Photo Review tech editor Margaret Brown has some practical advice on the preparation, camera gear, settings and shooting tips for taking memorable wildlife photos.
The most important criteria for success in this highly specialised genre are being in the right place at the right time and having the right equipment. You also need prior research, luck and commonsense.
It can be difficult for amateurs to find the time and resources to get into the locations where most professional shots are taken. However, there are plenty of ways to obtain memorable shots, starting with zoos and wildlife parks, which are readily accessible to the public.
The equipment you need will vary but one thing you’re likely to require is a telephoto lens with a focal length of at least 200mm (or equivalent) in 35mm format. Modern interchangeable-lens cameras will provide all of the controls you require. Many key controls are also available in compact, super-zoom cameras.
The latest super-zoom cameras will often provide all the controls you need for taking great shots of wildlife in a compact, easy-to-use body.
Photographic tours can take you to places where you should be able to obtain good shots of iconic birds or animals. Many places feed wildlife on purpose, either to provide a tourist attraction and bring business opportunities to the community or to keep animals or birds from damaging crops. These places can be great for obtaining close-up shots of creatures that would otherwise be difficult to photograph.
But don’t expect to have the best sites to yourself; it’s more likely you’ll face a lot of competition – and not all of it from others in your group. Be prepared for crowding in the best-known places. Lines of photographers three or four deep are common in some popular areas.
Photographers ranked four-deep on the Otowa Bridge in Hokkaido in February, waiting for the iconic Red-crowned Cranes to leave the warmer water of the river (lower image) in search of food at the nearby Akan sanctuary. It’s difficult to obtain good viewpoints in situations like this and long lenses are vital when the birds prove reluctant to move.
Research prior to departure should inform you about what to expect in the areas you plan to visit and what time of year is best for seeing the animals and birds you want to photograph. You will also need to discover how to get there (and back) and the best ways to get around.
Luck is less predictable. The old saying that ‘fortune favours the well-prepared’ is perfectly true when it comes to wildlife photography, so the better your preparation, the more likely you will be to get lucky. But animal behaviour is unpredictable and totally out of your control.
Being in the right place at the right time and having appropriate equipment will give you the best chances for getting great wildlife shots.
You can’t ask an animal or bird to pose for your camera – or to present a better shooting angle or move into better lighting. Patience is vital for good photographs, as professional wildlife photographers will affirm. The longer you can spend watching an animal, the more likely you will understand what they are doing and be able to obtain great shots.
Dedicated safaris and whale watching trips can provide great opportunities for keen amateur photographers. The rangers and guides who run these trips know where the animals are and when they can normally be seen at their best. They also have appropriate vehicles and other equipment for making the trip a success.
The macaques at the Jigokudani park near Yudanaka in central Japan are accustomed to people so it’s easy to obtain close-up shots, although you need a relatively long lens (200mm or more) to take intimate portraits.
Where animals and birds are accustomed to people (‘habituated’), you can usually get quite close to them, as long as they aren’t dangerous. Nice close-up shots can be taken with relatively short telephoto lenses (135mm to 250mm). You will need to move as quietly as possible and be prepared to back off at any signs of threatening behaviour, although this can simply be a warning; not an intention to act.
Trips to Antarctica can present great opportunities to photograph penguins, seals and other wildlife. But you’ll need a long lens and appropriate clothing to venture out in weather conditions like those seen in this shot.
Be prepared to accept some constraints on where you can go and how freely you can move about and different places will have different restrictions on your movements, particularly in places like Africa and Antarctica, where abundant wildlife attracts many photographers. Well-run tours will take you into places where you can expect to see the iconic animals and birds but you’ll usually be restricted to shooting from a vehicle.
In Antarctica, that will usually be a cruise ship and a Zodiac, whereas in Africa special safari vehicles are the rule. Both will provide the best chances for close-up shots as most of the wildlife will ignore them.
In Antarctica, the climate is the primary hazard, while in Africa, risks come from the wildlife itself. Safari participants must remain in vehicles for their safety. Guides tell chilling stories about clients mauled by lions or trampled by elephants when they disobeyed instructions.
It’s usually easy to take close-up shots of animals like zebras and giraffes from safari vehicles since they are abundant and easy to spot.
Some photographers take safaris with the aim of ‘bagging’ ‘The Big Five’ animals (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino), which are chosen for the difficulty in hunting them and the degree of danger involved, rather than their size or physical attractiveness. Make sure you don’t miss out on photographing other animals like giraffes, zebras, warthogs and the many attractive deer species.
Even the best-run safaris can’t guarantee you’ll get a close shot like this of a leopard. Solitary by nature and elusive by habit, leopards can be difficult to see in the long grass during the day. They also tend to hunt at night.
North America is renowned for iconic species like brown bears, bison and beavers, many of which can be photographed in the popular national parks. But don’t ignore the many birds, which range in size from tiny hummingbirds to large bald eagles as well as insects like the monarch butterfly, which makes annual migrations involving millions of individuals, from southern Canada and the northern United States all the way down to Mexico.
Avoid using flash when photographing animals and birds, particularly at night. Bright lights will blind them for a minute or more and cause them to take flight. Be prepared to increase ISO speed and accept some noise in your shots in these situations.
Sometimes animals – and birds in particular – will come to you. But don’t be tempted to feed them in the wild as it can make them dependent and, often, aggressive. While some public reserves have facilities for feeding wildlife, you will normally be required to buy special foodstuffs.
Steller’s Sea Eagles battling for a fish that was thrown from a tourists’ boat to attract them for photographers’ cameras. Shots like this are easy to obtain in such situations, even with fairly basic equipment.
Official feeding times can provide opportunities to photograph animals in action, particularly in the reserves and game parks. This is often the only way most tourists can get pictures of the ‘big cats’ running. Like domestic cats, they tend to spend much of the day dozing, which doesn’t make for good photos.
Lions in game reserves seldom stir themselves unless there’s food in the offing. Make sure you check out feeding times so you don’t miss opportunities for some ‘action’ shots.
This article by Margaret Brown is an excerpt from Travel Photography 3rd Edition