Wildlife Photography Tips for Beginners

Grab your camera, head outside, and enjoy the journey of capturing your favorite outdoor memories.

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by Andrew Weidman
Even with a cellphone, you can take incredible landscape photos.

Learn how to catch amazing moments in nature with wildlife photography tips for beginners — from what kinds of compositions to capture to wildlife photography settings to adjust on your camera.

Who doesn’t love getting out into nature? The fresh air, the beautiful landscapes, and the excitement of unexpectedly seeing a wild animal all make for a memorable experience. I’m sure many of us have heard the phrase “Take only memories, leave only footprints,” an invitation to leave the wild exactly as you found it. But what if you could take something a bit more physical than a memory? What kind of souvenir could remind you of the experience while not diminishing the scene in any way? In a word: photographs.

We’re living in the greatest time ever for amateur photography. Never before have so many people had the ability to take great pictures. Right now, just about everyone is walking around with an incredibly powerful camera in their back pocket or bag. Heck, this device is so powerful it even sends and receives phone calls!

So why is it, then, that when you look at the cellphone photos you took with this astonishing bit of hardware, they’re anything but art? You know the shots I’m talking about: boring, flat landscapes; blurry, grainy images of out-of-frame subjects; or a murky image of … what is that? Sasquatch? Maybe it’s Nessie. I’m not quite sure, but I thought I was shooting a duck! If those are the results you’re getting, it’s no wonder you’re probably ready to give up on nature photography.

A snowy owl stands in a winter field with a bit of snow under it

I could easily spend more than half of this article discussing camera and photographic mechanics and barely scratch the surface. Instead, let’s leave it at this: Take the time to learn your camera intimately. Learn the controls and their functions so well that you can make changes on the fly without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. Don’t give in to the temptation to switch to full auto mode. (Get a quick brush-up on photography terminology below.)

And while you’re at it, put down the cellphone and upgrade your camera. I use a digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR), the digital descendant of the 35-millimeter film camera with exchangeable lenses, with either a 50-millimeter prime lens or a 150-to-600-millimeter zoom lens, depending on what I’m shooting. There are other options, but that’s what I use. Gear isn’t cheap, but you can find some great deals on used equipment. Just be certain it’s been thoroughly checked out and is in top working condition.

From Garbage to Gorgeous

Let’s get one thing out of the way. It’s OK to shoot trash photos. Everyone shoots trash. If you’re not shooting trash, you’re just not shooting. You wouldn’t believe the amount of trash I shoot in a week. The trick is to look at your photos and figure out what went wrong — or, more importantly, what went right — and how to repeat, or improve, the good without repeating the bad.

Blurry image of a duck flapping its wings on the water.

That’s where improvement comes from: paying attention to what you’re doing and understanding how to make it better. And these days, shooting trash to become a better nature photographer is cheap. You don’t have to worry about wasting those 12 precious exposures of film you just slapped down five bucks for last week. Nowadays, if a shot doesn’t work, you just delete it like it never happened. Even at the most “expensive” storage level (recording both large-file JPEG and RAW files for each shot), the average 16-gigabyte memory card can hold 500 shots. If only one of those 500 shots is good, so what? Delete the rest. The more you shoot, and the more you pay attention to how you shoot, the more your photography skills — your “eye” — will improve. For example, one of the biggest sources of trash shots is soft focus. Strive to get the sharpest focus you can, particularly sharply focused eyes; people automatically look at eyes first.

Step Up Your Photography

Let’s break down some factors that can make or break your photos, starting with the quality and direction of your light source. Believe it or not, a bright and sunny midafternoon isn’t the best condition for great photography. The best is early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is near the horizon, the time photographers call “golden hour.” Have you ever noticed how much warmer and softer the light seems to be during these times, and how much more vibrant colors seem? Too bad it doesn’t actually last an entire hour. Sometimes you can stretch it, though, when there’s a high, thin layer of clouds, such as on a day of light rain showers. Another tip for working with light is to always keep the sun at your back so it illuminates your subject. If you’re shooting sunrises or sunsets, silhouettes, or rim-light shots, feel free to break this rule.

Silhouettes of two stags standing on a grassy hill with a flock of birds flying above

Composition is another important factor in taking a compelling picture. Have you ever taken a photo of a spectacular sunset, only to be thoroughly bored by it when you looked at it later? I’ll bet it was a nice shot of a blazing fireball settling on a black horizon with warm colors filling the sky, but you probably didn’t include anything to play with your attention. Imagine how much more exciting it would’ve been with a tree or a building in the foreground, a farm lane or stream meandering through, or something else to catch your eye and pull it through the scene? Similarly, an afternoon shot of a mountain range will really come to life with some dramatic clouds above it and a field of wildflowers or fall foliage in the foreground.

A group of people stand in a field while a huge flock of white snow geese

Here’s an example. Every year, snow geese visit my region by the thousands in late winter, followed by photographers in the hundreds. I remember seeing a photo of a mass takeoff of snow geese, and I was amazed at how they filled the frame entirely. I desperately wanted a shot of my own just like it. But when I did get that coveted shot — I was underwhelmed. The whole scene was nothing but a field of white and black, a sky full of geese, only it just looked like television static. It took me some time and a lot of boring snow geese shots before I learned what I was missing: something in the foreground to give a focal point, a place to start. Sometimes, that something was a tree branch; other times, a solitary goose left grounded in an otherwise empty field beneath the snow-goose-filled sky. My favorite shot was when I photographed a small group of birders watching the feathery blizzard.

