Tips for taking better wildlife photographs

Ten quick tips for getting started with wildlife photography - by Loree Johnson

Great Gray Owl Swoop
Great Gray Owl Swoop

Photo by Loree Johnson

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Female Black-necked Stilt
Female Black-necked Stilt

Photo by Loree Johnson

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Incoming Snowy Egret
Incoming Snowy Egret

Photo by Loree Johnson

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Great Gray Owl Swoop
Great Gray Owl Swoop

Photo by Loree Johnson

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Hover your mouse over the photos to see the bird names and photographer credit. Click any photo to view the slide show at your leisure.

Ten Tips for photographing wildlife:

Tip #1

Use a fast shutter speed.

As a general rule, I like to use a shutter speed of somewhere between 1/1500s and 1/2000s. For really fast subjects, like falcons or hummingbirds, even faster. (1/2500s to 1/3000s) Even when birds and other animals are "still," they are rarely completely still. With a fast shutter speed, you often catch the little movements which would otherwise be blurred.

 

Tip #2

Adjust for proper exposure.

There are many ways to achieve a properly exposed image with an adequately fast shutter speed. What I do is set my camera for aperture priority, choose aperture I want (usually f7.1 or f/8), point it at an area where the light is about the same as where I expect to be shooting, and adjust the ISO until the camera sets the shutter to an acceptable speed. The ISO required will depend on how bright (or not) the conditions are. 

 

Tip #3

Know your camera.

Cameras vary greatly in image quality--especially at high ISO. Familiarize yourself with how high you can set the ISO and still get an image you are happy with. Sometimes, conditions are such that you just can't get what you want. In choosing where to make the sacrifice, remember that noise can sometimes be corrected later while blur cannot. Because of this, I almost always choose a larger aperture or higher ISO versus a slower shutter speed.

 

Tip #4

Know your subject.

Spend some time getting to know the birds or animals you wish to photograph. Hang out and watch their behavior. By getting to know the habits of the wildlife, you can anticipate what they will do, and you will be prepared to photograph the action.

 

Tip #5

Don't chase your subjects.

You will end up with a lot of photos of animals running away, or birds flying away. The best way to photograph wildlife is not to pursue it, but to let it come to you. Some of my best photographs were captured from my car (stopped and turned off) or from a stationary position. Find a place where wildlife is likely to be, and wait. If you are moving, you spook the wildlife. If you are still, the animals get accustomed to your presence and go about their lives. Wildlife photography requires patience.

 

Tip #6

Get a good zoom lens.

Even if you are patient and put yourself in the right places, wild animals and birds rarely come as close as you would like them to. A good long zoom will bring your subjects up close and personal.

 

Tip #7

Be ethical.

Sometimes photographers go too far for that perfect shot. Don't disturb nests, bait animals, or do anything that is harmful to the wildlife you are portraying. Not only is it not worth it, it's just mean. And in some cases, it's also illegal.

 

Tip #8

Be flexible.

With the exception of #7, all of these are just guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Stay aware of the conditions and circumstances you find yourself in and adjust your camera settings and your behavior accordingly. There are no failures, only opportunities to learn.

 

Tip #9

Pay attention to everything.

You may have gone out looking for one thing, but often you will encounter something else. Just because you went to the elk refuge to photograph elk, don't ignore the hawk circling overhead. Some of my best photos were unexpected surprises that happened when I was on a quest for something else.

 

Tip #10

Remember to enjoy the experience.

For every great shot I ever got, there were hundreds that didn't turn out, or that I missed altogether because I wasn't quick enough. Wild animals and birds are unpredictable and sometimes you just have to be happy with the memory of what you saw.