adult humpback whale breaching near the boat during our maui whale watching tour

12 Wildlife Photography Tips for Beginners

Diving headfirst into wildlife photography isn’t just about snagging those awe-inspiring shots that make your portfolio look like a National Geographic highlight reel. These wildlife photography tips for beginners will give you the foundation to go out and nail some truly inspiring pictures and create moments you’ll never forget.

1. Understand Your Subject

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Gaining knowledge about the wildlife you wish to photograph is essential. This includes understanding their habits when they are most active, and their preferred habitats. Resources such as field guides, wildlife documentaries, and local wildlife experts can provide invaluable insights.

Recognizing signs of stress or agitation in animals can also make sure you’re not causing them distress. This understanding increases your chances of capturing great photos and doing so responsibly.

2. Keep a Safe Distance

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Maintaining a respectful distance from wildlife is crucial for their well-being and yours. Telephoto lenses are invaluable for wildlife photographers, allowing you to capture detailed shots from afar. Observing animals from a distance minimizes the risk of disturbing their natural behaviors or causing stress.

Binoculars or scopes can help you spot wildlife before setting up your camera. This principle protects the natural integrity of wildlife and their habitats, ensuring they remain unthreatened by human presence.

3. Invest in the Right Gear

a humpback launches itself out of the water in maui
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Hawaii 2024

A solid setup for wildlife photography includes a camera capable of fast autofocus and a lens with a long focal length between 400mm and 600mm. Investing in weather-sealed gear can also protect your equipment during unexpected weather changes. If you plan to photograph in low light or be out for a while, getting a tripod or monopod stabilizes your shots and can also be key for keeping your arms fresh.

4. Learn to Move Silently and Slowly

a mama grizzly looks at the camera
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Mastering the art of moving without startling wildlife is crucial for close encounters. This means wearing clothing that doesn’t rustle and learning to walk in a way that minimizes noise and movement. Being mindful of your shadow and silhouette can also prevent alarming animals, as some species are sensitive to environmental changes.

Planning your approach based on wind direction can keep your scent from alerting wildlife to your presence. These practices improve your chances of capturing wildlife on camera and ensure minimal impact on the animals’ natural behavior.

5. Use Natural Light to Your Advantage

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

The golden hours, just after sunrise and before sunset, provide soft, directional light that can dramatically enhance your wildlife photographs. Understanding how light affects the scene and your subject can help you position yourself for the best possible shot. On overcast days, the diffused light can minimize harsh shadows and highlight details in the animal’s fur or feathers.

Experimenting with backlighting can create a beautiful rim light or silhouette, adding drama to your photos. However, it’s essential to know the challenges of shooting in varying light conditions and adjust your camera settings accordingly.

6. Practice Patience

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Wildlife photography often requires waiting for hours, or even days, for the perfect shot. This patience can be rewarded with unique moments, such as a rare behavioral display or a fleeting interaction between species. Setting up in a likely spot and waiting quietly increases your chances of witnessing something extraordinary.

Patience also allows you to observe and appreciate the more minor details of the natural world, enriching your experience beyond photography. Remember, some of the most memorable shots come from unexpected moments worth waiting for.

7. Focus on the Eyes

an adult grizzly bear rummages through the bushes in glacier national park
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Photographs where the animal’s eyes are in sharp focus tend to be more powerful and emotionally engaging. The eyes are often considered the window to the soul, conveying emotion and intent, which can create a connection with the viewer. Make sure to get the focus points near or on the eyes to really capture the moment.

Manual focus can sometimes be more effective in low-contrast situations, like photographing animals with camouflaged fur. Capturing the catchlight in an animal’s eyes can add life and depth to your photo.

8. Understand and Respect Wildlife Laws and Guidelines

A young goat screams at the camera.
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Each country, and often specific parks within them, have regulations designed to protect wildlife. These can include restrictions on getting close, using drones, or feeding animals. Familiarizing yourself with and adhering to these guidelines is essential for ethical wildlife photography.

In some cases, permits may be required for photography, especially for commercial use. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse for behavior that can disturb or harm wildlife, so it’s crucial to be informed.

9. Capture Behavior and Emotion

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Photos that depict behavior or convey emotion create stories, making them more engaging. Anticipating and capturing behaviors such as hunting, nurturing, or playing requires knowledge of the species and patience. Emotional moments, whether the intensity of a hunt or the tenderness between parent and offspring, can resonate with viewers.

Showing off these special moments is one of my top wildlife photography tips.

10. Composition Matters

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Good composition is one of the crucial wildlife photography tips for beginners. Techniques like the rule of thirds, leading lines, and framing can guide the viewer’s eye to the subject. Paying attention to the background and ensuring it doesn’t distract from the subject can make a significant difference, too.

Sometimes, repositioning just a few feet can dramatically change the background and improve the shot. Experimenting with different angles and perspectives can yield unique and compelling compositions.

11. Be Prepared for the Elements

Big Horn Sheep in Montana hanging out near the Hidden lake Lookout hike.
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Wildlife photography can expose you to various weather conditions, some of which may be harsh or unexpected. Dressing in layers and having waterproof clothing can keep you comfortable and focused on your photography. Protecting your gear from the elements is as essential as using weather-sealed equipment or protective covers.

Being prepared with essentials like water, snacks, and a first-aid kit can keep you safe during long hours in the field. Understanding and preparing for the environment you’ll be working in is critical to successful wildlife photography as a beginner.

12. Leave No Trace

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

The principle of leaving no trace ensures that natural habitats remain undisturbed and pristine for wildlife and future visitors. Sticking to trails and designated areas reduces the risk of damaging sensitive ecosystems. Avoiding actions that could potentially alter animal behavior, such as using playback sounds to attract birds, is part of ethical wildlife photography.

Taking only photos and leaving only footprints makes sure the preservation of wildlife habitats’ natural beauty and integrity. Respect for the environment and its inhabitants should be the cornerstone of any wildlife photography outing.

Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside