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The best tips for those just starting out
Published on 22 Sep 2021
Photography is a fantastic way to capture beautiful memories. Whether travelling the world on a cruise or enjoying a short getaway on a mini cruise, you’ll witness all kinds of wildlife you’ve likely never seen before and photography will allow you to preserve those memories forever. From elephants on a safari to bears in Alaska, all around the world, there are beautiful animals who will capture your imagination.
In this article, we look at some top wildlife photography tips for beginners, talking to some of the best wildlife photographers in the field to find out their expert advice:
UK-based wildlife photographer Richard Costin has a passion for the natural world and shares his amazing encounters through his images. As well as capturing creatures on camera at home, Richard also travels the globe photographing fearsome predators and elusive animals. On his website, Richard states, “The golden, all-important rule is that due care and respect be given to the wildlife at which I aim my camera. Many times, the opportunity for a winning picture has presented itself at the expense of the wildlife’s trust and sometimes even safety. Not once have I regretted hanging back. Building up trust with your subject is essential to capture its essence in a still.”
We asked Richard about his favourite image, “One of my all-time favourites is one of two eagles (a Golden Eagle and a White-Tailed Eagle) fighting in a blizzard in Norway. It was taken relatively early on in my career and is one of my most well-known shots. A lot of time and effort went into being there at the right time and place. It was a magical moment and I will always remember being all along upon that hillside in sub-zero temperatures. I often think back to that moment at times when I am putting a lot of effort in and not getting the sightings I am after; it keeps me plugging away until I have success with a given species.”
Although she always had a passion for photography, Carole Deschymere was not always happy with her images. So, following her disappointment with her photos from a trip to Botswana in 2010, Carole spent two days with a Dutch photographer to discuss how she could improve her results. Carole continued to study photography in her own time and now leads an adventurous life, often sleeping outdoors and capturing unique moments among some of the world’s most fearsome predators.
“My favourite photo is of a lioness with her cub, in Masai Mara, Kenya,” Carole told us. “It’s just one of those rare times that everything comes together. It was early morning when we spotted a lioness acting strangely. We drove towards her and saw that she had two tiny cubs with her. We put the car in the right position according to the light and I made this shot while she was passing by. The soft warm light, the long grasses and just that opening in the grasses. It all helped to get that soft feel, symbolising the tenderness of that mother caring for her cub. She went to hide both cubs in some bushes. We spent a while with them and it amazed me how a lioness, that can be so ferocious, can also be so tender and caring.”
Sue Flood is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker, zoologist and adventure travel leader. Her inspiring career has taken her all over the world and has given her the opportunity to explore the remote Polar regions, the African bush, the wetlands of Brazil and North America. Sue has a passion for penguins and has released a book, Emperor: The Perfect Penguin, showcasing her images and insights on her favourite bird.
“I am very fond of this photograph of this emperor penguin family,” Sue explained. “I have been fortunate to visit many emperor penguin colonies over the last ten years and was fortunate to capture this special, intimate moment when I visited the Snow Hill Island colony in the Weddell Sea. It’s the only time I’ve seen such a perfect symmetrical pose like this.”
Joshua Gray is an award-winning wildlife and landscape photographer based in East Sussex. Having Studied Marine and Natural History Photography at Falmouth University, Joshua has a long-held passion for capturing the world and travels the globe to get his perfect shots.
“My favourite shot of mine is one that I took on a misty morning in Malaysia following a night of camping in the remote jungle,” Joshua told us. “This image always reminds me of an extremely peaceful and relaxing moment in time that has always stuck with me.”
Multi-award-winning photographer Ross Hoddinott has a keen eye for all things wildlife. Having won awards at Wildlife Photographer of the Year, the British Wildlife Photography Awards, International Garden Photographer of the Year as well as landscape photography competition, Take A View, his talent for capturing unique moments in wildlife is undisputed.
“My parents had a passion for nature and conservation, so when they gave me a little film camera as a Christmas present, I immediately wanted to photograph animals,” said Ross. “I was aged 9 or 10 at the time and would explore the countryside and woodland close to our home in north Cornwall looking for wildlife to photograph.
