Introduction to Wildlife Photography

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It’s amazing how many people think you need a bag full of expensive lenses and pockets deep enough to bankroll safari adventures in faraway lands to photograph wildlife. Regardless of where you live, how hot it gets in the summertime or how cold it gets in the wintertime, you’re surrounded by wildlife the moment you step out your door. The fact of the matter is, if you live near a park or, for that matter, have trees outside your window, wildlife is all around you.

Photographs © Allan Weitz 2021

Going eye-to-eye at ground-level with an Eastern Box Turtle with a 200mm macro lens. The longer focal length of the lens allowed for greater distance between us, which in turn made the turtle feel safer about checking me out.
Going eye-to-eye at ground level with an Eastern Box Turtle with a 200mm macro lens. The longer focal length of the lens allowed for greater distance between us, which in turn made the turtle feel safer about checking me out.

Cameras and Lenses for Wildlife Photography

As stated above, you don’t need fancy equipment to photograph wildlife. The truth is, the kit lens that came with your camera is quite capable of capturing interesting wildlife photographs. The photographs that illustrate this article were taken with relatively simple camera gear—a full-frame mirrorless camera, a close-focusing 25mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens, a 200mm macro lens, and a close-focusing 400mm f/8 mirror lens.

For many subjects, especially birds and wild animals, you’re going to want a close-focusing 200mm to 300mm telephoto lens or equivalents. If you are shooting with an APS-C or MFT-format camera, lenses in the 200mm to 300mm range bring you in about 1.5x (APS-C) or 2x (MFT) closer to your subject. (Full-frame images can be cropped to similar magnifications post-capture.)

Longer focal length telephotos and zoom lenses with broad focal ranges are also handy to have when photographing wildlife because you never quite know when, where, or how far away your next photo opportunity may arise.

Autofocus lenses are preferable but not a necessity. It’s worth noting all the photographs accompanying this article were captured using manual focus lenses.

Where Do You Begin?

If you need a starting point, try photographing a chipmunk. If chipmunks aren’t native to where you live, squirrels, rabbits, or any equally small skittish mammal can serve as a stand-in. Chipmunks are small, shy, and quick to flee when they sense impending danger, which is why I suggest photographing them. Granted, chipmunks aren’t quite as exciting or exotic as a tiger or leopard, but they’re also less likely to make you their next meal.

Unless they are seasoned opportunists that have acclimated to humans through the language of handouts and picnic leftovers, chipmunks tend to run and hide the moment they see you. If you do spot one, freeze. Chances are the little guy is already on to you and waiting to see your next move. If you remain still and divert your gaze, there’s a good chance the chipmunk will figure you are not an impending threat and slowly back off high alert.

If you are within photographic range, slowly lift your camera to your eye and take a few frames. If your camera has a silent mode, this is a good time to engage it. If the chipmunk seems “chill,” move in a bit closer, wait a few moments, and slowly bring the camera to your eye once again. With time and patience, you can often get surprisingly close, which makes for better photographs.

Chipmunks may not be the most exotic animals, but their shy habits and quick getaway speed make them terrific for practice runs. And besides, look how cute the little bugger is!
Chipmunks may not be the most exotic animals, but their shy habits and quick getaway speed make them terrific for practice runs. And besides, look how cute the little bugger is!
Autofocus lenses make it easier to capture sharp photographs, but sometimes manual focus is preferable. A small bird perched among thick branches is enough to confuse the best AF systems, especially when the bird has similar tonal and color values. In situations like this, work with manual focus.
Autofocus lenses make it easier to capture sharp photographs, but sometimes manual focus is preferable. A small bird perched among thick branches is enough to confuse the best AF systems, especially when the bird has similar tonal and color values. In situations like this, work with manual focus.

Lenses with faster maximum apertures (f/4 or wider) are preferable because they guarantee faster shutter speeds and narrower depth of field (DoF) to separate the subject from the foreground and background more efficiently.

Even if you only have the kit lens that came with your camera or a 28mm to 300mm all-in-one zoom, with a little bit of practice and patience you’ll be capturing photographs of local wildlife that just make friends and family stop and say, “Wow!”

With Chipmunks (and Snow Leopards), Go Slow and Avoid Sudden Moves

When a chipmunk sees you, it will freeze. If it senses danger, it will usually flee, but if it is mining a good food supply, it will often take a wait-and-see approach. When this is the case, the best thing to do is to be equally still. If you have to move, or want to edge in closer, do it in very small increments. It’s also a good idea to avoid eye contact, which in much of the animal world is a passive gesture; hard stares are often interpreted as a challenge. With a bit of practice and patience, you can begin winning their trust.

