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Wildlife Photography Tips: Take Better Wildlife Photos

This post describes some basic tips to improve the quality of wildlife photography. Anyone interested in capturing more compelling images of animals will find it useful in furthering the development of their skills.

Why photograph wildlife?

Nature has been one of the primary subjects of photography for over 115 years.  The natural beauty that surrounds us in the form of landscapes, plants, and wildlife is a compelling subject to capture in still images. 

But more than that, the experience of taking photography of wildlife is one of the most thrilling forms of the craft.  There is something deeply compelling—almost primeval—about sharing a wooded glen with wild animals, gaining their trust, and documenting their beauty and behavior. 

Wildlife is not the easiest subject to capture.  It often requires larger, telephoto lenses, or if your interests lie in the tiny, macro lenses that allow for magnification and close focusing.  Wildlife is most active at dawn and dusk—time when light is not always cooperative.  Fast telephoto lenses are an option if you have a nice line of credit available, but they’re not always necessary.  Today’s manufacturers have some more affordable, slower telephotos that can be used to capture great wildlife images. 

In this article, I will share with you some of the tips I have collected over the past several years in capturing beautiful wildlife with my camera.

Time to Invest in a New Camera?

If you are truly interested in wildlife photography, you will need a digital SLR camera.  Most of the point-and-shoot models simply don’t have the reach you will need to safely photograph wild animals, and ultimately lack quality when it comes to taking a half decent photograph.

Popular Digital SLR Cameras

Getting Close & Keeping Steady

Animals are inherently more sensitive to the shape and form of an upright human being than they are to vehicles.  You can attribute this to the thousands of years we’ve spent hunting them for food.  The fear that animals have for humans is well deserved.  Many wildlife photographers use expensive and complicated blinds to hide their presence from animals.  In the right circumstances though, you already have a working blind—your vehicle.

Some more cautious animals will flee at the sight of a vehicle.  Kestrels, for instance, flee at the sight of a car as much as they do a human being.  But many species feel much more comfortable around them than they do people, especially in national parks where vehicles are a common sight, such as Rocky Mountain National Park or Yellowstone.   I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been able to get remarkably close to elk in Rocky Mountain National Park

Unfortunately too often, a tourist with a point-and-shoot camera comes along and steps out of their vehicle and approaches the animals.  The elk shy away or bolt into the trees, and my shoot is over.

Stabilizing your camera inside a car isn’t often easy.  You can set up some tripods so that you can shoot from the driver or passenger seat, but some wildlife photographers find the tripod too constrictive, especially when photographing animals on the move.

In those situations, your window is your friend.  Roll up your window to the level at which you want to set your lens.  Buy some cheap pipe insulation with a slit down one side at any hardware store. Slip this over the edge of the glass of your window and you can comfortably rest your lens on the edge.   I have seen photographers use bean bags for the same purpose. 

Remember the rule of thumb to eliminate camera shake: you should be shooting at a shutter speed at or above the effective focal length of your lens.  That means if you shoot like I do with a 70-300mm lens on an Olympus body with a 2x sensor crop factor, you need a shutter speed of at least 1/600th of a second to help ensure that your image will be as sharp as it can be. 

Tripods and the window edge trick can help lower this shutter speed, as well as cameras or lenses with image stabilization.  The kind of blur we’re talking about isn’t always obvious when you check an image with your LCD.  With this rule of thumb, you help reduce the chances of being disappointed with what you thought were great shots in the field, but turned out to be blurry or soft when loaded onto your computer. Don’t be afraid to increase your ISO to get the shutter speeds you need. When shooting fast-moving animals such as birds in flight, you may want a shutter speed as high as 1/1000th of a second to freeze your subject. And of course, proper technique in stabilizing your camera can go a long way.

Most photographer recommend that you use at least a 300mm (35mm equivalent) telephoto for wildlife photography (if you need to learn more about different kinds of lenses, this article can help) . Any less and you will have difficulty filling the frame with your subject. But no matter how much reach your longest lens gives you, you’ll always be left wanting more. Teleconverters can be used, at the cost of sharpness and f-stops, but for bird photography involving small subjects, they may be your best option.

How NOT to get close to wildlife.

Practice Your Skills

Before spending a fortune on a photography expedition to Africa, hone your skills in your own backyard. My area of Colorado is rife with red-winged blackbirds in the spring.  They can be found around nearly any body of water, and the males are claiming and protecting territory from nearly every tree branch or cattail.  Their focus on competitors and attracting a mate means that their guard is down more than it would be at other times, and the cattails they often frequent are conveniently located at eye level. 

I have found that red-winged blackbirds are an excellent “practice subject” to work on my skills of approach, framing, and general technical work (exposure, focus, and the general fiddling of knobs and buttons).  They are common enough that if you blow an approach by moving too quickly or loudly, another will most likely present itself shortly.  But they are not so easy to catch.  Dark subjects against light backgrounds can be a technical challenge, and learning to expose the blacks of their feathers along with that red patch can really hone your skills.

