Photography is all about capturing the perfect moment in order to understand and document the world around us.
A key part of that miraculous world is wildlife… but it can be surprisingly hard to photograph effectively. It can all happen so fast, and that ideal second — a perfect pose, the light at its purest, the wind visibly affecting the scene unfolding before you — has gone before you can blink.
Here are a few tips for securing the sharpest snap of nature.
1. Know Your Subject
You’re probably setting off with a subject in mind. If you’re off to a wildlife reserve, it should be fairly easy to find out which animals are there and in which surroundings so you can prepare and map out which you particularly want to photograph.
You can’t be ready for everything, however, especially if you’re simply going on a hike. Nonetheless, a good working knowledge of wildlife in the area is certainly beneficial, even if that’s just being able to distinguish behavioral patterns of species. That’s the really important thing: you need to recognize how certain animals will react to different situations; how they hunt, mate, show-off, and counter weather conditions.
It takes a fair amount of time and effort to properly research behavior, but it’s rewarding too, especially if you’re invested in wildlife (which you obviously are). It means you’ll be ready on-location for whatever they throw at you, but also helps you relate to your subject matter which should translate to the finished image. Elephants, for instance, mourn, bury their dead under foliage, and return to their gravesites regularly: this poignant yet rather beautiful empathetic nature makes them seem somewhat human.
While the internet is naturally a great resource, as are libraries, the best way to understand an animal is to spend time with it. If you’re not sure, ask the locals. They’re very likely to have identified patterns and will be able to pass on tips.
2. Prepare to Be Surprised
You might think you are totally prepared, but wildlife will always surprise you.
A big part of researching your subject is recognizing unusual behavior. Be careful: that might mean it’s agitated, but it could equally prove to be a particular quirk of that specific animal. Memorable pictures work so well because they capture something beautiful and unique; sharing an unusual aspect of wildlife with the world is sharing a single second of the incredible.
Books can’t really prepare you for when you’re out in the field. Even if you know your animal behaviour implicitly, it’s an entirely different experience seeing it before your eyes. We all know ants have unbelievable strength, but seeing a single one lift an entire leaf by itself should rightly astound you anyway.
The fact is, we’re always learning about the world, and ongoing research has exposed some amazing behaviour from animals: it’s only after hours of poring over satellite images that scientists discovered, bizarrely, that all cows worldwide face in the same direction when eating. No, really. Cattle stand along a north-south axis when grazing! Okay, so scientists took until 2008 to find this out, whereas farmers knew about this oddity for a few centuries, but it’s still not common knowledge.
3. Experiment With Context
Wide shots are very common in wildlife photography and that’s all about lending context to a subject. It allows the eye to absorb the surroundings and give the whole image (but especially the animal in question) scale.
One of the first things we learn about animals is their size in comparison to others, and our fascination with their bulk continues into adulthood. By experimenting with wide and close shots, you can exaggerate their bulk, making something large be dwarfed by comparison with the landscape, or making something small fill an entire image.
It’s always great to see wildlife in its natural habitat, but capturing it in unusual circumstances can establish an eye-catching contrast. Equally, you could make a point about, say, conservationism if you find a shocking way human society is interfering with animal life. Be careful though: seeing a giraffe in an enclosure can feel particularly jarring and unsettling. If that’s your aim, don’t be scared to really hit home the message by photographing it through a wire fence. Seeing a fence in the background might seem accidental and won’t be as hard-hitting.
A close shot, meanwhile, can shed new light on a subject, and can make most creatures somewhat intimidating. I’m sure you’ve seen horrifying close-ups of insects, most of which are enough to give you nightmares — especially when accompanied by a “these crawl all over you at night” warning — but they’re also very interesting.
We all know, for instance, that spiders have numerous eyes (though, typically, a web-weaver’s eyesight is surprisingly poor), but seeing all six or eight is fascinating. And scary.
4. Focus on the Eyes
Speaking of eyes, have you noticed that most animal photographs primarily focus on their eyes?
When we talk to someone, we immediately look at their eyes. Not doing so feels a bit shifty. It’s how we relate to people, and some theorized that looking into each other’s eyes helped homo sapiens develop loving relationships in our race’s infancy.
Eyes always act as a focal point, whether you’re photographing people or animals, so make sure you get them in shot if you’re doing close-ups. Again, this makes the subject more relatable, perhaps relying on that old adage that the eyes are the windows to the soul.
It can be difficult, but if you lock focus on an animal’s eyes, an image can be instantly arresting even if the rest is slightly blurred. This is an essential tip for when you’re photographing birds: their flight and watchfulness are vital to their lives, and we’ve a fascination with the incredible eyesight of birds of prey in particular.
Aim to also capture the catchlight — which is literally what it sounds like. It’s when you can see the reflection of light, whether that’s the sun or moon, the flash, or a streetlight, in your subject’s lens: without it, their eyes can appear flat and lifeless, but with it, you get an added depth and further implied context.
While on the topic, it’s very tempting to shut one eye while shooting, but try not to. A scene can unfold before you in an instant, and you risk completely missing the best picture because you’re not prepared for action.
5. Know Your Lenses
This is essential, no matter what you’re photographing. You need to know your equipment, and especially which lenses are needed for what situations.
For capturing wildlife, macro or telephoto lenses are best, depending on your subject. A macro lens is for when you can get close to what you’re filming, so use this for insects, pets, or friendly animals. Most offer 1:1 resolution, which is life-like size, capable of depicting incredible detail, much of which might even surprise you when you later review what pictures you’ve taken. They also focus on the foreground only, so while everything else blurs, it at least means your image is solely dedicated to the animal you’re actually concerned with.
Telephoto lenses, meanwhile, allow you to accurately capture animals you want or need to stay far away from. Think the big cats. Getting up close and personal with a lion would be glorious… unless it’s hungry.
You can’t use a macro lens in these cases; you need a telephoto one instead, which offers a longer focal range than a standard lens, meaning greater magnification. You often still get a blurred effect to the background, allowing the eye to settle on the detail of the animals in question.
However, if there are lots of animals in one scene, try a wide angle lens, which aims to take in as much of a vista as it can and also highlights whatever’s in the foreground. This is especially great if you’re going on a safari, so before booking that big vacation, set aside a slice of your budget for some solid equipment.
6. Have Patience!
That’s a highly hypocritical statement, believe me. Nonetheless, a little bit of this virtue will come in handy when photographing wildlife. Having a lot of patience is even better.
You want that perfect shot? Then be prepared to eat up more time than Facebook, Twitter, and Pokémon Go combined. If they can see you, animals might be initially quite shy while you’re around. Eventually, they’ll either get used to you or actively show off. Whatever happens, you’ll need to give it time.
Your perfect shot might take days. Or it might take minutes. Just have patience… and make sure you’re ready for when the opportune moment occurs!
Enjoy the Moment
One final bonus piece of advice: it’s so easy to spend too much time worrying about choosing the right equipment, getting the perfect light, and abiding by the Rule of Thirds, that you can forget to just embrace the moment.
Far more important than photographing wildlife is enjoying it. Keep that in mind and, no matter what pictures you get, it’ll have been worth it.
What further advice do you have? Which animals do you like photographing most?