Getting Started with Animal Photography

May 02

18 min. to read

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Wildlife photography is about shooting wild animals in their natural habitats. In addition to animal photography skills, wildlife photographers may need outdoor skills.

What makes wildlife photography complicated? You can’t force animals to go where you want or do what you want. So the decisions you make will rely mostly on what your animal subjects are doing. If you don’t learn your subjects so you can read their behavior, you won’t get good shots. The best way to capture as many great shots as possible is to study animals and practice shooting.

The best wildlife cameras

Choosing the best wildlife camera

There are many cameras out there, but not all are versatile enough for capturing wildlife. The best options for wildlife photography are DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. Mid-range and professional models are usually weather-sealed, have a manual mode, and take interchangeable lenses.

An average camera won’t last long if regularly exposed to adverse weather conditions, so you’ll need a weatherproof camera. And shooting outdoors can be tricky even for the most advanced cameras, so you’ll need to adjust the camera settings manually. 

Learn more about the best hunting cameras

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Photo by Iurie Belegurschi

Use the right lens

The most common lenses for wildlife photography are telephoto because they let you shoot from far distances. Some of them have optical stabilization to reduce shaking, which is accentuated by extreme magnification. However, these models can also be quite pricey. Thankfully, there are also affordable plastic lenses for your first time in the field. 

Start with a telephoto zoom for more flexibility. You can get an 18–300mm lens for a few hundred dollars and use it to take photos up close or at far distances. 

If wildlife photography for you means shooting insects and other small animals, you’ll also need a macro lens for close-ups. Consider a 100mm lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8 — this should meet most of your macro needs.

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Photo by Kevin Pashuk

Wildlife photography techniques

Follow these wildlife photography tips to easily get started, achieve awesome results, and become a genuine photography expert. 

1. Protect yourself and your camera

Before you start with animal photography, ensure you have protective equipment to keep you and your camera safe from harsh weather. A hat with a mosquito net is perfect because it will protect your face and entire head. 

Also, bring a raincoat to cover you, your backpack, and your camera. You can even use it as a small tent to hide from torrential downpours.

When you shoot in winter, wear a thick jacket and gloves specially designed for photographers that expose your pointer finger when shooting. To protect your gear, buy a durable, water-resistant camera backpack.

Alternatively, bring a rain cover for your camera and lens. It will shield your equipment not only from the rain but also from mud and dust. 

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Photo by Kevin Pashuk

2. Use the right camera settings

The very first step to achieving success in wildlife photography is having the right camera settings. Start with ISO. It’s best to use an ISO of 100 or 200 to avoid digital noise in your photos. For low-light conditions, however, you can set a higher ISO as long as it doesn’t harm the image quality. When there’s poor lighting, use ISO 800 so you don’t allow too much noise.

Then you need to adjust your shutter speed. If you’re photographing animals that move all the time, set a fast shutter speed to avoid motion blur. This will let you capture crucial moments. For capturing slow-moving animals, 1/1000 of a second should be enough. For speedy animals like birds, however, you’ll need 1/2000 or higher.

Perhaps the most challenging part of photographing wildlife is setting the right focus for different situations. When shooting animals in motion, the best option is continuous autofocus. 

3. Use a sturdy tripod

To make sure your equipment is safe, you’ll need an aluminum or carbon fiber tripod. They’re rather expensive, but at least you won’t have to worry that your tripod will collapse under heavy weight. Plus, you may need a tripod with multi-angle legs (like a GorillaPod) that firmly stands on an uneven surface. 

Moreover, don’t forget about the tripod head, which is essential for shooting wildlife. There are many types, but the most popular are the ball head and the gimbal head. If you shoot with a medium telephoto lens that’s not too heavy, use a ball head because it rotates smoothly and is easy to adjust. For larger telephoto lenses, use a gimbal head to keep the lens balanced while you’re holding the camera.

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Photo by Jason Hahn

4. Know the animals you’re photographing

Before you go out, get familiar with the animals you want to photograph. Start by learning where they live and the time of day when they come out. The best time to find grazing deer, for example, is at twilight when they feed. Animals can be tough to see in the wild. Many of them hide, so you can’t find them unless you look for the clues they leave behind.

For starters, it’s best to follow local wildlife photographers and other nature lovers to learn some wildlife photography techniques, observe habits of animals, and learn how to remain unnoticed while shooting. If you follow a professional, you’ll know what to do once you start going out by yourself. 

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Photo by Jason Hahn

5. Practice shooting animal photography

This is probably the most useful of our photography techniques. If you’ve ever tried observing birds, squirrels, or even stray cats, you know they’re very alert and usually run away before you get close. This is the natural reaction of most wild animals. Before setting out into the woods with your camera, practice shooting animals in a more accessible location so you’ll be ready to catch more elusive creatures in the future.

A great place to hone your animal photography skills is at the zoo. It’s a safe place to shoot even potentially dangerous animals. What also may be beneficial is talking to animal experts at the zoo who can share helpful information about the animals.

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Photo by Jason Hahn

6. Get low while shooting

Animals are afraid of strange noises and motion, so you if produce too much noise you may end up chasing them away. Try to be calm to avoid scaring them off when taking photos. Slowly approach them when you’re sure they’re not looking at you. Once you’re at a safe distance, gently press the shutter.

As the shutter button makes a sound that can spook an animal, consider using the silent shutter feature if your camera has one. You can also benefit from burst mode when shooting wildlife; it’s perfect for capturing running animals.