“A few years later I won Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year and by my late teens, I was regularly selling my images for publication. I effectively went professional at 18 - I’ve never had a proper job! I now have over 20 years of experience within the profession and feel very privileged to make a living from something I enjoy doing so much. Although I enjoy working close to my Cornish home, my work gives me some amazing opportunities - I’ve led workshops in extraordinary places, like the Galapagos Islands and Iceland and I enjoy every opportunity to get close to nature or witness and photograph extraordinary scenery.”
Luke Massey has been documenting wildlife since he borrowed his sister’s camera when he was just 12 years old, taking it with him when he went out on walks. His main focus is capturing photographs of wildlife in new and exciting places, with his search for the perfect shot taking him to the mountains of Spain, searching for the elusive Iberian lynx and to the streets of Delhi, hoping to photograph black kites. Luke has won several awards, including Young Environmental Photographer of the Year and Wildlife Photographer of the Year in the Urban Wildlife Category.
Luke told us about his favourite image: “It’s hard to pick just one photo. I’m lucky enough to have had lots of amazing moments in the natural world. From close encounters with jaguars and giant anteaters to whales and monkeys.
“I had a special encounter with the world’s rarest cat, the Iberian lynx. I’d been working with them for a while and had a particular shot in mind, I wanted a lynx sat out on the lichen-covered boulders that are strewn across their habitat. But nature rarely does what you want it to do. Apart from this one particular evening. The sun was just dipping behind the mountain when a female lynx emerged from the bushes. She slowly walked towards the boulders, effortlessly lept on to one and then proceeded to groom herself, laid amongst the boulders. Perfect!
Ron McCombe has been an avid bird-watcher for most of his life and it was this hobby that became the inspiration behind wanting to capture unique moments in wildlife. Since going full time as a photographer in 2004, Ron has run workshops both in Scotland and in Northern Europe, as well as travelling to Africa, Canada and the USA to photograph wildlife.
Since photographing her horses in 2010 and taking inspiration from her parents who work in conservation, Katie Nethercoat has travelled the world to capture stunning wildlife images - from orcas in Vancouver to predators in the plains of Africa. She is passionate about wildlife and protecting animals and their habitats and continues to use photography as a means of documenting her interests.
“I have recently been able to pay a long (and well overdue) visit to Bushy Park in Surrey and I had one of my best wildlife experiences,” Katie told us. “When you tell a fellow photographer that you are heading to Bushy Park in October, they assume you are on the trail for the annual Red Deer Rut. It’s the time when stags are pumped full of testosterone and gather their harems (females) to be in with the best chance of breeding. They will bellow from the early hours of dusk, measure each other up and come to conflict when necessary. And yes, I did want to witness this spectacle but I wasn’t expecting such a memorable encounter with a rather common species of bird.
“The wonderful thing about Bushy Park is the mixture of habitat. You have the tall grass meadows intertwined within the oak trees but also a body of water with its fingertip streams running through the collections of ferns. This is where I was accompanied by one of our most Iconic British birds, the grey Heron.
“Usually, when I have photographed grey Herons before, they have been nervous and shy birds that soon take flight when you try and get close, but not this individual. I must have spent nearly an hour with this bird, lying down and watching him go about his business, hunting and patiently waiting for fish to pass him by. It truly was magical and the images I was able to capture are some of my favourites. It is in these moments where you are able to fully experiment.”
Andy Rouse is a professional wildlife and aviation photographer who has won more than 20 major international awards. Having become disillusioned with his corporate career, Andy decided to focus on his passion for photography and has captured some jaw-dropping moments on camera. His favourite animals in the UK are the hare and roe deer, though elsewhere in the world he loves to photograph mountain gorillas and polar bears.
Mike Sinclair, an amateur photographer from Scotland, has a passion for wildlife and nature. “I first got interested in photography when I saw photos online which I thought were absolutely amazing,” said Mike. “I wanted to take photos just like them. I also found it beneficial for wildlife identification too. I could look at the species in the photo that I was unsure of and work it out myself. No more ‘what’s this, what’s that.’
“When I got right into my photography, I finally figured out that it did not matter what other people’s photos were like but actually it was totally up to me and I could do things the way I like!”
Randeep Singh is a prominent wildlife photographer from Jalandhar, India. He has been focusing on nature and wildlife photography for more than a decade and is particularly passionate about tigers and birds. In his quest for the perfect wildlife images, Randeep has travelled to more than 70 countries and has visited most of the national parks in India and Europe.
