Tips and Tricks

Know your Equipment

In wildlife photography, the best photographs come from the action packed moments which only last on average 5-20 seconds. If you are unfamiliar with your equipment, camera settings, or the abilities of the lenses you are using, you will miss out on the best opportunities. The images that you do manage to capture will either be lackluster, or you will have missed the shot.

You must at least know:

The shutter speeds at which you can obtain sharp images with your equipment.
How to quickly change focus points or focusing modes.
What your camera and lens Image Stabilization gives you.
How high you can push up the ISO and still get an acceptable image.
How to make most of the necessary adjustments to exposure and focus settings without lifting your eye from the viewfinder.

Know your Subject

Wildlife photography is all about capturing interesting actions and behaviors of the subject. In order to accomplish this, it pays to be able to predict the subject’s behaviors. Some species are easier to predict than others. You should research the subjects that you plan on photographing.  You should see when they are most active, what behaviors they typically exhibit, and see what habitat they prefer the most. That way you can head out to the right spots to see them. By doing this you will be prepared, and will be able to make the most out of your time. Knowing your subject can be the difference from being ready to capture the shot or missing it completely. You need to sit with your subjects and watch them, learn from them, and wait for the proper moment.

Know your Location

Knowing the location that you plan to photograph will put you leaps and bounds ahead of the rest. Knowing your location gives you a better idea of what the weather will be like and how it will impact your light and your subject’s behaviors. Knowing the location also gives you a sense of comfort. You will not need to worry about getting turned around, or lost. You also won’t hesitate to adjust to your surroundings and relocate for a better angle, because you know exactly where you are. Knowing your location, its weather patterns, and the subjects that frequent the locations will give you the upper hand and help you improve your chances for great images.

Know and Break the Rules

There are some basic rules and fundamentals of good photography, and then there are some rules that find application mostly in wildlife photography. This is not a complete list of the general rules.

Proper exposure:

For many new photographers, getting the proper exposure is the biggest challenge they face. Most of the time letting the camera do the work for you turns out fine, but there are some times when the camera needs a little help. For instance very bright light with white subjects. Knowing how to give your camera the help it needs is the key to getting the proper exposure of your subject. The best way to tell if you have the proper exposure is by using the histogram.

A histogram, is simply a graph showing the brightness levels of pixels in the image. The right side of the graph represent the bright pixels, and the left side of the graph represents the darker pixels. Pixels representing the midtones are in the middle of the graph. A histogram runs from left to right, showing values from 0 or black, to 255 or white. The height of the histogram represents how many pixels are recorded at the given brightness level. The most important aspects of the histogram that you should be most concerned about are the left and right edges. Any pixels as bright white or pure black would be pushed to the edge of the graph. Unless it is intended pixels pushed to the edge can indicate an exposure problem. This is because the image will be clipping the highlights or shadows resulting in pure blacks or blown out whites.

Since a histogram is simply a representation of tonal range of the given image, there is no right or wrong histogram. The histogram will change based on the tone of the image. A high key image would show the pixels mainly to the right side. A low key image would show the pixels mainly to the left side. An image with a wide tonal range would show pixels across the entire histogram. In post processing if you want to be able to get the most out of the pixel data it is important to capture as many pixels across the range as possible. If you have pure blacks or blown out whites you will not be able to manipulate the image as well, because the color data in those areas is lost.

Rule of thirds:

The general rule for proper composition is the rule of thirds. Where you divide the frame into a 3x3 grid, and you normally place your subject on one of the intersection points. The theory is that if you place the points of interest in the intersections or along the lines that your photograph becomes more balanced, and enables the viewer of the image to interact with it more naturally. Using the rule of thirds helps to move the viewer’s eye around the image more naturally.

In landscape photography it helps to keep the horizon line of your image along the horizontal lines of the grid. That way the landscape takes up just the bottom third of the image with the sky taking the other two thirds, or the landscape takes up two thirds of the image and the sky takes up the other third. Thus making the image more balanced.

Eye Contact:

Photographing wildlife is not the same as photographing a landscape or inanimate object. Your wildlife subject has eyes, and our natural tendency is to make eye contact. As a result, capturing the eyes effectively is essential to a great wildlife image.

