Wildlife Photography Basics

This week I want to discuss one of my favorite photographic subjects, wildlife.

Wildlife photography is very exciting, and well done wildlife photos are very popular (and sell well)!

But, there are some difficult obstacles to overcome to do many types of wildlife photography.

Locating suitable subjects can take weeks or months, and require extensive (and expensive) travel.

Equipment required to safely photograph some animals can be very expensive (large aperture-long focal-length lenses, multiple camera bodies, etc.).

Weather conditions can ruin opportunities before they materialize, requiring rescheduling or extending travel.

So how can the average, money-strapped photographer hope to get great wildlife photos?

By assessing the limitations and opportunities available and taking advantage of the resources at his/her disposal.

Of course, this may mean postponing the Siberian tiger photo safari you have been dreaming about. But learning to take advantage of more everyday opportunities can be a tremendous help in preparing for future opportunities.


First, a word about safety. Remember that no matter how cute and adorable a wild animal is, it is DANGEROUS in the wrong circumstances!

DO NOT invade a wild animals comfort zone (the space around them which they like to keep free of others). NEVER approach a mother with young. And never get close to an animal that is eating, especially a predator.

If you do not have the proper equipment to safely get the photo you want, do not get closer to the animal to attempt to cheat nature out of the photo.

For a relevant example, look at this photo:

*DO NOT* attempt to duplicate this photo in the wild with your 200 mm zoom lens!

Even non-pedators such as moose, deer, or even cows can be dangerous if you are not fully aware of the safe working distance. When in doubt, back off and get the photo another time. No photo is worth your life or health!


In order to properly photography wildlife you have to learn the equipment and location limitations for each type of animal you want to shoot.

It will take time to learn the habits and instincts of each animal. Do not expect to get great photos of a new (to you) animal the first attempt.

For example, photographing birds out in the wilderness will require you to have some very long focal length lenses, and with large maximum apertures as well.

However, photographing those same birds in a wildlife refuge, zoo, or at a local feeding station will allow you to get photos with less demanding equipment needs.

The first case will require a minimim of a 400 mm lens, and possibly a tele-converter as well. The second will allow you to get by with a 75-300 mm f/4.5 lens or less.

Here is an example of the type of wildlife photos you can expect to take during your early wildlife photography attempts:

Do the photos with the red circle look familiar to you?

Note that many of these are photos to NOT display to the world, because they were taken without meeting a minimim standard for required equipment, animal behavior, and location scouting for the type of photograph being attempted.

However, these photos are fine for practice and setup shots as you are learning what is required for different animals and what preparations are required to overcome the limitations of your particular location and equipment.

DO NOT save your film until you are sure of getting the perfect photo. Shooting photos and evaluating the results, then learning from the shortcomings is the best way to advance your photography skills.

Please note, you WILL get photos like these as you learn what is required for good wildlife photos! Do not be discouraged! Learn from your experiences, and concentrate on the subjects and settings that best fit your circumstances.

Here is an example of the type of photo that a beginning wildlife photographer can do to get valuable experience with limited equipment:

Placing a natural food such as whole or broken (not cut) fruit in the area can help delay the animal long enough to allow you to get several shots, without ruining the photo if the food happens to show in the photo.

Here is an example of a photo that can be taken with a point and shoot or APS camera with a zoom feature from inside your house by constructing a perch adjacent to a feeder outside your window and constructing a window blind inside:

After you have experience with back yard wildlife, you can move on to other locations, such as zoos or wildlife parks.

Once again you will have to acquaint yourself with the schedules, habits, and instincts of the animals in which you are interested.

Here are photos of a type that YOU can take by offering your expertise to a local falconry club:

(I do one or two enlargements at cost for falconers for letting me work with them during an outing).

Now look at this photo:

It took me three years of photographing this same cheetah to get this photo!

Often, she was too nervous to pose, too lazy to sit up, or too affectionate with her trainer to isolate herself so I could get just her in the photo.

On this day, she acted like a professional model, posing for one or two minutes in one position, then shifting and holding pose again.

Needless to say, I made Kodak very happy that day, using a LOT of film!

Here is an example of what you can expect to learn to do if you put in the time to get to know the animals in which you are interested:

Now look at this photo:

Do you think this was taken in the wilderness or at a zoo?

Do you remember the first photo we looked at, of the ducks? Look at this photo:

These are the type of photos you will be striving for, and can expect to get with the proper preparation and equipment.