Do you want to capture beautiful, powerful, eye-catching photos of wildlife? Creating amazing wildlife photography may not be easy, but it doesn’t have to be hard, either.
As a professional wildlife photographer, I’ve spent years developing the techniques needed to get consistently great shots. And in this article, I aim to share my secrets, from the perfect wildlife lighting and the best settings to my favorite approaches to capture those once-in-a-lifetime moments.
So no matter your skill level, if you’re looking to take your wildlife photography to the next level, you’ve come to the right place.
Let’s get started.
Essential wildlife photography gear
Wildlife comes in various forms – from magnificent eagles and powerful bears to delicate songbirds and sly foxes. As you delve into wildlife photography, you’ll encounter four main difficulties:
- Most animals are skittish
- Most animals are fast and unpredictable
- Most animals are active during dawn, dusk, and/or in darker settings like forests
- Nature tends to be relatively harsh and can include rain, snow, mud, sand, and more
To handle these challenges, you’ll want to choose your gear carefully. Here’s what I recommend:
A fast, rugged camera
Your choice of camera can make or break your wildlife photography experience. First, an ideal wildlife camera boasts interchangeable lenses, which ensures you can adjust the focal length based on the scenario and capture everything from close-ups to wide-angle shots.
You’ll also want a camera with excellent autofocus capabilities; that way, you can – with practice – consistently track a bird soaring in the sky or a deer sprinting across a meadow. (A growing number of advanced mirrorless cameras now offer eye-tracking features, including bird and animal eye detection. This feature can be a game-changer, but it’s important to test it out before using it in critical situations because not all Eye AF capabilities are equally impressive.)
Durability is another factor you don’t want to compromise on. Whether you’re photographing in a downpour or on a dusty trail, your camera needs to be able to resist these elements and protect its electronic core. Many mid-tier (and above) DSLRs and mirrorless cameras offer good-to-great weather resistance, but I’d advise steering clear of entry-level models meant for casual outings.
Finally, make sure your wildlife photography camera offers good high-ISO capabilities. It’ll ensure you’re able to keep shooting dim light while maintaining a fast shutter speed for crystal-clear captures.
A super-telephoto lens
Wildlife photography often demands close-ups of animals – yet often the animals you want to photograph are either too far away or too wary to approach. That’s where a super-telephoto lens shines. Ideally, you’ll want a unit that reaches 300mm or beyond to get frame-filling shots of elusive subjects.
Sure, super-telephotos can be pricey, but I’d recommend you think of them as an investment. For beginners, super-telephoto zooms like a 200-500mm or 100-400mm lens strike a nice balance between quality and price. They might not rival the crystal-clear output of a 500mm f/4 prime lens – a favorite among pros – but they’re still capable of great shots. Of course, as your passion and skill grow, you might find yourself eyeing prime lenses like a 500mm f/4, a 600mm f/4, or a 400mm f/2.8.
Note: While long lenses are great for capturing beautiful wildlife shots, it’s very possible to capture amazing photos using a short-telephoto lens or even a wide-angle lens, as various photos throughout this article illustrate. So if you want to get started with photographing wildlife but you don’t have access to super-telephoto glass, don’t give up. Instead, work on mastering the art of contextual wildlife shots, where you photograph the animal plus the environment.
A sturdy tripod
In wildlife photography, many beginners prefer the freedom of handheld shooting, but the weight and length of super-telephoto lenses make tripods an asset. Not only do they ensure sharper shots, but they also reduce the physical strain, especially during prolonged sessions.
Investing in a tripod is a choice, but if you decide to get one, don’t skimp on quality. A bargain tripod might seem attractive initially, but shaky legs or a wobbly head can ruin your shots or even damage your gear. You want something robust, built to last. And let’s face it: wildlife often means unpredictable terrains and weather, so durability is paramount.
If the thought of carrying a tripod sounds cumbersome, consider a monopod. It’s a lighter alternative, and while it doesn’t provide the same stability as a tripod, it still offers significant support, especially in low-light situations.
