Wildlife Photography Guide – Part I

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.

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Eurasian Brown Bears: mama and her cub among trees in the forest - Wildlife Photography Guide
Eurasian Brown Bears

Wildlife Photography Guide – Our Experiences

Many of our trips focus on wildlife photography. My partner Chris and I are passionate about wildlife photography and observing wild animals in their natural habitat. In fact, our shared passion for photography and travel brought us together as a couple.

That’s why we started this blog together, presenting our experiences and photos from our travels. You won’t find stock photos here; these are 100% original photos taken by Chris and me.

Each of our several visits to Alaska involved taking pictures of wildlife, especially bears and moose. Here, you can see our best bear-spotting spots 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.

I can also boast of completing postgraduate studies in photography. I had the opportunity to take photos on film, develop them in a dark room, or take photos in a collodion. Chris, similarly, also has extensive experience in traditional analog photography. Moreover, he has had several photography exhibitions and published a photo album featuring wildlife from Ecuador and the Galapagos.

This Wildlife Photography Guide—Part I is for beginners and all wildlife-watching lovers who want to take some wildlife pictures during travels and improve their photos.

three bison on snow in Yellowstone national Park during winter.

Wildlife Photography Guide – Set Your Goal

Before taking great wildlife pictures, it is good to decide what animal you would like to capture. Wildlife photography 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!

bison close-up
wildlife: raccoon in the swamps of Louisiana.

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 and color.

brown bear in Katmai National park eating salmon in the river.

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.

Photographing a flying bat during the day is rather hard, 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!

two beeeaters on a tree.

Wildlife Photography Guide – Learn as Much as Possible about Animal Behavior in Natural Habitat

The next step is to learn more about the behavior of the selected animal. You must also obtain information about the area where you can photograph it, at what season, and at what time of day.

You must fully understand the animal lifecycle. For birds, the feeding period might be perfect. For deers, the rutting period might be reasonable, etc.

You should learn how the animal is afraid of people and whether the level of fright is the same everywhere. You might also find sites where the animal ignores people.

In this step, you should also consider your approach. You can photograph from the hide, car, tent, etc. (More on this in a separate article). Each animal is specific and 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

Blue Heron eating at night - wildlife photography guide
Blue Heron

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 didn’t have his perfect dream frame. Something was always 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 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.

kingfisher catching fish - wildlife photography guide

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 year, wait for the animal, press the shutter, and get your great pictures. Because someone did the difficult part of the job for you, you can have good results in a much shorter time!

Usually, you can use hides prepared for specific animal kinds, mainly birds, or attend a workshop with a naturalist guide who knows where to go and at what time to meet the object. He can take you. You need to release the shutter! (More workshops and hides to rent will be 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; some areas are open only for guided tours. So, during a 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.

migrating cranes in Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refugee.
Migrating Cranes

Wildlife Photography Guide – Choose Proper Gear

You are probably wondering how much money you must 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 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 with limited resources who 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. You can shorten those phases using modern gear, but it is all about money.

As you have 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. It’s 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

A semi-pro or pro digital body with a 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

Pro body (Canon 1Dx, Nikon D5, Sony A9, etc.), pro lens (400/2.8 with stabilization or better), pro memory cards (Lexar, Sandisk), optional lighting for night photography.

If 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 is 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 photogaphy guide: close-up of the head of a heron holding a fish in its beak.
Blue Heron

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 to the environment 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 okay, a regular one and more frames per second. Focus on observing object behavior and noticing 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 will feel more comfortable. 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 the animal eye with the lens, the better the picture.


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.

white tailed eagles on the snow.
White-tailed Eagles

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 does not focus 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 have 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.

Landing Cranes druing sunset.

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wildlife photogaphy guide


  1. We do love to take a lot of wildlife photography. So it was good to review this blog for any tips we had missed. Understanding animal behaviour is a good tip so you can be prepared. But I do always underestimate the time that is needed. And impatience has caused me to miss some shots.

  2. First of all can I say that your Wildlife photos showcased here are amazing! I am torn between the Buffalo in Winter and the White-tailed Eagles as my favorite.
    With that said, I love how you essentially start the first half of this wildlife photography guide with a focus on the animals and not gear.
    I am in no way a pro photographer and my gear is quite lacking compared to many. But even I get lucky enough by dealing with the Animal on their own level or environment.

  3. So this post is packed with clear advice and good tips. That’s encouraging. On the other hand, it’s illustrated with pictures that make my jaw drop and that just scream ‘you’ll never achieve this fantastic quality; ever!’ Hence, I just try to pick up as much as I can and try not to be frustrated if my pics don’t turn out as professional and beautiful as yours. They are all amazing – from the bisons to the tiny birds!

  4. Wow! What absolutely incredible photos! What I would give to go on a dedicated wildlife photography trip! I typically get about five minutes to capture any critters I see at Yellowstone with my family (who are so NOT into taking photos).

  5. Wow these are some great photos and good tips. I am not sure if I will ever be able to capture something like this. But I love seeing animals in their natural habitat. This pictures motivate me to try capturing them myself.

  6. Wow, you have some beautiful wildlife photos. I especially love the Heron ones. The light is beautiful and such crisp images. I have been lucky enough to have some amazing wildlife adventures in Africa, but this really makes me want to go back and follow your tips. Me and my boyfriend have upgraded our camera kit significantly since our safaris so would love to try and get some better images. We know we would need to invest in another zoom lens though as only have up to 200mm at the moment!

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