This article covers wildlife photography tips for beginners, including gear, settings and composition tips to help accelerate your journey up the steep learning curve. Included are some really simple tips to help you take better wildlife photos without spending thousands on gear. To illustrate what is possible, all images within the post were taken on entry-level or intermediate DSLR crop sensor camera bodies with a relatively cheap and compact superzoom lens.
I would be lying if I said gear isn’t important for wildlife photography. Out of all genres of photography, wildlife photography can be one of the most demanding genres in terms of gear. However, don’t let this put you off, great results can still be achieved without spending thousands.
The need to often shoot in low light, distant and fast subjects makes wide apertures, long focal lengths and fast shutter speeds a significant advantage. These often lead to expensive gear, But as shown with the photos within this post, great images can be achieved with smaller aperture lenses and entry-level DSLR cameras.
For a beginner, the best camera is one that you can use effectively. Although top-of-the-range cameras can help your photography in the future, the short-term focus should be on understanding the basics.
Ideally, invest in a DLSR or Mirrorless camera body, whether it’s a crop sensor or full frame. These have the benefit of interchangeable lenses.
Crop sensor cameras are a great choice if you’re just getting started with wildlife photography, the main reason being the crop factor. The crop factor increases the effective focal length by 1.5-1.6 times in comparison to a full-frame sensor camera. This allows you to get increased reach with shorter focal length lenses which are typically smaller and cheaper. If you’re looking to learn more about the differences, then take a look at this article to help answer the question of Is a crop sensor or full frame sensor camera best for you?
Prioritise spending money on lenses
Even with the best camera, without the right lens, you will be unable to obtain “wow” wildlife photographs.
Longer focal lengths
These allow you to fill the frame with the main subject without causing disturbance to wildlife in their natural habitat. Long lenses also help with compression and separating your subject from the background. Small subjects which are a long way away can become more accessible when using a long focal length lens.
Note that a common best practice is not to advance further if the wildlife notices you and stops doing its normal behaviour. Don’t keep advancing until the wildlife runs or flies away as this could cause unnecessary stress.
Consider second-hand lenses
This will allow you to get more for your money as a wildlife photography beginner. A worse-condition lens is very unlikely to hurt the quality of your photos. However, the longer focal length or wider aperture will help achieve good results for many types of photography. MBP and Park Cameras are good options for purchasing second-hand gear. EBay or Facebook marketplace are also options but come with higher risk.
All photos within this post are taken with either the crop sensor D3200 or D7200. Note that the D3200 is an entry-level DSLR camera which is also old, launched in 2012! However, it has a great sensor, and when paired with the right lens can produce great results.
The lens used for all photos is the Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3, this lens won’t break the bank and I believe this is also one of the best lenses for Nikon D7200 for travel photography. When paired with a crop sensor this provides a 450mm full-frame sensor equivalent focal length but is still lightweight, compact and relatively cheap.
I do however have my eye on the Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF a prime lens, as I do find I’m often after additional reach for distant subjects. When paired with my current Nikon D7200 this will provide an impressive 800mm full-frame sensor, with a brighter f/5.6 aperture and all the benefits that come with a prime lens. To learn more, head to Best prime lens for the Nikon D7200.
One lens I’ve never used for wildlife is my wide-angle lens, unless your subject is very close, it’s difficult to use this type of lens effectively.
If you’re still looking to learn more about lenses the article on the best wildlife lens for Nikon D7200 may be of interest.
Invest in fast memory cards, but make sure you look for fast write speeds not read speeds. Higher write speeds allow the camera to write to the card quicker, allowing your camera to perform at its best for taking photos in fast succession.
Ensure you have spare batteries. In cold weather, batteries can drain faster and if you’re out for long periods the last thing you want is to be out of battery. Please make sure you remember to charge them all before a day of photography! I put a plastic cap over fully charged batteries, just to remember which are charged.
If you’re using smaller lenses then you should be able to handhold without the need for a tripod. However, if you’re using a long focal length zoom or long focal length prime lens then you may need a tripod or monpod as support. It much depends on your preference. Personally, for wildlife, I rarely use my tripod.