Teleconverters aren’t a necessity, but they’re definitely a tool that every wildlife photography beginner should know about. Essentially, they amplify your lens’s focal length, and there are three main varieties: the 1.4x, the 1.7x, and the mighty 2x.
With a teleconverter, a 300mm lens can effectively reach up to 600mm, which is a significant leap – one that comes for a fraction of the price of a dedicated 600mm lens. But there’s a trade-off. Mounting a teleconverter reduces the amount of light your lens can capture, so a 300mm f/2.8 lens becomes a slower 600mm f/5.6 with a 2x teleconverter. Additionally, image quality can take a slight hit, especially with longer teleconverters.
Therefore, if you want to use a teleconverter but absolute sharpness is your goal, make sure you’re starting with a top-notch lens and perhaps lean toward the 1.4x teleconverter for minimal loss of sharpness.
The best wildlife photography settings
When you’re out in the wild with a stunning creature in your sights, the last thing you want is to be fumbling with your camera. Preparation is crucial. In other words, you should (roughly) know your settings before your subject appears, but what are the ideal settings for photographing wildlife?
Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority mode
Ditch the Auto mode on your camera. It’s time to graduate to the semi-automatic options, which give you a blend of control and convenience. There are two modes that I recommend, both of which have their merits:
- Aperture Priority mode: Here, you decide on the aperture and ISO, and your camera then takes charge of the shutter speed to ensure a balanced exposure. It’s an easy option for wildlife shooters because you can set your aperture as needed, then boost your ISO until you get a shutter speed that you like.
- Shutter Priority mode: In this mode, you get to choose the shutter speed and ISO. The camera then determines the best aperture for a good exposure. If you’re dead-set on a specific shutter speed, it can be a great pick.
A decently wide aperture
The term “aperture” might sound a bit technical, but think of it as the eye of your camera. Just as our pupils expand in dim light, a wider aperture lets in more light, illuminating your subject beautifully.
In the world of wildlife photography, having ample light is key. So a wider aperture setting – such as f/2.8, f/4, or f/5.6 – is usually ideal.
That said, a quick word of caution: with a wider aperture, the depth of field – or the area of the shot that’s in focus – becomes narrow. If you’re aiming to capture an eagle with its wings fully spread, it’s generally important to ensure the entire bird is sharp, yet a very wide aperture might make parts of it blurry.
Therefore, choosing an aperture is a balancing act. You want enough light to get a detailed exposure and a fast shutter speed, but you also need the entire subject in focus. Therefore, many wildlife photographers ultimately shoot in the f/5.6-f/7.1 range, especially when capturing images with deeper subjects.
A fast shutter speed
A fast shutter speed is almost a non-negotiable in wildlife photography. Consider the sheer unpredictability of animals. One moment, a bird might be sitting still, and the next, it’s taking flight. That quick transition demands you to be ready, and a fast shutter speed is the only way you can freeze the action.
Even for subjects that aren’t moving much, I’d recommend working with a shutter speed of at least 1/250s. If you’re holding a hefty lens without any tripod support, push it even higher.
For slower-moving subjects, a shutter speed between 1/500s to 1/1000s usually does the trick. But for the high-speed animals, like a darting songbird or a sprinting hare, you’ll want to ramp up to 1/2000s or even faster.
Note: If you’ve set your camera to Shutter Priority mode, you’ll dial in your preferred speed, and the camera will select a matching aperture. If that aperture isn’t to your liking, remember that you can raise the ISO to get the desired effect. Which brings me to the next essential wildlife photography setting:
A high ISO
Choosing an ISO can be tough. On the one hand, higher ISOs introduce noise, which decreases image quality. On the other hand, an ISO is often needed in low-light scenarios.
Why? Well, ISO amplifies the light signal on the camera sensor. Say you’re shooting an elephant as the sun dips below the horizon. Even if you’re using a speedy shutter of 1/250s, the photos might still turn out dim. But if you boost the ISO, the files will be brighter and you’ll get the detail you need.
