Wildlife Photography Basics: Mountain lions and tiger salamanders and grizzly bears, Oh My!
I’ve always loved wildlife. As a kid and as a grownup. Before I became a pro photog, my job was to talk, and write, about wildlife for our state’s wildlife agency. I was surrounded every day by some of the most stunning wildlife photography images imaginable and the talented photogs who shot them. So much so that it prompted me to pick up my camera and become a better photographer myself.
I’m still not a world-class wildlife photographer. My work doesn’t hang in the Smithsonian and it’s never been on the cover of National Georgraphic. But photographing wildlife is something I love. Few things in this world give me as much joy as sitting in the tall grass, the sun just cresting the horizon, camera in hand. Feeling the wind on my face, hearing the cackle and purrs and whirrs of animals at first light…that’s my religion.
If being around wildlife and photographing them has stirred something in your soul, you are not alone. Wildlife photography is becoming more popular and technology has made it more affordable for the casual shooter. I’ll discuss how to shoot wildlife safely and the best lenses to use, introduce you to some famous wildlife photographers for inspiration, discuss the earning potential of wildlife photographers and give you a few pointers to get you started in the field.
Let’s talk safety. Yours AND that of the wildlife. Wildlife are just that…wild creatures. They are not pets. Some wild animals have become accustomed to the presence of humans, but they can still be dangerous and unpredictable. It is your responsibility to respect their boundaries and create a safe shooting environment. I’ve seen too many casual photographers jeopardize themselves. I’ve also seen how well-meaning but ignorant actions from photographers and wildlife enthusiasts harm wildlife. So please, as a fellow photog and wildlife lover, I ask you to keep these in mind.
Give them space.
Every animal has a comfort zone. Getting too close and violating that comfort zone stresses the animal. You run the risk of not only scaring the animal away and wrecking your shot, you could be jeopardizing the animal itself. Prey species like deer, antelope and waterfowl depend on distance to keep them safe. Get too close and they most likely will blow. Predators on the other hand, may interpret your infringement of their space as a challenge. Bear, moose, bison, snakes and even badgers may go on the offense and attack if threatened. Warning signs that you are too close include animals moving away from your location, snorting, flared nostrils, stomping aggressively, pinning ears against the head back or hair or feathers ruffled or standing on end. If you see these signs, back off and let the wildlife settle.
If you’re photographing in grizzly bear country, you need to take extra precautions. Know how to protect yourself before you ever set foot on the trail! Click here for ideas on staying safe.
Don’t mess with a mama and her babies.
There is nothing cuter in this world than baby wildlife. And there is nothing more willing to defend her young than a mama wild animal. You’ve heard the term “I went mama bear on him”? It comes from a female bear’s ferocious instinct to defend her young. People have literally died because they threatened a sow grizzly bear and her cubs. Even seemingly mild mannered birds will go berserk if you threaten their young. I have a hunk of scalp missing from two over-protective robins that built a nest on my parent’s deck. Bears, bison and moose are the most dangerous, but deer, birds and other species get grumpy when you mess with their young. Don’t end up on my newsfeed because you became bear feed, please.
Pay attention to your surroundings.
Don’t get so locked in on the scene that you don’t know what’s going on around you. Know what’s behind you and what is between you and your subject. Stop, pause and listen periodically. What noises do you hear? What’s going on that isn’t in the frame? Are other animals entering the area? Are there other people in the area who might mistake you for wildlife? This is especially important if you are photographing where there is active hunting going on.
Respect your subject.
Harassing wildlife is unethical. If you see you are making your subjects uncomfortable, back off. Disturbing wildlife can be harmful to them. You may disturb a mama, forcing her to abandon her babies (even momentarily can make some newborns vulnerable to predators). You can also cause animals to take flight or run away, causing them stress. In winter, the energy wildlife burn running away from you needs to be conserved to stay warm and survive. A close shot is great, but not at the expense of the animals.
And finally, remember these are wild animals living in nature. You are there as an observer, not a rescuer. If you see wildlife that are injured or in need of assistance, contact your state wildlife agency. They’ll know how to handle the situation to minimize the risk to you and the wildlife.
Famous Wildlife Photographers to Inspire You
- Moose Peterson – Peterson has been shooting wildlife for more than three decades. He’s also well-known for his conservation ethic, such as earning the John Muir Conservation Award.
- Melissa Groo – Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer, and conservationist. She writes a bimonthly column on wildlife photography for Outdoor Photographer magazine, and is a contributing editor to Audubon magazine.
