Struggling to catch the near-perfect wildlife shots you have seen in top magazines and exhibits? Now that camera technology has become more accessible, many people are branching out into nature. Wildlife photography isn’t for the faint of heart, however, and plenty of professionals and enthusiasts alike encounter challenges.
Photo by Ben Cherry (@benji_cherry), Fujifilm X-T2 with XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR lens
Fortunately, with the right equipment, research and mindset — and of course, plenty of practice — you can make major improvements. The following are 10 tips you can use to take better wildlife pictures today.
Study Your Subject
What kinds of environments do your local fauna love most? Which animals live within driving distance, and what are their migratory patterns and schedules? Will your subjects even be awake when you go to shoot? Wildlife photography is all about catching those fleeting moments that most people never get to see, and being there at the right time and place is a numbers game. Study your subject matter to give yourself the best chance of being in position for a great shot.
Stand Back, Zoom In
Animals are tough enough to shoot in urban environments; in nature, they can seem impossible to catch up close. To capture wildlife acting as naturally and unafraid as possible, you may need to rely on a long telephoto lens. When dealing with the most skittish creatures, the longer the focal length, the better.
Photo by Vincent Yuhiko, Fujifilm X-T1 with XF18-135mm R LM OIS WR lens
Broaden Your Horizons
As helpful as a long, narrow focus can be, you don’t always need to catch creatures up close — nor do you need to isolate them from their environments. Some shots are actually more powerful when taken with a wide angle that gives the viewer context. Experiment with both broad and narrow focuses to see which suits your tastes and subject matter. You’ll probably find that different shots are best for different situations.
Nature is unpredictable. Even if you rigorously study the animal you want to shoot, you’ll probably have to play the waiting game once you get into position. In fact, patience is one of the defining factors of a great wildlife photographer, and some of the most iconic shots have only been possible after hours or even days of waiting and returning to the same spot.
Photo by Vinh Le (@mylittledistraktions), Fujifilm X-M1
Don’t Wait for Every Opportunity
At the same time, patience isn’t everything. You can’t always wait for great shots to materialise, especially when you only have a small window of decent lighting and weather. If your only goal is to capture a specific animal in a specific moment, then yes, you’ll need to wait. But if you just want to capture interesting shots within an environment, make the most of your time and seek out opportunities for great shots.
Simplify Your Backgrounds
Photography is all about using depth and contrast to highlight your subject, and wildlife photography is no exception. While some photos will be inherently “busy,” you can often create a dramatic effect by simply capturing an animal against a non-distracting background.
Photo by Daniel Bradford (@dbrad1992), Fujifilm X-T1
Keep Both Eyes Open
When you control neither your environment nor your subject matter, you’ve got to be ready for anything. To stay aware of your surroundings, keep both eyes open as you look through the viewfinder. If you’re only focused on what’s in the frame, you’ll miss far more opportunities than you see.
Focus and Exposure
A few setting tweaks can make all the difference between a clear shot and an indecipherable photo. If your camera allows, set your focus mode to “continuous” and your focus area to “zone.” Use a larger grid setting for larger animals and a smaller setting for small subjects. As for exposure, you’ll want to choose a small area for a shot that emphasises the subject and de-emphasizes the background.
Photo by Nina Dos Santos, Fujifilm X-T1 with XF27mmF2.8 R
Know Your Equipment
During a daylong shoot, you’ll encounter — at best — mere minutes of photo-worthy material. What’s more, each moment of interest may only last a few seconds. If you’re not familiar with the capabilities and settings of your camera and lens, you could miss once-in-a-lifetime shots. Know your equipment’s shutter speeds, memory card speeds and focal lengths, as well as all the options you have for toggling focus points and modes.
(Perfect) Practice Makes Perfect!
Last but not least, practice, practice, practice! Analyse the shots you take, and consult experienced photographers for advice on how you can improve. The more hours you can spend, the better you’ll become, but you can fast-track your progress by seeking feedback and making the most of each shot you take.