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Quick tips for photographing wildlife

A mixture of pointers for good wildlife pictures


Luck goes to the fast shooter. A big cat's yawn doesn't last much more than 3 seconds. Be ready at all times when photographing wild animals.
Luck goes to the fast shooter. A big cat's yawn doesn't last much more than 3 seconds. Be ready at all times when photographing wild animals.

WAIT FOR IT

Waiting for animals to move into an open setting, away from natural backdrops that camouflage them, will enable them to stand out more clearly. Many animals stop in the shade or behind cover to check out a clearing before moving into it. Have patience. Give them time to exercise their natural caution before you begin to shoot.

LUCK GOES TO THE FAST SHOOTER

Be ready to take pictures right away once you are in the field. Choose an appropriate sensitivity setting (ISO) in your digital camera for the ambient lighting - or have your traditional camera loaded with film of an appropriate speed. If it is very bright, ISO 100 should be fine. If the light is low, consider a faster setting (ISO 400 to ISO 800) that will allow you to use a fast shutter speed. Set your zoom lens to full extension, and preset your camera’s controls to be ready to shoot at an instant. To ensure sharpness, determine hyperfocal distance and preset your camera appropriately, making sure your shutter speed is fast enough to stop any action. Many great animal photographs were captured because of luck - being in the right place at the right time - but luck has nothing to do with being ready to take a fast shot. That is called preparation, and if you aren't prepared for the moment when that lucky shot is right in front of you, you just won't get it.


CAPTURE THE BACKGROUND

Although tightly-framed wild animal close-ups can make excellent images, pictures that show an animal’s environment – in effect, combining wildlife and landscape photography – are generally more interesting. Viewers of your image will know that your picture was not taken at a zoo if the animal is framed against a backdrop of the great outdoors, and the overall effect will be one that is more natural in appearance, especially if the background and the animal subject are both well-exposed.

When you are waiting for an animal to come into a setting (a water hole, for instance), be sure that you are positioned properly so that an appropriate background will appear in your pictures. If you are perched on a high rock and a large animal shows up just where you expected it to, will the background be so awful-looking (overly-bright sun shining on the water, or perhaps a completely-shaded, totally-dark area) that you have to drop down lower to frame a better one? That is just where you don't want to find yourself. The animal could spook when you make your move, or may just have moved on by the time you get into position. Plan ahead. Think of the way light changes a background over the course of the day, and select a shooting position that will give you a good background when the critter is likely to appear. Watch the background when there is no animal present. If its lighting changes for the worse, move quickly and quietly to a better shooting location that provides a suitable background setting before an animal shows up.

KEEP FILM IN YOUR POCKETS

Keep film on your person in a handy pocket to minimize noise and movement when changing rolls. But be sure that the film will stay in your pockets. Pockets that button, zip shut or close securely with velcro will prevent your film and small items from falling out when you bend over or are low to the ground.

Being ready at all times means that you are able to capture a second shot before the yawn is finished. This one may be even more expressive.
Being ready at all times means that you are able to capture a second shot before the yawn is finished. This one may be even more expressive.

Waiting for just the right moment of concentration, when an animal's attention is centered on something of interest, can make all the difference in revealing its character.
Waiting for just the right moment of concentration, when an animal's attention is centered on something of interest, can make all the difference in revealing its character.

KEEP OCCUPIED WHILE YOU BIDE YOUR TIME

Bring a pocketbook to keep you occupied while waiting at a likely spot to find your quarry. Just be sure to keep an eye out for the arrival of your subject and to turn the pages quietly and so the motion does not attract attention. An animal may be concealed in the shade and might not reveal itself if it notices you.

DON'T MAKE A SQUIRREL LOOK LIKE A WEASEL

Think of the character of the wild animal, and compose your pictures to capture what you want to convey about the creature. It could be the ferociousness of a grizzly bear (which means your picture should capture it when it looks threatening or dangerous) or it could be its curiosity when turning over a rotten log (which means your image should capture it when it looks more benign, curious and unthreatening.)