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Photo by Evgeny Tchebotarev

7. Use rules of composition

Follow the rule of thirds. You can either use the grid on your camera or imagine a grid and divide the frame yourself. Then place your animal on one of the intersections to create a balanced photo.

A photo generally looks best when you provide space in the direction your subject’s head is pointed. For example, since this bear is looking to the right, you need to reframe your shot in the same direction to give it ample space. Otherwise, your photo might look boring or claustrophobic.

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Photo by Phil Mercier

8. Stay calm

Be aware of what’s going on and pay attention to your animal’s movements. Consider what they’re doing or what they intend to do. If you learn an animal well, you’ll know how to anticipate its actions. Stay calm and wait for the right situation.

Don’t get into the habit of always checking the viewfinder or the screen. Observe your surroundings with your naked eyes so you can see everything better. Look into the viewfinder only when you’re ready to shoot.

9. Scout good locations

Wildlife parks are the best places for beginners. They typically have a list of animals found on the premises, and many of them even show you exactly where and how you can find the animals.

Many of these parks are vast, so map out the spot for your photo shoot or you might end up getting lost. Once you get to your site, explore it first before setting up your equipment. Look for scenic areas and natural features such as mountains, trees, and fields of flowers you can incorporate into your animal photos.

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Photo by Kevin Pashuk

10. Love the animals

This is probably the most important rule. Only passionate nature lovers achieve success in this field. Animals are living creatures who understand you better than you think. If you show impatience, cruelty, or ignorance, they won’t accept you and won’t let you approach them.

On top of that, wildlife photography is tough to master. It takes much time to become a pro. However, once you succeed, you’ll never stop reaping benefits from it. 

Post-processing tips

Fine-tuning your pictures of animals with Luminar 3 is as easy as pie. Even if you were a little off with your photography techniques, you have limitless opportunities to enhance your images in photo editing software. Whether you need to make primary adjustments, correct colors, recover contrast, or make a stylized photo, Luminar 3 has you covered.

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Photo by Jason Hahn

Enhance your images with one slider

The Accent AI 2.0 filter in the Luminar 3 photo enhancer automatically analyzes your pictures of animals and instantly corrects them. Under the hood, it uses more than a dozen controls. This filter gives you naturally beautiful results with one simple slider. The Accent AI filter can substitute for many traditional controls, including for shadows, highlights, contrast, tone, saturation, exposure, and details.

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Create a dramatic wildlife photo

To add drama to your photos, use the B&W Conversion filter. You can also use the Dramatic filter — a creative filter that lowers saturation and increases contrast to achieve a gritty cinematic look for your animal photos.

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Photo by Jason Hahn

Boost the warmth with Golden Hour

Use the Golden Hour filter to bring warmth, softness, and a golden glow to all of your wildlife photos. Simply dial in the amount of warm toning using the Amount slider and use the Saturation slider to introduce more overall vibrancy. Quickly emulate the magic that happens just after sunrise and just before sunset.

Create a dreamy effect with Image Radiance

The Image Radiance filter provides a dreamy look to your pictures of animals by softening luminescence while increasing contrast and saturation. It can create a fantasy look by increasing contrast and adding a creative glow that’s prioritized to lighter areas of the image.

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Photo by Jason Hahn

Apply a one-click Look

An extensive collection of Luminar Looks help you save time when editing your wildlife photos. Professional photographers from around the world have helped us create this collection, which can give your animal photos amazing enhancements in a single click.

Luminar 4 Your photography. Elevated.

Replace the sky in your photos, instantly! Boost details with AI Structure. Discover more amazing tools in the new Luminar 4.

  • AI Sky Replacement
  • AI Structure
  • 60+ cutting edge features
  • Instant Looks
  • And more

Tips from a world-renowned wildlife photographer

Kevin Dooley grew up in a photo studio watching his father work and at an early age resolved to become a professional photographer. Today, he’s a Skylum affiliate partner and a top-notch photographer with more than 36 years of experience and a never-ending love for wildlife. Everyone admires his gorgeous pictures of animals.

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Photo by Kevin Dooley

So what makes Kevin Dooley amazing at what he does? He lives and works in total harmony with nature, so much so that it seems wild animals are posing on their own. You’ll hardly find a person more passionate about and more dedicated to wildlife and nature, and his wildlife pictures are clear testaments to this.

Photography is my occupation; however, it’s way more than that. It’s my lifestyle, my passion, and my hobby. I love, live, and dream it.

To take the best wildlife pictures, Kevin uses a Canon 5DS, 5D Mark IV and 1D X Mark II, Sigma 150–600mm sport, Sigma 14mm, Canon 28–300mm, Canon 600EX II flash, Hoodman lens cleaners, ProMediaGear carbon fiber tripod, and Katona gimbal head.

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Photo by Kevin Dooley

According to Kevin, the most important part of wildlife photography is having a lot of patience — remaining very quiet and still and waiting for the perfect expression and action. If you want more inspiration to create stunning images of animals, check out the best wildlife photographers of 2018.

Wildlife photography is more than an occupation. It’s a passion and a hobby; it’s investigation, science, and art. Once you get into wildlife photography, you’ll be wandering through the unspoiled places of the world and enjoying their undiscovered beauty. It may take you years to master, but you’ll never stop learning from it. This kind of alliance with nature will make you a better photographer and a better person.

Luminar 4 Your photography. Elevated.

Replace the sky in your photos, instantly! Boost details with AI Structure. Discover more amazing tools in the new Luminar 4.

  • AI Sky Replacement
  • AI Structure
  • 60+ cutting edge features
  • Instant Looks
  • And more

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