Blackbirds may not be common in your area, but most likely, some form of wildlife frequents the parks and fields in your area.  Find a good “practice subject” and work on your basics, so that when you go after bigger, more impressive animals, you will have a solid foundation in the basic techniques and you will stand a better chance of capturing a great image.

Red-winged blackbirds are a good subject with which to practice.

Know Your Subject

Get to know your subject’s behavior.  Read books and talk with hunters or experts on the species.  Your local university may have researchers who special in the animal you’re trying to capture.  Politely ask them for tips via email—often they will be more than happy to share their expertise, provided you’re respectful of the animals. 

Some knowledge you will only gain through experience.  I’ve spent most of the winter travelling to Rocky Mountain National Park on a weekly basis.  Of particular interest in this park are the herds of wild elk.  A large bachelor herd is my favorite subject, but finding them in time for the good light was not easy at first. Over time, and through trial and error, I began to understand how weather affected which altitudes the animals could be found at.  Colder weather or snow would push them down into lower elevations where it they were easier to find and photograph.  Also, I learned which park entrances they were most likely to be near at the time of  day I was photographing them.  Other photographers in your area may be able to share this information, but I think if you can spare the time, it’s more fulfilling to learn their behavior on your own.

Speaking of parks, the local rangers and park staff are an excellent resource for learning the activities and whereabouts of great subjects.  I often swing into the pay station later in the morning to chat with the rangers about how things have been inside the park.  As amateur photographers, we’re not able to spend all of our time out there, but the rangers do, and they excellent resources at your disposal.

Learning the movements of the elk allowed me to capture this shot of sparring.

Capture Action!

Starting out, I was content to capture any animal in focus, properly exposed, and decently composed.  I didn’t care so much what they were doing in the image, so long as I got them in the shot and they weren’t just a speck in the distance.  As you develop your other skills, however, you will find that the most compelling and successful images are one that capture an animal in action.  It’s common sense, but often, we forget in the excitement of just being near the animal that that closeness is not easily conveyed through still photography. 

Capturing action requires more patience than just getting the animals in the frame.  It’s nearly impossible to approach an animal without impacting its behavior somewhat.  They will often be rattled or cautious in your presence.  It takes time for the animal to settle back into its routine, to forget that you’re watching. 

Increase your chances of capturing hunting or feeding behavior by photographing at dawn and dusk.  The golden hour is great not just for light but for locating wildlife as well.  Many animals are nocturnal or at the least crepuscular, so they are on the move at these times.  Being out half an hour before sunrise or an hour before sunset will help ensure that you find your subjects when they’re doing something more interesting than chewing their cud.

One last tip for capturing action with birds of prey was recently shared with me by wildlife photographer Vic Schendel.   In his years of wildlife photography, he’s discovered that raptors often defecate shortly before taking flight.  When you have the bird in your frame, and you see this happen, starting firing off shots, because you are likely to catch a much more impressive image of the bird taking flight than if you had taken a shot while it rested on a tree branch or telephone wire.

A bald eagle tears off a branch to make its nest.

70 Comments

  1. Add point Subtract point
    Kay (0 Points) May 4, 2011 at 11:58 am

    these tips are eally good thanks for your advice ! it is really good ;)

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  2. Add point Subtract point

    I recently started doing wildlife photos, and I really take into account your awsome tips!!

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  3. Add point Subtract point

    Photoshop tutorials, from beginner to advanced. photo manipulation, icon design, text effects, interface, layout, painting, photo effects, psd tuts, maxon cinema 4d, designing.
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  4. Add point Subtract point

    Nice Tutorials,
    I think its very useful and really good collection thanks.
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  5. Add point Subtract point
    dslrapprentice (1 Point) October 22, 2010 at 11:34 pm

    http://www.dslrapprentice.com
    You can learn more about photography in the forum above.

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  6. Add point Subtract point
    Nature pictures (3 Points) October 5, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    Thanks for sharing such a useful info!

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  7. Add point Subtract point
    taxi dnepr (1 Point) September 25, 2010 at 10:17 am

    Thanks for article, Necessarily I use in practice!

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  8. Add point Subtract point
    فيسبوك (1 Point) September 22, 2010 at 11:17 am

    i pay money for studying this technique once before and you guys teach it just for free witch is mean you are awesome

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  9. Add point Subtract point
    bidyut datta (1 Point) August 31, 2010 at 9:12 am

    nice tips, help me very much, from INDIA

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  10. Add point Subtract point
    usmanlali (1 Point) August 30, 2010 at 7:15 am

    i like the photography but our resourses is too short i always like the beautyful sean and most wounderful pic plz hint me about the photography

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  11. Add point Subtract point
    Billy Hardman (0 Points) August 27, 2010 at 11:34 pm

    With a 300mm lens, how close do I need to get to the animal for it to fill the frame?

