Wildlife Photography for Beginners

Wildlife Photography for Beginners

If you’re a wildlife photographer at any level, you love seeing animals in their natural habitats. However, it is difficult to get the wildlife shots you want. I just returned from a brown bear workshop in Lake Clark National Park in Alaska. It made me reflect on just how challenging wildlife photography can be. Wildlife subjects are highly unpredictable. Plus, you have to consider the environment and its lighting. Great shots take skill, planning, and persistence.

Technical Considerations for Wildlife Photography

When I returned from Alaska, I compiled a quick technical and artistic guide of things beginners must consider (and more advanced shooters must reminds themselves) before your next wildlife trip.

1. Shoot in RAW

In the digital age, if you want complete control over your workflow and plan to post-process your images, there is really no excuse for not shooting RAW. RAW files contain all the data captured from your camera. That’s essential if you plan to post-process your images. JPEG files are compressed and processed within your camera. That means much of the initial data that was captured is lost when you shoot JPEGs. Shoot in RAW for the most data and control.

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Shooting in RAW gives you absolutely the most creative latitude in post production.

2. Shutter Speeds: You Need Fast and Slow

With shutter speeds, first determine your goal. Do you want a tack-sharp image or do you want to apply a creative blur? Generally with wildlife, we want our images to be sharp so we need a shutter speed fast enough to freeze action. A rule of thumb is you want your shutter speed to be at least as fast as the focal length you’re shooting at (denoted as 1/x, where x is your focal length). For instance, if you’re using a 400mm prime lens and want a sharp image then you want to ensure your shutter speed is at least 1/400th of a second.

I like to play it safe and will often make sure my shutter speed is double my focal length. So, if I’m using a 400mm prime, I’ll try to keep my shutter speed to a minimum of 1/800th of a second. If you’re shooting birds in flight or animals that are moving quickly, 1/2000th to 1/4000th of a second are good targets. Conversely, if you want to apply a creative blur to, say, a cheetah running, try 1/10th to 1/125th of a second and experiment within that range to find an effect you like. Remember, you will need to track (pan) along with your subject if you want to keep them sharp while showing creative blur in the background. Learn more about this in How to Show Artistic Motion in Still Photography.

3. You Don’t Have to Worry As Much About ISO

Years ago, many photographers would cringe shooting at ISO 800. Images were just too noisy and files were unusable. Thankfully, the most recent semi-professional and professional-grade cameras can handle fairly extreme ISOs with very little noise. I recommend not worrying about your ISO (to a point). Know the extremes of your camera. For instance, when using my Nikon D810, I am comfortable with the noise in my files at ISO 3200. For your camera, that point might be ISO 1600. If you need to shoot at a high ISO to maintain a faster shutter speed, do it. A noisy image is better than a blurry one.

4. Choose an Aperture that Fits Your Vision

Aperture, or f-stop, controls depth of field. A low aperture (f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6) will result in a shallow depth of field. A high aperture (f/8, f/11, f/16) will result in a deeper depth of field. For example, you’re photographing a bear and you take two shots, one at an aperture of f/4 and another at an aperture of f/16. Your focus point was the bear’s head and that focus point did not change. The image captured with an aperture of f/4 will have the bear’s eyes in focus and the background will be completely blurred. The image captured at f/16 will have the bear’s eyes, body, and background in focus. Your image at f/16 had a much wider (sometimes referred to as “deeper” or “longer”) depth of field.

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Taken at f/4.8, this shot allows for only 1 bear to be completely in focus. This was a personal creative choice.

I approach aperture as having two options: do I want to blur my background or do I want more in focus? If I want to blur the background, I’ll pick a shallow, or low, aperture (f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6 – diaphragm is larger/more open). If I want more of the scene in focus, then I’ll choose a narrow, or high, aperture (f/8, f/11, f/16 – narrow referring to the size of the diaphragm opening).

5. Use Back Button Focus

Within your camera settings, you are able to decouple focusing from your shutter button and re-assign it to a button on the back of your camera (usually the AF-ON button, though on some cameras it’s the AE Lock button marked with an asterisk, or the AEL button). This is a game changer! Using back button focus allows you to lock focus and recompose. When I’m photographing an animal, I can press the AF-On button to focus and once the subject is in focus I can release the button and recompose the shot how I like, all while my focus is locked. This is in comparison to using the shutter button to focus, as every time I depress the shutter halfway my camera will search for focus. Try using back button focus. It will make life a lot easier for you in the field.

6. Learn Your Camera

I can’t stress how important it is to master you camera. Take time to understand the exposure triangle, your focusing modes, your camera’s ISO capabilities, metering modes, exposure compensation, and more. Learn every single detail about your camera. Things happen fast when you’re in the field and it’s not like shooting landscapes where you can take time to adjust your settings. Often with wildlife, everything is based on reaction. The quicker you can react, the better chance you have of capturing an incredible moment. Operating your camera should be like second nature so you can react fast enough.