Making Your Subject Stand Out from the Clutter

You should always try to isolate your subject from distractions in the foreground and background, which is why it’s a good idea to shoot at wide apertures when photographing in wooded or similarly cluttered areas. Capturing birds in flight is always trickier, especially with long focal length lenses, but, when the images are sharp, they can be truly powerful to view.

Birds perching on posts, fences, and on the tops of branches are easier to isolate from visual distractions in the foreground and background. Here, a Red-Winged Blackbird perches on a fence post.
Birds perching on posts, fences, and on the tops of branches are easier to isolate from visual distractions in the foreground and background. Here, a Red-Winged Blackbird perches on a fence post.
An American Goldfinch perching on top of a branch (above) and an Eastern Bluebird perched on top of a dried sunflower (below) pop from their surroundings. These photos were taken with a 400mm lens. A 500mm or 600mm lens would have brought me in that much closer.
An American Goldfinch perching on top of a branch (above) and an Eastern Bluebird perched on top of a dried sunflower (below) pop from their surroundings. These photos were taken with a 400mm lens. A 500mm or 600mm lens would have brought me in that much closer.

Stalking a Local Blue Heron

There’s a park with a small lake not far from where I live that serves as home for various wild creatures, including a Blue Heron. Shy by nature, Herons that dwell in parks do acclimate to humans, but as long as 8-year-old boys walk the surface of the planet, they will always eye humans suspiciously.

I spotted this Blue Heron early one morning at a nearby park. Shy by nature and rightfully suspicious of humans, I slowly made my way closer to the bird, pausing every few feet to take a few additional pictures along the way with a 400mm lens.
I spotted this Blue Heron early one morning at a nearby park. Shy by nature and rightfully suspicious of humans, I slowly made my way closer to the bird, pausing every few feet to take a few additional pictures along the way with a 400mm lens.

I spotted this lovely creature early one morning as it was grazing on the far side of the lake. Using a 400mm lens, I started photographing the bird, making sure not to make any sudden movements or loud noises. After snapping a few frames, I slowly began inching closer to it, making sure to stop every few feet, pause, and to avoid unnecessary eye contact.

By moving quietly and incrementally, I was able to approach the Heron slowly for tighter photographs.
By moving quietly and incrementally, I was able to approach the heron slowly for tighter photographs.

Over the course of about 10 minutes, I was able to position myself about 20' from the bird and capture a few final head-and-shoulder portraits of this regal creature (below).

Ultimately, I captured this tight, head-and-shoulders portrait of the Heron from a distance of about 20'. Moving slowly, quietly, and non-aggressively is imperative when approaching wildlife.
Ultimately, I captured this tight, head-and-shoulders portrait of the heron from a distance of about 20'. Moving slowly, quietly, and non-aggressively is imperative when approaching wildlife.

The Best Times of Day to Photograph Wildlife

Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to photograph wildlife because these are feeding and roosting times. Early morning and late afternoon are also the prettiest times to take pictures because of the warm, low angles of sunlight that pierce deeper into the tree canopies than the harsher and deeper shadows of midday light. This is especially true during the summer months.

Birds and chipmunks aside, photographic opportunities abound if you include insects, amphibians, and reptiles—there’s no doubt members of these species can be found pretty much anywhere—the number of subjects you can photograph is endless.

A close-focusing (6.69") 25mm wide-angle lens stopped down to f/11 let me capture a close-up of a honeybee sipping nectar from a flower. As I say: “You don’t need fancy gear to capture dynamic wildlife photographs.”
A close-focusing (6.69") 25mm wide-angle lens stopped down to f/11 let me capture a close-up of a honeybee sipping nectar from a flower. As I say: “You don’t need fancy gear to capture dynamic wildlife photographs.”

In the case of insects and smaller subjects, you might want to consider a macro lens. Macro lenses are available for all camera mounts. Although macro lenses are available in a choice of focal lengths, I would recommend a mid-range or longer telephoto macro lens because they allow for more distance between you and your subject, which is important if you don’t want to appear to be threatening to your subject. You are also less likely to cast a shadow onto your subject when shooting with a longer focal length lens.

Exciting close-ups of smaller wildlife creatures can also be captured using extension tubes, reversal rings, and close-up lenses that screw onto the front of your lens. To learn more about these inexpensive, yet effective close-up tools, check out Tools for Capturing Macro Photographs Without a Macro Lens, by yours truly.

Another day, another Heron, this time drifting above against a bright blue sky. Birds in flight take more skill to photograph than perched birds, but practice makes perfect.
Another day, another heron, this time drifting above against a bright blue sky. Birds in flight take more skill to photograph than perched birds, but practice makes perfect.