Wildlife Photography Settings: Tips for Working in the Wild

No doubt you’re ready to start photographing wildlife, but where to start? The obvious answer: where the wildlife is. Don’t worry; I’ll give you better suggestions than that. Here are some more wildlife photography tips for beginners.

Start basic. Try photographing the birds that come to your bird feeders. I’ve spent hours photographing the birds directly outside my dining room window as they visited our platform feeder. Visit nearby parks featuring water in one form or another (lakes, ponds, streams, etc.). Where there’s water, there also will be wildlife. Even better, a lot of the creatures will be acclimated to human presence, meaning they’ll let you get closer than normal.

Closeup of a black bird looking at the camera, its head pointed toward some birdseed at the bottom of the picture

Carry your camera with you as you travel. I take mine to work every day. Every day. Most of my shots come from my daily commute. I’ve gotten great shots of tundra swans, Virginia rails, and even bald eagles while traveling home from work. Locate the nature reserves and parks in your area and frequent them regularly. You never know what you’re going to spot. It probably won’t be what you expected, but it probably will be something to get excited about. Another option is to take your camera along to your hunting stand.

Constantly check and recheck your settings. This is especially important if you’re moving through changing conditions. I’ve lost many a spectacular shot to a blown-out exposure simply because I’d moved from the shade to an open field and forgot to adjust my shutter speed. I’ve also managed some amazing shots — such as the osprey I didn’t even know was above me until it struck a trout in front of me — because I’d just rechecked and adjusted the settings. It’s a simple habit and one worth cultivating.

An osprey takes off from the water after snagging a fish.

Wherever you go, go slowly and quietly. Or, better still, find a spot to sit and wait. The wildlife will come to you, as long as you don’t startle the animals with sudden movements or loud noises. And whatever you do, never chase anything you spooked. You won’t get a photo you’ll like, and you’ll stress the creature unnecessarily. When the subject is calm and undisturbed, you’ll get much better behavior from it. A duck floating on the water, watching you? Boring. That same duck flapping its wings after a preening session? Wow!

Photographing wildlife can be challenging and downright frustrating, but when you get that “National Geographic” shot, you’ll know it was all worth it. And once you’ve been taking photos long enough to begin getting results you like, don’t let them live on your computer. Share them on social media, print them out, frame and hang them, and give them as gifts. Photography isn’t about merely taking photos; it’s about sharing a moment with others, making it last forever. Get out there and make some shareable memories.

Fall foliage beside a still body of water, with forest-covered hills behind

Wildlife Photography Tips for Beginners

Closeup of four purple flowers with thin petals and yellow center

Start learning nature photography through landscape photography. That’s not to say you should pass up an opportunity to snap a shot of a fox or a flock of turkeys if they present themselves to you, but landscape photography does have the beneficial quality of staying still while you work your way through camera settings, lighting, and composition. You have enough to keep track of when you’re just learning; you don’t need the extra frustration of a moving target.

One way to practice your lighting and composition skills in a way that’ll mirror photographing wildlife is by taking botanical photos. A botanical photo has a plant, a leaf, or a flower as the main subject, filling the frame in a pleasing fashion. Typically, the background will be blurred or otherwise obscured, if possible. Position yourself so the subject is closer to you than to the background. Finally, if you can, make sure the subject is well-lit and the background is shaded. That’ll ensure the subject will really “pop.” Avoid shooting a subject surrounded by branches or other cluttering elements. Another trick to add interest is to include a supporting branch or stem that arcs across the photo’s frame, placing the focal point off-center in the frame.

The photo is black, save for the middle, where a dark-orange sun shows the silhouette of a plant

Camera Lingo

If you’re just getting into photography, you might be stuck on what all the different terms mean and how they relate to your camera. While there are plenty of detailed adjustments for each camera, here are some basic definitions of some of the more common photography terms you’ll encounter.

A waterfall in a forest.

Aperture: Measures how wide the lens opens to admit light into the camera, expressed as an “f-stop.” A lower f-stop (f/4) is open wider than a higher setting (f/12), giving a narrower depth-of-field.

Auto/manual mode: These two settings are options on most digital cameras. Manual mode allows you to control exposure settings, while auto mode gives that control to the camera. Manual mode allows more creativity. Auto mode should be reserved for one-chance candid family moments

ISO: Measures the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light, expressed as a number in a range from 100 to 6400 (or higher). Higher ISO allows for faster shutter speed, eliminating blur.

Depth-of-field: An area of a photograph in sharp focus. Landscapes require deeper depth-of-field, while portraits require shallow depth-of-field.

DSLR: A popular kind of digital camera, short for “digital single-lens reflex” camera.

Focal point: The point of interest in a photograph that can draw someone’s eye to it.

Foreground and background: Respectively, the part of the photograph that’s closer to the viewer or camera and the part that’s farther away.

Shutter speed: Measures how long the shutter remains open, expressed as a fraction of a second. Faster exposures freeze action, while slower exposures create blur.

Iridescent green hummingbird drinks from a pink flower while in flight

Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He’s been photographing nature and wildlife for more than a decade, always striving for that “National Geographic” shot. He usually sets his camera at f/8; ISO in auto between 100 and 400; and exposure to hit 0 on the light meter, with a 150-to-600-millimeter telephoto lens.