Top 10 tips for wildlife photography beginners

So you recently bought your first DSLR camera and lens, booked a photographic safari and are ready to photograph a whole coffee table book of stunning wildlife photographs in one trip! The only problem is that you think the “P” stands for Professional and the “A” for Amateur on the camera dial! Here are my top 10 tips for any beginner photographer.

 

1. Focus on the eye

The viewer’s attention is always drawn to the eye of the subject. This is the strongest element in your photo that needs to be well illuminated and importantly, IN FOCUS. It’s the element that gives “life” to the subject. The closer you are to an animal the more important this becomes as the depth of focus increases (levels of focus on a subject). Use a single autofocus point and move it to eye of the subject while maintain your striking composition.

Lion, Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya | 1/1000 sec at f/4, ISO 400 | 1D Mark IV + 600mmf/4 | Av, 0 ev

2. Look for a plain background

Choosing the right background is one of the biggest considerations for the angle to photograph your subject at. The better you can separate your subject from the background the more striking it would be. This would keep the viewer’s attention ON the subject. Choosing a shallow depth of field to create a blurred background is one way of achieving this, the other way is to change your position in relation to the subject until you find a uniform background without any distracting elements.

Green-backed Heron, Kruger National Park in South Africa | 1/1000 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200 | 20D + 600mmf/4 + 1.4x | Av, 0 ev

 

3. Compose! Not in the middle

When you look at the impressive African animals through your view finder, you are likely to be drawn in and be captivated by their beauty. This usually leads to the cross hair syndrome where you, like a hunter, fire straight at your subject composed in the middle of your frame. Remember to consider composing your subject away from the centre of the frame, leaving it the theoretical space for the subject to look into or move into. Try to find elements in the opposite corner of the frame to balance your subject with.

Elephant, Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya | 1/800 sec at f/8, ISO 200 | 1D Mark IV + 600mmf/4 | Av, 0 ev

 

4. Wait for good light

The photographs that stand out above the rest are the ones that have either captured incredible action, invoked an emotion by the viewer or have a wonderful mood and feel to it. One way to create mood and feel in a photo is to use spectacular light, the kind of light that you get in the first or last hour of sunlight. This light is soft and gold in color with the low angle of the sun illuminating the subjects from the side. Make sure you get out early to give yourself the best chance of finding a good sighting in the early morning light.

Zebra, Okavango Delta in Botswana | 1/800 sec at f/4, ISO 200 | 5D Mark II + 600mmf/4 | Av, 0 ev

 

5. Be ready!

When you capture a subject doing something interesting it can take a photo from ordinary to spectacular. A lion yawning, a bird lifting its wing during takeoff or a cheetah smiling. You have to patiently wait but be ready for a special moment that usually happens unexpectedly. It helps to learn your subject’s behavior. A bird gives an indication just before it will takeoff, a lion will yawn after waking up and cheetah cubs become playful after a meal. The key is to keep your eyes open and be ready no matter how uneventful things might seem at that moment.

Cheetah, Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya | 1/250 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200 | 1D Mark IV + Canon 600mmf/4 | Av, 0 ev

 

6. Make sure it’s sharp

Whether you photograph on aperture priority mode like most wildlife photographers or any other mode, always take notice of your shutter speed to make sure your photographs are sharp. This becomes increasingly important when photographing action or moving animals. In aperture priority mode the shutter speed can be modified by changing the aperture and ISO values. With good camera and lens support a portrait can be photographed at anything from 1/50 to 1/320 second shutter speed, walking animals from 1/400 to 1/800, running animals from 1/1000 to 1/1250, flying birds from 1/1600 to 1/2500, and small, fast flying birds at 1/3200.

Malachite Kingfisher, Marievale Bird Sanctuary in South Africa | 1/3200 sec at f/8, ISO 800 | 1D Mark II N + Canon 600mmf/4 | Av, 0 ev

 

7. Make sure your subject is in focus!

This might seem obvious, but I still see a fair number of photos these days where the background is in focus instead of the subject. This is mainly due to the camera setup with all the focus points active, leaving the camera to choose where in the frame to focus. Change this setting to use a single autofocus point instead. Make sure that point is over your subject and so be in control of where the camera will focus. Another advantage of this setting is that the camera does fewer calculations to determine focus and thus focusses much faster and more accurately.

Impala, Kruger National Park in South Africa | 1/320 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200 | 5D Mark II + 400mmf/5.6 | Av, 0 ev

 

8. Don’t forget about vertical compositions

We are often so captivated with what we see through the viewfinder that we forget to pay attention to composition and the camera settings. Remember to compose each photo and that in nature some shapes and scenes lend themselves to a vertical composition. Don’t forget to turn your camera 90 degrees and photograph in portrait mode. Tall animals like giraffe, head portraits of most animals, birds with long necks like flamingoes and herons, and landscape scenes with significant clouds might all merit a vertical composition.

Zebra, Rietvlei Dam Nature Reserve in South Africa | 1/30 sec at f/8, ISO 200 | 20D + 100-200mmf/5.6 | Av, 0 ev

 

9. When the light gets tricky, switch to manual mode

In tricky lighting situations like spotlit animals in the dark, or backlit subjects in low light, it becomes increasingly difficult to get your exposure right. The camera struggles to calculate what the correct exposure should be and as a result one usually ends up changing the exposure compensation vigorously, resulting in poorly exposed or blurred photos. Since the light is low we want to use a large aperture (small f-stop) and a shutter speed fast enough for a sharp photo. Switch to manual mode and keep modifying your camera settings, i.e. f-stop, shutter speed and ISO until the your histogram confirms the correct exposure.

Leopard, Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana | 1/200 sec at f/4, ISO 6400 |
D3s + 200-400mmf/4 | M, 0 ev

 

10. Get close, go wide

I often see portfolio’s with mostly tight shots and head portraits of animals. The worst is when people crop significantly to produce similar photos but end up with poor quality and pixelated images. The tight portrait shots have great impact but remember to also take photos that showcase the animals in their natural environment. A leopard photo from the Kalahari desert should look different to a leopard photo from the Okavango Delta! Use a wider lens to include the environment and get close to your subject to have it large in the frame.

Agama Lizard, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in South Africa | 1/320 sec at f/8, ISO 100 | 5D Mark II + 70-200mmf/2.8 | Av, 0 ev

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About the Author

Isak is a specialist wildlife photographic guide from South Africa. His discovery of nature's special moments at a young age shaped his aspirations of today: to showcase the beauty of his continent's natural wonders in a creative way.

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