General Guidelines for Wildlife Photography


Everyone must know their camera intimately, and how it works without having to hesitate.

Every image you shoot is all about a story: Everything relevant to that story must be pin sharp. Bokeh is a secondary affirmation and supplementary to telling that story and just as important.

Amputation of body parts of animals/birds which have relevance to that image is a strict NO-NO!

Feet of animals standing in grass should be given enough space in the image, as if they were visible. It is not cool to amputate body parts, even though they are unseen and hidden by grass.

Animals and birds have a mind of their own, but patience can often win you a great photographic opportunity.

Try to learn as much as you can about your target animal / bird behaviour. If you are with a guide, ask that guide to give you the heads-up, and warn you if that guide thinks that there would be likely movement or any particular behavioural pattern to watch. Examples:

  • The Felids (cat family) will signal when a yawn is coming;
  • All cubs love to play, so they provide lots of action and some really cute “aaaahhh” moments;
  • Raptors (Birds of prey) will always take off into the wind for lift and just before they do, they will lift their tails and defecate;
  • Zebra stallions are bad tempered and will fight each other frequently;
  • Buffalo always look at you as if you owe them money, but this can provide some interesting portrait opportunities and ox peckers love to sit on buffalo and peck around their eyes, ears and mouth, making for some great photographic opportunities;
  • Giraffe almost invariable feed by walking into the wind because trees emit a tannin when something is eating the leaves. This tannin has a pungent smell which drifts with the wind to other trees downwind, and alerts those trees with those aerial tannins, so they too will release their own tannins, which make the leaves unpalatable to predating animals.

Try to capture images of animals and birds from a face-on direction, and even better for them to make eye contact with the camera.

Watch the animal / bird and try to capture that moment when they move or scratch etc, to provide interesting images.

Allow an animal / bird to move into space in the frame. Anything behind an animal / bird is “old news” and no longer interesting, unless it has a particular significance to that story being told by the image, eg: A fight or confrontation.

Always use Back-Button-Focus; AI – SERVO (Or the NIKON equivalent); Auto White Balance and AUTO ISO but cap the ISO to suit your camera’s abilities.

If you are expecting action, use the highest frame rate your camera can allow – If there is no action foreseen, then just leave it of about three frames per second or thereabouts;

By using a high frame rate, you give yourself a better chance of capturing that one magic moment and also animals/birds blink…Nothing worse than a half closed/closed eye to spoil an image. Shoot in bursts rather than just hold the shutter button down until the buffer is full.

Always hold your camera – Never lay it down when travelling because it can fall and break, and it takes longer to grab and shoot.

Learn how your focus system works and how /why / when to use different focal points or clusters.

Learn how to change the focal points while looking through the viewfinder so you can maximise the opportunity to gain sharp focus.

Learn to shoot in full manual and use your histogram to tell you what shutter speed to use to capture that image.

ONLY shoot in RAW… JPEG is very limiting.

Compose as much as you can “in camera”.

Unfortunately, in order to capture images of moving animals/birds you need to achieve high shutter speeds in order to freeze action and also to provide “shake-free” images when hand-holding. Birds nee no less than about 1,1,600th Sec or even faster.

Keep your ISO to a cap of ISO 800 if you can.

Use high write speed SD / CF cards – No less than 60 Meg per second or faster as this means your buffer empties faster and you won’t sit there after a burst, waiting to finish buffering and miss that one magic moment because your camera was still buffering.


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