Additionally, cameras have come a long way. It’s now possible to push ISO levels to 400, 800, or even 1600 and beyond without a significant noise penalty, especially if you’re using the most recent full-frame mirrorless models.
The general rule is to keep ISO as low as feasible. But understand that wildlife photography often doesn’t come with ideal conditions, and a higher ISO might be the key to that perfect shot.
When it comes to autofocus, two main options stand out: single-shot AF and continuous AF. The first locks focus with a half-press of the shutter. It’s great for landscape photography, sure, but in the dynamic world of wildlife, continuous autofocus – which continuously acquires focus even as the subject moves – is generally the better choice.
Animals are unpredictable, and continuous AF mode helps ensure they remain sharp in your frame. Pair this with your camera’s tracking feature, and you’ve got a powerful combo to maintain focus across your viewfinder.
A quick introduction to lighting in wildlife photography
When I started shooting, here’s the first piece of advice I ever got: Stick to the hours of golden light (i.e., the time just after sunrise and just before sunset).
This means getting up early in the morning and being in the field before sunrise, and going out in the afternoon to make the most of the last hours of sunlight. The light at midday (mostly between 11:00 and 4:00, at least where I live) is generally harsh and looks, well, bad.
The exception is on overcast days, when clouds act like a massive softbox and filter out the light evenly. On those days, you can shoot all day (as long as there are willing subjects!).
In wildlife photography, you need to know how to use the light to your advantage. Often, you’ll find yourself in a position where the light isn’t ideal, or heaven forbid, the light is nice but is coming from the wrong direction (and you aren’t in a position to move to a better spot).
The good news is that light from the wrong direction can add lots of mood to an image. Shooting into the light is tricky to pull off, but with the right settings, you can get some pretty interesting images from a less-than-ideal position. The image below is one such photo; it uses backlight to create interesting silhouettes and atmosphere:
10 essential tips to level up your wildlife photos
Now that you’re familiar with the wildlife photography basics, let’s take a look at some practical tips to get you capturing photos like the pros!
1. Know your gear
This sounds like a huge cliché, but it’s absolutely, one-hundred percent true.
The really great, action-packed moments in wildlife photography last, on average, between 5 and 20 seconds. If you’re not deeply familiar with the settings of your camera or the capabilities of your chosen lens, you‘ll either miss the shot or ruin the images you do manage to capture.
Here’s what you need to know:
- The minimum shutter speed at which you can obtain a sharp image with your camera/lens combo
- Any added shutter speed margins that the in-camera or lens stabilization gives you
- How to quickly toggle between focus points or focus modes
- How high you can push your camera’s ISO setting and still achieve acceptable results
Now, you need to be able to make most, if not all, of the necessary adjustments to your exposure/focus settings without lifting your eye from the viewfinder. That way, you can make changes on the fly without fumbling around (and potentially missing the action!).
The movement you see between the cheetahs in the following image lasted all of 10 seconds, even though we sat with them for more than an hour:
2. Know the wildlife
Since much of wildlife photography is based upon capturing fleeting moments of natural history (read: interesting poses or behavior), it pays to be able to predict your subject’s behavior beforehand.
Granted, not every species is as predictable as the next. But there are patterns of behavior ingrained into every animal species. Knowing your subject may be the difference between capturing that “golden moment” and watching in agony as it flies by.
In my experience, there is only one way to get to know wildlife:
Spend time with your subject. Don’t just hang around for a few minutes and seek out the next subject if the one you’re observing or photographing isn’t delivering the goods. Sit with wildlife. Watch wildlife. Wait.
(This also ties into patience, which I will discuss in more detail later.)
My understanding of lilac-breasted rollers allowed me to capture the image below; I knew what it was going to do to its grasshopper lunch, and I was ready for it:
3. Know the wildlife photography “rules,” but don’t be afraid to break them
First, know the absolute basics: Proper exposure and the use of the histogram, as well as compositional guidelines such as the rule of thirds. Ingrain them in your brain. To capture fleeting moments, you need to have complete mastery over exposure and composition.