7. Try Aperture Priority Mode with Auto ISO

Ask three random wildlife photographers and all three will give you a different answer as to what their preferred shooting mode is. The end result is what matters and there are many ways to get there. For me, Aperture Priority works best and I urge you to try it. Here are my reasons:

• Aperture gives me the most creative control over my images. Think about depth of field. By choosing my aperture, I can control whether or not my background is blurred or in focus. No other camera setting gives me that kind of creative control.

• I bundle Aperture Priority mode with the Auto ISO setting on my camera. Auto ISO is a powerful setting. It allows you to choose your maximum ISO and your minimum shutter speed. For example, at Lake Clark National Park I shot with a 400mm prime lens. To make sure my images were sharp, I elected to go with the ‘2 x Focal Length’ rule for my shutter speed. I went to my Auto ISO settings and changed my minimum shutter speed to 1/800th of a second and my maximum ISO to 3200. With Auto ISO turned on, I only had to worry about my aperture. The camera was adjusting my ISO to an appropriate value that ensured my shutter speed would be at least 1/800th of a second at all times.

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Taken in Aperture Priority mode where I chose f/4 and left the rest to the camera (with certain parameters). This allows me to focus more on the action.

Aperture Priority is a great way to automate the majority of your settings, which allows you to be more efficient in the field.

Creative Vision and Developing Your Style for Wildlife Photography

Establishing a vision for your photography is the best thing you can do to improve your images no matter what you shoot – wildlife, portraits, landscapes, etc. This isn’t something that happens overnight, though. It takes time in the field and lots of experimentation. Interestingly, I have developed my own style in photography through a succession of failures, i.e. shooting horrible compositions, excessive post-processing, testing out shutter speeds, and more mishaps.

When you try new things, not everything will work out. Much of it will fail. But you learn good lessons and approach your photography in a more defined way. On workshops I lead, I see a common progression for students trying to develop a personal style. Here are the steps I recommends.

1. Document the Moment

When you get to a new spot or find a wildlife species that you haven’t photographed before, chances are you just want a shot. Not a great shot or an interesting shot, but just a shot that documents the experience. A “Look! I saw this and got a picture” style shot. It happens to everyone.

During my first safari, I was completely taken over by excitement and was blindly firing off shots not thinking about the outcome. I call this “documenting the moment” – taking a photo that you show friends or family. It might only show a ball of fur covered by trees, but you captured the moment! This is the first phase to overcome. But it’s important that you go through it. There’s no shame in taking a snapshot. But you can do much better.

2. Practice Intention

After you get some snapshots, move past that phase and start focusing on creating a great photograph. Think about the situation at hand. Think about your composition, the ideal camera settings, and most importantly, the story you want to tell. This unfolded for me at Lake Clark National Park. A pair of brown bear siblings came out of nowhere and started to wrestle in front of our group. I started by firing off shots but quickly got a hold of myself. Changing my settings (which required mastering my camera first), I realized I had to shoot with intention. I wanted an open mouth, paws swinging, fight club-style shot. Though I was still firing bursts, I waited to fire off those bursts so that I had the best chance at capturing the preferred moment. This is shooting with intention. My intention was to capture the intensity of the wrestling match. To tell the story of these bear siblings, preparing for life-or-death battles that might come along in their future. I wanted someone to look at my images and think, “Hmm…I wonder what they were fighting about?”

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© Matt Meisenheimer. Taken at 1/1000th of a second, f/5.6, and ISO 280 on a Nikon D810 and Nikon 400mm f/2.8G AF-S ED VR lens.*

Usually, anytime you get a viewer to ask a question to themselves about your photo, that’s a good sign. It’s making them think and it means your photo is interesting. If you only take one thing away from this article, I hope you think about shooting with intention. It has a profound effect on your photography. It can be as simple as having the intent to freeze a bird in flight. Or it can be as complex as visualizing every aspect of your composition in order to create the narrative that you want to transmit through your photos.

3. Be Creative

Photography is an art and that shouldn’t be forgotten. Your creativity is the most unique thing you can bring to your work. Don’t worry about what others are doing. Try to find your own path. Think outside the box. That might mean experimenting with shutter speed and depth of field, having fun with blurs, or shooting silhouettes. It might mean trying something new in post-processing or choosing an artistic white balance. It literally can mean anything.

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Being a beginner in wildlife photographer is an exciting time. Experiment with composition, break some rules, and express yourself.

I can’t tell you how to be creative or give you solid direction. Creativity comes from within and develops with time. I can tell you that your own creativity and style will improve tenfold if you commit to trying new things. Even if you think you were born without a creative bone in your body, I believe it is something that can be learned. Keep an open mind and keep practicing. As you develop as a photographer, you will discover your own path and your creativity will increase.

When you finally do get to this stage, this is where the great photos are created (see how I wrote created and not taken). This is where National Geographic covers and iconic images come from. Next time you see one of those images, think about everything that probably went into it – the time, patience, preparation, and artistic vision it required. All for one impactful image. That’s what it’s all about and I hope someday you get to this stage. I’m still not there yet, but I’m enjoying the process.

*Note: Photos in this post have been optimized for web/loading speed and may display with reduced quality.

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Matt Meisenheimer is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast who strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather. As a former university teaching assistant, he enjoys working with photographers and helping them reach their goals. He now leads his own workshops and is based in Wisconsin.

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