hunt daily, and will instead gorge themselves on food before sleeping it off for a few days. I’d been observing a pride of lions for two days in one location, when on the third day we found them with a new kill. This is a perfect example of when patience pays off!
If you've been inspired by this post, be sure to check out my travel photography ebook, Travel Photography: A Guide to Gearing Up, Shooting, Processing and Sharing (also available in iTunes and on Kobo). In the book I share my holistic approach to travel photography, which I break into 4 chapters: Gearing Up, Shooting, Processing and Sharing. Improving your travel photography doesn't have to be stressful, costly or confusing. It's a process like any other, but it helps when you have a turn-key guide at your fingertips!