Getting started in wildlife photography may seem intimidating. From equipment to locations, where to begin? Let’s remove the doubt and show you how to take outstanding wildlife photos! Spoiler Alert: it’s way easier than you thought.
[Guest Post by Mike East]
I don’t quite know where my love for wildlife photography started. Looking back, I just enjoyed creating images with photography, and even more so, loved the outdoors. Naturally, these two passions evolved into landscape and wildlife photography as my little niche of choice in the photography world.
When I get asked about how to get started in Wildlife Photography, my answer never changes, it’s always telling them just to start. We get stuck in these research loops of the “best lens” and self-questioning our abilities before we ever actually begin.
Ignore all the noise, and just start.
However, if I had to lay out a plan or give specific tips, here they are…
Equipment – I’m Cheap, You Should Be, Too.
Don’t overthink this, seriously. We all spend too much time trying to find the “best” gear. I know you don’t want to hear this, but it doesn’t matter. Despite popular belief, I have received more engagement with certain photos that were shot on my phone (like the bird photo below), rather than those shot with a “pro” setup.
While it may feel like you are becoming “legit” when you drop $1500 on a camera body and another $2000 on a pro lens, it just isn’t necessary for a beginner. You are most likely not going to know what the majority of features are on that fancy new camera and lens anyway.
Whether you have a fancy DSLR, a Point and Shoot, or just your phone camera, you can start in wildlife photography today.
If you do feel the need to buy some more high-end equipment, scour Facebook Marketplace, eBay, and the used listings of Amazon. You can find hidden gems for a fraction of the price of what others will spend on the same equipment.
Getting Started in Wildlife Photography Camera Basics
At a minimum, I recommend you get a camera (body) in a digital format, and above 12 megapixels.
For the preferred DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) setup, you will need to get a camera body and separate lenses. A used DSLR should set you back around $75-150 on eBay.
A Point and Shoot (P&S) camera is a one-piece camera with a lens permanently fixed, which can take incredible shots and purchased for much less than a DSLR setup.
Today, with the advances in phone cameras, incredible images can be captured with the phone in your pocket, right now.
Camera Lens Recommendations
A telephoto lens is used to zoom in close to your subject (animal) without you physically being close. Like the camera body, a good telephoto lens can be purchased on the used market for a very reasonable price. I recommend a 70-200mm lens, or if you can find a good deal on a used Canon L 400mm F4, which should be around $300-$500 used.
A great general-purpose lens is the 50mm F1.8. Most camera brands have some version of this available – and a used lens online would be about $50. A 50mm Lens is a focal length that many compare to how you see the world with your own eyes. Because of this, understandably, it’s a popular choice. The 50 mm lens is versatile for different styles of photography, including wildlife. It’s an excellent walk-around and/or a family portrait lens. It’s referred to as the “Nifty-Fifty” for a reason.
A wide-angle lens is not the most talked-about camera lens in the wildlife photography world. So it might not be the lens you need for getting started in wildlife photography. However, some incredible wildlife images have been captured using a wide-angle lens, as it incorporates the surrounding environment and tells a story with each image. Check out the work of David Yarow for some unbelievable examples.
Megapixels – Size Does Not Matter
Let’s be honest, 95% percent of what we photograph these days goes on Instagram and Facebook. The megapixels needed for those sites is less than what your smartphone is giving you. If your 10-year-old camera is cranking out images at 15 megapixels, you’re good to go.
If you have been considering the option to print a great pic, but are worried you need that new 48-megapixel camera, the worrying stops now. A 16-megapixel image can print nicely at sizes of up to 16” x 24”. So don’t get caught up on megapixels. You will hear people compare them all the time, but again, ignore the noise.
While others are comparing megapixels with each other, you can be outside capturing great images.
Camera Settings For Beginners in Wildlife Photography
Taking in a new (or new-to-you) camera can be a bit intimidating. There are controls, switches, and settings quite literally pasted all over the camera and lens. Rather than jumping into Manual mode and bending your brain with aperture, ISO, and shutter speeds, let’s keep this simple.
You should be shooting in AV aka Aperture Priority mode.
When shooting in Aperture Priority mode you only need to keep your aperture controlled, while the camera will figure out all other needed settings for you.