- Jen Guyton – Guyton is a wildlife photographer who also bills herself as an ecologist. Much of her work is based in Africa.
- Michael AW – Michael AW is best known for his underwater work and images of marine life.
- Matty Smith – Smith is another underwater photographer and is based out of Australia.
The Best Cameras to Use for Wildlife Photography
Most wildlife photographers who shoot with the intent to sell images are shooting with a DSLR camera. Until the last few years, only DSLRs had the technology a wildlife photographer needed – high resolution, fast auto-focus and high quality compatible telephoto or super telephoto lenses. But some more wildlife photography images are being shot with mirrorless cameras. Mirrorless cameras offer a wildlife photographer the benefit of a lighter camera body and silent shooting, among other things.
Before you rush out and buy a new camera, though, make sure wildlife photography is something you enjoy and will pursue long-term instead of just a season or two.
For a more in-depth discussion on camera bodies and what to look for in a camera for wildlife photography, watch the video at the end of this post.
What’s the best lens to use for wildlife photography?
When I’m out shooting wildlife, I most often reach for my telephoto lens. The reach of a telephoto lens helps you fill your frame with wildlife and draw your viewers in. Look for a lens, either a zoom or a prime, that reaches a minimum of 200-300mm. Sometimes these are called supertelephoto lenses.
Other considerations for a great wildlife lens are speed and image stabilization. A faster lens, one that can shoot at wider apertures, gives you more flexibility out in the field. You’ll be able to shoot in lower light conditions. But long lenses with really fast apertures, like f/2.8, come at a higher price. Don’t be afraid of quality lenses with apertures of f/4 or f/5.6. Yes, you lose a few stops of light but you’ll save a few thousand dollars.
While not a necessity, vibration reduction, or VR, is another helpful feature in a wildlife lens. (Canon calls the same technology image stabilization or IS.) VR technology helps reduce movement from hand shake. VR lets you shoot 4-5 stops slower handheld than you could normally. For example, conventional wisdom says I shouldn’t use a shutter speed slower than 1/200 of a second when shooting my 70-200mm lens at 200mm. VR technology lets me shoot at 1-4 stops slower and still get sharp images. Remember that VR won’t help with motion blur, however. If your lens doesn’t have VR, consider investing in a tripod or monopod to help stabilize your camera.
If you’ve ever hung around many wildlife photographers, you’ll see them packing some seriously big, long lenses. I know a guy that shoots an 800mm and it looks like he’s carrying around an actual canon. Nikon and Canon, along with Sigma, Tamron and some other manufacturers, offer some beast lenses. A favorite is the Canon 400mm f/2.8. But quality and reach like that comes at a steep cost, usually about $12,000 retail. Since most of us don’t have double digits to drop on a new lens, I’d suggest looking into a few of these lenses below. While still not cheap, they are more affordable than a $12,000 lens.
Find a lens that fits your budget and brand of camera. Then research those options to see what lens will best fit your needs. I always recommend renting a lens before you spend several thousand dollars on it to make sure the lens is what you want. You can also find great deals on quality used lenses allowing you to get into better glass for less money. These are options for DSLR cameras.
These lenses are fast, sharp and beautiful. The choice of wildlife and sports photographers and the paparazzi for a reason. They are also more expensive than their zoom counterparts.
Not as fast as the prime lenses but with the added benefit of a zoom and lower price tag. Generally the auto-focus on these lenses isn’t as zippy as the primes, but will still let you
- Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 (about $1,800 new)
- Nikon 200-500 f/5.6 E ED VR (about $1,400 new)
- Sigma 150-600 f/5-6.3 Contemporary (about $889 new, available in Nikon and Canon mounts)
- Tamron 150-600 f/5-6-6.3 Di VC (About $900 new, available in Nikon and Canon mounts)
A teleconverter is something else to consider when creating your wildlife photography kit. A teleconverter extends the reach of your lens, turning your 300mm f/2.8 prime into a 600mm f/5.6 lens for a fraction of the cost. You do lose a little in terms of aperture and quality, but for up close shots without the cost, they are a good option.
Wide angle lenses
If you don’t have a telephoto lens and one isn’t in your budget, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy wildlife photography. It means you’ll either need to get creative in how you get in range (see my tips on using blinds later in this article) or get creative with composition. There is no rule saying every wildlife image must be an extreme close up of an animal. Focus instead on composing at a landscape level where the wild animal is the subject but the background elements help sell the story.
How much can wildlife photographers make? Staff vs. Freelance
Some wildlife photographers serve as staff members for wildlife and conservation organizations or for newspapers and magazines. Most wildlife photogs, however, are freelancers. They sell images for commercial or editorial use, but are their own bosses.
