The Ultimate Guide to Wildlife Photography
- Marianne Stenger
- 1st June 2019
Photographing wild animals in their natural habitat is exciting and rewarding whether you’re a hobbyist or an experienced photographer hoping to make a name for yourself in wildlife photography. Even if you don’t come back with the shots you were hoping for each time, wildlife photography is a great way to get outside and enjoy nature while honing your craft.
As rewarding as it can be, however, it’s also a very challenging area to work in. Wildlife photographers deal with wild animals that are not only unpredictable, but also tend to be tricky to track down and photograph successfully.
Fortunately, we’ve had the privilege of working with and interviewing a number of very talented wildlife photographers here at Bob Books. So we’ve put together this guide featuring their top tips and advice to help you get started.
In this guide:
Acquiring the right gear for wildlife photography doesn’t have to mean spending a lot of money on the latest gadgets or photography accessories. Even second-hand gear can be excellent, and there’s always the option of renting if you need something but can’t afford to buy it.
“Don’t feel you have to pay the price of a car for a new lens,” says renowned wildlife photographer Paul Goldstein. “It is perfectly acceptable to buy a second-hand one or better still hire one. Do not be seduced by big millimetre lenses. The F stop is more important, because the lower the number, the heavier but sharper and brighter the image will be.”
So what exactly should you bring along with you?
Professional wildlife photographer Nathalie Mountain says she likes to have two camera setups and a lens that can cope well in low light situations, as this is when most animals are active.
© Nathalie Mountain
“Having two cameras means that I’m not fiddling trying to change lenses and also if one camera does break I have a backup,” she says. “A safari can often give challenging conditions with lots of dust or sometimes rain and moving vehicles on bumpy roads, and you don’t want to be away on safari with a broken camera and no way to take pictures.”
Mountain uses a long telephoto lens to get portraits or use if the animal is far away. She also relies on a second camera with a short wider lens to get environment shots or if the animal comes closer. “I currently have a Nikon D750 and D850 and a number of lenses but I most frequently use my Sigma 150 – 500mm and my Nikon 24-70mm F2.8 and 70-200mm F2.8,” she says.
Professional photographer Piper Mackay who specialises in African safaris says a wildlife photographer’s dream would be to have a 70-200mm, a 200-400mm and a 500mm lens, although this can end up being prohibitively expensive if you’re just starting out.
© Piper Mackay
“On a budget, I would say a good lens for a first time safari is Tamron or Sigma, which both make a 150-600mm lenses,” Mackay suggests.
“The problem with these lenses is slower glass, so the aperture is at 5.6 to 6.3. There are also places where you can rent lenses, so if you can put it into the budget, I would suggest either a 200-400mm or a 500mm Canon or Nikon lens. If possible, you should also have a 70-200mm because you really want to cover the range of 70-500mm.”
© Piper Mackay
Aside from lenses that cover this range, Mackay also suggests investing in a good camera bag. “Another thing I recommend having with you is a pillow case, because if it gets really dusty really quickly, you can put your camera in it to keep the dust out of your gear,” she says.
In addition to gathering all the right equipment, it’s important to spend some time researching your destination well before you travel. At the very least, you need to know what weather conditions to expect and the best times of day to spot the wildlife you’re hoping to photograph so you can make the most of your time in the field.
Paul Goldstein emphasises the importance of researching both where you are staying and how to get there. “The key is quality time in the right areas, which often means a higher cost,” he says. “A weekend in Kenya’s Maasai Mara conservancy is worth three weeks driving around six different parks in a sardine-like minivan.”
He also points out that researching and choosing the right tour operator can make or break your trip. “If the place you are staying at advertises ‘be up at dawn’ avoid them like the plague. You want to be in position with your camera at sunrise, before in fact,” says Goldstein. “Your vehicle is also critical. If you are in Africa and it does not have good cut out sides or a good roof hatch, book somewhere else.”
Piper Mackay, who has spent more than 12 years photographing animals, landscapes and people in some of Africa’s most remote locations, says the best times of day for shooting wildlife tend to be the first hour of the morning and the last hour of the day.
© Paul Golstein
“One reason to shoot during these early or late hours is that it gets so hot during the day, so the animals become quite lethargic,” she says.
