The Ultimate Guide To Photographing Wildlife

Martin Sean photographing wildlife in Antarctica
Photographing wildlife is both challenging and extremely rewarding. The good news is that following just a few golden rules will help you to consistently produce great images.

For every professional wildlife photographer (there aren't many), there are plenty more that manage to subsidise or even pay for their trips by selling their images.

There are a host of publications, both physical and digital, that are constantly on the lookout for great photos. It’s also possible to sell images on stock photo websites or as prints.

Who knows, with some practice and a little bit (or a lot) of luck, you could be featured on the cover of NatGeo or get one of your images added to the collection of a prominent (and high-paying) collector. But let's not get too carried away just yet...

For now, we'll start by exploring the nuts and bolts of photographing wildlife. Whether you recently decided to get into the game or simply want to take better photos, understanding some of the theory will help you to produce stunning images on a consistent basis.

In the rest of this article, we’ll discuss some of the golden rules of wildlife photography. Following all or most of them will not only help you to produce consistently awesome images, but it’ll also put you in with a shout of capturing that truly great wildlife shot that every photographer dreams of putting their name on.

Table Of Contents

1. Choose suitable gear and get familiar with it

Camera equipment

How to choose the right equipment for wildlife photography

Although it’s not the be-all and end-all, choosing the right camera equipment is extremely important if you want to achieve great results.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you need the most expensive gear, just that the equipment you choose is suitable for the type of photography you’ll be doing and the environment you’ll be doing it in.

If you haven’t already purchased a camera, lens (or lenses) and accessories, check out my guide about the best cameras and lenses for wildlife photography.

In it, you’ll find options to suit all budgets as well as information about which gear is best suited to the specific type(s) of nature photography you plan on doing. To begin with, you’ll need at least a camera body and a lens or two.

Choosing a lens

Selecting the correct lens can make all the difference if you want to take better wildlife photos.

Whether you go for a regular zoom lens, a long lens or a wide-angle lens will depend on what kind of animals you want to shoot and what kind of environment you will be shooting in.

Remember, you can build up your kit over time if you don’t have a lot to spend on your initial investment.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

Once you’ve got your camera in hand, the next step is learning how to use it.

Don’t wait until you’re in the middle of an expensive, once-in-a-lifetime trip to begin exploring your gear and working on your photography skills!

Canon zoom lens
Not only are you likely to miss out on some amazing moments while you fiddle around, you will also be risking your equipment.

You don’t even need to understand all your camera’s settings before starting to shoot.

Once you’ve read the manual or watched a video tutorial or two and are comfortable with assembling and caring for your setup, start taking photos!

This will help you to get comfortable with the most basic elements of using your camera right off the bat, including where the buttons are located, its ergonomics and how to switch between modes and settings.

Don't wait to get started

Many wildlife photographers dream of the "perfect moment" to begin shooting wildlife. Top wildlife photography tip #1: It doesn't exist!

You do not need to venture off to some remote location to practice wildlife photography. You can start right in your hometown or backyard. No matter where you are, there are likely plenty of opportunities to shoot wildlife. Birds and small mammals such as rodents are pretty much ubiquitous.

For now, simply photograph what captures your attention and don’t worry about the subject matter. During the learning phase, it’s far more important to focus on the process rather than the results.

Practise ideas and locations

A stag in Richmond Park, London
Visiting a local park to get familiar with your camera - Taken in Richmond Park, London
Your local park is likely a great place to find birds and possibly small mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

If you have a garden or access to one, there is a high chance it contains some wildlife. If not, consider planting some native vegetation and putting up some bird feeders. The wildlife will soon be rolling in.

Try photographing your pets or some dogs in a local park in as many different situations as possible – stationary, jumping, running, etc.

If you or any of your friends and family have children you can practice photographing them as they run, cycle, play and move in all the weird and wonderful ways that young people do.

Visit your local zoo. Better yet, find a rescue centre where the animals are there to be helped rather than caged and displayed for us gawking hairless apes.

Explore a local nature reserve or wilderness area. If you don’t have one nearby, wildlife photography can be the perfect excuse to get you out of the house and closer to nature.

Birds in flight are excellent subjects to practice on
Practising with birds in flight - Taken at the UK wildlife reserve Bempton Cliffs
Ponds, lakes and wetlands are perfect places to find birds, amphibians, fish and a host of other species.