Making eye contact with the subject helps the viewer connect with the image. It is also very important that the eyes are the focal point of the image. This is what you should be focusing on with your camera and it needs to be sharp. If it is not, it will not be an effective portrait of your subject. It is also important that you capture the catch light. This is the little reflection you can get in the eye of the subject. Without it your subject does not look lifelike. It also can be helpful to get at eye level with the subject, but I will cover this further down in tip 8.

To take this subject further it normally helps to have a good head angle in relation to the camera’s sensor. The head angle should be at least perpendicular to the camera sensor, but ideally it should be turned a few degrees towards the sensor. Which would then untimely be facing towards the viewer, thus maintaining eye contact.

Once you know the most of the basic rules of photography you can break them. If you always follow these rules your images will look just like everyone else's. These are just some of the general guidelines but going outside of them can make your images stand out.


It is no surprise that light is the most important factor in all forms of photography, but it is especially important for wildlife photography. In order to take amazing pictures you need to know how to use light to your advantage. Often light is not ideal or the light is sweet but it is in the wrong direction in relation to your subject. Shooting into light can be tricky and that refers back to rule 1, and knowing how to properly use your equipment.

The best times of day to photograph wildlife are called the golden hours and the blue hours. The golden hours are the periods shortly after sunrise and before sunset. During this period the sun is at its warmest hue, casting rich colors across the landscape and providing a dramatic backdrop for your subject. The blue hours are the period before sunrise and after sunset. During this period the hue is normally a blueish color, and also provides a great backdrop for your subjects.

11:00 am to 4:00 pm is the period when the harshest light occurs. So, it is not an ideal period to photograph your subject. For the best lighting of your subject it is best to avoid these hours. The exception is on overcast days. This does not mean that you should not take pictures during those hours. Getting a picture of the action no matter what the lighting is still better than not getting the picture at all.

The key to this tip is not to just get their early enough or late enough to shoot during these periods, but to use the light creatively in your shots. A photographer who can play with light and use it to highlight the features of their subject will produce much stronger photographs than those who do not.

Shoot Wider / Shoot Closer

Many photographers get fixated with focal length. Even I had an obsession with always getting a longer lens. For instance, my purchase of a Bower 650mm-1300mm lens. I was fixated with always being able to get more reach with my lens, in order to be able to pull the subject in more and more. The problem with this is that it isolates the subject from the background to often resulting in the subject looking like a captive subject. This could be what you are trying to do but it is often better to shoot wider, in order to get a better idea of the environment your subject is in.

Obviously if you are trying to produce portraits of your subject then you probably are looking to get closer and isolate the subject from the background. You can also try and get really close to subjects to get a more abstract composition of your subjects.

The other problems that typically come with more focal length is higher f-stops. Typically larger lenses have higher f-stops meaning they allow in less light. Normally you should try and find a lens with an f/4 or less f-stop but f/5.6 is not terrible. Once you start getting towards f/8 and larger it is just not going to be very useful. This is because for wildlife photography you typically also need to use high shutter speeds to capture your subject. In order to accommodate both high shutter speeds and high f-stop’s, you would have to increase your ISO to the point where it would introduce to much noise to make a good photograph.

Are Multiple Subjects better than one?

If you have a good view of more than one subject of a species then you should probably stay for a while. If you have one subject the interactions and behaviors could be good to capture, but if you have two subjects, your chances of experiencing interactions increases. Obviously the more subjects you have the more you’re increasing your chances at photographing interactions between them. In my opinion photographing the interactions between your subjects is normally better than just photographing the one subject. It normally makes the image much more interesting to look at.

Get Down

The point of view of a wildlife photograph is very important. You should try to get at the subjects eye level or even lower. Doing this, brings the viewer of your image right into the scene and brings the viewer down to the subject’s perspective. This also helps with getting the eye contact of your subject. If you take the picture from your eye level all the time, you will most likely be always looking down on your subjects. This view is the standard view that most people take pictures from. Obviously in some situations you will not be able to get lower. For instance, if you are not allowed out of your vehicle, or should not go outside your vehicle, you will be stuck with that one perspective. For flying subjects it can help to get to a raised area, or an area where the subjects will be flying at your eye level. Again this is not always possible but being at eye level with the flying subjects leads to better pictures in most cases.