“That first half hour of the day is really dynamic, and that’s when the animals will be most active, as well as in the late afternoon when the sun has dropped a bit. In Africa I always say there are about five minutes of really great light, but of course it’s totally about what you want.”
Using the right camera settings is very important when you’re working with unpredictable and fast-moving subjects. A fast shutter speed is essential for capturing sharp images of moving animals. There’s also a good chance that you’ll be shooting in low light, as the early morning or evening is when most animals will be active, so you’ll also need to use a wider aperture and higher ISO.
Since it can be difficult to quickly adjust your camera settings when shooting in manual mode, many wildlife photographers like to use aperture priority mode or shutter speed priority mode.
Regardless of the settings you choose, though, you shouldn’t get so obsessed with perfection that you miss out on good wildlife shots.
© Irene Mendez Cruz
“Be bold. One audacious slow shutter speed shot with flaws is worth a hundred chocolate box portraits that have been seen a thousand times,” says Paul Goldstein.
Of course, the more photographs you take, the easier it will be to choose the right settings for the conditions you’re working in. So before you plan a wildlife photography trip abroad, get comfortable photographing the wildlife in and around your own hometown.
“The golfer Gary Player famously said ‘the harder I practice the luckier I get.’ If you want to get good at this you must put in some long hours at home photographing foxes, deer, seagulls, or robins. It is no use arriving and expecting to be anything other than rusty,” says Goldstein.
© Paul Goldstein
If you live somewhere where there isn’t much wildlife to photograph, a trip to the zoo can also be a good introduction to wildlife photography.
You’ll have a chance to practice using different camera settings, test your lenses and other equipment, and learn to shoot in less than ideal lighting conditions. Before you go, check out these tips for getting quality shots of the animals at your local zoo.
As wildlife photographer you might sometimes get lucky and happen to be in the right place at the right time, but most of the time, getting great wildlife photographs requires a lot of planning and plenty of patience.
Nathalie Mountain, who has photographed wildlife across Africa and Southeast Asia as well as the UK, says that regardless of what animal you want to photograph you have to be patient.
“Wild animals do what they want and when they want,” she says. “Big cats in particular can be challenging as they spend most of their time sleeping. Male lions sleep an average of 20 hours a day, but the rewards when they’re in action are great.”
© Nathalie Mountain
When setting up your shot, she suggests paying attention to the background of your image and keeping it clean and uncluttered so it doesn’t detract from your subject.
“Also consider the light, where the sun is and the angle of the shot,” she says. “If you’re in a vehicle, it’s sometimes better to be a bit further away from the animal so you’re not shooting at a downward angle. Most importantly, always ensure your camera is set up and ready to take the shot, as things can change in a split second and you won’t have time to be fiddling with settings.”
Mountain says another thing that’s important is researching the animals you want to photograph and being able to anticipate that animal’s behaviour, as this can improve your chances of getting a great shot.
© Nathalie Mountain
“An example of this was in the Serengeti in Tanzania last year when my group headed out at first light. We came across some lions, a male and two females. As the sun rose over the horizon the lions woke up, yawned and stretched and we got some amazing backlit shots of the male lion’s mane. After a short walk down the river bank the lions went back to sleep in the early morning sunshine.”
One aspect of wildlife photography that can’t be ignored is the ethical side. The human impact on nature and wildlife is impossible to ignore, which is why so many wildlife photographers also end up working as conservationists and use their photographs to raise awareness about issues like climate change, habitat destruction and poaching.
Wildlife and conservation photographer Sebastian Kennerknecht has worked with conservation groups all over the world and believes that photography plays a crucial role in conservation.
© Sebastian Kennerknecht
“A lot of times people are unaware of environmental issues or the threats that a species may face. Photography exposes those issues and does so in a compelling and easy to understand way,” he says.
“It doesn’t matter what part of the world you come from, because the language of photography is universal. Additionally, at a time when people have less time and attention spans are getting shorter, photography allows people to absorb important information quickly.”
He notes that powerful photographs like Steve Winter’s picture of the mountain lion in front of the Hollywood sign have played crucial roles in conservation.
“Wildlife has always been my passion, but being just a wildlife photographer would simply be unfair to the animals. Human impact on the environment and on the wildlife is constant. If I pretended that it didn’t exist and simply took pretty pictures of animals, I would not be telling a truthful story. I want these animals to be around way past my lifetime, and in order to ensure that, I need to make their plight public. Being a conservation photographer is a real chance to make a difference for creatures that do not have a voice themselves.”
