This article will discuss 10 essential steps to prepare for wildlife photography. All those recommendations are based on our 15+ years of experience in wildlife photography with amateur and professional gear. Wildlife Photography Guide – Part I is the first bunch of knowledge for beginners to learn how to start your adventure with wild animal photography.This article may contain affiliate / compensated links. For full information, please see our disclaimer here.
Wildlife Photography Guide – Introduction
Many of our trips focus on wildlife photography. Each of our several visits to Alaska was to take pictures of wildlife, especially bears and moose. Here, you can see our best bear-spotting places in Alaska, especially in Katmai National Park and Lake Clark National Park. The purpose of our winter trip to Yellowstone National Park was to photograph the majestic bison in the white snow. The harsh frost didn’t deter us from visiting the Badlands National Park in South Dakota. As we love Sandhill Cranes, we went to New Mexico to admire the Bosque Del Apache Festival Of The Cranes.
We do not always succeed in realizing our wildlife photography plans. But wildlife photography is not an easy subject. That’s why we share tips and experiences from the last 15 years of traveling worldwide and taking pictures of animals in their natural habitat. We started as amateurs with amateur cameras. But gear isn’t the only thing that matters in wildlife photography. More important is knowledge and patience, and more patience and luck, simply.
This Wildlife Photography Guide – Part I is for beginners. For all wildlife-watching lovers who want to take some wildlife pictures during travels. And want their photos to be better and better.
Wildlife Photography Guide – Set Your Goal
Before taking great wildlife pictures, deciding what animal you would like to capture is good. Wildlife photography, in this matter, is similar to another type of photography. Usually, to take a photo of San Francisco, you need to go to San Francisco, so you prepare precisely focusing on this place. It is impossible to take a picture of San Francisco in Las Vegas. It is the same with animals.
If you want to photograph fighting bears, you must prepare for fighting bears, not running tigers. Like every project, the planning phase is the most important one. You can’t take wildlife photography pictures by accident or on a regular family vacation. Obviously, there is a chance you encounter some animal, and even you can photograph it. But it is something different than wildlife photography we are talking about.
Wildlife Photography Guide – Decide How You Want Your Dream Frame to Look?
As we mentioned before, you must plan a lot to take an excellent wildlife photo. You should even imagine your dream photo of the animal selected for the project. What does it mean? It means you should think about what kind of light you want to capture your object, what background you want on the picture, etc. Of course, you do not have any warranty that you would take the perfect shot, but the better you prepare for it, the closer it will be!
Think about the time of the day
You should consider whether the animal you want to photograph is active during the day or at night. If at night, then you have a problem because it is usually dark. Remember that photography is all about light. Obviously, some animals are active early in the morning or late at night, so you have a chance to catch some light, but you must prepare for it to achieve it.
Think about the season
What’s the best time of year to take a wildlife photo of your dream animal? It is known that it is challenging to take a picture of a bear in the middle of winter when it is sleeping (although there are cases where the bear wakes up, you are lucky if you spot it!). But our trip to Yellowstone in the winter to photograph bison against the snow was a hit. We could focus on every detail of the animal, including the texture of its skin, color, etc.
Think of it live in groups or alone
Again, if you want to have a group of animals, not a single one, you must consider your selected object’s habits. Does it usually live in groups or alone? If alone, then it would be tough to photograph a group and vice versa. It is rather hard to photograph a flying bat during the day, but it is possible in the evenings. It’s all about getting knowledge and preparing. It will take time, but this part will be crucial for your final photo!
Wildlife Photography Guide – Learn as Much as Possible about Animal Behavior in Natural Habitat
The next step is to get even more knowledge of the behavior of the selected animal. You must obtain knowledge about the area it’s possible to photograph, at what season, and at what time of the day.
So you must get a full understanding of the animal lifecycle. In the case of birds, the feeding period might be perfect. With deers, the rutting period might be reasonable, etc.