Aperture is the setting your camera uses to tell the lens how “wide” the light opening it sees through gets. It’s measured by the f-number. Ironically, the lower the f-number, the wider the opening. So if you hear a photographer was shooting “wide open” that just means they were shooting with the camera’s operation setting at the lowest f-number (widest) setting, allowing in the most light. As you shop around, you will notice the lenses that cost the most will have the lowest f-number.
Because wildlife generally is not active until evening/dusk, the “wider” your lens can go, the better.
Lenses that have a very wide aperture (low f-number) are appealing to photographers as the camera can allow in more light in lower light conditions, giving the camera the ability to have the faster shutter speed and shallower depth-of-field. Faster shutter speed means a shorter exposure to take crisp, clear pictures in darker environments and of moving animals. And shallower depth-of-field means you can choose to only have the wildlife in focus while the background is not.
See, I’m getting into the weeds with my nerdy tech talk.
Here’s what you need to do: set your camera to Aperture Priority mode, crank your aperture down to the lowest number you can for your lens, and start shooting.
You can locate your aperture setting as the setting indicated on your display with an “f” in front of it. Once you get comfortable with that, you can move on to more advanced settings and modes if you wish.
Years into wildlife photography, while I am finding myself going into a manual mode more and more, I still shoot in Aperture Priority mode quite often. When getting started in wildlife photography, capturing images in Aperture Priority mode is one of those photography no-brainers.
Composition – Posing Your Models
In Wildlife Photography (and photography in general) composition, actions and framing are very important. Rather than standing in one place and taking a picture of a deer, try moving off to an angle, kneeling to get the foliage in the foreground as well as the deer and the woods behind it. Both pictures will be of the deer, but one will be much more interesting than the other.
Rather than shooting a close-up of one elk, try stepping back a bit and getting the elk herd at the base of the mountain. Instead of shooting the duck swimming at the lake, wait till dusk and capture the duck with its wings cupped and landing in the water creating that wave behind it. Again, the same duck and same lake, but one picture will be much more interesting than the other.
Give a good photographer a $50 camera and a non-photographer a $5000 camera and have them take images of the same subject. The photographer with the $50 camera will win every time. It’s not the equipment, it’s the person’s vision using the equipment. Get creative and have fun!
Finding Wildlife To Photograph
So, on to the good stuff now, how do you find the animals and get the great shots? You’ve wisely grabbed your second-hand gear. You’ve got yourself pumped up with this write-up, and it’s time to get outside and start shooting that beautiful wildlife around you (Note to Self: “Shooting” Wildlife is not the best terminology to use in this case, I’ll stop, sorry about that Bambi).
You head out to the nearest area of woods, walk out, sit down, and wait….and nothing? Well, this doesn’t make any sense, you know there are animals here, what gives?
Wildlife in your local woods and parks are around you. However, these animals for the most part are all prey to predatory animals. Birds, squirrels, rabbits, and deer are all very cautious when they expose themselves. I found that walking through the woods I seldom see anything. We are much louder than we think.
Once you stop, sit and wait quietly, things will start to move around you. Maybe not in 5 minutes, maybe not in 30min, but eventually, things will move. I like to find a pretty spot that gives a good view of a larger area, usually near a water source like a pond or a stream in the evening.
“Ok, that’s great Mike, but what about those epic Elk, Moose, Mountain Goat, and Bear images? I can’t get those at my local backyard park.”
Unless you are in a rocky mountain region, you’re most likely correct, but it can be done, and it’s easier than you think. Many of the iconic photos you have seen were not taken in some remote location after hours of exhaustive searches in the backcountry, many were taken right in your own National or State Parks.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bumped into the Instagram-famous wildlife photographers on the side of the road in a National Park. I live just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park in Northern Colorado. At any given time, I can cruise into the park and get as close, or as far as I want to a trophy Rocky Mountain Bull Elk.
My ability to find animals is not unique or special and you will have the same success, I promise.
National Park Finds
The great thing about wildlife in National Parks is they are viewed by millions of people each year. In turn, they won’t run off as soon as they see you, they might even pose for you. This fox walked right up to me, sat down, and just looked at me, so, I took a pic.
This photo below was taken from 5ft away. No, I didn’t walk up to 5ft from the bison. I was driving and traffic in Yellowstone stopped as crowds watched a herd of bison pass by. These two young bison nestled up to each other with a snowy backdrop and I just happened to snap the pic from the window of my truck.