EVERY ANIMAL HAS A TALE

Observe the wild creature’s behavior and determine its state of mind if you can. If a mother animal is training its young, you may capture an expression that seems to show either its patience or its exasperation. If a predatory animal is on the hunt, wait for it to crouch, ears back, ready to pounce, before you shoot. Capture the antics of young animals at play, the tired look of an old one that has seen better days, or the complete relaxation of an animal soaking up the sun. Doing this will ensure that your pictures tell an interesting story, and go beyond a simple snapshot.


TIME OF DAY

Early mornings, late afternoons and evenings are generally the best times of day for wildlife pictures because many animals are most active at these times. Besides, bright noon-time sun is the last thing wildlife (and most other) photographers want for light on their subjects. It produces high contrast and harsh shadows that usually result in quite unattractive images. Light from lower sun angles during early morning or late afternoon generally produces much softer illumination, which is ideal for wildlife and other subjects outdoors.

CLOSING IN

When you get close to where you think you may come across wildlife, stop often to observe and listen. You may hear an animal before you see it. Walk slowly and quietly when you move again. Look for cover at every turn and be prepared to conceal yourself quickly. Remember that small animals that notice you may announce your presence to larger animals that simply go into hiding until you have passed by.

Think of the animal's
Think of the animal's "personality" - its intelligence, native wariness, and how it uses such traits to survive within its environment - and try to capture the look of the animal's particular character on film.

Shoot when the animal's head is up. If the animal is looking right at you, press the shutter release. It may not happen again.
Shoot when the animal's head is up. If the animal is looking right at you, press the shutter release. It may not happen again.

WHERE IS THE LIGHT?

Keep the sun and fall of its light in mind as you move so that animals are not back-lit when you come across them (unless you are specifically seeking back-lit subjects.)

STEALTH MEANS NOT BEING NOTICED

Freeze when an animal looks up. Wait until its attention is given back to drinking or grazing before you move forward again, and do so very slowly.

SHOOT WHEN THE ANIMAL'S HEAD IS UP

When you get within range of an animal subject, keep your eye on the viewfinder and wait until the animal looks in your direction before shooting.

You can sometimes get an animal that is feeding with its head down to lift its head and look directly at you without bolting by softly snapping your fingers. The unusual, but non-alarming, noise can be effective in attracting attention.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

Don’t rush your picture-taking unless the animal is moving quickly away. Timing your wildlife photography will provide you with various aspects of behavior, and new compositions with different backgrounds that change as the animal moves.


YOUR BEST SHOT MAY BE YOUR NEXT SHOT

Don’t feel you are finished when you have gotten a good shot, and just get up to move on. Not only might you startle the animal, but you may miss out on a sudden change in the animal’s natural behavior that would make a great photo. Stop shooting and stick with the animal for a while, with your camera ready. You may be rewarded with a scene you could not have anticipated.

LEAVE THE COLOGNE AT HOME

Many animals are remarkably sensitive to smell. Avoid wearing perfume or using scented soap or shampoo that will enable an animal to detect your presence. Don’t smoke, particularly if you are upwind.

EXPOSING FOR DARK & LIGHT ANIMALS

If an animal filling most of the viewframe is mainly black, your camera’s light meter will tend to overexpose. If it is white, you will get an underexposed picture. Take a separate light reading of something that is closer to neutral gray and in the same light as your subject.

DON'T GET SHOT WHILE YOU'RE SHOOTING

Make sure you check into hunting regulations for the region in which you will be shooting wildlife. You don't want to be acting stealthy in a woodland area when there are trigger-happy hunters around. Be sure to wear bright colors so you stand out to other humans - bright orange seems to be the best color to wear, except of course in Fall, when you may look like a large leaf in certain parts of the world.

When an animal is more dark than light, exposure may be tricky. Take a reading off a neutral-gray card in the same light that's on the animal, then apply those exposure settings when you photograph the critter.
When an animal is more dark than light, exposure may be tricky. Take a reading off a neutral-gray card in the same light that's on the animal, then apply those exposure settings when you photograph the critter.
Related topics...

Shooting from a wildlife blind

Blend into the animal's habitat

Stalking wildlife