Photographing nature and wildlife can be the most challenging and most rewarding branches of photography. There is nothing like being hunkered down behind a bush for hours waiting for a bear to cross your path as you listen to the chattering of the squirrels, singing of the birds, and just breathing in the moment.
However, there is an awful lot that happens even before you find yourself in that exact bush, at that moment, waiting hours for a bear. You’re not just going to sit down behind a random bush hoping a bear is going to cross your path – well, you could but if you did so you’d probably be less likely to glimpse a bear.
Beginning Wildlife Photography and Interacting with Nature
Whether you are looking to just do it as a hobby, or are aspiring to become a professional, the most important thing is the animal’s well-being and our impact on the environment.
A report by the United Nations found that one in four species face extinction. Currently, Mankind is making a catastrophic impact on wildlife and the environment through pollution, habitat loss, overfishing, illegal wildlife trade, animal agriculture, pillaging the earth’s resources and so much more which has contributed to the climate changing, and the decline and extinction of over 60% of birds, fish, reptiles, and mammals since 1970. As a result, experts warn that further impact on wildlife leading to their extinction threatens the existence of human civilization. As, I’ve always said, “Mankind is both the plague upon the Earth and its cure.”
Let’s dispel two myths right from the beginning; in order to enjoy wildlife and nature photography you DO NOT need to own expensive camera, lenses or gear nor do you have to travel to far off distant lands. This is the simple truth; you can use an entry-level DSLR and a Kit Lens and get great shots and for some types of shots – your cell phone can work phenomenally well.
That said, the best place to get started is local to where you live; your backyard, neighborhood, local parks, and lakes, nature and hiking trails, and so on. You’ll find that there are plenty of subjects not too far from home to photograph from birds, reptiles, insects, rodents, and a plethora of other animals to aim your lens at.
Begin Nature and Wildlife Photography in Your Own Local Area
The fact that certain animals are found locally to where you live means that you can frequent these places often and take time to study the species that live near you with which you can have ample time photographing or attempting to photograph them as you learn. This is also beneficial because it will give you time to learn your camera, the capability of your lenses, and improve your photography knowledge and skillset.
You’ll eventually be able to try more creative shots like animals in motion where the animal is in focus and everything around it is blurred or where the feet are slightly blurred and everything else is in focus. You may even find yourself near a little waterfall, river or stream where you can set up a tripod and attempt to get that popular blurred water effect.
One quick thing to mention, before we go too far, is to get in the habit of having your camera near you at all times. You never know when you might find yourself in nature, driving or walking along, and see something you want to photograph. Nothing stings worse than having those experiences and wishing you had your camera with you. However, that said, the opposite is true; sometimes you find yourself with your camera in a photographable moment and yet you don’t take the shot because you’d rather appreciate whatever is unfolding before you. That’s one of the huge joys of photographing nature and wildlife – sometimes, you get caught up in these magical moments that are just for you to experience and in an instant, they are over.
In the beginning, you’ll raise your camera to photograph whatever interests you and in doing so you’ll notice that by the time you get your camera pointed, focused, and on the right settings the moment is over. You see, with experience, you’ll learn whether you are in one of those moments or not. If you desire, you can capture moments like that with proper planning and a whole lot of patience.
Research is Essential in Wildlife Photography
Do your research! Let’s say you live next to the Florida Everglades and want to head out to do some photography there. First, I’d start with a Google image search of “Florida Everglades” and look through the images for inspiration. Are there any particular shots that you really love? What is it you love about it? The angle? The lighting?
You might be wondering why this is important and I’m going to tell you; if you want to be a great photographer you need to become a student of the art of photography. That means looking at wildlife photos from an entirely different perspective – not just, “I love this photo,” but “Why do I love this photo? What is it about it that I love?” Perhaps, you’ll find out that you like how real or surreal it looks, you may like the way the light hits the subject of a photo, or perhaps you’ll find out you love certain images in black and white. The list really becomes endless as you see a photo in a much different way as you become a masterful student of light, photography, and post-processing.
Next, you’ll need to figure out what your target subject will be and then do your research about that subject; what’s the safe distance for you and the animal to photograph, do you have the appropriate zoom lens to operate at that distance, what’s the behavior displayed if that animal is agitated, annoyed, or angry, etc. You want to have some ideas of the shot you want to get or the story you want to tell within your photography.
Using photography as the narrative to tell a story is a compelling way to get a message across and make an impact. Remember, how I said that Nature and Wildlife face extinction because of mankind? Well, in this example, mankind can use photos to tell of the plight of a particular animal and move people to compassion and into action.
