Our complete guide to wildlife photography runs through researching subjects, choosing equipment, and selecting camera settings.

For those who love natural surroundings, photographing wildlife can be very therapeutic and rewarding. It can also drive you mad if approached in a hurry. Patience and preparation are among the essentials for this kind of enterprise. Animals, especially wild ones, are unpredictable!

Follow this guide and capture outstanding wildlife photographs.

Wildlife photography starts with research

The key to becoming a better wildlife photographer is to first know your subject. Learn about their habitat, diet, and behaviour, when they’re on the move etc. Is the animal dangerous, timid, or aggressive, are they found in packs or alone? Not only will this ensure you are fully prepared when out in the field, but you also will become better at anticipating their movements, keep safe and, ultimately, take great photographs.

It’s a good idea to seek out other wildlife photographers to learn from the best. Photographers like Mattias Klum, Will Burrard Lucas, Frans Lanting and Amy Gulick, to name just a few, will fill you with inspiration.

There are many wonderful images among the Wildlife Photographer of the Year past and present winners, too. We have a vast library of articles on wildlife and nature photography in the Wildlife Photography section of this website, and if you know what type(s) of animal you want to photograph, then you should be able to find a specific guide to photographing them: be they birds, nocturnal animals, or Rhinos in Africa.

What kit do I need for wildlife photography?

Those new to this may assume that fancy and expensive long lenses are needed to shoot wildlife. This really is not the case. All you need to get going is a camera and lens.

We’ve spoken to many wildlife photographers who started out with kit they already had. For example, Sam Hobson made his name using a wide-angle lens (not your typical go-to lens for wildlife). His wide-angle award winning Bristol city fox images are incredible and well worth checking out.

If you do want to invest in a more traditional long-zoom wildlife lens the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Contemporary DG OS HSM is a great budget option. One of these second-hand can be picked up for around $800 / £600.

There’s also a range of other lenses that are well suited to wildlife use, or for a simpler option, an ultra-zoom camera could be a good option. For more options check out our guide to the best budget telephoto lenses for wildlife and best lenses for wildlife photography.

An extender to a compatible lens can give you that extra bit of reach
An extender to a compatible lens can give you that extra bit of reach

For those with a smaller budget, an extender is worth considering. This piece of kit fits in between your lens and camera body so make sure you purchase one that is compatible with your camera system, and existing lens.

An extender’s job is to increase the focal length of a lens. For example, a 2x extender on a 200mm lens will convert the lens to 400mm. An x1.4 extender on a 200mm lens will increase the lens to 280mm. It’s worth noting that the extender will decrease your widest aperture setting. For example, if your lens can open up to f/2.8 with an x1.4 extender aperture setting will become f/4. With a x2 extender, you will lose 2 aperture stops so your widest setting will become f/5.6.

Extenders vary in price, and we’d recommend hunting around on the second-hand market to save money.

Which camera is best for wildlife photography for beginners?

The same applies: All you need is a camera and lens. Check out our picks of the best cameras for wildlife photography, which have everything from budget-friendly models for beginners to the absolute best professional cameras on the market.

Watch and observe wildlife

It’s better to resist the temptation to start snapping as soon as you spot an animal. Stand back, observe and assess the subject and environment first. Watch how the animal behaves. Are they okay with your presence? Where is the light coming from? Where is the best background? Is their behaviour predictable? Are you in the best position?

Sometimes by slowing down and shooting less, we can achieve more. Be prepared to return to the same location and have perseverance to get a good shot. Don’t feel disheartened if you don’t achieve what you want right away – Rome wasn’t built in a day!

You also need to know when to stop. The welfare of the animal needs to be put above your needs to get a great shot. For example, mothers with newborns will feel very threatened if you are too close, and avoid clambering around on rocks when birds are nesting. This is why you need to research thoroughly as there is no excuse for ignorance. Leave each environment you’ve been in with no trace.

Read this guide to being an ethical wildlife photographer.

Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) at clifftop edge, Hermaness National Nature Reserve, Unst, Shetland Islands, Scotland.

Wildlife camera setup and settings

What settings should I use for wildlife photography?

There is no right or wrong shooting mode for photographing wildlife. Each photographer will have their own approach – ensuring that the camera is setup and ready to go is the main thing. We want to be ready to capture action as it happens.

As a good starting point, I find it easiest to shoot in Shutter priority mode. In this mode you can fully control the shutter speed and leave the camera to work out the best aperture and ISO speed setting. Although your camera calculates these settings, you need to be aware of what your aperture and ISO speed settings are reading.

  • Put your camera into Shutter priority (S or Tv)
  • Check the light – increase your ISO setting if need be.
  • Open the aperture wider if you need more light.

Using shutter priority will be of particular benefit for fast-moving subjects, and using a fast shutter speed such as 1/500s is a good starting point (more on this below). If you know your subject is slow moving, then you might want to use aperture priority so that you can more easily control the amount in focus in the shot.

If you don’t yet have a grasp on shutter speeds, apertures and ISO, we suggest you spend some time getting to know these settings on your camera and to experiment with the different effects they can achieve. For a refresher, read our guide to exposure, aperture, ISO, shutter speeds and more.

