How to Capture Wildlife Photos: A Beginner's Guide

How to Capture Wildlife Photos: A Beginner's Guide

We all have genres that we usually shoot, but sometimes, we want to dabble in photography outside our comfort zone. It is possible to start getting great photos in other areas without them becoming a full-time occupation or costing a fortune in the extra kit. Here's how to do that with wildlife photography.

There are different breeds of wildlife photographers. At the top of the food chain is Photographicus Obsessius. They study individual species, so they know all their behaviors and can call them by their Latin names. They get up at 2 a.m., drive fifty miles or more, and sit uncomfortably for many hours with a long lens, hoping to capture a lesser-spotted, greater-crested, yellow-bellied sapsucker that only performs its mating ritual once a year between five and seven in the morning on the 28th of March. They don't leave the house unless dressed in green camouflage. Armed with a $20,000 lens mounted on their camera, they look the part.

Thank goodness for them. Like experts in every field, they are usually vociferous about their passion and do a lot to help promote awareness and protect the wildlife they photograph. The world needs more people like that, especially considering the scarily real anthropogenic mass-extinction event the planet is experiencing. In addition, they usually get some smashing photos. However, that doesn't have to be you or me.

At the other end of the scale are those of us who love wildlife and want to capture decent photos of them but don't want to put in quite the same amount of effort. We still want to get good shots, though. I fall into this camp. Photographers like us usually shoot landscapes or pictures of our family or pets. But occasionally, we want to capture photographs of the local birds and bees. If you are with me here, the good news is that it's entirely possible, and you can start by using the kit and the knowledge they already have.

When we think about wildlife photography, we often imagine rare species behaving extraordinarily or close-up portraits of creatures with blurred backgrounds. It doesn't have to be so.

Typically, birds are photographed with the background completely blurred out. It's a great way to remove distractions, but it isn't the only way to do it. I shot this photo years ago with a basic camera and consumer-level lens.

Most of us are surrounded by wildlife. I am lucky because I live in a small coastal town in a rural county. This place swarms with birds, and on my early morning bike ride, I will also regularly encounter deer and a host of smaller mammals like hares, rabbits, and various mustelids. Then, in the sea are seals and dolphins. But even in cities, wildlife encroaches into the environment. Urban areas always have something worth capturing, whether flocks of feral pigeons, gulls, foxes, or insects. Having nature on our doorstep, in our parks, streets, backyards, and gardens mean there is always something to photograph.

Even commonplace birds like this starling can look stunning when the iridescence in their feathers catches the light.

It doesn't matter if the subject is a common sight for you. Many people ignore the mundane, so photographing it can show the beauty of nature to your audience, those who otherwise might not give that creature a second glance. Furthermore, when we capture the unusual ways they behave, and all creatures have some unusual habits, we can share with the world just how amazing even ordinary animals are.

We can, of course, attract those creatures to us. Hanging a bird feeder, putting out water, and planting insect-friendly flowers will bring wildlife to you. To prove the point, I'm sitting in my backyard typing this on a hot summer morning, and I've just refilled the bird feeder with seeds. I know birds will visit within five minutes. I have a short telephoto zoom, a 40-150mm lens, fitted on my OM-1 camera, but I could equally use even more basic tools to get these shots. The sparrow and pigeon photos accompanying this article are all captured today.

Within moments of me filling the seed feeder, the first sparrows started to arrive.

Probably controversial in some camps, I use aperture priority (A on most cameras, Av on Canon). Why? The light reflected off a bird sitting on the wall, in the shade of my shed, or flying overhead varies, and I might move quickly from one to another as something catches my eye. In manual mode, this means wasting time changing the settings. Consequently, I might miss the shot. In aperture priority, the camera does the heavy lifting.

I set the shutter speed in the camera's menus to an absolute minimum of 1/1,200th second, sometimes faster than that if I want to completely stop movement. The ISO was on auto with a maximum of 12,800, which I know will give me good-quality images with controllable noise levels. That will vary from camera to camera; only experimentation with yours will tell you at what ISO your pictures become unacceptably noisy.

Even at 1/1,600th second, there can be some movement blur at the tips of the wings. Personally, I like to show a little movement, but this is subjective. Other photographers prefer to show no blur at all and would limit their shutter speed to something faster.

At these short distances and focal lengths, f/4 is a good aperture for me, as I get the entire bird in focus. I switch to continuous autofocus with tracking and AI bird recognition. That isn't available on every camera, but check if it is on yours. My camera also has a unique feature called Pro Capture. That buffers and records a few frames before the shutter button is fully depressed, taking my reaction time out of the equation.

Once I have learned a bird's behavior, I can usually anticipate what it will do anyway, so I switch Pro Capture off. I find half the fun of wildlife action shots is achieving the decisive moment through learned skills. Being able to switch the technology off and manage the photography without that help gives me a greater sense of achievement. Nevertheless, Pro Capture is an excellent way to avoid the disappointment of missing the action, something that is all-important to most photographers. I do use it when photographing less familiar species where I haven't discovered the telltale signs that the creature is about to do something interesting.