In my images, I often capture the character of an animal in a way that will be relatable to a human observer with the hopes of causing that person to care about the animal enough to want to do something to save them.
Every animal – whether big or small, plays a huge role in the world and both the macrocosm and microcosm levels. Each ecosystem is part of a greater whole and when we eliminate even the smallest critter, we cause a cosmic catastrophic ripple within both ecosystems.
When you think about the story you want to tell you can capture some in a single image and others require a series. If you are heading out into the world to create a series of images to tell a particular story it will help to know what that desired story is so that you can take images to support that narrative. However, you can also go out for a day of shooting wildlife and come back, pull up the images in Lightroom and suddenly a story jumps out at you. Maybe, while in Lightroom, you notice that in what you thought was just a common photograph a Red Robin was actually a Robin with a mouth full of worms.
Of course, you can just pick a place near you and go for a random walk and photograph along the way – but, then you are just a person haphazardly photographing nature and wildlife.
Setting the intention about your nature and wildlife photography is the best way to create great images that tell a story. In order to do that, you want to have a desired subject in mind, researched that subject, and you want to be prepared before you venture to a particular location.
You’ll want to be aware of the terrain, climate and about other potential dangers in that area. For Example, are there poisonous snakes or spiders nearby, what do they look like and how long do you have to get to a hospital if you get bit?
You’ve selected the subject, done the research, have an idea of the image you want to create and a story you wish to tell. Now, it’s time to grab your camera and head out and, by the way, be sure to bring a ton of patience with you!
Nature and Wildlife Photography Tips for Beginners
- Do Not Feed, shout at, or otherwise do anything to interfere with the natural behavior of any wild animal. Spend time, near the animal at a distance, where it feels comfortable. Wait for the moments where the animal is doing what you want; however, don’t attempt to cause or bring about it. Firstly, you don’t want any animal associating humans with food – especially, when you get to predatory animals like bears, cougars, tigers, lions, etc.
- Camera Settings for Wildlife Photography: I’d highly recommend putting your camera on Aperture Priority mode if your goal is to photograph Wildlife. What is Aperture Priority mode? Aperture Priority mode is a semi-automatic setting for the camera that allows you to control the aperture setting and the camera adjusts both the shutter speed and ISO to correctly expose the image. The key to using Aperture Priority mode is to notice if it is under or overexposing an image before you fire off a series of shots. Based on the results of your test shot, set the exposure compensation accordingly.
- Setup Your Shots: Be aware of your surroundings! What’s in the foreground? What’s in the background? When looking through your viewfinder does it look like a great composition of a photo? Is it something you’d be happy with for an end result? If not, move your feet; shoot high, shoot low, always get eyes in the shot.
- No Eyes … NO GOOD. If you have an animal in the shot and their eyes aren’t showing or aren’t in focus – the shot is no good. You will also find that your shots often improve when you shot at the eye level of the animal, so you don’t look down on the animal. Eye contact is crucial in most shots unless you have multiple animals relating to each other instead.
- Make use of the downtime! If you are in position and waiting for your ideal shot or better lighting then make use of the downtime by doing a bit of landscape photography, flowers, insects (if you have a macro lens setup), always be looking at what is going on around you. In nature, something is ALWAYS happening even if it feels like nothing is happening.
- The Golden Hour: Sunrise and Sunset are the best for outdoor photography because the sun is lower which makes the light softer, thus giving you softer shadows, and the warm tones are a prominent feature during this time of day. This is why it is the optimum time for outdoor photography.
- Look for Action: Taking a portrait shot of a squirrel is cute and could even be a decent photo; however, if you have a photo of a squirrel with a nut in it’s mouth as it digs in the dirt it becomes better. Aiming for something even better? A photo with the squirrel with a nut and another squirrel trying to steal it. An ultimate shot might be a hawk or owl flying down, talons extended and reaching for the squirrel. Do you see how each photo evolves based on the level of action?
- Weather: Use the weather to your advantage as it helps create for interesting photos and a unique angle to any narrative. It also can introduce drama to the scene and even character to the subject.
Remember, the entire reason you are out there is to have fun, be respectful of nature and wildlife, and come back with some photos you can personally be proud of. You’re learning so don’t be hard on yourself and realize that each time you go out it’s a new experience with different challenges both environmentally and photographically. This holds true even for top nature and wildlife photographers.
Want to learn more?
William Constantine is an award-winning Wildlife Photojournalist with a deep-seated passion for Conservation. Constantine authored Unveiling Alaska: A Beginners Guide to Exploring Alaska from Behind the Lens. He is a proud member of the prestigious American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA), Professional Photographer Association (PPA), and the International Travel Writers and Photographers Alliance (ITWPA).