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  12. Add point Subtract point
    Billy Hardman (1 Point) August 27, 2010 at 11:33 pm

    With a 300mm lens, how close do you need to get to the animal for it to fill up the frame?

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  13. Add point Subtract point
    Emma (2 Points) July 19, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    Thank you so much! These tips are amazing. I am only 13 years old and I have this dream to be a wildlife photographer. I am taking pictures of backyard birds and butterflies right now, but man do I need a better camera. My zoom is only x3 and that doesn’t help with getting a good shot, because I gotta get close, which usually ends in disaster. But again the tips help a ton with everything!!!

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  14. Add point Subtract point
    Manohar (1 Point) July 14, 2010 at 1:31 am

    Great tips and most of them are common sense… yes you are right… we need to have lots of patience to achieve great photo rather than just a photo…

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  15. Add point Subtract point
    Arizona Lawyer (2 Points) June 7, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    Thanks for the camera recommendations. Will check those out. And your wildlife photography advice is really helpful.

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  16. Add point Subtract point
    mohit (1 Point) May 19, 2010 at 2:05 am

    nice collection. I am a visiting first time this site and i think its awesome..
    visit this site movies.ewebtutorial.com

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  17. Add point Subtract point
    chandan (1 Point) May 9, 2010 at 5:30 am

    im very intrested in photography. i just finished my 10th std and want to know if there are some corses for photography. plz if anybody can help.

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  18. Add point Subtract point
    Web Design (1 Point) April 26, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    Great tutorial Thanks for sharing with all of us!!

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  19. Add point Subtract point
    Jen Pruett (1 Point) April 19, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    Wild life is probably one of the hardest subject to photograph, those are some great tips, thanks Jen

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  20. Add point Subtract point
    satish (1 Point) April 11, 2010 at 5:06 am

    I m totally mad about wildlife so plz help me to get my peak of wildlife photography.

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  21. Add point Subtract point
    David (1 Point) April 3, 2010 at 2:27 am

    Thank you a very informative site

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  22. Add point Subtract point
    Kevcat Safaris (1 Point) February 18, 2010 at 1:22 am

    You can find some interesting facts on wildlife and wildlife photography at http://www.kevcatsafaris.com you can also get 50% from all sales of the books on the site

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  23. Add point Subtract point

    i have intrest in wiledlife photography.but i am poor, no money for buying SLR camera and telescopic leans. please healp me anybody’ my male add : sahalumon@gmail.com. my mobile no is 0919946020504

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  24. Add point Subtract point

    please help me some body……….,,, just contact me, my mobile no is 0919946020504

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  25. Add point Subtract point
    Upali Magedaragamage (1 Point) February 12, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Excellent tips. Thank you. I am from Sri Lanka.

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  26. Add point Subtract point

    Great tips thanks. Can you make a page on white balance thanks.

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  27. Add point Subtract point
    โหลดเพลงฟรี (1 Point) February 3, 2010 at 1:01 am

    Great reading! Thanks for sharing133

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  28. Add point Subtract point
    ฟังเพลง (1 Point) February 1, 2010 at 11:05 pm

    Great reading! Thanks for sharing126

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  29. Add point Subtract point
    เพลงใหม่ล่าสุด (1 Point) February 1, 2010 at 1:08 am

    Great reading! Thanks for sharing121

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  30. Add point Subtract point
    เพลงสากลใหม่ (1 Point) January 30, 2010 at 8:14 am

    wow Great article, thanks!

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  31. Add point Subtract point
    veerendra (1 Point) January 13, 2010 at 7:51 am

    Is nicon cool pix p90 suits for this?

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  32. Add point Subtract point

    its very nice and also i got a useful important points from this

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  33. Add point Subtract point
    putueka (1 Point) October 31, 2009 at 1:14 am

    wild life, expensive in the gear

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  34. Add point Subtract point
    clippingimages (1 Point) October 6, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    Very informative article. Learn lots from this article . Thanks for sharing this fabulous post.

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  35. Add point Subtract point
    Gretchen Eck (1 Point) September 26, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    Great article, lots of wonderful tips.

    Gretchen Eck Photography
    http://www.gretcheneck.com
    blog.gretcheneck.com

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  36. Add point Subtract point
    jennifer Pham (1 Point) September 18, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    i use 500 f2.8 L Canon Lenses For Photograph Wildlife , Why you dont talk about lenese in your post
    thanks

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  37. Add point Subtract point

    …and to photograph wildlife, be prepared to spend some serious time on your own waiting. To add to the 300mm focal length point, this is often too short to “fill the frame”. Shame cost of lenses goes into orbit past this length.

