Wildlife Photography: Tips to Get You Started

Many photographers enjoy photographing nature, but are new to wildlife photography. I would like to cover some general wildlife photography tips and guidelines to help the beginner get started in creating images of birds and wildlife.

Photo of adult Osprey and chicks on nest by Noella Ballenger
© 2009 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved.  Look around for large nests in trees. In your research find out when osprey eggs hatch and then time your visits and watch for the new babies. Not wanting to disturb the nest with the Osprey mom and babies, I climbed a nearby hillside and photographed them with a 400mm lens with a 1.4 teleconverter.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a short or long journey from home, these tips will still apply. I’ll get you ready from home for your upcoming wildlife quest and then help you in the field once you arrive at your location.


Before your trip:

1. Are you looking for specific animals or just an area with a variety of birds and/or wildlife?

Use the internet or the public library’s maps & books to find out where the habitats are and if they are there year around or seasonally. Find the best times and locations for viewing them before you make your travel decisions.

2. Consider national or state parks, wildlife refuges and Audubon centers. Once I know my general location, my next stop for the details of any trip is to check out Photograph America.

It’s a super source for finding general information for many wonderful locations.

Photo of young Siberian Tiger at Triple D Game Farm by Noella Ballenge
© 2001 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. Consider animal models like this young Siberian tiger. In controlled situations (they are trained but still wild) you can get an excellent photography experience.

3. Consider guides or tours in wildlife areas. It adds to the cost, but it also increases your opportunities for seeing lots of animals and coming home with some great images.

4. Schedule your trip to give yourself ample time in wildlife locations. Having lots of time to observe in key areas is important. And, those animals aren’t always where you want them to be at the time you want them to be there.

5. Study and learn about animal behavior.

Portraits can make for wonderful images, but the most interesting shot are going to show the critter in action. If you know what to expect, you’ll be ready for any possible action. Tip: Visit a zoo to practice observing behaviors and taking animal photographs.

Photo of female gorilla and baby at zoo by Noella Ballenge
© 1995 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. Spend a day at the zoo observing animal behavior and practice photographing them. It’s a great way to prepare for a special wildlife trip.

Wildlife Photography Tips – Clothing and Camera Gear

1. Dress for the weather (layers is always best) and consider appropriate shoes and clothing that offers comfort.

2. Wear colors that blend into your surroundings, such as dark brown, blue, green or black for forests and perhaps tans, beige or light blue for deserts.

3. Consider an outfit that includes a camera vest with pockets as well as pants pockets. Those can make carrying an extra lens, batteries (2-3), and flash cards (3-4) easier and you will be less likely to set them down and walk away from them.

4. Carry a small pack with extra water and safety gear, such as a cell phone, gps or map, flashlight, energy bars, foil blanket, rain poncho, hat and gloves, etc. Stay safe … keep the pack on your back so it’s not left behind.

5. Carry nothing and wear nothing that has a strong scent–perfume, aftershave, food, or candy.

6. A tripod, window pod and/or bean bag is essential, as is a zip lock or garbage bag in case of rain.

7. Do not carry more gear than you will need. Focus your energy on getting the shot and not on dragging every lens you own.

Photo of Polar Bears in snow at Churchill, Canada by Noella Ballenge
© 2008 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. Polar bears have black skin with transparent, hollow guard hairs protecting their thick undercoat. It is important to dress for the weather. In Churchill, Canada this was great weather for the bears, but without the right gear it would have been miserable for us humans.

Before You Head Out:

1. Check your equipment before you leave home. Is it all there or have you forgotten something important (I once forgot all of my lenses)?

2. Are your batteries including the extras fully charged? Do you have the extra flash cards? Is there a flash card and battery in your camera right now?

3. Are your lenses clean and do you have a lens cloth and small soft towel or hankie ready to clean gear in the field if needed?


In the field – in & out of the car:

1. When you arrive, be sure to check for, read and follow any posted rules of conduct. Also one simple  example of wildlife photography tips –  follow your own common sense, whether posted or not. SAFETY FIRST … ALWAYS!!!

2. You should be familiar with the area from your studies, but keep a map with you and turn down the volume on your GPS. It is a time to be quiet.