Modern life happens at a break neck pace. We are always in a rush, but in wildlife photography good things come to those who wait. Anything can happen at any time, but most things only happen rarely. At least they don’t correspond with the exact time that you are in that specific spot. It is one of the hardest things to grapple with out in the field. If you are not seeing anything in one spot you are more likely to move, than continue to sit there. But you don’t know if moving is the best option. Sometimes sitting in one place and waiting for the animals to come to you is much better. It is like hunting. Sometimes it is better to just wait than it is to stalk your prey.

What a photographer normally shows you on their website it the best of their work. They do not show the hundreds and thousands of pictures they took that do not work out. All the wonderful pictures that they have on their websites took a lot of time and effort to get. It does not show you the hours that they sat out in blinds or walked trails. You can sit out in a blind all day and not see anything. It just takes a lot of patience and persistence to follow through. If you want to capture action, you must watch and wait. If you are lucky, you will be able to capture that brief moment that makes a great image.

Another important lesson in patience is not to snap off a photograph too soon. In some cases the animals can hear your camera’s shutter release. In these cases you could scare them off. So you will want to wait for the right moment to snap the photograph. Because more skittish animals will run off and you may only get one chance.


There is no question that a long lens is a vital part of any wildlife photographers gear. Telephoto lenses play a couple of important roles. The first important role is magnification. A lens over 400mm will make the subject appear much closer, and take up a large portion of the frame. This allows you to focus more on your subject and cut distracting elements out of the frame.

A telephoto lens also compresses your depth of field. Long lenses are particularly good at blurring foregrounds and background, making the subject stand out from their surroundings. The magnification of the long lens allows you to isolate the best part of the scene from side to side. The shallow depth of field allows you to isolate the subject from front to back.


Macro photography is extreme close-up photography usually of very small subjects like insects, in which the size of the subject in the photograph is greater than life size. The ratio of the subject size on the sensor to the actual subject size is known as the reproduction ratio. Likewise, a macro lens is classically a lens capable of reproduction ratios of at least 1:1. Macro photography can be a lot of fun and the images that you produce can be amazing. They can allow you to see things that you would not see with the naked eye. That is what makes macro photography so intriguing. It allows people to see a world that they didn’t even know existed.

Clean Backgrounds

What is happening in the background can make or break your shot. Busy and cluttered backgrounds can quickly become muted. Elements of human activity such as fences, can ruin the authenticity of a shot. For small bird photography please do not shoot birds on feeders or other man made items, it does not make for a good shot. For wildlife photography natural backgrounds always look the best.

Don't over edit

Editing is where images often come alive and become more impactful for the viewer. But, over editing a photograph can make it appear unnatural. High dynamic range is most often better left alone. Your best option is to only make slight changes to sharpness, exposure, color palette, and saturation. It also helps to photograph in RAW that way you have more data to work with.

Depth of Field

Getting lower down can help you implement this in your photographs. By being at the subject’s level it can thin out the plane that needs to be in focus. If you use f/4 or lower you can drop areas of your foreground and background into a stylish blur. By lowering your f-stop you are widening your aperture size, which results in a shallower depth of field. Doing this can help to make your subject leap out of the image. You can also use this technique to frame your subject with blurred out foliage which can lead to more dramatic images. If you raise your f-stop you are narrowing your aperture size, which results in a deeper depth of field. This can be helpful to increase the amount of area that is in focus. This is normally used when you want to see what is in the foreground and background of your subject. Also higher f-stop numbers are used a lot in landscape photography to get the entire landscape in focus.

Sharp Images

To take a sharp picture of wildlife with a telephoto lens, you will need to use fast shutter speeds. A general rule of thumb is to set your shutter speed to at least as fast as the length of your lens. So, if you are shooting a 500mm lens, you will need to use a 1/500th of a second shutter speed to create a sharp image. But the faster your shutter speed the better chance you will have with producing a sharp image. Even the smallest camera shake can cause a blurry image. You may not even realize how much you are moving holding a large and heavy lens combo. When possible, you should use a tripod to stabilize your camera. If you cannot, you should brace off of something instead. At the very least you should keep your arms in as tight to your body as possible. Sort of like how a ballerina spins with her arms in tight. The closer your arms are to the center of your mass the less they will move, thus reducing camera shake. Also most lenses are at their sharpest a stop or two down from wide open. That means if your fastest aperture of the lens is f/4 you will normally get sharper images around f/8. But this is not always practical since it will cut down on the amount of light that it allows in.

