Tips for Photographing Wildlife

For years after I started photography I struggled with getting quality wildlife shots. But after about a decade of shooting it's starting to click, and I'm starting to develop a solid portfolio of wildlife images. The wildlife photography tips below serve as both future reminders to myself and as tips for others delving into this challenging branch of photography.  

For years I was trying to photograph wildlife with the slow film which happened to be loaded in my camera, which was great for landscapes but it wasn't fast enough for movement of animals. Many species only become active on edges of daylight or the underneath dark forest canopy. With so little light it was hard to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze their movement. Things improved some after i begun to carry around a second body loaded with faster provia 400. The advent vr lenses has allowed for stable shots with a handheld telephoto, and the ability of digital camera to quick crank up to super high iso has really helped sharpness issues, although there's still a tension there with getting better quality images with less noise, so it's good to shoot with as low an iso as the scene will allow.

Kaka in Flight (endangered)
Elk Portrait
Female Kangaroo

For the best shots you normally want to get as close as they animal feels comfortable, enough to fill the frame while still letting them relax into natural behavior. Ive been having good luck with a 70-300vr since it allows me to typically frame the shot faster without a clumsy tripod. For all but the most habituated creatures, getting too close will cause them to flee. Once that flight happens your unlikely to get any more good shots since it'll be of their backside. Get a clean shot as quickly as possible before this happens, and then really dedicate as much time as the subject will allow to delve deeper, waiting for unique moments to occur. 

A good understanding of animal psychology is key. Watch their body language carefully and be wary of your own. Evolution has wired them for survival, and they're wary of anything unfamiliar that might be a threat. If they've become habituated to an area frequented by humans then this may not be a concern. Otherwise the key is to not present yourself as a predator, but rather just another part of the ecosystem. Don't make excessive eye contact, because they'll feel pursued. Most animals see more in terms of sillohettes, so crouch or crawl so you look smaller and are not easily recognized as human. And most importantly, if they seem timid approach them slowly, inching forward a few feet at a time. Lowering your body down to eye level with them will also tend to be a better shot, seeing the world from their vantage point better able to see the face, while minimizing your apparent size.

Don't approach the animal directly, rather use an angle so they animal thinks you are moving past them. If an animal is already on the move, try to anticipate where it's going and try to be there first.

When animals seem extra edgy and you dont want to spook them with a clicking camera, shoot in quiet mode. Otherwise if they're active & preoccupied, use burst of high speed continuous mode shooting for action, for the best chance of capturing peak moments.

Generally the eyes are the most important part of the shot. They'll express the animals emotions the best. For that reason take care to focus the camera on that point, fine tuning manually if there's time. It can be a struggle finding a clean line of sight if sticks and leaves are between the camera and subject. Manual focus is almost essential if you're shooting through bush, since sticks and leaves between you and the animal can confuse the auto focus. Sometimes you can focus through those onto the subject to get a good shot. Otherwise look for a clearing in the direction the animal is moving.

When positioning yourself, consider quality of light on the subject and the cleanness of the background. In hard light I tend wait for the animal to move into a solid shadow, otherwise when light falls across the head. A powerful fill flash can also alleviate some hard light issues.

Be out when the animals you want to shoot are.  To do this you should know the feeding habits of the species you're trying to shoot.  Typically most mammals are going to be most active in the mornings and evenings, or through the night requiring a flash.  Most will bed down in bad whether or on hot days, while if it's overcast they may stay out a bit longer.