The photo below was taken at Mount Evans in Colorado. While it may look like it was taken by a photographer who is bundled up in mountain climbing equipment capturing images in some majestic mountain range, instead, it was taken from 15ft away with a 70-200mm zoom lens over the hood of my truck. That lens was bought used on Facebook Marketplace for $375.
Mount Evans is a federal area where you can drive to the top of the mountain. Throughout the drive, there are mountain goats all over the place. These Mountain Goats are used to people around them and they will walk right up to your vehicle.
These days, I spend more time “off in the wild” truly trying to find those epic shots in wild environments. However, anytime you want to find a wild animal without a ton of work, hit up a National Park. If a National Park isn’t your style or too far away, you can still get those great images at your local park of ducks, geese, deer, squirrels, rabbits, foxes, coyotes, and more!
The opportunities are all around us, regardless of the amount of cash we drop or where we live.
Golden Hour And Other Best Times for Wildlife Photography
Time of day is a bigger deal than most realize when getting started in wildlife photography. “Golden Hour” is referred to as the time of day in the evening when the sun is setting and the ambient light creates a “golden” tone on everything. The light is very nice, rather than that midday harsh sunlight. Think of any good photo you have seen, it’s rarely in bright sunlight. It just doesn’t translate well to photography.
Depending on the animal you are capturing, they have patterns just like us for when they are “out and about”. For example, a Rocky Mountain Elk will start grazing for food in the late afternoon and will continue this through the night, eventually finding a shaded bedding spot to rest during the daylight hours.
Conversely, if you’re taking pictures of a Sandhill Crane or other fowl, they “roost” or bed at night and then leave the roost in the pre-dawn hours, head to lakes or fields for food sourcing, and then once the dusk hours approach before nightfall, they head back to the roost for the entire night.
Additionally, the time of day matters due to the levels of ambient light. At first thought, many think if the sun is up, and it’s bright out, they can see the animal better and it will be easy to photograph.
However, when the sun is at the highest point between 10am and 5pm, the sunlight creates unflattering, harsh light that also creates unnecessary shadowing downward along with the animal. In-fact, this rule should be applied to all photography whether it is a person, deer, or landscape.
Focus your photography hours to be during early morning and early evening hours.
Getting Noticed As a Beginner in Wildlife Photography
Years ago, to get noticed in photography, you needed to either have a tremendous website that was shared a lot or had a storefront in a tourist area with an audience looking for that type of work. These days, it’s a more even playing field.
Fire up a couple of social media accounts, do some keyword and hashtag research, and you can get noticed. Follow other outdoor companies and photographers, and tag them all in your posts. Over time, people will start to appreciate what you do and the work you have put in.
Be Respectful and Have Fun
While it may not need to be said, it’s always a good reminder, respect the wildlife and their environment. We are the guests in their world and fortunate enough to witness them as they lead their life. We are appreciative, quiet observers, and nothing else.
Every year, there is a national headline of a tourist who is so excited to see a bison, moose, or elk that they get too close and end up with a fresh antler hole in their body. Not hot.
If you’re unfamiliar with how to start with this, check out my write-up on Off-Grid Essential introducing you to the Leave No Trace Principles.
Wildlife photography is an excellent way to connect with nature at a higher level and share space with majestic wild animals. We are not owed this, and I remind myself all the time how lucky we are to be a part of it.
As you can see, it doesn’t take loads of cash or special knowledge of epic wildlife areas to get started in wildlife photography. Some used camera gear and determination will get you right where you are trying to get. I can’t wait to see what you come up with! Please tag my Instagram (@National_Park_Nomads) with your images**, I’d love to see and share them!
So, have a great time, leave no trace, and GET OUTSIDE.
Guest Blogger: Mike East
All photos and words in this post are courtesy of Mike East. Thanks, Mike!
Mike is a husband, father, and all around lover of the outdoors. Mike was raised in Atlanta and after spending many years working and travelling all over the world for the military, he settled down with his family where he currently lives in Northern Colorado.
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Are you into wildlife photography? Where can we see your photos? What’s your favorite subject, animal, location or scene to photograph? What do you dream of photographing? Do you have any questions for Mike?
Please leave a comment or question in the reply section below.
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