Second, know the wildlife-specific rules. For instance, eye contact with the subject is a big deal, as it gives life to the image. In the case of bird photography, you can take this a step further: the head should be at least parallel to the camera sensor, and ideally turned a few degrees toward the viewer.
The image below, for example, follows strong rule-of-thirds compositional guidelines:
Once you know the guidelines, and once you know when and how to apply them, it’s time to start breaking them. Experiment with composition and exposure. Test the boundaries.
Take a look at the image below. I mentioned the “need” for eye contact, yet sometimes you can shoot an image without eye contact and still get a strong result:
4. Don’t be afraid to shoot wide (or up close!)
Too many wildlife photographers get fixated on what I call the “focal-length debacle,” where it becomes an obsession to have the longest/biggest lens possible.
Now, I know this is location-dependent, as you might need a huge lens to get any shot at all in certain wide-open spaces. But in general, wildlife photographers care too much about ultra-tight framing, which creates sterile, boring images with a perfectly smooth background and no sense of the subject’s environment.
Instead, challenge yourself to shoot wider. Give the viewer a better idea of where you took the image and where your subject lives. This is applicable to any species you photograph, from a squirrel to a deer to an elephant.
The elephant below was photographed with a wide-angle lens, and the resulting image gives you a sense of the environment and makes the most of the clouds and the sky:
The flip side to shooting wider is (you guessed it!) shooting closer.
And I mean way closer. Get in-your-face close (by changing your position or using a longer lens with an optional teleconverter). Try to create unique, interesting studies of the animals and birds you photograph. This will also help you think in terms of more abstract compositions.
Have a look at this photo of a Cape buffalo, for example:
It’s unusual, right? You don’t see a lot of wildlife photos like it – which is part of what makes it special.
5. Include multiple subjects
No intricate explanation is needed for this one; in wildlife photography, one is company and two is even better, especially when there’s food or shelter involved. If you have a good view of more than one member of a species, stay a while!
Make sure to capture the interaction between your subjects, if possible. Be ready to photograph the subjects fighting, preening one another, mating, or just having a good time. Really, pretty much any action between two animals will lead to a great photo.
Look at the images below. First up: a solitary African spoonbill, minding its own business on a perch, happy as can be. It’s a fine photo, but throw another spoonbill into the mix, and you have a recipe for good interaction:
6. Get down low
This is a major wildlife photo tip, and one that every beginner wildlife photographer should commit to memory.
You see, in wildlife photography, you must pay careful attention to your point of view. Do you shoot from up high? Do you shoot from a standing height? Do you shoot from flat against the ground? Each option will provide you with a completely different result, some of which will be much more impactful than others.
So here’s my recommendation:
Shoot from an eye-level perspective (or go even lower if you can). This brings the viewer of your image right into the scene. It adds intimacy. It shows them the world from your subject’s perspective.
Obviously, what counts as eye level is relative (you will pretty much always be lower than eye level with a giraffe, for example), but you get the idea.
Always bear in mind the constraints of your environment. In most South African reserves, you are not allowed to get out of your vehicle. This restricts you to a certain perspective.
Look at the images below for illustration. The first African painted dog was photographed from an open game viewer, slightly above the dog’s eyeline. The result is a somewhat bland shot; it’s nothing special to my eyes.
The second image, however, was taken lying flat on my stomach in a sandy riverbed not 20 meters from the pack of canines, and the alpha male was checking me out. This perspective makes the image come alive, plus the low position creates a beautiful background blur.
7. Photograph every animal that comes your way
On an African safari, every tourist wants to see the “big 5,” or at least a lion. But if you’ve ever spent time around wild lions in the daytime, you will know that they are actually shoddy models for photography. They sleep up to 20 hours per day.
Conversely, I have had great photo opportunities from impala, who are the most common ungulate you’ll come across down here in the bush.
The lesson? Photograph what you can. When the light is good, look for photos, regardless of the species.
Have a look at these two images: an impala jumping gracefully, and a standard portrait of a male lion, both in good light. Which do you prefer?