Camera modes & settings
This section provides relevant wildlife photography tips for beginners on the topic of camera modes and settings. You can check out the image captions to see the camera settings used for each image within this post.
For a beginner, using manual mode is a high-risk approach and you risk losing photos because of incorrectly adjusted settings. Typically focusing on the correct shutter speed is the most important setting for wildlife. Therefore using shutter priority, as the name suggests helps to keep this under control, letting the camera adjust the aperture to ensure a balanced exposure. You can also use Auto ISO. This will increase ISO when there is insufficient light to maintain the correct exposure for a given lighting condition and shutter speed/aperture combination.
This is an alternative option, and when paired with Auto ISO this allows for a minimum shutter speed to be set. Although I use this approach to photograph wildlife I find I’m often adjusting the minimum shutter speed in the settings, and therefore shutter priority may make more sense. See this beginner’s guide to understanding aperture in photography to learn more about aperture.
Single point focus
I would recommend single-point focus for maximum control unless you have auto-eye AF. You may need to use a mode with multiple focal points for a flying bird. Always ensure the focus point is on the head or eye, and make sure it’s the eye closest to the camera.
Light metering is how your camera measures light and then decides on the correct settings. The area used for light metering can be adjusted through different metering modes. Modes such as spot, centre weighted and matrix/evaluative metering. My suggestion would be to use matrix/evaluative metering as this considers the focal point, but also the surrounding area.
This is used to override the camera light meter, see the general rules below:
- Light background, dark wildlife – Increase exposure compensation (+)
- Dark background, light wildlife – Reduce exposure compensation (-)
After your first shots check your histogram or highlights to adjust the required exposure compensation.
Shoot in bursts
Set your camera up to take multiple exposures quickly. This paired with a fast write-speed memory card and a fast shutter speed is a great way to make sure you don’t miss the action. To prevent you from hitting your camera buffer, shoot in bursts, when the action is happening.
Back button focus
Alocates AF-ON to focus (or any other button), removing the function from the shutter button. This allows the AF-ON button to function as servo mode focus or single shot focus without changing focus modes. Keep your camera in servo/AF-C mode (continuous focus).
Required shutter speeds can vary from very fast shutter speeds for small birds in flight to slow shutter speed shots of large birds or animals on the ground. Typically you want to have a shutter speed which is high enough to achieve in-focus images, but also low enough to maintain a low ISO and therefore low noise.
A general rule is to keep your shutter speed faster than your 1/focal length. e.g 1/300s for a 300mm lens. That being said, this depends on how steady you are, image stabilisation and of course the speed of your subject.
I’ve provided some general shutter speed guidance below, for focal lengths of around 300mm, on a crop sensor camera. However, you will need to test and check what works for you, with your gear in a given situation.
For still wildlife I have found I can go as low as 1/100s, even at 300mm focal lengths, this is with vibration control on the lens turned on. But sticking to 1/320s or above is probably a safer bet.
For moving animals or birds around 1/500s would be a minimum, and something I would use for panning as well.
For flying birds or fast action, 1/1000s and above is required, for small birds even faster at 1/2000s+.
ISO increases the light sensitivity of your sensor. It’s increased when there is insufficient light to maintain the correct exposure for a given lighting, shutter speed and aperture combination.
Set this as high as necessary but as low as possible, this will depend on your camera capabilities. Remember, a higher ISO is far better than a blurry image due to low shutter speed.
Of course, for you to be successful with wildlife photography you need to locate the wildlife! For birds, Ebird has a great tool where you can search by location or species.
Nature reserves and local parks can also be great places, and often the wildlife is more used to seeing people. This allows you to get closer without disturbing them. Checking out local Facebook groups or websites is also a good idea as you can typically find photos of typical wildlife in that specific area.
One thing is for sure, it will take time and you will need to be patient. To increase your chances, make sure you always take your camera out with you. We have plenty of Kingfishers in our local nature reserve, however, I always seem to get the best view when I don’t bring my camera!
Light plays a crucial role in photography as it is the key element that makes it possible. Therefore, it is important to consider the lighting conditions for your wildlife photography. Professional wildlife photographers will know exactly how to use light to their advantage to create stunning images.