You should learn how the animal is afraid of people and if the level of fright is the same in all places. Maybe you can find sites where the animal ignores people?
In this step, you should as well consider what approach to take? You can photograph from the hide, from the car, from the tent, etc. (more on this in a separate article). Each animal is specific, and each requires a different kind of approach. You must think it over and plan for it.
PRO TIP: We read books to learn as much as possible about wild nature. The ones we can honestly recommend are:
Mastering Bird Photography
Art of Bird Photography: The Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques
How to Photograph Bears
Park Ranger’s Guide to Nature & Wildlife Photography
Wildlife Photography Guide – Plan Enough Time to Take the Picture
Time is important. If you want your perfect picture, sometimes you must spend in one place all day, a week, two, or even more if you want to take the best wildlife photos. Wildlife is about patience.
When Chris was trying to take a photo of the grey wolf from Poland, he spent six days in the hide in Bieszczady mountain and still doesn’t have his perfect dream frame. It was always something wrong – too dark, too far, too quick, etc.
Imagine that you can sit for six days in the hide and have the opportunity to take a picture only for 15 seconds. It works like that. So you spend more of the time on preparation, then waiting, then taking a real photo. It might be like two months of preparation, two weeks of waiting, and 1 minute of taking the final image. If you would like to be a wildlife photographer, you must understand this approach. Otherwise, there is little chance of getting your perfect photo.
Wildlife Photography Guide – Think About Alternatives
If you read bullet number 4 and wanted to give up because you decided that it takes so much time, please do not! There is still a chance for you! There are people in this world doing a job for you, but unfortunately taking money for this job. But it is fair. They prepared everything. You go at the proper time of the year, wait for the animal, press the shutter, and get your great pictures. So you can have good results in a much shorter time because someone did the difficult part of the job for you!
Usually, you can use hides prepared for the specific animal kind, mainly birds, or attend a workshop with the naturalist guide who knows where to go and at what time to meet the object, and he can take you. You need to release the shutter! (More workshops and hides to rent in a separate article soon).
Take an organized wildlife photography tour
We took organized guided bear viewing tours in Alaska to take great shots of bears. They know better where to go, and some areas are open only for guided tours. So during one day trip, we took great shots. As Alaska is pretty expensive, we couldn’t afford to spend a week or two in one place waiting for a bear.
Wildlife Photography Guide – Choose Proper Gear
You are probably wondering how much money you need to spend on the gear required to take a great wildlife photo. And you probably think you need one of those big white lenses and the most expensive camera from the manufacturers like Canon or Nikon. To some extent, you are right, but to start a wildlife photo, you do not have to spend your life savings on the gear.
I know the guy who had limited resources and was taking award-winning pictures with a cheap manual focus lens and an old analog camera. The only problem was that he spent much more time on preparation and much more time in the waiting phase. Using modern gear, you can shorten those phases, but it is all about money.
As you probably heard many times – time is money – in this case, that is true. You can spend more money to save time or use cheaper gear but spend more time. This is as simple as that!
But, let’s try to create three groups of gear (minimal, optimal, and maximal) – of course, it all depends on the subject – those are general rules:
Minimal Wildlife Photography Gear
Any digital body, is good to have a crop, good AF speed, and an AF lens in the range of 200-600 – the lens can be slow, like f5.6, but it is better to have a fast lens, like f2.8.
Optimal Wildlife Photography Gear
Semi-pro or pro digital body with good FPS ratio, great AF (Servo and continuous would be nice), and right-fix lenses like 300/2.8 or better. Fast memory cards.
Maximal Wildlife Photography Gear
In case you want to photograph from the hide, you will also need an excellent big and stable tripod. And for the big lens, you should use a gimbal head. You will only need a gimbal in some hides because they have places prepared to screw it directly into the clamp.
Wildlife Photography Guide – Find a Way to Be Close to Your Subject
This rule is fundamental. I know the guy taking fantastic pictures of challenging birds with an old analog camera and a manual telephoto 135mm lens. Other people with much better gear could not even get close to the quality he got.
