10 Tips for Improving Your Wildlife Photography

Ever since digital SLR technology has become more readily available, more and more people have become photography enthusiasts, and more and more photography enthusiasts have started venturing into a genre previously reserved for only a select few…Wildlife Photography. It seems that this field, in conjunction with Landscape Photography, has really seen a huge growth spurt in these last few years…at least as it pertains to the amount of people practicing them as serious hobbyists or budding professionals. This is especially true in my native country of South Africa, where it’s long been many a family’s tradition to visit legendary self-drive safari locations such as the Kruger National Park. Having neighbouring countries like Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe also doesn’t affect this trend negatively!


This sounds like the biggest cliche?…but you know it’s true. The really great action-packed moments in wildlife photography last on average (based on my experience) between 5 and 20 seconds. If you are not intrinsically familiar with the settings of your camera or the abilities of your chosen lens, you WILL either miss it or blow the images you do manage to capture.

  • Know what the minimum shutter speed is at which you can obtain a sharp image with your camera/lens combo;
  • Know the added margins that the in-camera or in-lens stabilisation gives you;
  • Know how to quickly toggle between focus points or focus modes;
  • Know how high you can push your camera’s ISO setting and still achieve acceptable results…
In general, I like to say you need to be able to make most, if not all, of the necessary adjustments to your exposure/focus settings without lifting your eye from the viewfinder. The action you see between the cheetahs in the following image lasted all of 10 seconds, even though we sat with them for more than an hour.


Goes without saying, right? Since much of wildlife photography is based upon capturing fleeting moments of natural history (read: interesting poses or behaviour), it pays to be able to somewhat predict your subject’s behaviour beforehand. Given, not every species is as predictable as the next, but there are patterns of behaviour ingrained into every animal species. Knowing your subject can make the difference between being ready and prepared for capturing that “golden moment” and watching it fly by you in agony. There is only one way to get to know wildlife…spend time with them. Don’t just hang around for a few minutes and seek out the next subject if the one you are observing or photographing isn’t delivering the goods. Sit with them. Watch them. Wait. This also ties into patience, which I will discuss in more detail later. The image below was captured by knowing what the Lilac-Breasted Roller was going to do to its grasshopper-lunch, and being ready for it.


There are certain unwritten rules that form the foundation of good photography – regardless of genre. And of course then there are certain “rules” that find their application mostly in the genre of Wildlife Photography. Understanding proper exposure and the use of the histogram, for example…and proper composition using a guideline like the “rule of thirds” are all important aspects to ingrain in your subconscious and to incorporate in your ability to instantly capture that fleeting moment properly.

In this genre, much is made about eye contact with the subject, as this gives “life” to the image. In the case of Avian Photography (Birds), this gets taken a step further in the sense that the “head angle” in relation to the camera’s imaging sensor needs to be at least perpendicular to it, but ideally turned a few degrees towards the sensor (and obviously thus turned towards the viewer who ultimately gets to view the image captured by the sensor).


The first piece of advice I got from a professional wildlife photographer when I started shooting, is to stick to the hours of golden light. This means getting up early in the morning and being in the field before sunrise, and going out in the afternoon to make the most of the last hours of sunlight. The light over midday (mostly between 11h00 and 16h00, at least where I live) is generally harsh and robs images of that spunk that it needs. The exception is an overcast day, when the clouds act like a massive soft-box to filter out the light evenly. On days like that I shoot all day as long as there are willing subjects!


Too many wildlife photographers get fixated on what I call the “focal-length debacle”, where it becomes an obsession to have the longest/biggest lens possible. Now I know this is location-dependant as you might need more than 600mm just to get any shot at all in certain wide-open spaces, but the issue I want to tackle is more related to our obsession to get as close as possible to the animals and isolate them totally from their environment. The result is often an image that looks like it could be taken of a captive subject in a controlled location, with a perfect smooth background and no idea of the real environment in which it finds itself.

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