Blurred Images

Animals always seem to be in constant motion. Images that show this movement in the form of a motion blur can be effective. Creating a good motion blur requires some experimentation.  1/60th of a second is more than slow enough to show sufficient motion blur for moving animals. Sometimes with flying birds you want to show the motion blur in the wings. This can be accomplished with speeds under 1/400th of a second normally. For blurring moving water I would recommend using about a 2 second shutter speed. The longer the shutter speed in this case the smoother the water will look.

There are two main types of motion blurs. One where you have a steady camera and the subject is moving. Like most of the examples above. Then there is motion blur caused by moving the camera. Often called a panning blur. You typically move your camera in this case to stay even with the moving subject. This creates an image with both the background and the moving parts of the subject to be blurred. These can be very tricky to pull off, but when done correctly can be beautiful.

Whenever you are playing around with slow shutter speeds. Remember to always set you shutter speeds back to a normal range for getting sharp shots when you are done. There is nothing worse than turning on your camera to capture a split second shot and your shutter speeds are set so low that you miss the shot. So always make sure that you set your settings back when you are done.


Don’t be afraid to photograph in bad weather. This is one subject that I am just learning. I used to always think that rainy days or snowy days were days that you should just stay home. I always had a fear of getting my equipment damaged during bad weather. I have since purchased some equipment to cover my camera and lens combo. You can also stay in the car, or use other forms of cover. Rainy and snowy days can lead to dramatic shots of animals and the experience they are having during bad weather. Freezing the action of rain drops and snow can make the background more exciting as well. The other reason to embrace bad weather is that a lot of people stay home, so the photographs that you do manage to capture will look very different giving your images a little edge. Other weather factors like wind and fog can also play a vital role in your images.

Tell a Story

In any type of photography the best images tell a story. In wildlife photography a simple image of a subject in its surroundings can really tell a story. An interaction between two subjects or more can be even more intriguing. Always think about the species that you are photographing and the environment that they live in. Then consider how your image can tell the full story. For instance a polar bear in a snowy plain can give you the feelings of isolation and harshness. It can really showcase what the bear goes through to survive in that habitat. It tells a story.

Respect the Wildlife

Your top priority as a wildlife photographer is to do no harm to the animals and the environment you are photographing. Nothing upsets me more than seeing people chasing animals around or leaving their trash behind. Where I live it seems like people think that wildlife management areas are great places to dump their trash, because there are less people in the area at night. It is very upsetting to see that people have dumped garbage in these areas, or any area for that matter.

Animals should always have a route to escape. Don’t corner them in. You need to pay close attention to their behaviors. If an animal begins to look agitated it is better for you to back off.  Whenever an animal flees, it means that you got to close to it. Every time this occurs you are causing the animal additional stress, so don’t cause it.

Always follow the rules of the places that you are photographing. Stay on trails, and respect the other people in the area. Don’t be the person who walks in front of other peoples photographs or goes off the trail into a closed area. Eventually if we do not police ourselves, someone will and will eventually restrict us from using these areas.

Getting Close & Keeping Steady

Animals are naturally more sensitive to the shape and form of an upright human being than they are to vehicles.  The fear that animals have for humans is well deserved.  When it comes to wild animals do not try and get closer to them, stay silent and still and hidden from view if possible and wait for the wildlife to move towards you.  Chasing animals will not give you a better opportunity at a shot.  Most likely it will give you a shot of an animal running away from you.  Please respect the animals that you are photographing.  Many wildlife photographers use expensive blinds to hide their presence from animals.  In the right circumstances though, you already have a working blind, your vehicle.

Some more cautious animals will flee at the sight of vehicles just as much as they do a human being.  But many species feel much more comfortable around them than they do people, especially in national parks where vehicles are a common sight.