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  38. Add point Subtract point
    momo (1 Point) June 9, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    great topics ……..thanks

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  39. Add point Subtract point
    George Z. (1 Point) April 15, 2009 at 3:40 am

    Great reading! Thanks for sharing all those tips!

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  40. Add point Subtract point
    Jared Hansen (2 Points) April 3, 2009 at 9:20 am

    Hi my name is Jared….I am a published photographer with kind of a silly question but none the less I am curios about this question ..What are the Best times like 1:00 PM say to someting like 7:00 am in the morning or 5:00pm at dusk or night for when are the best Documented times in the Day for Photograping Active wildlife??? Just a quick Question??? Jared!!!! I would kind of like to know this so I can get good shots of active wildlife????? Let me know the sooner the better!!!! Thank you for your time and Help….-Jared Hansen- By the way I do know that It has something to do with Dawn and Dusk….But what times excatly like for example is it 7:00am to 5:30PM this would really help me narrow things down thanks again….-Jared

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  41. Add point Subtract point
    Gary Hamburgh (1 Point) March 20, 2009 at 9:02 am

    Good reading. Thanks for your insights. Using common sense when approaching animals goes a long way as well. After all they are a wild animal and you are encroaching on their space. Be careful and enjoy.

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  42. Add point Subtract point

    Only Canon and Nikon cameras?
    You should add at least one Olympus model… they have the best price/quality relation.
    Glass optics and metalpieces in the lower price segments…
    Mainstream isn’t always the best.

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      That’s my mistake BK, I added the models in myself after the tutorial was published based on personal experience with cameras and suggestions from friends.

      Do you have any specific models that we should add to the list? Would be wonderful if you knew of any handhelds that could even get the job done alright for Wildlife Photography.

      Thanks :)

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  43. Add point Subtract point

    Awesome, thanks for the tips!

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  44. Add point Subtract point
    Brad D (2 Points) March 9, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Great read! Like the camera suggestions, though I am curious how would you rate a Sony a200 as opposed to the D60 for a starter?

    Anyway, very neat to see Tut9 branching out some more!

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  45. Add point Subtract point
    Jana (2 Points) March 8, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    ooh this was an interesting read!…I just realised I hadn’t come on here for a very long time…Better put my camera in action from all these articles!

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  46. Add point Subtract point
    SawHtoo (1 Point) March 6, 2009 at 10:12 am

    great tips! Learned something from this post. Thanks!

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  47. Add point Subtract point
    Pete Morley (1 Point) March 6, 2009 at 5:52 am

    Just read this in my RSS reader but I had to come here to say well done and thanks. Probably one of the best and most down-to-earth photography articles I’ve read in a while.

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  48. Add point Subtract point
    Casey L. Jones (0 Points) March 6, 2009 at 3:37 am

    Ironically enough, I’m heading to RMNP this July. I’m hoping to get a few good shots.

    Last time I was there we got good photos of a herd of elk below the overlook of the Never Summer Mountains.

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  49. Add point Subtract point

    Great post. Another good starting camera.. Olympus E-520. All Olympus DSLR’S have stabalizers built into the body so lenses are cheaper!

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  50. Add point Subtract point

    What is/are the font(s) in the first picture?

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      Paul Reece (1 Point) December 13, 2009 at 5:59 pm

      Just a comment in response to the post about “not running when a bear is chasing you and standing tall”. I have worked extensively with black bears and grizzly bears and there is a lot more that goes in to what to do in a bear encounter than, “run or stand tall” Anyone spending any time in close proximity to bears has a responsability to educate themselves on what to do, based on how the bear is reacting to you, please for the sake of yourself and the animals take the time to learn.

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  51. Add point Subtract point
    Linda Sielck (1 Point) March 5, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    Dear Jeremy,

    You do need to warn your readers that sometimes nature is not all that cooperative with photographing them.
    I had a redtail hawk practically charge me while trying to photograph it! Also, I used to feed deer, and they too would
    run off if they saw my camera pointing at them. Funny thing is I could walk close to them and the would not be fearful, without the camera! I also knew of a phesant breading ground that when I just got there I saw aproximately 12 phesants, as soon as I tryed to focus the camera they all disapeered!

    Linda Sielck

    P.S. Some animals could even get agressive!

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      Casey L. Jones (1 Point) March 6, 2009 at 3:43 am

      Most wild animals will become aggressive if they are fearful of you. Also, to an animal a camera lens may look like a scope on a rifle. It’s pretty important to use common sense and never approach an animal who is giving off vibes of fright.

      Give the animals their space and respect them. Also learn what to do if you are being chased by an animal. For example, if a bear starts chasing you do not run and instead stand tall and make a lot of noise. Most of the time the bear will back away.

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    Jhay (-1 Points) March 5, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Nice! Thanks for the great tips! :)

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