Tips for Photographing Wildlife

This article by guest blogger and award-winning wildlife photographer, Nick Dale, will provide tips for photographing wildlife including planning, preparation, what to pack, equipment needed, camera settings and what makes a good wildlife photograph.

What equipment do I need?

Wildlife photography is a money pit. Cameras, lenses and accessories cost thousands of pounds (dollars), and most people can’t resist a piece of new kit even if they don’t need it, so a lot of it just ends up gathering dust in the basement!

However, the good news is you don’t really need that much.

  • DSLR (and spare memory cards and batteries)
  • Long lens (400-800mm)
  • Polarising filter
  • Monopod or tripod and/or beanbag
  • Lens cloth or blower
  • Laptop

Admittedly, you can easily spend £4,000 on a DSLR, up to £15,000 on a long lens and £5,000 on a laptop, but you don’t have to…!

I bought all my equipment second-hand when I started out, and I’ve just added and replaced items when finances have allowed.

Just make sure that your equipment gives you a good chance of taking the shots that you want, and that means a DSLR and a 400mm lens.

What else can I do before I leave?

I’ve been lucky enough to spend months at a time on safari in Africa, but that is not the case for most people. That means it pays to be selective. How can you get the biggest bang for your bucks?

I specialise in African wildlife, but you might prefer the bears of North America, the penguins of the Antarctic or the jaguars of the Pantanal. Just make sure of three things:

  • Right place
  • Right time
  • Right price

The most important is obviously the location, but make sure you go at the right time of year. If you want to see the herds of wildebeest and zebra in the Serengeti, for instance, then you’d better make sure you go during the Great Migration or you’ll find yourself on a lot of very boring game drives!

Finally, just make sure you can afford it.

There’s obviously a trade-off here: high season is more expensive for a reason, and you generally get what you pay for. However, it is up to you to think about your true priorities: is it more important to take pictures or to have a lie-in and then have a luxurious outdoor breakfast prepared by a Michelin-starred chef?

I know some safari lodges cost upwards of $2,000 a night, but is all that luxury necessary?

I went on a mobile safari to Botswana once, and I camped every night and spent 12 hours a day from dawn until dusk photographing every animal I came across. I didn’t even have a mirror in my tent to allow me to shave, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!

Once you’ve booked your trip, it is important to make the most of it. That means packing wisely and doing a little bit of housekeeping:

  • Check your equipment
    • Rent a long lens and/or DSLR and practise!
    • Set camera metadata (e.g. time zone, location)
    • Update firmware
    • Charge your batteries
    • Pack your camera bag (and don’t put it in the hold!)
  • Plan your wardrobe
    • Neutral colours
    • Layers (it can be cool in the mornings)
    • Trousers with zip-off legs (and lots of pockets!)
    • Sun hat (NOT baseball cap!)
    • Hiking boots or trainers
  • Other (Malarone, suncream, insect repellent, passport, insurance, vaccinations etc.)

A lot of this is common sense, but it is very important to be prepared. Most wildlife resorts don’t have shopping malls attached, so you’re going to end up kicking yourself if you forget your memory cards!

As the famous wildlife photographer William Shakespeare once said, “The readiness is all…”

What should I take on a game drive?

Once you’re on location, you’ll quickly get into the daily routine.

I generally pack pretty light, but there is not much that you need on a game drive:

  • Camera body (x 2 if you can!)
  • Long lens(es)
  • Wide angle lens
  • Polarising filter?
  • Spare batteries
  • Lens cloth and/or blower
  • Beanbag and/or monopod
  • Phone (to keep species list, diary in Notes)
  • Protection (boots/trainers, jacket and sun hat, but put on sun cream/insect repellent beforehand)
  • Water

This list will obviously be a little bit different if you’re on a Zodiac cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula, but the point is you just need the bare minimum of supplies to keep you healthy and whatever camera kit you need for the day’s shoot.

What camera settings should I use?

Your daily routine should extend to your ‘default’ camera settings. I generally go on game drives with two Nikon DSLR camera bodies paired with an 80-400mm and an 800mm lens, and these are my default settings:

  • Manual shooting mode
    • Auto ISO
    • Widest aperture
    • 1/1000 of a second shutter speed
  • Other
    • 3D Continuous focus mode
    • Single-point focus
    • Back-button focusing
    • Auto horizon guides
    • Daylight or cloudy white balance (depending on the weather)
    • RAW

These settings give me a pretty good head start for most ‘typical’ wildlife shots, but I will change them if I need to. Experimentation is the key to originality, so you need to make sure you’re taking a thousand different shots rather than taking the same shot a thousand times!

I’m a big fan of the slow pan, for instance, and that means I’ll switch to Shutter Priority mode, select a slow shutter speed and set the ISO manually to its lowest value.

Why not try low or high key portraits, wide-angle close-ups and moody black and white studies? Once you’ve taken your basic ‘record shot’, just think about how you can go the extra mile and come up with something different.

What makes a good photograph?

So what should you be looking for? What makes a great wildlife shot?

Well, I’ve been on a few trips with the Paul Goldstein, and he says, “The Holy Trinity of wildlife photography is dust, air and spume!”

That demonstrates his obsession with action shots, but it is something we can all benefit from.

Yes, it’s all very well taking pictures of cute lion cubs, but why take portraits when you can capture a cheetah kill or a leopard jumping down from a tree?

Whatever your aesthetic priorities, I thought it might be useful to finish with a few of the rules of composition. Some of these you may know, some you won’t, but I hope they’ll help you take better pictures.

Good luck!

Rule of thirds

Focus on the eyes

Tell a story

The decisive moment

Framing

Negative space

Leading lines

Symmetry

Point of view

Silhouettes

Separation

Motion blur

Depth of field

Odd numbers

Fill the frame

Aspect ratio

Foreground interest

Balance

Juxtaposition

Patterns and textures

Simplicity

Clean background

Humour and cuteness

Breaking the rules

 

You can find more of Nick’s work on his website.

Nick Dale Artist Statment: "I wanted to be a photographer when I was 15, but my mother said I could always take it up later as a hobby – so that was that for 30 years! I ended up reading English at Oxford and working as a strategy consultant for a few years before retiring at the age of 29. I then travelled round the world for seven years, doing four ski seasons and working on an internet start-up in San Francisco before finally returning to London in 2005. At that point, consulting work felt too stressful, so I decided to go 'quality of life'. I'm now a private tutor and international award-winning wildlife photographer."

This article was reprinted with permission. Nick Dale is an award-winning wildlife photographer based in London, UK.

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