3. Have the windows open, window pod mounted or bean bag handy to help support the camera and lens, and have the camera ready to pick up and shoot, not locked in the trunk or in your camera bag!

Photo of Moose at Waterton Lakes National Park of Canada by Noella Ballenger
© 2009 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. Your car is a terrific blind for watching and photographing wildlife. A bean bag or thick towel over the window’s edge helps keep the camera steady. This moose was crossing the road in the Waterton Lakes National Park of Canada.

4. If you stop the car and are about to get out, take the key out of the ignition to prevent a loud beeping sound. The noise can startle wildlife and they just may disappear. Be sure to put the key on your body before you lock the door. (Trust me, I know from personal experience. Both of these tips will make your adventure far more pleasant!)

5. Watch where you stop or park – park in designated areas or be sure to pull completely off the road.

6. Slow down. Drive much slower than you think you should. You need time to look and observe the area. Too fast = lost opportunities!

7. Don’t talk … just look and listen.

Finding Birds and Animals

1. Animals are all very concerned with their safety and their food. To say it simply, they are either prey or predator. Adjust your thoughts to think about them and their needs and concerns.

2. Use binoculars or your long lens to scope out areas from a distance.

3. Look for shadows, colors, and contours that look unusual in the setting.

wildlife photography tips
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. Look for the unusual shape or shadow when you are looking for critters. The owl on the right was spotted first. Can you find the second owl in the branches?

4. Look for silhouettes or shapes that are not a part of a tree or branch.

5. Look at the edges of banks, near the trunks of trees, and don’t forget to look up into the sky for birds in flight.

6. Let your eyes adjust to seeing differently. Sometimes letting things blur just a bit makes the inconspicuous more obvious.

Close-up photo of Pacific Tree Frog by Noella Ballenger
© 1999 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. Don’t overlook very small critters. They can make wonderful images as did this Pacific Tree Frog. As with all critters, the small ones can move very quickly so be prepared.


Photo of jackrabbit in field by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. This jackrabbit was sitting so quietly and still that it wasn’t until I squinted and saw the sun coming through the ears that I realized he was there.

7. Listen for different sounds … birdcalls, brush moving or rustling when there is no breeze.

8. If you are away from your car and hear something, stop, listen, and move very slowly and carefully. If you move too quickly you will make them flush or race away.

And a word of caution: You may want to try to determine the size of the critter by the sounds you hear.

Sometimes unwanted encounters can occur, so once again, have knowledge about the animals you’ll find in a location and be aware of the behavior of the animals you may see.

Once You Have Found Them:

1. PLEASE, PLEASE DO NOT SHOUT, “OH, LOOK THERE IS AN OWL!” That will not only spook the critter, but it will cause every photographer within 20 miles to come running to either look at what you found, or for those near by, to be really upset with you for scaring it away!

2. Before the action starts, take the time to think about your camera settings and adjust them accordingly.

3. Take the first shot and then at least you will have one. If you need to fine tune your camera settings, now is the time to do so. Note: sometimes you won’t be able to do this during mid-action, but stay with the action and don’t miss the opportunity.

4. Move slowly and do not make any sudden moves.

5. Do not stare directly into their eyes. You can become a frightening challenge and the critter may consider you a predator.

6. Sit down quietly in one spot and watch. Your photographs will look more natural if you and the critters are relaxed. When everything is calm, quite possibly they may resume grooming or feeding.


1. Know where the adjustments are on your camera so that you can easily switch your settings when the action calls for it. Nothings worse than wondering, “How do I do this?” in the middle of the action.

2. Have your camera manual available for quick answers to your camera settings and problems.

3. Preset your camera’s aperture and/or shutter speed and set your ISO for the lighting conditions you feel will best meet your needs. Have it turned on and ready so that you can shoot instantly. Then review those settings from time to time to be sure you have it right.

Photo of Black Bear by Noella Ballenger
© 2009 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. Early one morning we saw this Black Bear gobbling flowers right along the roadside. We used our car as a blind and photographed him from about 30 feet. Under no conditions did we attempt to leave our vehicle and put ourselves or the bear in danger.