Unfortunately too often, a tourist with a point-and-shoot camera comes along and steps out of their vehicle and approaches the animals.  Which will most likely ruin your chances at a shot.

Stabilizing your camera inside a car isn’t often easy.  You can either set up some tripods so that you can shoot from the driver or passenger seat, but some wildlife photographers find the tripod too constrictive, especially when photographing animals on the move.  Some people also use specifically designed window mounts that functions as a tripod for your camera.  These window mounts are highly prized if you are taking pictures from your car.

In the situation that you do not have a tripod your window is your friend.  You can either roll up your window to the level at which you want to set your lens and place something on the window to protect the glass from breaking (some photographers use bean bags for this purpose), or you can roll the window all the way down and rest your arm or elbow on the window sill to help stabilize the camera.

Remember the rule of thumb to eliminate camera shake: you should be shooting at a shutter speed at or above the effective focal length of your lens.  That means if you shoot with a 70-300mm lens you need to set your shutter speed to at least 1/300th of a second to help ensure that your image will be as sharp as it can be.  But I would recommend using at least a 1/500th of a second shutter speed to ensure your image will be sharp.

Anticipating Action and Using Burst Mode

You need to be able to anticipate the action that you subject is going to take.  That’s why it is important to know your subjects tendencies.  When you anticipate action start shooting.  Even if they don’t do what you think they are going to do, at least you did not miss something.  I try to take advantage of the burst rate on the camera for this purpose.  I will normally take bursts of 5 - 10 shots, but sometimes I will take more depending on the action that is occurring.  You will be surprised to see the changes that take place between shots in a burst.  The reason I shoot burst is because normally there is one great shot in a group.  The more photographs you take the higher the chance is that you will get that one great shot. That’s where being able to take those short bursts at a higher frame rate is important.  That’s why the cameras speed is important, and you need to make sure that your memory card can keep up with the cameras speed.

Camera Settings

For me shutter speed is the most important, both for freezing the action and for reducing the effects of camera shake.   If I’m shooting a static subject I try and shoot with shutter speeds of 1/400th of a second, but even with a relatively static subject it is amazing how much just a little movement can lead to a blurry shot.  So even for static subjects, I prefer higher shutter speeds. For a flying bird or a running mammal, I really like a minimum of 1/1000th of a second, but I prefer over 1/2000th of a second, and if I can get to 1/3000th of a second or more than I am really pleased. Since the best wildlife shooting opportunities are right after sunrise or right before sunset, having enough light to sustain these shutter speeds is often a challenge.

I usually shoot in the full manual mode so I can choose which settings to set for everything.   But you can set your camera to Av mode (aperture priority mode) and then the camera will change all the other settings such as shutter speed automatically to suit.  Once you have AV mode turned on, you can change the f-stop by rotating the main dial above the shutter button. Note: this is for Canon digital cameras. You may need to refer to your manual to find out how to change the F-stop for your specific brand of camera.

When the f-number is small, the lens diaphragm is actually wide open.  If the aperture is a large number, say F22 then the lens diaphragm is smaller or more closed. This often causes much confusion with beginners.

•    Opening your lens more refers to lowering the f-number.
•    Closing your lens more refers to a higher f-number.

The best way to understand how aperture works is to take numerous photographs with different f-number values and see what the difference is.  Take images at both ends of the scale. One with as low an F-number as possible and one with as high an F-number as possible. More importantly, when you view them on your computer take notice of how much of the photo is in focus.

One additional point about shutter speeds is that the closer you are to your subject, the higher the shutter speed needs to be in order to freeze the action.  This is because the closer the subject is, faster the subject is passing through the field of view.  That's the reason why with small birds, it is very difficult to freeze the wing motion even if you want to. Since most pictures of small birds are taken from a very close distance it requires exceptionally high shutter speeds to completely freeze their motion.

Enjoy it

By this I mean you need to be in the moment, and don’t get caught up to much with the technical issues and settings, that you don’t take in the moments that you are witnessing. We need to be more mindful of the privilege that we have of spending time in nature. What is the point of taking all the pictures if you do not enjoy the time you are spending out in the field? So be mindful of what is going on around you and really enjoy the time you have, and the amazing things that you will get to see.