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.
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:
Other factors to consider:
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 (100mm as an absolute minimum, 200mm+ preferably), though it’s good to have a variety of different focal lengths to diversify your shots.
Ideal lenses for wildlife photography:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.