From the tiniest ant to the biggest blue whale, from a maternal embrace to a predatory hunt, wildlife photography celebrates nature at its most captivating. It’s hard to beat the exhilaration of staring down a tiger through your lens, the wonder of capturing a rare bird with your camera, or the delight of documenting baby elephants at play.
Strictly speaking, wildlife photography is about recording fauna in its natural environment. However, many of the techniques that apply in nature are just as useful when photographing animals at the zoo or in your own backyard.
Here are our tips on what gear you need, what settings you should use, and how to go about getting great wildlife photos.
Wildlife Photography Gear
Most animals move quickly and often unpredictably, and many may be too dangerous or easily spooked to approach closely. Photographing them sharply, at just the right place and time, therefore demands a responsive camera and a fast, accurate lens with sufficient reach. It’s possible to get good results from a high quality compact or bridge camera, but a DSLR or mirrorless camera is ideal.
The best wildlife photography cameras typically have the following features:
Manual settings – So you can adapt to fast-changing situations and dictate exactly how you want each image to look
Interchangeable lenses – So you can choose a lens appropriate for the subject and image you’re after, e.g. a telephoto lens for close-ups of a bird nesting several hundred metres away, or a wide angle lens for a herd of zebras crossing the savannah
Fast, reliable autofocus – To capture a non-stationary subject as sharply as possible
High frame rate and good buffer performance – The faster your camera can continuously shoot uninterrupted, the greater your chances of landing the perfect shot of a moving creature
Large sensor – A camera’s sensor size determines the amount of light that reaches each megapixel and greatly influences image quality
Other factors to consider:
Weather sealing – For protection against water, dirt/dust and cold
High resolution – More megapixels = a larger image, which is important if you wish to crop the picture substantially or print it on a canvas for your wall (but not so much if you just want to post it on a website or social media)
As mentioned above, the best wildlife photography lenses are fast: fast in terms of aperture (the wider a lens’ maximum aperture, the faster the shutter speed it will allow) and fast in terms of focusing.
Another incredibly valuable feature of any wildlife photography lens is image stabilisation. Typical wildlife lenses are long—and the longer your lens, the harder it is to keep steady and the more that blur becomes a potential problem. Look for lenses (and/or cameras) with optical stabilisation to minimise this effect.
When it comes to focal length, what’s best for you will greatly depend on what animals you wish to photograph, where, and how. High-impact, close encounter-style wildlife shots need a good amount of zoom (at least 100mm* but preferably 200mm* or more), though it’s good to have a variety of different focal lengths to diversify your shots.
Ideal lenses for wildlife photography:
Telephoto lenses – Telephoto lenses in the 150-600mm* range are most popular for wildlife photography as they allow you to full the frame with your subject without getting too close. Zooms are most versatile but primes (i.e. fixed focal length lenses) are faster and work well for subjects that don’t greatly alter their distance from you.
Wide angle lenses – While tele lenses are great for getting close-ups, wide angle lenses (approx. 16-35mm*) allow you to capture more of the surroundings – perfect for showing the animal in its habitat or for capturing large groups.
Macro lenses – For close-up shots of insects or small animals, you’ll need a macro lens. A focal length of around 100mm* will provide the best combination of magnification and distance and let you capture incredible detail without overshadowing or scaring away your subject. If you don’t have a macro lens, a short telephoto lens used from a distance is a useful compromise.
Budget Lens Options
If you’re starting out or on a budget, a superzoom lens (e.g. 18-300mm*) provides plenty of reach and versatility for relatively low cost.
As another option, you could use a teleconverter to boost the focal length of your existing lens/es. While a teleconverter will slightly reduce your resolution and exposure, it’s a relatively affordable and highly portable alternative to buying an additional lens. (Just be sure to check your lens compatibility first as most teleconverters will work only with specific lenses in each brand's range.)
*All focal lengths are expressed as 35mm or full frame equivalent.
Tripod/monopod – A sturdy tripod is essential to wildlife photography for two reasons: 1) telephoto lenses (favoured for wildlife photography) are harder to hold steady, and 2) photographing birds or animals usually requires a significant amount of waiting time. If you need to move your setup quickly, e.g. if you’re pursuing fast-moving creatures, a monopod might be a better option.
