Wildlife Photography For Beginners

By Roger (7 August 2016)

If you're looking for something challenging to photograph, and you like animals, you should give wildlife photography a try. Typically, wildlife photographers make photos of undomesticated animals, in their natural habitat. Many adhere to photo-journalistic standards. They won't edit anything in the photo or manufacture the scene (through bait lures, etc.). You can find countless stories on the web about photographers being stripped of awards because they violated these rules.

You may have heard it requires very expensive gear and an unlimited travel budget, not to mention the physical fitness of an Olympic athlete. Those requirements may be a bit over-stated, but wildlife photography can be a difficult genre to break into, especially if you intend to make a living at it. The successful wildlife photographer has studied the animals and their habitats. They spend long periods in the field to gather those beautiful shots you see. However, there are many simpler, less-expensive approaches available to you, if you just like animal photography.

One of the easiest place to begin learning is your local zoo. It may not be as exotic as a trip to Antarctica, but today's zoos are making great strides to make their enclosures more closely match the animals' natural environments and eliminate unnecessary barriers between the viewer and the animals. With the safe conditions of a zoo and closer distances involved, you don't need any of the really expensive, long focal length lenses to get a good photo. Usually a lens with a focal length that tops out at 200mm will be sufficient. Most zoos will permit a monopod, which you can use for extra camera stability when the enclosures are a little dim.

Gibbon, Omaha Zoo

You still need to do a little bit of work; don't get lazy just because the zoo is easy. Find out the best time to catch the animals being active – it's usually early in the day. The animals will move as they want, so be patient. Don't whistle or make noises at them. You'll annoy the other guests, and the animals have heard it before and will ignore you. Look for the best backgrounds for your photos. Spend some time watching how the animal is behaving. Move around to find the best composition. The crowd always stops at the closest position to the animal, but moving further may give you a better angle on the animal and help you keep the crowds out of the frame. That's how I did got this coati photo.

Coati, Omaha Zoo

Beyond the basic zoo, you may be able to find animals in some other kind of captive condition. Animal parks hold animals in large parks and allow them to roam. We have one in Virginia that has 180 acres of land that you can drive through in your vehicle. (Virginia Safari Park) The animals are not predators, obviously, but you can make photos of them without worrying about bars. Since you can feed the animals, they are unafraid and may approach your car, allowing you even closer photos. Again, look at your backgrounds, and try to get a photo that makes the animals look as if they are in a natural environment.

Zebras in the park

I wrote about another captive event, back in 2014, (link), when I was talking about group shoots. The Raptor Conservancy of Virginia (link) brings raptors to some events. They'll let contributors photograph the birds during the events. With the raptors sitting on a branch, they appear to be in the wild. As I said, these types of wildlife photography aren't what the “real” wildlife photographers do, but it can give you a chance to make nice photos of animals. And, as a bonus, you are contributing to a worthy charity.

Falcon

When you're willing to take your chances on the whims of nature, you can head into a wildlife refuge. In a refuge, the animals (finally) are in their natural environment. You have no guarantee of seeing any of them; you are going to have to go into the refuge to try to find them. This is where your planning, knowledge of the animals, and patience will be tested. So why would I include them in a blog about easy ways to get into wildlife photography? Because there are still some easier ways to experience the wildlife refuge. Most of the preserves around the world have guide services, operating inside, for those willing to spend some money.

My favorite refuge is the Denali National Park and Preserve, in Alaska (link). We've visited it half a dozen times. Founded in 1917, it has more than six million acres of wilderness. The animals are never fed or assisted in any manner; everything is real. However, there is one road into this wilderness. Current prices for a bus trip into Denali start at about $80.

You may scoff at taking a bus, but you would be surprised what you can see from that vantage point. The animals completely ignore the buses because they aren't a threat to them. The drivers are connected by radio to tip each other off when an animal is spotted near the road. If you get the right group of passengers – meaning they are very quiet – you can get very close to animals in the area.

Denali Wolf

For example, on one trip, our driver was tipped off about a wolf near the road. The bus stopped, and everyone was told to be very quiet. The wolf came out of the brush; walked alongside the bus; and disappeared into the trees on the other side of the road. The close up was shot with a 200mm lens and is not cropped The wolf was so close to us that I couldn't get all of her into the camera frame. The bears, below, were one of 10 sets of grizzlies we saw the year prior. Once again, we were just riding the bus.

Denali Wolf close-up

Denali Grizzlies

Denali Grizzlies

I will never be a “real” wildlife photographer. My primary interests lie in other genres, but I'm always ready to make interesting photos when they present themselves. If you are looking for ways to build your collection of animal photos, there are several inexpensive ways to begin. Use the resources available to learn your techniques; study the animals and their environments; and look for opportunities to make it happen.

Have fun, and, remember, all of your wildlife photos don't have to be big and scary.