4. Under most conditions, I have my ISO set to 400 or above to give me the ability to set the shutter speed to stop action (shutter priority).

Photo South American Coati at Iguazu Falls area of Brazil by Noella Ballenger
© 2003 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. In the Iguazu Falls area of Brazil we saw many South American Coati. They live both on the ground and in trees. They search for fruit high in the trees. This one was moving slowly down the tree trunk and so the shutter speed was slowed down.

5. Use Aperture Priority if you want to be able to adjust the depth of field and let the camera select the shutter speed. I like to use this setting for landscapes when I want the background sharp. To have the background nicely blurred so a motionless animal or other subject will stand out, set your aperture to a large opening such as F4 or F5.6.

6. Use Shutter Priority if you are photographing moving animals. For birds in flight or critters on the run, keep the shutter speed fast at around 1/1000 to 1/2000 of a second. For slower moving critters you can set your speed at around 1/250 to 1/800 of a second.

7. To track moving birds, I set the camera so that it grabs the focus and stays with the critter. Check in your camera manual to see if your camera has this capability. On Canon it’s called AI Servo and I also use high speed, continuous mode shooting.

8. As a newcomer, if you aren’t sure of your exposures and shutter options, put it on Program/Auto setting for now. Then, do your best and learn what you should have done later. Do not miss an opportunity this time but definitely learn later.

9. I set my camera so that it is on high-speed continuous shooting. I would rather take many duplicate images and edit later than miss the one shot I really want.

10. Learn to pan with the animal in a smooth, continuous movement.

Photo of Great Blue Heron in flight with fish by Noella Ballenger
© 2012 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. You do not have time to fuss with camera settings when the action starts. A fisherman tossed this Great Blue Heron a fish and he really took off. By having my camera set on shutter priority with a fast shutter speed, I was able to grab the shot of the bird in flight with his fish.

11. If you are on a tripod, loosen the ball head slightly so that you can move it easily to find and follow the action. I have the adjustment knob for the ball head on my tripod right under my left hand and can loosen or tighten as needed.

12. Focus on the eyes. If the eyes are not sharp, you lose the impact of the image.

Photo of Cactus Wren sitting on cactus by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. The Cactus Wren was sitting quietly. Switching to aperture priority, I set the camera with an aperture of F5.6. The long lens and the shallow depth of field, allowed the bird to be in focus and the background to have a soft blur.

13. If you have one, use a long telephoto lens so you can stay a safe distance away and not alarm the animal or bird.

14. Check the edges of your image so that you can eliminate any distractions that will conflict with the subject.

15. Portraits are very nice, but don’t forget to take some that show the animal’s behavior and/or habitat too.

16. Get up early and stay late, because animals are usually out early in the morning and again just before sunset. You need to work within their schedule.

17. Use the beautiful light of dawn and dusk to capture the glow of a landscape or every color detail of the critter.

Silhouette photo of deer on hillside by Noella Ballenger
© 2001 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. As with the bear, getting up early and staying late is important in finding and photographing animals. And, even when the light is going and you are too far away to capture the details, think about taking a silhouette.

Photographing and observing wildlife is a wonderful passion, but their safety and yours is paramount.

You can get so excited about seeing the critters that it is easy to forget that they are wild. Always remind yourself that it is important not to intrude or interfere with their movements, their habitat, their personal territory, or their behavior.

You may find yourself in conflict between wanting the “perfect” shot and staying safe, but if you love animals like I do, you will work hard at protecting them even from yourself.

So, hope you have enjoyed these wildlife photography tips and have a great time looking for and photographing some wonderful animals and birds.Give yourself time to research the critters and their habitats and develop safe and good photography habits. I’ll see you out there and I know you will enjoy the experience as much as I do.

by Noella Ballenger
All text: © 2012 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

1 Comment on Wildlife Photography: Tips to Get You Started

  1. I’d love to get into wildlife photography. I don’t have very much experience, so I appreciated your suggestion to look at some sort of guided tour or vacation that would give me good opportunities to get good pictures. I’m sure it would also present a great environment to learn some tips from other photographers to improve my ability.

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