“Wildlife photography is not only a passion but it’s also my aim to share my experience in nature with others - something that captures the beauty and wonder of the natural world that I have been honoured to witness and photograph.” Randeep has had his work published in many high-profile publications including Lonely Planet and BBC Wildlife, as well as newspapers and magazines in India.
“My most treasured pictures if of the Channel-Billed Toucan which I took in Guarau in Brazil in May 2018. This picture is really close to my heart. I saw this toucan who was flying from one tree to another. I focused on this toucan through my camera lens - she was trying to look for something in the tree trunk. I kept focusing on this beautiful bird. She came one tree trunk closer to me and she sat there, looking strangely at it. I was clicking the camera while watching her as well.
“Suddenly, she put her beak inside the tree trunk and I realised that she was trying to hunt. I clicked the camera at the right moment when he beak was completely inside the tree. It was one of the most unique moments for me to see this beautiful bird hunting. This type of bird can hunt nests of woodpeckers, tree hunters, parakeets and mainly eat eggs or chicks. They also eat spiders, amphibians and even bats.”
Based in Australia, Tanya Stollznow spends much of her time exploring and photographing wildlife in Africa, Asia and Australia. Focusing on wildlife and conservation photography, Tanya’s innovative approach has led to many stunning photographs. But at the heart of her passion is promoting interest and support for the conservation and protection of wildlife and their habitats.
“My most treasured photo is of a baby chacma baboon riding on his mother’s back while keeping a curious eye on his surroundings. It is a special photo to me as it evokes a strong sense of the close bond between mother and baby.”
Often, the key to capturing a unique moment in wildlife is being patient. By staying close to the animal’s natural habitat and patiently watching, you stand a greater chance of snapping your perfect shot.
Richard Costin: “Stick with it, get out there and shoot as much as possible and stick to subjects that you would be happy watching even without a camera. Even when I come home empty-handed after a day of effort, I never regret it half as much as the few occasions I didn’t even try.”
Tanya Stollznow: “Patience and persistence are key for anyone starting out as a wildlife photographer. It often takes a number of hours and attempts to get the perfect shot. Observing nature over time can give you the knowledge to predict behaviour.”
The framing of your photo can make a huge difference. By keeping your subject slightly off-centre, the image will feel more natural. When possible, make sure the animal is positioned looking into the frame. For example, if the animal is running or flying, the space behind the subject is generally ignored and its eyes will draw the viewer in.
Ross Hoddinott: “Look at unconventional viewpoints too. Get down low, at ground level, or use negative space to create more interesting compositions - this will help generate more impact than a simple frame-filling portrait.”
When looking through the lens or at your camera’s screen, carefully consider what you want to convey with your image. If there is a distracting element in the frame that appears to be unnecessarily drawing attention away from the animal, adjusting your framing slightly can make a world of difference. However, sometimes keeping these other elements in the frame can offer more of a narrative to an image.
Tanya Stollznow: “When taking your photos aim for simple backgrounds. The most compelling wildlife photos are often the ones where the subject stands out without any distraction.”
Mike’s Nature: “Think of other things which could be in your photo like a tree or and rock, as these give more effect or meaning to a photo.”
Setting up your camera at the same level as the animal you’re photographing can give your image a much more interesting perspective. By putting yourself in a similar position to your subject, you can achieve a more personal photograph, showing what the animal can see.
Mike’s Nature: “Do get in level with your subject! Although this is not always the case, for a mammal on the ground or a bird on water, do you really want to be shooting downwards?”
Joshua Gray: “When photographing wildlife, in particular, it’s very important for the viewer to feel connected to the subject. A great way to do this is by being at eye level with the animal you are photographing. This may result in you getting dirty but it can really make your images stand out!”
It’s easy to get caught up in what other photographers are doing but remember, you should take photos that show your personality. Don’t be afraid to do something a little different! Whether that’s choosing a unique subject, an interesting angle or opting for a more abstract style, your photos should reflect what you find interesting and visually appealing.
Katie Nethercoat: “Don’t be afraid to do something different. For me, I love to have foreground blurs that I use to frame the subject. This can be foliage, a tree, another animal; it really can be anything and including a part of the habitat you’re in adds another piece of your subject’s story.
