Top Tips for Wildlife Photograpy

It Moves

This revelation won't come as a shock to you. It's the age old problem with photographing children and animals. Your subject tends to move, usually to wherever you least want it to be, and it will darn right refuse to pose. Don't give up on this hurdle, or you'll miss out on a whole heap of unique rewards wildlife and animal photography has to offer.

When you have some practice and experience under your belt you will be able to use your subject's movements to your advantage. You'll start to be able to predict the next movement, where your subject is likely to turn, or go in the next few seconds as you follow it through your lens. That takes practice. 

This image was taken at the local duck pond

Try going to a park with your camera - where there are plenty of wild-foul. Practice following them through your camera lens - click your shutter as soon as  you have it perfectly framed. It may take a while of following your chosen subject through your lens for the perfect shot to appear, but with patience, it will.

So you ask, what settings do I use to make sure I get the right shot when the darn thing is moving? Again this will become second nature with experience, and the answer is it depends on how fast your subject is moving. Not very helpful advice. Before it becomes second nature here is some helpful advice that you can use right now:

Shutter Speed

A fast shutter speed enables you to freeze action, a slow shotter speed allows you to blur action. Either effect has it's place.

If something is moving, your shutter speed is vital. If your subject is moving fast and your shutter speed is too low you are going to get motion blur. Motion blur can be used artistically to your advantage, but that is a whole other lesson. If your goal is to freeze the subject in it's tracks and have it pin sharp, then motion blur is just going to mess things up. How fast a shutter speed you need will depend on how fast your subject is moving, and this can only be learned by practicing with your chosen subject and checking your results. If you want to perfect your skills here practice on a pet, or other domestic animal.

If you're tracking a dog or a fox running at full tilt, you're looking at about 1/2000 of a second or faster. If you have a grazing animal who is hardly moving you can get away with far less - maybe 1/500 seconds. 

The shot of the dog, below right, is rendered useless by a slow shutter speed - the motion blur as he shakes his head isn't desirable in this instance. 

Owl Landing

While neither of these shots above are technically wildlife, the techniques are the same. The main defining setting between the two shots is the shutter speed. The owl was shot at 1/4000 seconds, which captures him sharply in mid-air.


Aperture is the setting on your camera which controls depth of field. Depth of field is the amount of space in front of and behind your subject which remains in focus,

To bring your subject out from the background you're going to want to be creative with your aperture setting. What setting you will want to use will depend on whether you want a full portrait, blurring the background in it's entirety (say f/4 ish), or whether you want to bring your subject out from the background but still give it some context say f/16ish (a story telling shot). The picture of the geese at the top of this page was taken with an aperture of f/6.3, so that you can see the second goose behind, albeit the eye is drawn to the front goose. The aperture of f/6.3 has provided just enough of a depth of field to blur the second goose, but not obliterate it. 

The photo of the kingfisher above is very different. It has a similar depth of field (f5), but the background is further away so has been totally blurred out with a fairly severe bokeh effect. The focus of the eye is totally on the kingfisher. If you look closely f5 gave enough depth of field to keep some of the log in front of and behind the kingfisher in focus to give context to the picture.

If you want to place your subject in a landscape type shot where the background is totally sharp you'll be looking around f/16. Bear in mind the focal length of your lens will affect the amount of bokeh/background blur. If you're zoomed in on the telephoto end, your background blur will be exaggerated, as it has been with this shot of the kingfisher.

If you're Getting More Advanced

Try setting your camera to a focus tracking mode where it will re-adjust your focus automatically when your subject moves. If you're tracking a fast moving subject you might want to shoot in continuous high speed mode so your camera shoots like a machine gun, then you can choose the best shot afterwards. That is how the picture of the owl above was taken.

Join the Beginners Photography Lounge

Get tips and tricks, explore new skills, have fun, and meet like minded people. All from the safety of our private Facebook Group.

Use Spot Metering

For wildlife shots we recommend using spot metering. Your camera will then take the light meter reading from the focus point which will be on the animal. This can make a lot of difference in shots where you have a light background including sky or water. If the camera is taking the light reading for the whole frame the light parts of the picture can throw the rest of the picture "off", and under-expose your animal.

We demonstrate this, not with wildlife, but with the co-operation of Bailey the dog.The pictures below aren't edited at all - they are as they came out of the camera. The first shot has measured the light from the whole frame in determining what the correct exposure should be. The light from the background has distorted the metering, and as a result the foreground - aka Bailey - has been under exposed. We see this as a beginner error in wildlife shots regularly. When you are shooting wildlife the background often isn't important. You want your animal exposed correctly. If you use spot metering the camera will take the light reading from your chosen focus point, which in the second picture was on Bailey's head. Bailey is therefore correctly exposed, and the sky which doesn't matter in this shot, is a little over-exposed. 

Use Your Focus Points or Focus Lock

Use your focus points. You can tell your camera which focus point to use (ie which part of the frame you want to focus on) and place that focus point right on the eye of the subject if you can. This is not easy and takes practice. But trust us, the practice is fun.

Take your camera back to the park where there are lots of ducks and other birds and try and get that eye crystal clear in focus. Even practice on a pet, as is being done in the picture below (Bailey gets everywhere). Here the focus point has been moved diagonally upwards from the centre onto Bailey's tongue.

Some cameras allow you to lock your focus on one point and re-frame your shot before you take it. Some cameras will also let you set a button on the back of your camera to focus mode so you don't have to rely on "half pressing" your shutter release button to focus your camera. The latter can result in many unintended shots being taken. 

Think About Framing

Try imagining third lines on your frame, both horizonatally and vertically. Place your subject on that third line rather than in the centre. Place the most important parts of the composition on or near where the third lines intersect. If your subject it looking to one side you want to give it room to "look into the photo". This can often be done in editing software when you get home, as long as you've left enough room at the sides of the shot. 

Also think about the height you take the photo from. Where possible, it looks far more appealing if you can take your picture from the same height as your subject, as has been done with the photo above. There's a lot to be said for muddy knees in wildlife photography... it has been tempting to buy gardening knee pads at times...

Over to you...

Why don't you go out and try some of the techniques we mentioned above and let us know how you got on? 

Are there any particular problems you're facing at the moment in photographing wildlife and animals? If so why not let us know in the comments below and you never know you may inspire a whole new article...

  • Christina S Wimsey says:

    We’d really love to hear from you in this section!

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

    Get in touch

    Please get in touch if you have any questions, if there is anything you'd like us to cover, or if there's anything else you'd like to say. We'd love to hear from you!