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.


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.

This is the National Zoo?

By Mark

Since we had the first really nice weather of the year last weekend, we and a few thousand of our closest friends went to the zoo on Saturday.  

I got a few “cute” pictures of Bao Bao, the baby panda; overall I found the whole trip was mildly depressing. The zoo itself is in pretty bad shape.  Yes, it is the start of spring, after a pretty long and rough winter but the facilities and exhibits are just worn down and sad.

Having grown up with the San Diego zoo the comparison was very stark.  The animals and exhibits there look much more vibrant and healthy.  As an example, the big cats at the National zoo are kept in a circular exhibit area.  You should be able to see Lions and Tigers and, well more lions and tigers—bears are elsewhere in the zoo.  

Nope, only one tiger family exhibit is open.  Now the mother tiger is impressive and we watched as she and her cub played around.  The other 2/3 of the exhibit was fenced off and empty.

Currently there are no giraffes, hippopotami, or even a smiling camel in residence.  If you know my house, then you realize the lack of giraffes is a serious problem. They do have a couple Asian hefelumps. 

No woozles to be found...

No woozles to be found...

The small mammal house had many vacant exhibits as well.  At least we got to see mole-rats—woo hoo.  There are also wild box turtles in the ponds—double woo hoo.

The line for the pandas was fairly long, and unlike a Disney line, the waiting process was pretty bleak.  It is pretty amazing to think that this started off no bigger than a stick of butter.  

Part of the good thing about the zoo is that it is free just like other Smithsonian facilities.  Unfortunately this means that it is dependent upon Congress to properly fund them.  They don’t and it shows.  Perhaps it is time to rethink what “free” really means when it comes to the care and display of the creatures at our National Zoo.  Helping people understand and preserve endangered and rare species is important and worth a better effort.  

They don’t forget and we shouldn't either.  As a nation, we can do better than this.

Creative Choices

  It has been a really hectic week, and when I sat down to start writing, I really didn’t have a good idea in mind.   Hoping to kick start my limited imagination I went back through the last sets of pictures I have shot.  While we were visiting the New Orleans zoo, they brought this very lovely Indian elephant out and up close so that people could pet her.  It always amazes me how they can form such deep bonds with humans and with other elephants.  For me, elephants have such patient, old eyes.Elephant As they are so monochromatic anyway, and have such interesting textures, I knew this photo would look better in black and white.  Roger and I both have raved about Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro2 before (like just last week), and it really is such a great creative tool, it really allows you to change the mood of your images, and experiment.  I processed the photo three different ways to try and show a bit of what is possible.   Silver Efex is a plug-in and runs directly from Lightroom or from Photoshop.  It automatically saves what you have created as a new image alongside your original, allowing you to play with them forever.  Advice: delete the ones you don’t like.

High key is a deliberate technique to push the background to the highest possible brightness and emphasize the highlights.  This preset then adds a yellowish tint to the overall image. I think it works better on super models.

Full spectrum processing really tries to smooth out the differences in contrast between the darks and the lights; revealing a lot more of the fine detail in your image.  In my eyes, it leads to a fairly flat image.


The one I wound up liking the best, is a preset called “Wet Rocks”.  It brought out the detail in the elephant's skin, but kept the brooding quality of the shadows as well.  I did apply a slight yellow antique look as well.  Silver Efex lets you play around until you get yelled at to get off of the computer and do something useful.

Folks, I would greatly appreciate it if you commented on which hefelump photo you liked best.  We really are interested in your feedback.