Do you like taking pictures of animals, your own pets or of the wildlife while you travel? Personally, I love the unpredictability that taking pictures of animals and wild creatures creates; they usually do not afford me the opportunity to manipulate or pose them in any sort of way in order to get the very best, or idealized shot possible. While everything usually goes out the window in terms of controlling your environment, lighting, angle, etc., there are still a few great tips to keep in mind before you try to get your shot.
This article about taking pictures of animals, especially the wildlife you’ll find while traveling, is part of my growing list of holiday and travel photography tips in a collection of articles I think you might find really helpful to get the best photos possible:
- Travel Photography Preparation and Basic Camera Maintenance
- Architectural Photography Lighting and Composition Tips
- Tips for Taking Photos of Drinks – Photographing Cocktails
- Photographing Sunsets – Tips for Taking Perfect Sunset Pictures
Here are my favorite wildlife photography tips and tricks for taking pictures of animals…
Safety Comes First
The absolute most important tip I can give you is simple: BE SAFE!
Keep in mind that, depending on what you’re photographing, any animal can potentially harm you; maybe even kill you. Treat all wild animals as if they can be dangerous. (OK. Pets – probably not so much.) Do not sacrifice your physical well being on the chance that you may get a good picture.
I’ve laid out some great tips in a previous post about travel photography preparation and basic camera maintenance. Prepare your mind first! You will need a load of patience. The beautiful bird might fly away when you take a second to change a setting, or if your foot falls on a crispy leaf and scares it away. The deer might turn away from you, offering a less than flattering angle and refuse to turn back. Keep in mind that you will have to take some time to get a good picture and make do with what you have.
If you’re setting out with the express intention of taking pictures of animals and getting good wildlife shots, definitely take some time to research your travel destination and familiarize yourself with what sorts of animals roam the area and what time of day may be best for activity. Every animal and every location will be different so do a little homework before you travel.
Some of the questions I like to answer before heading out:
- What do they like to eat?
- When are they most active? Night, daytime or periods of dawn and dusk?
- What is their usual habitat and where do they make their homes?
- Are they dangerous?
- How frightened are they of humans?
- Can a guide or a local give me some direction?
Answering these question helps me develop a plan to improve my odds if I am looking for something specific. For example, find the source of an animal’s food and you’ll have a better chance of finding it. Determining how skittish an animal is will determine whether I can wander around or if I’ll have to set up a blind to conceal myself and wait to get the shot. Should I be looking in the trees or for burrows in the ground? Lastly, There is no better advice about finding the local wildlife than by talking to the locals.
I especially love underwater photography and the preparation, gear and technique involved is extraordinary. I’ll address scuba diving in Cozumel and underwater photography in another post. In the meantime, if you are interested in learning more (and seeing some fantastic pictures and videos from around the world), I invite you to join a great underwater photography and videography Facebook group that I started a few years ago.
Wildlife photography affords the opportunity to capture an animal’s personality, its environment, or what it looks like in action. The perspective you choose has some bearing on the success of your attempt.
If you have the opportunity to shoot at eye-level absolutely do so. This means getting down close to the ground to take shots of a bird standing on the beach, or a straight shot for larger animals. A picture taken from the animal’s perspective of the world affords an insight that is too easily lost in standard from-man-to-ground or otherwise perspectives.
Zoom out for a broad shot to capture your subject’s environment for an interesting picture and a look at how that creature lives. Zoom in to the animal’s face to really zero in on your subject and get its unique personality on camera.
When shooting birds in flight, try pointing your camera just ahead of the bird in question so that you give yourself room for the bird to fly into the frame as you follow it. Personally, I like to use the burst mode on my camera to take a series of shots and pick out the best later for editing.
With any subject but with birds in particular, get as close as possible (reminder: do not put yourself in danger to get closer).
Lighting and conditions
While it’s true that you’re somewhat at the mercy of your subjects’ sleep and activity schedules, the time of day and the light it affords will affect the outcome of your wildlife photography venture.
As far as lighting, the best times of day to get a good wildlife picture are usually early morning and late afternoon, the times sometimes referred to as “golden hours” because of the soft nature of available light. Cloudy or overcast days are an exception*, as the cloud cover softens the available light all day – as well as offering an interesting backdrop!
When photographing birds, bear in mind that the location of the sun will affect what kind of picture you’re taking. If you specifically want a silhouette picture, then have your bird backlit. Otherwise, try to keep yourself between the bird and the sun, if you have the opportunity. Also remember the time of day affects your success; directly overhead mid-day light will likely wash out the colors of your subject, birds included.
*How about another exception? For birds in action, whether taking flight, landing or flying against the sky, you will actually have better success with a lot of light to support very fast shutter speeds and get crisp pictures.
No matter what kind of camera you’re using, you can mess with the camera’s settings to influence how your shot turns out.
Standard exposure may work fine for most kinds of shots at the right time of day, but you may want to switch to manual exposure when shooting birds in flight so that your camera is not forever attempting to adjust to the sky behind the bird rather than your actual subject.
The type of focus and shutter speed you will use will, of course, vary drastically depending on what type of camera you’re using, what kind of lens you’re using (where applicable) and what kind of picture you’re hoping to get. For broader shots that include the animal’s environment, autofocus may work just fine. For closer pictures, especially macro photography, it will take some tinkering to find what camera lenses and settings work best for you.
Sometime the best tips and tricks for taking pictures of animals, pets and wildlife is to be creative using whatever type of camera you have in your hand!
For example, in this particular picture of a pelican taking flight, I shot the image with my phone (Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge) in burst mode. I walked slowly toward the pelican knowing he would eventually fly away. I picked out the best of about 60 photos, then cropped and edited it in Instagram.
Taking pictures of animals and photographing wildlife during exhilarating moment or special places can be exciting, rewarding and at times touching. It can also be very frustrating, and at times… discouraging. Regardless of whether you get the shot you’re hoping for or not, remember to be there – there’s something incredible on the other side of your lens!
Do you have any favorite photography tips or tricks for taking pictures of animals or photographing wildlife you would like to share? I want to hear them! Please leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below…