© Sebastian Kennerknecht
His advice for anyone wanting to start out in wildlife and conservation photography is to start locally. Because this allows you to go back to a place over and over and gives you a chance to photograph a whole diversity of behaviours of a single species or show how a location changes with the seasons.
“Working locally also means you have more opportunities to photograph the threats to that species or location. Plus, it means costs of the project are significantly lower.”
Photographer Daniel Beltra is also well-known for his work in conservation. He won the Veolia Wildlife of the Year Award in 2011 after working with Greenpeace to document the disastrous effects of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. His image of brown pelicans rescued from the oil slick was also exhibited at the Natural History Museum in London.
He too points out that photography can be a tremendously powerful tool for informing and educating the public. “I have a background as a photojournalist,” says Beltra. “Finding beauty or emotion is a way to tell a story. I’m interested in people thinking about what they’re looking at and the implications of the way we live our lives.”
Although raising awareness as a photographer is quite straightforward, he adds, creating change is hard. “We remember images much better than text or even moving images. But how do you quantify the results? Are we on the right path? That’s another story. It’s very easy to take yourself too seriously and forget what it is you’re shooting. But really we photographers are just taking pictures – there are much more important things in life.”
Beltra’s advice for budding wildlife and conservation photographers is that you don’t have to travel halfway across the world to find compelling subjects to photograph. “Work in your backyard,” he says. “The best thing you can do is find subjects near home. You can go back regularly and work them and be a tough editor and only show your best work.”
Once you’re back home with your memory cards full of photos, it’s time to sort through everything and choose the best ones to share, print and display. Paul Goldstein suggests immediately deleting any images that aren’t up to scratch so you don’t end up saving hundreds of photos that you will never use or even look at.
“Too often people take far too images and drop them straight onto a hard drive which is where they stay in perpetuity,” he says.
“It’s far better to get rid of the dross off the camera. If it’s so blurred that you don’t know whether your subject has a pulse, or the lion, tiger, jaguar, wolf or bear has its legs cut off, it has no business being kept. I try to delete images every day. It makes you better as a photographer.”
© Paul Golstein
French-Venezuelan wildlife and underwater photographer Irene Mendez Cruz recently turned her photos of marine life on the Caribbean and Pacific Coasts of Panama into the photographic book Kiss of the Oceans.
Her visits to the Biomuseo in Panama City inspired the project and she set out to travel across Panama over a two-month period in order to photograph as much biodiversity as possible, both terrestrial and underwater. She also focused on documenting the main threats to the environment such as plastic pollution and deforestation.
“I identified two main hotspots of marine biodiversity, where I absolutely needed to dive. In order to get enough images to make a whole book, I had to dive at least 30 to 40 times,” she says. Her photo book tells the story of the Isthmus of Panama, where ‘two oceans kiss.’ It’s the narrowest strip of land between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Caribbean waters are warmer, saltier, and richer in nutrients, thus creating the perfect habitat for one of the most diverse coral reefs in the world. Meanwhile, the deeper and cooler waters of the Pacific combined with highly active currents and a high concentration of plankton, host impressive schools of fish and marine mammals.
© Irene Mendez Cruz
“Kiss of the oceans aims at comparing and celebrating the beautiful, diverse and fragile marine life of the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of Panama - two ecosystems only a few miles apart that make Panama a paradise for divers,” she says.
“Unfortunately, this paradise like many others has to face the global threat of plastic pollution. The last chapter of Kiss of the oceans informs the viewer of the impact of plastic pollution but gives it an optimistic spin by showing that any individual initiative against plastic can make a difference.”
© Irene Mendez Cruz
Mendez Cruz points out that being in the water and getting the images was the fun part. The hardest work, she says, comes in the post-processing stage.
“I spent countless hours selecting the best images out of a pool of thousands and then editing each one of them. I’m quite a perfectionist and enjoy working in Lightroom and Photoshop to get the best results and full potential of each image. With underwater photography the biggest challenge is to get the white balance and the colours right: as true to nature as possible.
Once I had figured out the outline of my book and written down all the text, it was easy to put everything together on InDesign. I used a template, which helped me minimise the margin of error, but still gave me the creative freedom that I needed.”