Take your photographs at different times of day and in various weather conditions. Notice the effects different lighting conditions have on your shots. Don't forget to take extra precautions to protect your gear in bad weather conditions.

Finally, and probably most importantly, take a lot of photos!

A swan in Richmond Park, London
Visiting Richmond Park early in the morning to experiment with camera settings

2. Understand camera settings

This section is not a deep dive into camera settings as that could stretch into multiple dedicated articles or even an entire book!

That said, no beginner's guide nature and animal photography would be complete without exploring the basics of camera settings.

Camera settings menu
Understanding camera settings is key to capturing a great shot.

Practise ideas and locations

The settings you select will depend on the situation and what you are trying to achieve.

Are you shooting stationary or moving objects/subjects?

What are the lighting conditions like?

Do you want to create a depth of field effect that highlights the subject or is the background equally important?

There are no hard and fast rules as nature contains infinite combinations and we all photograph them differently.

Nevertheless, there are certainly some general guidelines you should follow if you want to produce high-quality or even decent wildlife photography.

Shutter speed

To capture a steady image, as a rule of thumb you should match your focal length with your shutter speed.

In other words, a focal length of 500mm should be accompanied by a minimum shutter speed of 1/500 sec.

When photographing animals or any moving subject for that matter, you need to consider its speed and size when selecting your shutter speed.

How to choose your shutter speed when photographing wildlife

• For panning use 1/10 sec.

• When photographing large moving objects or subjects, use at least 1/1000 sec to avoid motion blur.

• Your “go-to” shutter speed should be around 1/2000 sec. This will allow you to shoot fast-moving subjects on the fly but also won’t compromise the amount of light in the image too much and can be easily adjusted up or down.

• For things like little birds in flight, you will need an extremely fast shutter speed - think 1/4000 sec or higher.

Large moving subjects like these elephants can be shot in 1/1000 sec
Large moving subjects like these elephants can be shot in 1/1000 sec

Best camera setting's for photographing wildlife

• High-speed frame rate mode is ideal for shooting action scenes and capturing movement.

• Aperture priority mode allows the camera to control your exposure settings while you control the shutter speed.

• Continuous autofocus mode - avoid manual focus unless shooting stationary subjects.

ISO settings

Many an amateur photographer has ruined a good shot because they thought that raising the ISO would mean a photo with "too much" noise (however much that is).

Let me be clear - you do not need to be afraid of using a high ISO in a low light situation, especially when you also need a faster shutter speed. After all, that’s what it’s for.

This is especially true if you have a newish, top-of-the-line camera as some of them can go to ridiculously high ISOs without becoming overly grainy.

In any case, it is far better to have a sharp image that is slightly grainy than it is to have a blurry one with no noise.

In all my years as a wildlife photographer, I have never had anyone comment on graininess in any of my images.

On my Canon R5, I regularly use ISO 6400 or higher. Over the years, I’ve shot on several rigs and even the more basic ones could capture a good photo at that ISO.

African leopard photograph taken at ISO 25,600!
Don't be afraid to raise your ISO - This African leopard photograph was taken at ISO 25,600!

Other ways to learn about camera settings for wildlife photography

Most modern cameras have highly customizable settings - Read the manual and spend some time playing around with the settings.

If you really get lost you can always use the “restore default settings” option and start again.

Type the brand and model number of your camera into Google or Youtube, along with the word "tutorial". There is no shortage of guides and video tutorials for setting up specific cameras for optimal performance in various settings and enviornments.

Search Google or YouTube for the "best camera settings for wildlife photography".

3. Learn about composition

In photographic terms, composition refers to the way in which an image is set up - where the subjects are relative to each other, the background and any points of interest, what is in the frame, the scale, etc.

Creating great wildlife photography generally requires you to take a lot of photos to come out with just a handful of keepers.

Remember, you’re attempting to capture the essence and movement of a subject that isn’t posing for you or that may even be actively trying to stay out of sight.

While simply setting up your camera correctly and snapping away may help you get a lucky shot from time to time, one of the biggest things separating professional wildlife photographers from amateurs is an innate understanding of composition.

The rule of thirds

The first and most important “rule” about composition that you need to understand is the rule of thirds.

This refers to dividing the frame up into three equal sections both vertically and horizontally and then placing the horizon line or subject more or less along one of these imaginary lines.

You will find visual examples at the end of this section.

Other helpful tips for composing wildlife photograpghy

Always try to be aware of what is and isn’t inside your frame (the image that the camera will capture). Before you press that shutter button, look around and make sure there isn't anything distracting or out of place. This will become instinctual with time.

