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Understanding Your Subject
Wildlife photography is all about understanding your subject—that is, wildlife! While you don’t need a PhD in Biology (though, that wouldn’t hurt), having a basic understanding of the animals you are photographing is essential to becoming a wildlife photographer. A good place to start is in your own backyard, a local park, or a nearby national park. Learn about wild animals in your area—their daily habits, their mating rituals, and, most importantly, the time of day when they are most active. This will help you know when to go out to photograph them and what to look for.
When and Where to Photograph Wildlife
As a wildlife photographer, you will need to prepare yourself for early mornings and long days. Most animals have their active periods right before the sun comes up and just as the sun goes down. These periods are termed “the golden hours”—not just because it is the best time to photograph wild animals, but for the beautiful, golden sunlight you get during sunrise and sunset.
Patience is a key element to obtaining stunning wildlife images. Many professional wildlife photographers, like those who work for National Geographic, spend many hours a day outside, waiting for the perfect shot.
The best place to begin photographing wild animals is somewhere close by where you can explore the natural world, where you feel comfortable, and where you know there will be plentiful wildlife. If you are just starting out, go to a local park or drive to a nearby wilderness area, keeping your camera focused on birds or squirrels. As you grow more comfortable with these situations, you can expand your radius more to nearby wilderness areas and forests—or, if you feel comfortable, you can even go to a national park, such as Yellowstone, Zion, Acadia, or Everglades.
A wildlife photography expedition is a great way to experience and photograph wild animals in a safe environment, while also getting some hands-on training from a professional. There are a variety of guided expeditions to places like South America, Asia, Antarctica, and Africa. Destinations like Kenya, which offer African safaris, Indonesia, and Madagascar are especially popular for documenting the animal kingdom in their natural habitats. Look into expeditions offered by National Geographic, as many times they will be led by one of their famed photographers. Always be sure to listen to your guides and maintain a safe distance from the animals.
Buying the Best Camera for Wildlife Photographers
Even though it’s possible to shoot wildlife photography on an iPhone, in order to properly get started in wildlife photography, a digital camera is best, simply because of the sheer quantity of photographs needed to get a quality image of wild animals. A burst feature—which allows you to photograph in bursts of multiple frames per second—is also great for when you want to catch just the right moment—such as a bird flying off a branch. Canon, Nikon, and Sony all have affordable entry cameras that still provide superior image quality.
The best camera will have a fast autofocus so that your camera can quickly hone in and focus on fast-moving animals. The newer the camera, the faster the autofocus processor. An old camera with multipoint autofocus will probably not stack up to a newer camera’s processing power.
Another factor to consider when buying a camera body is ISO, which is sometimes called film speed and refers which is the speed at which your camera processes light. While typically a better quality image is produced at lower ISO, you will want to find a camera that can produce a great quality image at a high ISO—you need something that can keep up with those gazelles in Kenya!
Best Photography Gear and Camera Equipment for Wildlife Photographers
A telephoto lens, which is a super long lens, is the best way to get started photographing wild animals from a safe distance, while still getting an intimate shot. The long lenses bring the animals up close, but they take a bit of getting used to and can be extremely expensive. Before you commit to buying one, try renting a few telephoto different lenses and sizes (like 300mm, 500mm, and 600mm) to see which one suits you and your photographic style best. Practice using a telephoto lens by going to a park with waterfowl and tracking the animal movements with your lens—it’s not as easy as it sounds! You will notice that telephoto lenses are great for getting close shots of animals, but that they increase camera shake significantly. Not only can these telephoto lenses be expensive, they are also very heavy (a 600mm lens weighs about 20 pounds!), so choose one that fits your career as a wildlife photographer.
A less expensive alternative to the telephoto lens is a teleconverter. These devices are paired with any type of lens, and can extend the focal length by between 40% to 100%, depending on the type you choose. They aren’t ideal for low light situations and they also increase camera shake.
A slightly more advanced method of photographing wild animals is to set camera traps. This is when you set a camera in the wilderness with a motion sensor connected to the shutter release. When an animal crosses the path of the motion sensor, the camera takes a picture. Camera traps require some knowledge of animal hunting patterns and the area’s natural history, but with some simple gear it is quite doable. You will need to have a camera with sleep mode, so it is not burning through the battery sitting in the woods, along with something to disguise the camera or to tie it to a tree. You will also need a trigger for the camera trap and you can choose between an Active Infrared (AIR) or Passive Infrared (PIR). AIR are more difficult to set up and require deeper knowledge or wild animals but allow greater control over the image. PIR use changes in heat to detect an animal and are cheaper to buy and simpler to set up, but do not allow for much compositional control. Once you get some experience with camera traps, they produce beautiful images of wildlife.
A wildlife photography excursion requires basic camera gear, like tripods, camera bags, and a variety of outdoor equipment, which can vary greatly depending on the climate in which you intend to photograph. Shooting wildlife is unpredictable and exhilarating, but sometimes the best wildlife photography takes endless time and patience, and braving through some weather, too. Be sure to always carry sunscreen, a waterproof bag (in case you end up shooting under the sea), and bug spray—you will be outside for many hours per day!
Understanding the Industry
While it is certainly possible to make a career out of wildlife photography, the road to making a full-time job out of it is unglamorous and difficult. They also tend to work in other fields of photography, such as weddings and portraits, in order to sustain their passion for wildlife photography. A career in wildlife photography is possible, but don’t quit your dayjob (yet)!