Updated on September 30, 2020
In this article, we will discuss 10 essential steps to take 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 animals photography.
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1. Set your goal
Before taking great pictures of wildlife, it is good to decide what kind of animal you would like to capture. Wildlife photography in this matter is similar to another type of photography – usually, to take a photo of Rome, you need to go to Rome, so you prepare precisely focusing on this place. It is not possible to take a picture of Paris in Rome. 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 the 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.
2. Decide how you want your dream frame to look?
As we mentioned before, to take an excellent wildlife photo, you have to plan a lot. You should even imagine what your dream photo of the animal selected for the project is. What does it mean? It means you should think over in what kind of light you want to capture your object, what kind of background do you want to have 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 closest it will be to it!
You should think over if the animal you would like to photograph is active during the day or at night? If at night, then you have a problem, because it is usually dark, and remember that photography is all about light. That is obvious that 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.
Again, if you want to have a group of animals, not a single one, you must think over what are habits of your selected object? 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 take a photo of a flying bat during the day, but it is possible in the evenings. It’s all about getting knowledge and prepare. It will take time, but this part will be crucial for your final photo!
3. Learn as much as possible about animal behavior
The next step is to get even more knowledge of the behavior of the selected animal. You must obtain the knowledge about the area it’s possible to photograph it, at what season and 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 ruuting 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 that 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: To learn as much as possible about wild nature, we read books. The ones we can honestly recommend are:
Mastering Bird Photography
How to Photograph Bears
Park Ranger’s Guide to Nature & Wildlife Photography
4. Plan enough time to take the picture
Time is important. If you want your perfect picture, sometimes you must spend a week, two or even more. Wildlife is about patience.
When I was trying to have a photo of the grey wolf from Poland, I spent six days in the hide in Bieszczady mountain, and still, I do not have my perfect dreamed frame. It was always something wrong – too dark, too far, too quick, etc.
Imagine that you can sit six days in the hide and have the opportunity to take the 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 to get your perfect photo.
More inspiration & tips you can find in our related post:
our adventure and bears photographing in Katmai National Park in Alaska;
our Sandhill Cranes and other wildlife photography in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
5. 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 just go in the proper time of the year and wait for the animal, then press the shutter and got 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 at what time to meet the object, and he can take you. You just need to release the shutter! (More on workshops and hides to rent in separate article soon).
6. 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 old analog camera. The only problem was that he spent muuuuch more time on preparation and much more time on the waiting phase. You can shorten those phases by using modern gear, but then it is all about money.
As you probably heard many times – the 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, all depends on the subject – those are general rules:
Any digital body, good to have a crop, good AF speed, and AF lens in the range 200-600 – the lens can be slow like f5.6, but it is better to have a fast lens like f2.8.
Semi-pro or pro digital body with good FPS ratio, great AF (Servo and continuous would be nice), right fix lens like 300/2.8 or better. Fast memory cards.
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. In some hides, you will only need gimbal because they have places prepared to screw it directly on the clamp.
7. Find a way to be close to your subject
This rule is fundamental. I know the guy who was taking fantastic pictures of challenging birds with an old analog camera and a manual telephoto 135mm lens. Other people having much better gear were not able to even get close to the quality he got.
Where lays the secret of such a difference? The first guy (let’s call him analog photographer) spent 99% of the time to prepare the scene and make birds to 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 proper parameters before the shot and just waiting for the action, then press the shutter. He had only 36 frames on the film, so he focused on pressing the shutter in the right moment, not shooting series. With this approach he ended up with award winning photos.
The disadvantage of such an approach is that you need a massive amount of time to work this way. Usually, people do not have this time. So what I do I am just trying 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?
8. Be very patient when approaching your subject
Let’s assume you paid the money, and you 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 start pressing your shutter just 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 will feel secure with the environment and focused on eating, then 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 some will take off at the slightest sign of any movement or noise.
You can try silent shutter first, then if everything is ok, regular one and more frames per second as well as 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 be not that afraid and will 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.
9. Try to get to eye level as close as possible
Another essential rule is 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 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.
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 hides made the way to be dug into the water, and your lens is precisely on the water surface, so you have a great perspective to keep eye level rule.
Very often, you can use unique 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.
10. Observe and 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.
So when you are happy with your portraits, and you already excelled in your technique and got the best possible light, it’s time to start shooting action. To get the best action shot, you must first observe the animal for some hours, days, or even weeks and figure out the action scheme to be ready for pressing the shutter in 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 for you is to know exactly when the animal or bird is going to 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!