Your subject's eyes are the key to a successful portrait. When photographing wildlife or people, always make sure the eyes are in focus if they are visible. Failing to do this will almost certainly lead to an unusable image.

Image of an otter taken at eye level
Lying down to get to eye level - Taken at the British Wildlife Centre
To create more engaging and dramatic images, try to be at the same height or lower than your subject. Placing yourself above the subject has the opposite effect, which can also be useful in certain circumstances. Try to read more about camera angles and play around to see the effects of shooting from various angles yourself.

Have a clear subject in your image. If you want to take a picture of a bear, make sure the bear is the main subject! I would like to say get closer, but this isn’t always possible or safe, so it may be more prudent to zoom in depending on the situation and environment you find yourself in.

Try different angles to look for lines or features that lead the eye into and out of the image. Move around as much as possible. If a specific element plays a significant role in the story you want to tell but does not work in terms of size, simply recompose the image. This is especially true of wide-angle photography where you are standing in front of or sitting behind the subject.

Use wider apertures to reduce the depth of field and isolate your subject from the background. This mimics the way our eyes actually see and thus makes shots seem more natural and pleasing to human sensibilities.

Use simple backgrounds with neutral colours to help your subjects stand out. This can be done by composing the shot to take advantage of simple backgrounds or by shooting in a location with a lot of similar colours such as green grass and trees, blue sky, desert sand, etc.

Visual examples of the rule of thirds & other compositional tricks

Cheetah placed on the left vertical third of the image
The cheetah in this image, photographed in Namibia, is placed along one of the vertical thirds. The morning light in the background contrasts nicely with the subject and thus helps it to stand out.
Hummingbird with its eye placed at the intersection of the top and left vertical thirds
In this image of a Scarlet breasted roller, photographed in Zambia, the point of interest is the bird's eye, which is placed at the intersection of vertical and horizontal thirds. Hint: The easiest way to achieve this level of accuracy is to crop the image in post-production. Nevertheless, you’ll still need to shoot with composition in mind.
Cheetah portrait with the eye placed at the intersection of the right and top third lines
In this portrait photo of a cheetah, the eye is once again placed at the intersection of two of the thirds lines. The use of empty space and a wide aperture ensure that there is nothing to distract from the subject.
Image of a Clown fish that
This underwater photo of a clownfish in the Maldives breaks the rule of thirds (all rules are made to be broken sometimes!) Over time your instincts will improve and you'll start to take more chances.

4. Review your images and master the basics of post-production

Getting into the habit of reviewing your photographs and mastering the basics of post-production skills such as cropping, altering white balance and playing with light & contrast will take your wildlife photography to the next level.

Tips for reviewing images and editing in post-production

A quick review of your images will help you to decide which ones are most appealing to you and which are just taking up space on your SD card. Initially, the results may not be what you expected. Do not despair, the chasm between what you are hoping to see and your actual results will narrow dramatically with a little time and practice.

All photographs taken in digital format contain embedded information about the settings used when the image was captured. If something has not worked out quite how you wanted it to or, conversely, came out much better than you were expecting, you can glean valuable information about the shutter speed, aperture and ISO you used by reviewing the image settings. You can normally find this information on the camera’s screen when reviewing the image or in your editing program.

As you begin to develop your skills and build up a more extensive catalogue of images, look for photos that have something in common. Are any useful themes emerging in terms of the subject matter, composition, colour schemes, etc? Noticing these kinds of details can help you to develop your own unique photographic style.

Don’t just look at what worked well. It’s equally important to notice what didn’t work. Were there just one or two poor images that did not come out as you hoped or are they all a bit off? Was it too dark? Was the shutter speed too slow?

Play around with post-production effects. Accidentally include something distracting in the top-right corner? Crop it out. Are all your images slight under or overexposed? Play with the exposure, brightness and contrast in your preferred editing program. Did you get the white balance wrong? You can also fix that in post.

You can’t just point and shoot in automatic mode and hope to do all the heavy lifting with the help of a computer program. Remember that post-production is meant to enhance your images and make your life easier, that’s all. Ultimately, the less you have to do in post, the more likely it is that you’ll come out with truly exceptional wildlife photography!