Without a doubt, the best time of day for wildlife photography is early morning and evening, when the sun is above the horizon. However, the low light conditions do create several challenges. Getting enough light to your sensor can be tricky, requiring high ISO or slow shutter speeds, even if you have the luxury of a wide aperture lens.
This is most effective when the sun is low in the sky, and this comes with the benefit of golden light soon after sunrise or before sunset and golden hour. You do however need to be in the right place when it comes to composition and subject positioning at the appropriate moment. It can also be tricky to manage shadows and highlights.
This is a useful approach to increase contrast and bring out textures in your wildlife. If you have a bright background you will ideally want to angle the light onto the main body of your wildlife or it may appear very dark.
During the day
If you have no choice but to be out during the middle of the day, winter or cloudy days can work out well, especially if you have impressive scenery and subjects.
In winter the sun stays lower in the sky and is less intense than in summer. This can extend the time when the sun is less intense and where a backlit of pleasant side lighting is possible.
On cloudy days, clouds act as a diffuser providing softer and more even light and removing the harsh light and contrast typically on bright sunny days.
Bad weather conditions
Believe it or not, these can be opportunities to get some of your best shots. Fog, wind or even rain can all add interest to your photos. Just make sure your camera and lens are sealed and protected from the elements.
Composition tips for wildlife photography
Shoot at eye level
If there is only one thing that you take away from reading this post it’s this. This will significantly impact your photography, guaranteed. This can honestly help beginner wildlife photographers shoot like the pros!
If you’re shooting down at your subject from above your wildlife photos will not have the same impact. For smaller subjects, the main reason is that the background has no separation from your subject, as it’s closer. As you move lower to the ground to reach eye level for your subject, the background moves further away. With the background further separation between your subject and the background increases as does your depth of field allowing for improved focus on your subject. This is further helped by increased focal lengths, wide aperture and filling the frame with your subject.
The same applies if you’re below the animal, for example, a fox on a hill or a bird in a tree. Shooting upwards doesn’t always produce great results, where possible use a hill to get up higher.
Rule of thirds
A safe bet is to place your subject either 1/3 from the top or sides of your frame. This isn’t always the case, but it is a common approach I often use.
Rule of space
Ideally try to ensure the direction of movement, or the direction your subject is looking has space within your composition. This will look far more natural and pleasing to the eye in comparison to your subject looking looking out of the frame, with no space.
This can be fixed with a simple crop, as demonstrated below.
Background & distractions
Try to ensure the background is clean. Move around to remove any distractions such as posts or very light areas. Backgrounds can also be used to compliment the photo, as shown below with this Seychelles Day Gecko.
If you have a bright background, it can be a good idea to shoot with the sun behind you, to ensure the wildlife is well-lit.
Try to avoid shooting your subjects from above, as you will end up with a background of either the ground or water and your subject will not stand out. Shoot at eye level whenever possible.
Know your subject
A great way to capture the behaviour of wildlife in photos is to know your subjects. Do your research and it’s sure to help out your photography. This is something that comes with experience and something a professional wildlife photographer will know well.
Some of my best tips for key behaviours to observe are below:
- After ducks dive they will shake off their wings shortly after – A great time to capture an action shot of them flapping their wings.
- Large birds taking off into the wind – Best to keep the wind on your back, or they will be landing or flying with their back to you
- Wind direction – Stay downwind of for wildlife such as deer or foxes who have a great sense of smell
- Some birds often take flight after pooing! A great time to be able to capture a bird in flight
- Watch out for birds diving – They’re likely to come back up with a fish!
Practice and enjoy it!
Remember, wildlife photography doesn’t always go to plan! I decided to shoot the Stork below at 270mm focal length when I could have chosen anything between 16mm and 300mm….the result of trying to fill the frame in the camera was clipping off one of its feet!
Practice makes perfect, and this applies to wildlife photography. Getting out and about with your camera is the best way to learn and become a better wildlife photographer.
Also, remember the reason you’re doing it. For me, it’s the enjoyment and excitement of being able to capture exciting moments of seeing wildlife, together with the challenge. If you’re not enjoying it, you’re doing something wrong!
Hopefully, these wildlife photography tips for beginners have inspired you and given you some food for thought when you’re next out with your camera.