Let’s use a second example, common in nearly every location:
Everyone sees squirrels, right? In the images below, the top squirrel is munching something with nice soft light and a nice low angle. And at the bottom, a mommy is carrying her youngster over a large branch at speed by biting down on the youngster’s stomach flap while it holds on for dear life.
My point is simply that you can capture good images of “boring” subjects. Don’t restrict yourself to powerful or much-loved wildlife; instead, photograph what you can, when you can.
8. Work on your patience
Photographing wildlife is unpredictable. Anything can happen at any time, but most things happen only rarely.
It is therefore imperative that you become patient. Very patient.
Often, you need to return to the same spot for days. And even if you do that, you run the risk of nothing happening and wasting your time.
But that’s just the nature of wildlife photography. For days, you might not get the shot. But eventually, your waiting will pay off. You’ll get the shot you’re after. And you’ll feel inspired once again.
If you’re struggling with patience, that’s okay. It’s something to work at. Even after years of wildlife photoshoots, I’m sometimes impatient out in the field.
The image below was captured after staking out a tree with the impala kill for more than five hours. I had also driven past this tree many times earlier that day to see if there was any action. I knew the leopard would return, but I had no guarantee that it would return before nightfall. It could’ve been a bust, and my whole afternoon could’ve been wasted; fortunately, in this case, it wasn’t, and I got the shot.
9. Don’t forget to post-process your wildlife shots
There’s a common myth I often hear: “Editing wildlife photos detracts from their authenticity.” But here’s the thing: Every image, be it shot on film or captured digitally, is an interpretation, not an exact replica of reality. Even the best cameras can’t quite replicate what your eyes perceive. That’s where post-processing enters the picture. A bit of tweaking can bridge that gap, bringing your photo closer to what you remember seeing.
Begin with the basics. First, adjust the white balance to correct for color casts. Next, add a little contrast to bring out the subject. Third, consider the colors. A subtle saturation enhancement can be a great way to make a dull photo pop. And don’t forget to apply a touch of sharpening. It ensures every feather, every strand of fur stands out.
Now, if you’re feeling adventurous and want to explore the artistic side of wildlife photography, why not? Play around. Maybe add a fun color tweak here or a vignette there. Photography, at its core, is a blend of reality and your unique perspective. Embrace it!
10. Be there and enjoy it
Here’s your final wildlife photography tip:
Be there and enjoy it!
I don’t just mean that you should physically show up and be at the right place at the right time (although of course that also applies).
You need to be present in the moment. Don’t get so caught up in the technical issues and your settings that you don’t take in the beauty you are witnessing while out photographing birds and wildlife. Be mindful of the privilege of spending time in nature. Enjoy your time in places where humans haven’t quite exerted their full force.
Maybe it’s the most isolated spot in your local park where you can sit and observe and photograph squirrels and birds. Or maybe it’s facing a wild Kodiak bear on the Alaskan floodplains.
Regardless, enjoy what you are doing! Have fun doing it! How does it help to spend so much time on this amazing art form if you are not enjoying yourself?
Wildlife photography tips: final words
Wildlife photography is an exhilarating journey. From the thrill of capturing a fleeting moment in nature to the joy of reliving it through your shots, every step is rewarding. While having the right gear matters, understanding your equipment and its settings is crucial. And once you’ve got that perfect shot, remember to give it the finishing touch with some thoughtful post-processing.
So remember what I’ve shared with you. Learn the rules of wildlife photography. Learn patience. And above all, have fun!
Now over to you:
Do you have any wildlife photography tips of your own? Which of these tips resonated with you most strongly? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
About the author: Morkel Erasmus
Note: This article was updated in September 2023 by dPS’s Managing Editor, Jaymes Dempsey.
Besides being widely published, Morkel has been honored for his commitment to his craft with various awards in the short span of his photographic career, most notably by receiving a “Highly Commended” award for one of his images in the 2010 BBC Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. Morkel is a devoted husband and a proud father of a beautiful daughter and soon-to-be-born son.