Staff wildlife photographers make anywhere from $35,000 to $50,000 a year, depending on their employer. Some of these are government jobs, requiring a 2-year or 4-year degree. The benefits of being a staff photographer include a designated salary, benefits like health insurance or a retirement plan, travel stipends and equipment. Some staff photography jobs require you to sign a non-compete clause, however, meaning you can’t sell your work privately while under an employment contract. And the images you shoot may become property of your organization instead of your personal property.
Freelance photographers can make more or less that a staff photographer depending on their clients, customers, market, quality of images and how often they actually shoot. Freelancers may contract with publications, websites or companies. They may also sell prints in galleries or online. A freelance wildlife photographer acts independently. This provides more flexibility and creative opportunities, but you are also responsible for your own expenses like equipment, travel and insurance.
Wildlife Photography Tips
I am married to a wildlife biologist who’s been hunting and fishing since he was a kid. I swear finding critters is in the man’s blood. He can just about conjure whatever critter I’m seeking from out of thin air. But if you missed out on this gene, however, or if you’re a newcomer to wildlife photographer, try some of these tips.
Get up early or stay out late
Many wildlife species are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. This isn’t because they love the light of golden hour. It’s to avoid predators and be active when temperatures are more favorable. Ungulates like deer and elk are great examples. Other dusk and dawn lovers are moose, rabbits, skunks, bobcats and bears.
Birds are active during the day, but can be easier to shoot during golden hour. Geese and ducks, for example, settle in for the night in one location. Turkeys go to roost. Know these animals “bedrooms” and you can easily catch them coming and going.
Use a blind
Blinds aren’t just for houses! A blind is a structure designed to conceal you and blend into the background. Setting up a blind can give you cover and let you shoot unseen. Initially animals can be leery of a blind, but once they are accustomed to it being around, it is all but forgotten. Blinds can be as simple as a spot in the trees where you can’t be seen, a collapsible tent-like unit or even small buildings or vehicles. I spent a few hours photographing birds from a retro-fitted school bus one time!
The trick is to get your blind in place and get it in before the animals are on location or active. Hunters will often set up a blind two or three days ahead of their hunt and then sneak into it in the cover of darkness. It’s a great technique for a photography blind, too. Some species, like sage grouse, are perfectly okay with a blind as long as it was there before they arrive to a location. We used to observe these birds on their leks, or breeding grounds, from my husband’s ¾ ton white pickup. Not exactly sneaky!
Get Eye Level and Focus on the Eye
One of the most useful angles you can shoot from in wildlife photography is eye level to your subject. Easy enough for deer or antelope, but it can require some creative postures for smaller mammals or birds.
Know the baiting laws in your area
It can be tempting to try to lure wildlife closer to you to get better photos, usually by enticing them with food. Ethical debates aside, it can be illegal in many places. Generally, you are allowed to feed songbirds at will, so hanging bird feeders is usually acceptable. Feeding other wildlife in an attempt to lure them to a certain area is called baiting. Baiting FOR ANY REASON is illegal in many areas and may net you hefty monetary fines or the loss of your gear. Know the laws in your area. Baiting laws are put in place to protect you and the wildlife. Feeding animals artificially may invite unwelcome pests to your area, be harmful to the wildlife for digestive reasons and promote the spread of certain diseases or make prey species more vulnerable to predators. Understand the laws and consequences first!
Understand good composition
A lot of folks jump right into wildlife photography without first learning the basics of photography. Composition basics like the rule of thirds, leading lines, using negative space and symmetry hold true for wildlife photography. As does having a firm grasp on exposure. Spend some time really learning the art of photography and you’ll be a much better wildlife photographer in the end.
Embrace your inner puma cat
My husband teases me that I have the stealth of a dairy cow. And he’s probably not far off the mark. My cover is often blown before I can ever fire off a frame. If you’re putting the sneak on a critter, stay low and move slow. Keep your head down. Keep your lens and camera covered to avoid reflection. Wear clothes that blend into your surroundings. Get to your location early and wait. And above all, be patient. Wildlife photography involves a lot of planning, waiting and repetition. A mountain lion isn’t successful on every hunt. You won’t be successful every time you go out in pursuit of the ultimate wildlife photography experience, either.
Even if you never make a dime selling your wildlife photography, it can still be an incredibly fun and rewarding endeavor. Stay safe, keep our wildlife safe and keep firing that shutter. As they say, the best photo is the one you take tomorrow. I’ll see you on the trail!