Wildlife photography is one of the most exciting photographic genres out there. But it can be difficult to get started as a wildlife photographer because of all the gear, technical know-how, and additional knowledge required.
That’s what this article is all about. You’re going to discover all the basics you need to get started in wildlife photography–so you can get started taking gorgeous wildlife shots as soon as possible.
Let’s dive right in.
What is Wildlife Photography?
Wildlife photography is a popular genre of photography, done by beginners, enthusiasts, and professionals alike. Technically speaking, wildlife photography involves shooting any type of animal (from birds to insects to butterflies to mammals). But wildlife photographers most commonly photograph mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds.
And that’s what I’ll focus on in this article. If you like to photograph insects, you can still call yourself a wildlife photographer. But I recommend you check out a macro photography tutorial instead, where the needs of insect photographers are catered to.
Note that wildlife photos don’t have to depict animals that are truly “wild.” You can photograph animals in a zoo, and plenty of viewers will still call it wildlife photography. But there is an ongoing debate among wildlife photographers about whether photographing captive animals is acceptable, and so it’s for you to determine where you draw the line.
Why Wildlife Photography?
What makes wildlife photography special?
1. Appreciating Nature
First of all, wildlife photography helps you connect with and appreciate nature. That’s what draws many wildlife photographers in the first place–they love wildlife, they love nature, and they want to spend time capturing its beauty.
2. Helping the Planet
Wildlife photography can also be valuable for conservation purposes. By sharing your wildlife photos, you can portray the beauty of nature. And you can convey messages about the importance of maintaining habitats for your favorite creatures.
3. Feeling a Thrill
Finally, wildlife photography involves a fun challenge. You may spend hours waiting and watching, with no real action. Then, just before the light fades, you get an amazing opportunity–one that comes with an incredible thrill.
Types of Wildlife Photography
There are three broad types of wildlife photography, though plenty of wildlife photographers participate in all of them:
1. Mammal Photography
First, mammals are what most people think of when you talk about wildlife, and so mammal photography is closely associated with wildlife photographers. This category includes a lot of the classic wildlife subjects: polar bears, black/brown bears, wolves, bison, elk, deer, lions, tigers, etc.
2. Bird Photography
Second, bird photography has quite a few devotees, many of whom confine themselves solely to birds. Because birds are so small and fast, bird photography often involves the most expensive equipment (and a lot of frustration in the field!).
3. Underwater Photography
Third, underwater photography is a less talked about, but still impressive, subgenre of wildlife photography. Photographers like Paul Nicklen capture gorgeous photos of orcas, sharks, seals, penguins, and more.
Main Challenges of Wildlife Photography
Wildlife photography can be tricky for a few key reasons.
1. Getting Close to Wildlife
In order to capture beautiful photos of wildlife, you have to be close.
Really, really close.
It’s a common misconception that super telephoto lenses (lenses with focal lengths of 400mm, 500mm, 600mm, and even 800mm) will get you incredibly close to your subject. But the truth is that even the longest lenses still require some pretty significant skill on your part, because most animals are skittish and you have to find a way to close the distance.
This is the biggest challenge that wildlife photographers face. Therefore, getting close is the number one concern of the wildlife photographer; it involves several key considerations, including getting close physically (by stalking, using a blind, etc.) and getting close optically (with a camera/lens combination).
2. Finding Wildlife to Photograph
Even if you have the skills necessary to get close to wildlife, you won’t capture a single photograph if you can’t find wildlife to shoot!
Fortunately, it’s possible to find wildlife in most areas. But you do have to be patient, and you have to know where to look.
One of the easiest ways to get started with wildlife photography is at a local park or preserve. Depending on your location, you may be able to capture some very cool wildlife just minutes from your house.
If you’re struggling to find wildlife near you, I recommend contacting some local park rangers or naturalists. They should be able to direct you toward some good habitat in your area, even if you think there is none!
3. Working With the Available Light
Wildlife photography generally happens out in nature, where you can’t bring your off-camera flashes, and your on-camera flashes are often too weak to illuminate wildlife from a distance.
So you’re often stuck dealing with the available light.
Add to that the fact that most wildlife is active around dawn and dusk…
…and you’ve got yourself a problem.
This is why wildlife photographers use the fastest lenses they can afford, and why wildlife photography is so frequently frustrating.
The key is take failure in stride. You’ll have plenty of bad days–but the good days will make it all worth it.
4. Dealing With Tricky Conditions
Some of the best wildlife shots are taken in adverse conditions: wind, rain, snow, sleet, you name it.
And if you want to capture memorable images, you’ll probably want to brave the conditions, too.
But this can be tough. Trekking through a snowstorm can be physically demanding, not to mention dangerous for your camera gear (and you!). So you have to be prepared, and you have to be determined!
How to Start With Wildlife Photography
If you’re looking to get into wildlife photography, you’ll want to start by getting the required gear. I don’t recommend you start off with a super telephoto lens and high end camera, but you should look for a DSLR or a mirrorless option, and you should aim for a lens that offers at least 300mm on the long end (and 400mm is better).
Note that wildlife photography is one of the genres where an APS-C camera is a great choice, because the crop-factor will give you extra reach.
Once you have a decent camera and long lens, it’s time to get out and start shooting. As mentioned above, a local nature preserve or park is a great place to get your bearings and practice with your equipment. I recommend you practice stalking, where you slowly get close to animals (without causing them stress).
You might also consider visiting local animal sanctuaries, where you can photograph wildlife in relatively calm situations.
Over time, you’ll build up confidence, and you can start to go on expeditions that are farther away and take more planning, skill, and effort.
But always remember that plenty of great shots are available nearby–maybe even in your own backyard!
Wildlife photography is a challenge, but it’s also a lot of fun. If you’re looking to get started as a wildlife photographer, just remember the tips I’ve given you, get out, and start practicing!