© Irene Mendez Cruz
She says choosing images is a very personal process and photographers need to trust their instincts. Even so, it’s important to present only the very best images in your photo book, so here are her tips for creating a strong photo book.
- Choose your favourite photos first
I find that often the problem is having too many images and having trouble downsizing. If you don’t know which ones to take out of the final selection, start by choosing the ones that you absolutely can’t do without.
- Get feedback from others
It’s very enriching to get feedback from others as they might see something or feel a connexion with an image that you might have otherwise ignored.
- Show off a range of skills and techniques
With wildlife photography I think it’s important to show not just the diversity of nature but also the diversity of your talents and techniques. Make sure you alternate macro shots with wide-angles, landscapes with portraits, to capture beautiful details and unique animal behaviour when possible.
- Have a clear narrative before you start shooting:
My advice would be to have a clear idea of the narrative of your book first. Ideally you would have this before you even shoot the project. Once you have the structure and the text figured out, you can then choose the images that will best serve the purpose of each chapter.
Whether your goal is to photograph wildlife fulltime or you just want to earn some money on the side, getting started can be daunting. In contrast to wedding, portrait or product photography, it can be difficult to find clients that are willing to pay you to go out and photograph nature and wildlife.
Some of the ways well established wildlife photographers earn money include taking assignments from magazines, selling prints in galleries and online, selling photo books, and licensing images to magazines and stock image websites. In some cases, wildlife photographers also teach courses and workshops or lead wildlife tours geared towards other photographers.
But how do you know which of these options to pursue when you’re just starting out? Here’s some advice to help you start working towards your goal of earning money with your wildlife photos.
© Nathalie Mountain
Connect with other wildlife photographers
The best thing you can do to prepare for a career in wildlife photography is too talk to established wildlife photographers. Find out how they landed their first job, what challenges they faced or still face, and whether they had any formal training. If you don’t personally know any wildlife photographers, you can look for online photography groups and communities where you can ask questions, get advice, and share stories.
It can also be helpful to research some of the bigger names in wildlife photography today, like Frans Lanting, Paul Nicklen, and Suzi Eszterhas. You can also follow other wildlife photographers on Instagram or Facebook to get a glimpse at what goes on behind the scenes.
Build up a strong body of work
Obviously if you want to be a wildlife photographer you need to be technically competent, but in order to get your foot through the door and get assignments for magazines or sell your photos, you also need to have a strong body of work you can show potential clients.
Building up your portfolio will probably be the most time-consuming part of starting out as a wildlife photographer. It can also be expensive because you’ll have to start investing in the necessary equipment and covering your own travel expenses.
For this reason, it’s often easier to start locally, even if that means photographing seagulls or hedgehogs and letting local wildlife charities use your images for free. When building your portfolio, try to showcase a wide range of work and techniques, from close-ups to panoramas.
© Piper Mackay
Enter photography competitions
Entering wildlife photography competitions can be a great way to get your work noticed when you’re first starting out. Being able to say you’ve won an award or two can also open doors and make editors more likely to commission your work over someone else’s.
You can try entering bigger competitions like the British Wildlife Photography Awards and the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award, but also find out if there are smaller locally-run competitions you can enter. To increase your chances of winning, be sure to read the submission guidelines carefully and make sure your photograph meets each requirement.
Tell stories don’t shoot images
When you’re first starting out in wildlife photography, you’ll probably go out and shoot single images of whatever wild animals you may be able to spot in your area. But professional wildlife photographers tend to think in terms of stories rather than standalone images.
Once you start thinking about wildlife photography in this way, you’ll be able to develop your own photography projects and start telling complex stories through your photographs. A series of photographs area is also more likely to be picked up by a magazine or website than a single image, no matter how stunning or well-composed it may be.
Start freelancing on the side
Because it can be difficult to start working as a wildlife photographer before you’ve built up a good network and had some work published, one of the best ways to get started is to freelance. Freelancing is a great way to give wildlife photography a test run and get some experience under your belt without taking on the huge financial risk of jumping into it full-time.
During this time, you’ll also have a chance to learn the business side of things such as how to contact prospective clients, send out proposals, set competitive prices, create invoices, and everything else that goes into managing your own photography business.