Sumatran Tiger looks up at the treetops. Experiment with how you like to shoot with your camera. We recommend you trying aperture priority as a starting point. Justin Lo, Getty Images

Make sure it’s sharp

There are three main things to consider for achieving sharp wildlife shots, the shutter speed, aperture setting, and focus:

Use a fast shutter speed:

Make sure the shutter speed is reading at least 1/500sec if the animal you are photographing is moving or for very fast movements 1/1000sec. If it is stationary then you’ll be fine with a setting of 1/200sec or above (depending on the lens you’re using).

To capture and freeze the fast movement of a Hummingbird you may need to use a shutter speed of 1/2000sec

Aperture setting

How much of the animal do you want sharp? For example, if you are close and focus on the eye at f/2.8, the eye will be sharp but the face will blur. This can look great if that’s what you desire, but for other features like the nose to be sharp then you’ll need to close the aperture down. In this example, the Rhesus Macaque monkey in the foreground is in focus and the one behind is soft, as the image was taken at f/2.8 (on a full-frame camera).

In this image, the aperture has kept the foreground Rhesus Macaque monkey sharp and blurred the other in the background. Image credit: Claire Gillo.


Focus needs to be spot-on. Our preferred method is to use the single-point AF setting on our camera and set the focus to continuous AF tracking. That way if your subject is moving (even little movements) you’ll have more chance of keeping it sharp. Trying to predict where your subject will move into the frame helps with this aspect and again this is where your research will help.

The latest mirrorless cameras from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus and Fujifilm offer subject detection AF for a variety of wildlife, depending on the camera model chosen, and subjects include birds (Olympus and Fujifilm), pets (cats and dogs), along with other animals. AND the system is designed to detect and focus on the subject’s eyes! This can help greatly in this genre!

Track your subject and predict where they will enter the frame to achieve sharp shots. Image credit: Jeremy Woodhouse, Getty Images

Motion and when not to be sharp

There are some circumstances in wildlife photography when a slow shutter speed is more appropriate than a fast one. For example, capturing the motion of flocks of birds flying across the sky, or panning with a moving animal to blur the background and give the feeling of motion. You can experiment with this technique to produce something different.

With the right subject slowing down the shutter speed setting can get you some great results. Image credit: John Fan Photography, Getty Images

Push the ISO

Any photographer will tell you that they love a low ISO setting as they then don’t have to deal with noise. However, when shooting moving subjects like wildlife, we have to be prepared to push the ISO up and embrace the grain. It’s more important to have a subject sharp and a little grainy than completely unusable. If an image has too much noise, then you can always process the raw files, and reduce it further.

Technical perfection should not be the main aim of wildlife photography. Many great images of animals have been captured which are slightly blurred. The quality of a shot should be assessed on other factors, too – if it tells a story, is unusual or dramatic, then be inclined to overlook minor flaws.

It is more important to capture your wildlife shot than to worry about grain, consider using a higher ISO setting and embrace the noise. Image credit: Claire Gillo

The background is essential!

The background setting of your wildlife image is undoubtedly as important as the main subject, whatever your approach, as it can completely change the look of an image. To shoot a strong animal portrait then look for a plain background to frame your subject against. In some circumstances (certainly not all) you may even be able to drop in a plain background behind the subject(s).

The background is just as important as your subject. Plain backdrops create the ideal setting. Image credit: Lillian King, Getty Images

For example, if you set up a bird feeder in the garden you could do so in front of a studio backdrop and choose whatever colour you want behind. Although there is much we can’t control in wildlife photography, sometimes we can create better conditions for ourselves to enhance our luck.

In a wide-angle wildlife image, the setting is vital as well. You want to use the scene to tell the story. Experiment with different camera angles – often coming down low gives an alternative take on a scene – for an unusual perspective.

Keep wildlife photography local

We recommend looking to see what’s on your doorstep and keeping your wildlife photography as local as possible – even in the city there are many wild animals around, including birds, squirrels, pigeons, foxes and more. Another advantage to shooting locally is you can keep returning to the same spot day after day or night after night, and eventually capture that amazing shot you set out to achieve.

Don’t travel to the other side of the world to find rare and exotic species to photograph. Concentrate what’s on your doorstep and tell the story there. Copyright: Claire Gillo

Stay in one spot

It may seem tempting to run after your subject. However, you’ll probably have more success by staying in one spot, camera ready. This is especially true for shooting small and fast animals. They get spooked easily and run away, or you end up with blurry shots of them on the move.

A great setting for wildlife photography is in the garden (or local park). Ten minutes sitting still in a backyard can reveal how much wildlife we have all around us. Observing first, watching for behavioural patterns, are preparation for getting great shots.

The garden is an excellent location for all kinds of wildlife. Image credit: Claire Gillo

Wildlife photography holidays

Test and improve your wildlife photography skills on one of our Wildlife photography holidays. Look out for announcements of our photo trips, led by experts, coming up in the UK and around the world.

Article: Claire Gillo and AP Staff, Lead image: James Warwick, Getty Images

The AP Improve Your Photography Series – in partnership with MPB – is designed to take your knowledge of photography to the next level, introduce different shooting skills and styles, and teach you how to grow as a photographer, so you can enjoy producing amazing photography (and video), whether that’s making money or simply mastering your art form. You’ll find further articles in this series.

Here are some more essential guides to have a look at:

Find the latest Improve Your Photography articles here.

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