Where lays the secret of such a difference? The first guy (let’s call him the analog photographer) spent 99% of the time preparing the scene and making birds do what he wanted them. So he focused on building different hides and feeders and waited for objects to get used to those. When they started to be where he wanted them, he slowly began to take pictures. Finally, he was so close to them, and they were not afraid of him that he was able to set the camera to the proper parameters before the shot and, wait for the action, then press the shutter. He had only 36 frames on the film, so he focused on pressing the shutter at the right moment, not shooting the series. With this approach, he ended up with award-winning photos.
The disadvantage of such an approach is that you need a lot of time to work this way. Usually, people do not have this time. So what I do is I try to find ready-to-use hides and places prepared for such kind of photography and go there to take pictures. Of course, this approach costs money, so again, you have to decide what resource is more natural to get for you; time or money?
Wildlife Photography Guide – Be Very Patient when Approaching your Subject
Let’s assume you paid the money and are in the hide. You are waiting for a very rare bird or mammal who is afraid of people. The worst thing you can do is press your shutter when the object is in the frame.
Never do it. Be patient. Give him time to get used and start eating or doing what he is supposed to do. When he feels secure with the environment and focused on eating, slowly move your lens in the direction and start shooting slowly. Some birds or mammals are very cooperative and allow you to get really close, while others take off at the slightest sign of any movement or noise.
You can try a silent shutter first, then if everything is ok, a regular one and more frames per second, and focus on observing object behavior and notice the best possible actions. Try to shoot only when it makes sense instead of filling your memory card with many similar shots.
This way, your animal or bird will not be that afraid and feel more comfortable, and you will have fewer pictures to get rid of, so you will save time in the post-processing and selection process.
Wildlife Photography Guide – Try to Get to Eye Level as Close as Possible
Another essential rule is to be at eye level with your object.
It might be challenging, especially with some birds that usually sit high on the perches, and you are generally down on the ground. If you take such a picture, light often is feeble, and your object looks very dark, so it will never be a good photo.
With birds, you can find hides in the trees built on the level that those birds generally use for their activities. With water birds, I know it hides made the way to be dug into the water, and your lens is precisely on the water’s surface, so you have a great perspective to keep eye level rule.
You can often use unique wildlife photography clothes to get into the water and hide your body under the surface. But one thing is sure – the better-leveled animal eye with the lens, the better picture you get.
With mammals, it is more comfortable. You are in the hide or in the car, sitting or lying on the ground. Eye of those animals are usually on your level, so pictures are good. But always follow the basic safety rule – keep a safe distance. Don’t irritate the wild animal, and don’t get too close. Follow the area’s regulations, e.g., if you are in a full-of-bears national park.
Wildlife Photography Guide – Observe & Wait for the Action to Shoot
We already mentioned a little bit about this rule in bullet 8. Of course, if you are a beginner, you will be happy with every animal portrait you can get. And if you are closer to the object, it’s better. But good wildlife photography is not focusing only on animal portraits. It is rather about the action.
Wait for the action
So it’s time to start shooting action when you are happy with your wildlife photography portraits, have already excelled in your technique, and got the best possible light. To get the best action shot, you must first observe the animal for hours, days, or even weeks and figure out the action scheme to be ready to press the shutter at the crucial moment.
What we define as the action is, for example, eating, taking a bath, fighting, taking care of kids, hunting, attacking, or even killing other animals. The most important thing for you is to know exactly when the animal or bird will start the action. And believe us, it’s possible to learn it, but it takes time.
So for the best wildlife shot, you will need at least proper gear, be close to the object, have fantastic light, and know when the action is going to happen. With those elements appropriately planned, there is a good chance for your dream photo!
Finally, you can quickly become a professional in this field by developing your photographic passion and increasing your qualifications in creating exciting photos. If you want to turn your passion for wildlife photography into a job, check out these travel photography jobs.
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