Don't fear zooming out. It gives you more chance of getting the animal in the frame; it's hard tracking a fast-moving subject with a long lens. Additionally, your camera probably has many more megapixels than you need, so there is plenty of scope for cropping. But more importantly, including the surrounding environment can add context and interest to the photo.

I zoomed out on this shot and tracked the bird flying to the feeder.

Because the environment and the sky are brighter than mid-grey, I added 0.7 stops of positive exposure compensation. On my camera, this means turning the front dial two clicks. On entry-level cameras, this will require pressing a +/- button and turning the single adjustment dial, called a command dial by some brands. Yes, it's counterintuitive, but increase the exposure when shooting a bright scene.

It isn't only birds I am shooting; insects are here too. Even without a macro lens, they make great subjects.

Hoverfly shot with an OM-1, with the 40-150mm f/4 Pro lens at f/4. ISO 200, 1/2,000 second.

Going for a walk with my camera, I have plenty of opportunities to shoot wildlife, but I find the secret is standing still and waiting for it to come to me. There's no need to dress up in green military combat fatigues in an urban environment, and there is usually little need elsewhere. Muted colors will do. If you stay still, most creatures will ignore you. Also, don't stare at wildlife as they will see you as a threat and run away; you have two scary forward-facing eyes, like their predators.

Living near the coast I get to see a wide variety of birds. This is a juvenile common tern, shot a few years ago with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 with a 50-200mm legacy lens.

You may decide in time that you want a longer lens. You get what you pay for, and many cheap 75-300mm lenses are okay at some focal lengths but don't give great results, especially at their extreme settings. It's worth saving up or checking out secondhand deals on better lenses. If a cheaper lens is all you can afford, experiment to find where it gives the sharpest images. You will find a sweet spot with an aperture and focal length combination that offers excellent results.

Sometimes, timing is a case of good or bad luck. A handy hint for bird photographers: don't shoot flying birds with your mouth open.

Are you an established wildlife photographer? How did you start? Or do you, like me, usually shoot other genres but enjoy capturing images of animals too. Maybe you are only just beginning. It will be great to hear your stories and see your photos too. Please put them in the comments.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. If you enjoy the Fstoppers writers' articles and think them helpful, please share them with your photographer friends. We really appreciate it. Also, if you liked this one of mine, you might also find this article of mine useful.

Ivor Rackham's picture

A professional photographer, website developer, and writer, Ivor lives in the North East of England. His main work is training others in photography. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being. In 2023 he accepted becoming a brand ambassador for the OM System.

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Ivor Rackham asked,

"Are you an established wildlife photographer? How did you start?"

Wildlife is 95% of what I shoot, although I won't pass up a good landscape or a fun, creative abstract photo when opportunities arise.

I started shooting wildlife when I was a teenager, but didn't pursue it with much dedication. Then when digital cameras became all the rage in the very early 2000's, that rekindled my interest in a big way, and I became obsessed with photographing wildlife.

I knew that I had to work hard on my skills if I was ever going to compile a portfolio of great wildlife photos. So I got a membership to three of the zoos in my area and would go to one of the zoos 5 or 6 days a week, and photograph the animals there all day, every day, for months on end.

Each night I would come home, download the photos, and scrutinize them, always asking myself, "what would make this photo better?" Then I would go back to the zoo the next day and do whatever I thought I needed to do to make the photo better. Then I would go home, download the photos, and see if whatever I tried worked. I did this over and over and over for months on end, knowing that if I ever wanted to get great photos of real wildlife I would need to develop my vision and my skills.

Eventually I stopped going to the zoos and started looking for real wildlife to photograph. That was in 2007, and I am still working at it, continually researching various species and planning trips to photograph them. It is what my entire life revolves around.

I will add that I cashed out my entire retirement account so that I could live without a job, and have time to practice wildlife photography on a full time basis. So I sacrificed all the money I had saved for my whole life just to get better at this obsession. I still live hand-to-mouth, and have virtually no savings and no plan or security for my future. But being able to chase off after wildlife is well worth it, and I have no regrets. I live very minimally, and somehow, each year I manage to earn enough dollars to pay the few bills that I have. I have no wife and no kids, so that all of my time and resources can go into photographing wildlife. I could never live this way and chase my dream if I had a family or other responsibilities. Photographing wild animals means more to me than anything else in the world, so I have given pretty much everything else up in order to do it the way that I want to do it.

I was talking with a friend about the sacrifices we make for our interests. We concluded that it is about having no regrets about the choices we make. So long as we are happy doing what we do, that's all that matters.

Enjoyed the article. I’m not a wildlife photographer , but I do have one additional tip for shooting birds in your backyard : keep your cat out of the garden.

That's a good point. Fortunately, I don't have one.