Reviewing photos in Adobe Lightroom
Reviewing photos in Adobe Lightroom

5. Enter wildlife photography competitions

This may not be the kind of advice you read on every wildlife photography blog, but it’s a surefire way to improve fast! Entering competitions will help you to maintain momentum and continue improving your photography. Here’s why:

You will often receive invaluable feedback from the judges.

Entering competitions means that more people will see your images, which in turn leads to increased opportunities for feedback, greater exposure and possibly even a few sales.

Competitions can help you to build up your portfolio if you enter regularly and consistently. They are a great motivator to get out and take photographs!

There are normally prizes to be won in photo competitions. Even if it's just an honourable mention or a token prize, winning or placing can be great for your confidence!

Don't be embrassaed about being a beginner

Entering a contest may seem intimidating at first, but once you take the initial plunge this apprehension disappears rapidly.

We all have to start somewhere and most of us tend to be overly critical of our own work.

Remember, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain!

Reviewing photos in Adobe Lightroom
Photographers practising together

6. Become a naturalist

Photographing wildlife requires more than just knowledge about cameras, settings, composition and post-production. The best wildlife photographers are at least amateur naturalists who have a decent understanding of the species they are shooting and the environments they are operating in. Some of the things you’ll want to understand are:

The behavioural patterns of the species you’re trying to shoot. You don’t need to do a thesis on each species. Simply read up a little bit before heading out to shoot and learn to anticipate animal behaviour based on your physical observations.

The seasons and climate. Whether you’re shooting in your local area or in some far-flung location, having an idea of what to expect in each season and how the local conditions affect the lifestyles or behaviours of both resident and migratory species will drastically increase your chances of capturing great images.

Best practices for wildlife photography and interactions with nature. Knowing how to behave around animals and how not to disturb the natural environment is not only the right thing to do, it will also help to ensure that you get more top-quality images. Always remember to keep a safe distance.

If you’re passionate about wildlife (which I assume you are seeing as you're this far into an article about how to photograph animals), becoming an amateur naturalist should be both interesting and fun!

Other top wildlife photograpghy tips

Next time you’re watching your favourite wildlife documentary, pay attention. It looks good for a reason – the directors have planned every scene in detail. Notice how they place and isolate subjects and use the rule of thirds. Over time, you will naturally start noticing more nuance and picking up ideas that you can use in your own wildlife photography.

Keep a low profile. Most animals are quite skittish and many have negative associations with people, and for good reason! Going full ninja-mode will help you to capture better images and avoid disturbing the wildlife that you love. Keep in mind that your shutter is noisy for an animal with sensitive hearing. Check if your camera has a silent or quiet shutter mode.

Before taking my word for all of this, why not head over to the MS gallery and see my work for yourself.

If you're sufficiently inspired and would like to purchase one of my prints, be sure to visit the MS shop on your way out.

Thanks for reading and good luck out there!

Cultivate friendships with other wildlife photographers. Don't just look at their images. Ask them for advice about camera settings, composition, post-production and how to read animal behaviour. Like many hobbyist communities, the photography crowd are generally extremely open when it comes to sharing helpful tips for beginners.

Explore the work of well-known wildlife photographers and follow them on social media. Any source of inspiration is a good one and if you don’t at least aim high you will never reach the top!

Once again, take lots of photos! Animals, kids, sports or anything that moves and can be found outdoors. If this advice feels repetitive, that's because it is. If there is one thing you take from this article it should be that there is no substitute for real-world experience.

Now that you’ve started your journey down the rabbit hole you’ll likely want to keep on going deeper.

There are countless wildlife photography tips and tricks out there, but hopefully this beginner’s guide on how to take great wildlife photos has provided you with enough to get started!

Keeping a low profile
Keeping a low profile

Want to see examples of my work?

Before taking my word for all of this, why not head over to the MS gallery and see my work for yourself.

If you're sufficiently inspired and would like to purchase one of my prints, be sure to visit the MS shop on your way out.

Thanks for reading and good luck out there!

About the Author

Martin Sean is a fine art wildlife photographer specializing in black and white prints. He has over 20 years of experience and has visited many of the world’s best locations for photographing wildlife.

Originally focusing on underwater photography, he has since diversified his portfolio and is now passionate about all aspects of nature and wildlife photography.

Martin is based in London, UK but is always planning his next trip in search of more stunning images. The places where he has enjoyed photographing wildlife the most so far include Mongolia, Svalbard, Antarctica, South Georgia, Vietnam, Namibia, Kenya, Egypt and, of course, his native United Kingdom.

Martin Sean with

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