Either way it’s important not to cheap out here, as your tripod/monopod is all that stands between your camera/lens and the ground. If you’re concerned about the weight, look for something that offers a good balance of stability and portability.
Tripod/monopod head – Ball tripod heads are ideal for mid-length lenses as they’re quick and easy to adjust. Gimbal tripod heads work better for very long lenses since they help to balance the additional weight.
Camera trap with remote shutter – If the animal you’re trying to photograph is particularly elusive or if you just don’t want to wait around for it to wander into frame, it’s worth setting up a camera trap. The easiest way to do this is to set up your camera on a tripod (with your frame and focus preset) and rig it to a remote shutter activated by motion, infrared or sound.
Polarising filter – If you’re shooting out in the open during the day, it’s really handy to have a circular polariser to reduce glare (from the sun/reflective water) and prevent colours in the sky/landscape from washing out.
Power and storage – Getting those perfect wildlife shots usually involves taking lots of photos over a long period of time, so be prepared with a full battery (or better yet, two) and at least a couple of fast, high-capacity memory cards.
Camera bag – When it comes to choosing a camera bag for wildlife photography, the key criteria are portability, access, and protection—from damage, weather and even curious animals. Backpacks tend to be ideal, particularly for transporting lots of heavy gear, but a messenger or sling might work better for you if your load is lighter. Ideally, opt for a bag in an inconspicuous colour that won’t draw animals’ attention to you.
Weather protection – Make sure both you and your gear are adequately shielded from the elements, whether it’s sunny, raining, muddy, or below freezing. Even if your camera/lens is weather sealed, a rain cover will give you that extra level of protection.
Waterproof/underwater housing – If you’re photographing animals in or under water, an appropriate water housing for your camera and lens is a must.
Camera Settings for Wildlife Photography
You’ll need a high shutter speed to freeze your subject sharply and avoid motion blur. You may need to experiment with your camera and lens combination, but 1/1000 sec usually works well for slower moving animals (e.g. a grazing horse) while at least 1/2000 sec is usually needed for faster creatures, such as birds.
A wide aperture (i.e. small f-stop value) will help keep your shutter speed fast and background blurred. However, it’s important to watch that this doesn’t make your depth of field too narrow, in which case only a small part of your subject will be in focus. Try shooting at around f/4 and adjust as necessary.
Stick to the lowest ISO setting possible to minimise image noise. Most cameras can go up to ISO 800 without too obvious effect.
In case of unexpected movement burst/continuous mode is recommended, provided it won’t disturb your subject. To avoid doing this, set your shutter to silent (ideally) or quiet mode.
Continuous autofocus (AF) is best for moving animals. However, continuous AF can get confused by other things moving in your frame (e.g. falling leaves, flying insects), in which case it’s best to switch to manual focus.
How to Get Great Wildlife Photos
The best wildlife photographs are often products of chance – a look, a pose, or an act that no one saw coming. Anyone can increase these chances; you just need to follow a few simple guidelines.
Know Your Subject
Understanding an animal’s behaviour is the first step to getting in the right place at the right time to photograph it. Where possible, research your intended subject and habitat well in advance. This way you can anticipate where and when will offer the best lighting, viewpoint and chance of encountering the wildlife in question, and how best to behave around it. Quiet, calm and camouflaged is generally the way to go.
Know Your Camera
To avoid missing that ultimate photo opportunity, you really need to be fluent with your gear. Get to grips with the manual and controls; practise as much as possible; and ensure your settings, battery and memory card are ready to go when the critical moment comes.
Animals don’t make the most cooperative models, so wildlife photography tends to be a waiting game. However, the longer and more closely you observe your subject, the more able you will be to predict and see a shot worth taking.
Compose with Care and Creativity
Good lighting and composition can transform nice shots into extraordinary ones. If in doubt, follow the Rule of Thirds and leave some space for your main subject to ‘look’ into. Then get creative with your composition; whether it’s a low, up-close angle or a dramatic drone’s eye view of the habitat, thinking outside the box will set your photos aside from the rest.
This is as much about safety, i.e. being aware of your surroundings, as it is about having fun, i.e. being in the moment. Keep yourself safe but don’t forget to savour each wildlife encounter.
Find Out More
If you would like more information on the best camera for wildlife photography, general wildlife photography tips or the right gear for getting started, feel free to drop into a store or contact us online or over the phone and we’d be happy to help.