There are many benefits to focusing your time on wildlife and nature photography. Not only do you get to see the grandeur of nature first hand, but you also get to record it for posterity in what is hopefully a dramatic, breathtaking photo.
Of course, dramatic and breathtaking photos are difficult to create, even for professionals that have been in the business for years. The means that for a beginning nature and wildlife photographer, there will likely be more moments of frustration and disappointment than there will be of triumph - and that’s perfectly okay! Photography is a long journey, one whose lessons along the way will make you a better photographer in the end.
If you’re ready to dive into nature and wildlife photography but aren’t sure where to start, give this step-by-step guide a quick read.
Step 1: Educate Yourself
Although it might seem like the gal you see in the parking lot of your favorite nature spot is just hopping out of her car and meandering around aimlessly with her fancy camera, huge lens, and monopod, she’s not. Expert nature and wildlife photographers understand that the quest for creating an impressive image begins before you ever walk out the door of your house.
Educating yourself about your subject will make your job of photographing it much, much easier. Whether you’re setting out to photograph a wild animal or you have a specific type of landscape you want to capture, knowing where to go, when to get there, and what you might expect along the way are crucial to your success. Maybe your favorite spot in a nearby national park looks great in the morning, but upon doing some research, you find out that sunsets are even more spectacular. Perhaps you want to photograph deer migrating through your area, but upon doing some reading, you might find that an even better area to photograph deer is just a few miles down the road.
The point is that there are a lot of variables in nature and wildlife photography, not the least of which are the weather and how it will impact your shoot, as well as the behavior of any animals you wish to photograph. Do your homework on these things and you’ll set yourself up for a much more productive outing.
Step 2: Pack Appropriately
Nature and wildlife photography doesn’t necessarily require that you go out and buy the fastest, largest lens you can find, and the latest space-age tripod that folds into a soda can-sized blob and weighs only 3 ounces. Sure, better gear doesn’t hurt, but there’s no need to rush out and buy equipment when you can make do with what you have for the time being.
A critical step when packing for your nature and wildlife shoots is not to overpack. This is a difficult task even for the most avid photographers because you just never know what you might need. The temptation to bring that extra lens or a few more filters is hard to resist, but if you don’t, you’ll end up with a massive kit that you then have to carry around. For the sake of your back and shoulders and for your overall comfort, pare down what you take with you to the essentials you need for what you want to shoot.
The research you do beforehand will help you in with your packing. For example, if you want to photograph skittish animals, like birds, then pack a zoom lens so you can photograph them from afar. If your goal is to capture a sunset over an alpine lake, then you can leave the zoom behind and bring along your wide-angle lens. The point is to commit to a certain choice, pack appropriately, and enjoy the benefits of faster and lighter travel.
Step 3: Outfit Yourself
Nature and wildlife photography is as much about hiking, climbing, crawling, sitting, and being out in the elements as it is about actually taking photos, so you need to outfit yourself accordingly. Get a solid backpack for your gear that will allow you to carry it comfortably for long periods of time. Invest in comfortable footwear that can stand up to whatever elements you might encounter - in Colorado that might mean a good pair of hiking boots but in Borneo that might mean a decent pair of flip flops.
In the research phase, find out if there are any extenuating circumstances that will require additional gear. For example, if you’ll be hiking a long time to get to your desired location, will you need trekking poles for added comfort and stability? What will the weather warrant in terms of a jacket, long pants, sunscreen, extra water, and the like? How long will you be out? What sort of food or snacks do you need to take along? Also think about any permits you might need and be sure you’ve outfitted yourself with those as well.
Step 4: Strive for a Low ISO, But Don’t Be Afraid to Push the Envelope
ISO controls the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor to light. The higher the ISO value, the more sensitive it makes your camera. But as you push the ISO higher and higher, the more digital noise you will get in your images, giving them a grainy look. Because of this, it’s usually advisable to work with the lowest ISO that you can. For daytime work under normal shooting conditions, ISO 100, 200, or 400 will usually do the trick.
Having said that, there will be times when you have to push your ISO upward in order to get the shots you want. For example, if your goal is to photograph birds in flight, you might need a shutter speed that’s simply too fast to get a good exposure at a regular ISO. By boosting your ISO, you increase the sensitivity of the sensor, allowing you to also push your shutter speed to faster speeds for the mid-flight photos that you desire. You can then get an image that freezes the movement of a bird in flight without the worry of it being underexposed.
Step 5: Use Continuous Autofocus
Autofocus (AF) systems are getting better and better with every passing year, but they can still be a bit of a blessing and a curse. In some situations, they work great. In others, they can really stink.
Since wildlife is generally on the move, using continuous autofocus will allow you keep a moving animal in constant focus. All you have to do is place your autofocus point over the animal and half-press the shutter button. Then, as the animal moves about, track it with your lens while keeping the shutter button half-pressed. You can also program your camera’s back button focus feature (if so equipped) to handle continuous focusing duties, which removes the need to maintain pressure on the shutter button to maintain focus. Check your camera’s manual for instructions on how to program back button focus.
Naturally, the more practice you get preparing for shoots and heading out to take photos, the better you will get at adhering to the tips listed above. But no matter how many hours you spend taking photos, there will always be a little wrinkle here and there that can change your plans. Bad weather, a malfunctioning lens, and no-show animals are just a few of the problems you might run into.
That’s why it’s important to develop a solid routine like the one outlined here. The more you educate yourself, work to pack appropriately, and outfit yourself for the task at hand, the more prepared you will be to tackle any unforeseen issues. Relying on the right camera adjustments - ISO and continuous autofocus - will prepare you for just about any nature or wildlife scene you might want to capture as well.