Tripods and Camera Supports

If your subject is relatively static, or at a constant distance from camera position, I strongly recommend a tripod or other type of camera support when photographing with long telephoto lenses. The flip side is that when photographing birds flying overhead or animals moving in erratic patterns, tripods can often slow you down. A solution to this problem is to use a gimbal head on your tripod in place of a more traditional ball or pan/tilt head. Gimbal heads enable quicker response times when tracking moving subjects.

My preferred method of steadying cameras when shooting wildlife with long lenses is to mount the camera and lens on a rigid table tripod. Between the three points of contact from the tablepod legs against my chest, both hands on the camera, and a resting spot on my brow, I establish six points of contact, which together result in a higher percentage of sharper results than shooting the same scenario handheld.

As I said at the top of the page, you don’t need fancy gear to take eye-catching wildlife photographs. The trick is to get up bright and early when the light is right and the animals are feeding. And when you get where you’re going, open your eyes and, most of all, be silent and be patient. The pictures will ultimately come to you… I promise!

Have you had any experiences photographing wildlife? Share them with our readers and us in the Comments section, just below.

12 Comments

I love B&H but I find it completely irresponsible to post something encouraging people to bait an animal, this is not only hazardous to the animal, do you know what people are going to use to bait them with sure you made a suggestion but we know people will use whatever they have at hand... safe? Ducks at ponds with bread? which isn't actually good for them, to you're littering if they don't like it. You're introducing something into the local ecosystem that should not be there.

Here in California it's illegal to bait, for hunting, fishing, photography... why? They don't require you to capture the critter, but by you ATTRACTING the critter you could...

(California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 257.5) prohibits the use of any feed (real or artificial) that is capable of attracting an animal to an area, and when the attractant used causes the animal to feed (on the substance), it is prohibited)

Please change this introduction to not do something that photographers have panned as unethical, please don't teach wildlife that people = food source.

Thank you

Dear Saraminka—

You are 100-percent correct. It was and is irresponsible for Explora to post anything that encourages people to act unethically toward animals or the environment, including baiting. It was a mistake born of ignorance, but a mistake nonetheless. We have removed the offending text and, moving forward, pledge to use better judgement in our articles, especially when it comes to topics as important as conservation and the ethical treatment of wildlife. We are sincerely grateful for your vigilance and thank you for taking the time to address this issue and helping us make it right.   ​

I'm so disappointed to read B&H recommending unethical practices like wild animal baiting in this article. Practices like that are banned in many publications, online communities and elsewhere. I would encourage Mr. Weitz, whose comment below did not address Camille S's concern, to learn about basic outdoor ethics. In particular Leave No Trace ethics, which are really quite basic and fundamental. Some of the practices recommended in this article are exemplars of why wildlife photographers are so distrusted in many parts of the outdoors and conservation communities. I hope Mr. Weitz will refrain from giving the rest of us a bad name and I hope B&H will replace this article with one written by an ethical wildlife photographer.

Dear Angie—

Thank you for both your concern and commentary, and more importantly, helping us correct a mistake we had unknowingly made. We can assure you it was never our intention to purposely encourage the mistreatment of any animal in any way. However, ignorance does not excuse bad behavior, and we would like to apologize for any harm we might have caused and take ownership of setting things right. It is our sincere hope that we can earn your trust back, and that you will remain part of the B&H Explora community. 

The photos are beautiful but telling people to bait large mammals and sneak up to birds is irresponsible! And illegal in state parks, at least in Colorado. As an avid bird watcher who monitors raptors & their nests, this behavior angers me.  

Hi Camille,

I'm not sure how the laws differ in Connecticut, but this heron is a local celebrity at my local park who is photographed constantly throughout the course of the day. For what it's worth, when I see school kids taunting the birds I politely explain why they shouldn't traumatize birds and animals.

-AW

Allan,

Thanks for the great intro. Beautiful head & shoulder shot of the heron!

Thank you for reading, and for the compliment.

2 suggestions.

1: separate the focus from the shutter button, it will take a little practice but this works a lot better 

2: I like to set my shutter speed to 1250/sec as I use a  large telephoto hand held , I also set the aperture and let the ISO float.  I find that a slow shutter speed ruins more photos than anything else

Lester S., thank you for sharing these tech tips!

What was the zoom lens you used for those Blue Heron shots?  That bokeh is kinda crazy :)

It wasn't a zoom - it's a Tokina SZX 400mm f/8 mirror lens. Those are 'donut's; you are referring to.

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