Wildlife photography can manage to be one of the most rewarding or frustrating types of photography. If done properly, you can create a wonderful document of our incredible natural world. It can tell a beautiful story. It can be moving. If not done well, it can leave you immensely dissatisfied and annoyed that you didn’t manage to capture a great photo. This is especially true if you have paid to go on a safari, and you are not going to be able to easily repeat your experience! To do this consistently well is a lifetime pursuit - follow the work of National Geographic Photographer Paul Nicklen as he has dedicated most of his life to this passion. However, saying this, there are things you can do to improve your odds of getting the magical shot! These are 5 things you need to consider when going to capture amazing wildlife photos.
1) Lens Choice
When you are picking a lens for Wildlife Photography, there are two key things to consider. The focal length and the maximum aperture. The focal length is key, as having a lens which gets you close enough to the subject is key. Standard lenses for wildlife would cover between 100 - 400mm (or longer). There are multiple reasons that having the right focal length lens is very important. Firstly, you will have to crop your final image less. This means you get a more detailed photograph (less cropping means more pixels!). Secondly, your camera’s focus system will be more accurate if you are capturing your ‘final crop’ in camera. This is very important, as you will find focus accuracy is one of the biggest struggles with this kind of photography, so making this easier for yourself will be invaluable!
The maximum aperture of your lens is another factor to consider. This is important because you are typically going to be using faster shutter speeds, and therefore will have to adjust your other camera settings to get an accurate exposure. Having a lens that lets in more light (lower maximum aperture) will mean you do not have to push your ISO as high, and therefore you will create a ‘cleaner’, or less grainy image (as well as better colour rendition). Therefore you are ideally looking for a lens with an aperture of f/4.
You are looking for the best combination of these two factors to find the best lens for you. I would largely suggest that you look for zoom lenses which cater to a specific catergory (I.E. 70 -200mm, or 100-300mm vs a 28-300mm), meaning that you have a lens which is just ‘telephoto’ rather than something which covers ‘wide’, ‘mid-telephoto’ and ‘telephoto’ - it will end up not being particularly good at any of them in exchange for the flexibility!
Here is a list of lenses that I recommend (as of May 2019) from less to more expensive for different camera brands:
Sigma APO 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG Macro (Canon or Nikon)
Tamron SP AF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 Di VC USD (Canon or Nikon)
Olympus M.Zuiko ED 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 II (Olympus)
Sigma 150-600 mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM (Canon or Nikon)
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM (Canon)
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM (Canon)
Nikon 200-400mm f/4 ED VR II (Nikon)
Fujifilm XF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR (Fuji)
Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6 G SSM II (Sony A Mount)
Sony 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS (Sony E Mount)
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM (Canon)
Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR (Nikon)
2) Shutter Speed
The shutter speed that you choose to use for Wildlife Photography is arguably the most important of all your camera settings. If not set fast enough, you will get motion blur - either because you are not holding your long lens still enough - or more likely, the animal is moving. At a minimum, you need to follow the Focal Length = Shutter Speed rule, for example if shooting at 200mm you need to use a minimum shutter speed of 1/200. This should ensure that you do not cause any motion blur from you holding the lens. You will need to increase this to compensate for animals moving. As a good general series of guidelines, I suggest 1/500 for a running human, and 1/800 for a running horse. You will need faster than this for a leopard, cheetah or gazelle! However it is also important to consider that the faster you set your shutter speed, the darker your exposure will be. In some situations, setting your speed ‘faster than necessary’, say 1/4000 when 1/1000 would be enough, can affect the quality of your image. To compensate for the darker exposure with faster speeds, you will have to increase the ISO - adding noise to your image. Keep this in mind, especially as it gets later in the day!
There are more advanced techniques which involve different uses of shutter speed, like Panning, however for this piece I would like to focus on freezing your subject for a sharp photograph - as this is going to be the most common approach to Wildlife photography.
When working with moving subjects I recommend using continuous auto-focus rather than single shot focus mode (the default mode). In single shot mode, your focus will be locked when you half-press the shutter button. In the period of time before you fully press the button, you or your subject may move, resulting in a slightly out of focus image. In continuous auto-focus mode, the camera will continuously readjust the focus right up until the point at which the photo is taken.
Next, I suggest using Single Point Focus for slow or still animals. This means you will manually selected a focus point in your viewfinder. The smaller the point, the more precise the focus will be. Usually you want to aim for the subject’s eye as this is the area you are looking to achieve sharpest focus. It can be a slightly ‘fiddly’ technique, but through practice you will get faster at switching between points on the fly! Sometimes you may have to compromise by getting a slightly worse composition if you cannot change focus points fast enough - however if you leave yourself some extra space in your frame, you can crop to fix this afterwards.
With wildlife photography, you never know what’s going to happen or when. Being prepared is half the battle to capturing good images. By having your camera in ‘high burst’ or ‘high continuous’ mode (Holding down the Shutter Button will take continuous photographs, at the camera’s fastest speed), if the action should suddenly kick off, you’ll always have access to your cameras fastest frame rate. If something suddenly happens that requires a fast frame rate, by the time your brain has registered that and you’ve then switched the camera from single shot to burst mode, the action could be over. It will also give you the ability to pick between similar pictures after the fact, giving you more leeway for focus accuracy and the moment the animal is in (e.g. eyes open or closed!).
It is worth noting that using a smaller aperture (higher f/ number) will help you get better focus, more often, as it will give you a deeper depth of field (higher depth of focus).
Light, as with any genre of photography, is key (unsurprisingly!). Flattering light for people, is similarly flattering for animals. Diffused light offers largely the best conditions to be photographing wildlife in, as it will have softer shadows, and less contrast. Hard light, as found in the middle of the day (direct sun from above), is going to produce starker images with less attractive contrast. The best times to photograph are going to be early in the morning (after sunrise) and the two hours before sunset, where the sun is lower in the sky, and therefore the light is passing through more layers of atmosphere, resulting in softer light. If you are photographing in the middle of the day, you are ideally looking for light cloud cover rather than direct sun. If it is a beautiful, blue sky day, then subjects under the shade of trees or rocks will result in the best photographs. Its not to say that you shouldn’t photograph during less-optimal conditions, it is just worth being aware of what and when they are!
Importance of composition should not go out the window when photographing wildlife. In the excitement of the moment, take a second to consider your composition. What elements can you use to amplify your subject. Use line, colour, angle to help your photograph come together. Remember, everything in your frame makes up the image, not just the subject! Can you use long grass to help frame the animal? Does zooming out and giving them more space add to the context of the scene? Can you zoom right in close so that their face fills the frame? Can you frame up for two animals in a herd to tell a more personal narrative? Treat every situation differently, and try to think through some of these questions before you even raise the camera to your eye. If you are on safari, at the end of each day, it is worth looking through your photos, and analysing what you like and don’t like. Then use these thoughts to help influence your shooting going forward!