“Look for small details, especially when you are photographing an iconic species, think about photographing just their eyes, their plumage or their distinguishable outline. Getting low to the ground also enables an emotive view for the audience. By lying on the floor, I have been able to portray wildlife in ways that mean the viewer truly connects with them.”
Andy Rouse: “Be different. Take pictures that you like and that you feel are right, rather than what other people tell you to do!”
Mike’s Nature: “Everyone does their photography differently and everyone will have different techniques. Just find the best method for you and remember no photo is bad - people interpret things differently and anything said is just an opinion!”
Researching the landscape and animals you’re hoping to capture before your holiday is highly recommended. The better you understand your subject’s behaviours and habitat, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to find the animal and track its activities to get the perfect shot.
Ron McCombe: “I think the best advice I can give a budding wildlife photographer would be to study the subject, get to know how it ticks, study its mannerisms, know what it’s going to do before it does. Acquire fieldcraft skills. You do this by simple observation. Get to know your subject. It will improve your photography no end, it will get you closer to your subject which in turn will get you better images.”
Mike’s Nature: “Personally, I think that when it comes down to wildlife photography, getting to know your subject is key. Understand the behaviour, habits and predict what may happen next. Following your subject around constantly can get you some good shots but constantly having to adjust position and angles is awkward.
“So, what happens if you are already there, in position and have a rough idea of where that animal may be? Well, shots you are happy with and you’re proud of taking! Understanding the subject can make a massive impact on how your shots turn out, no matter if it’s static or dynamic.”
Ross Hoddinott: “Understand and appreciate your subject. Do your homework first. Although some good nature shots are the result of opportunism, the best photo opportunities often occur as a result of being patient and prepared. By understanding your subject and its environment, you are more likely to be able to anticipate behaviour and capture eye-catching shots.”
Light plays a huge role in wildlife photography and knowing how to use it to your advantage is important. Think about the mood you’re trying to convey with your image and how the light is affecting your subject. Make use of shadows and the hours just before sunrise and sunset.
Ross Hoddinott: “Light and atmosphere are often key ingredients. The best light is typically the ‘golden hours’ - the first and last hours of daylight. By taking photos at either end of the day, your shots will naturally have more mood.”
Carole Deschuymere: “Learn to see the light. Photography is like painting with light. It’s not just taking a record shot of something you see happening, it’s trying to make the most out of each situation.”
It’s exciting to see animals in the wild, particularly elusive creatures or fearsome predators. But it’s vital that you remember to put the welfare of any animals first. Don’t disturb them or put them in a difficult situation to get your perfect shot. Your best photographs will be the ones where the animals look as relaxed and comfortable as possible in their environment.
Richard Costin: “Do put the welfare of the wildlife and habitat first; if you are in doubt, get in touch with the local warden/ranger and talk through what you should and shouldn’t be doing.”
We’ve all dreamed of capturing the perfect shot of a herd of giraffes roaming the African plains, or a tiger prowling through the long grass in India. But if you start small, you’ll get a feel for how to capture everyday wildlife you’re more familiar with before you attempt to tackle a more challenging animal. By doing so, you’ll feel more prepared to photograph animals.
Luke Massey: “Don’t dive straight into trying to photograph a difficult to find/photograph species. Hone your skills on common species like pigeons and learn to recognise their behaviour.”
Most photographers will tell you that in order to snap the perfect wildlife photograph, you need to understand your equipment. Knowing how to change your settings quickly will make a world of difference, particularly if you only have a fleeting moment to capture your image.
Carole Deschuymere: “Learn how to operate your camera without having to think about it. It’s like learning how to drive a car. Once you know how everything goes automatically. That is the best way to be prepared for those once in a lifetime situations. Especially with wildlife, you have to be able to react in a split second. Learn from a pro, they will give you tips and tricks that are very helpful in the field.”
Many of the world’s most successful wildlife photographers started out small and worked incredibly hard to get to where they are today. So, whether you’re a young budding photographer, or starting out later in life, stick with it and keep your eye on the prize.
Sue Flood: “Be aware that it is a very tough field to break into and you need to be incredibly determined to succeed. It took me 7 years from writing my first letter to the BBC to getting into the Natural History Unit. Practice, patience, dedication, knowledge, love and respect for your subject complete the picture. It’s the best job in the world!”