The Manual: How to Shoot Wildlife Photography

Find and frame animals perfectly with this wildlife photography primer.

Compose the Perfect Shot | Find Your Prey | Conceal Yourself | Get in Position | Shoot Like a Pro

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Compose the Perfect Shot

Position the animal so it's gazing toward the center of the photo. Leave "active space" for the subject to look or move into for a more dynamic shot. Exceptions: Center the subject if it's looking or moving toward you.

Include the environment, but avoid distracting background features (vegetation, boulders) that make the photo look cluttered.

Use the rule of thirds: Imagine three horizontal and three vertical lines across the photo, and position the animal at one of the intersections. Exceptions: Center the subject if it's looking or moving toward you.

Shoot from dawn until 9 a.m. and from 4 p.m. until dusk for the best natural light.

Squat down and photograph animals at their eye level for an intimate feel. "Catchlight" (reflection) in the eyes makes the subject look more alive.

Compose the Perfect Shot | Find Your Prey | Conceal Yourself | Get in Position | Shoot Like a Pro

Compose the Perfect Shot | Find Your Prey | Conceal Yourself | Get in Position | Shoot Like a Pro

Conceal Yourself

  • Wear natural colors that blend in with the surroundings: green and brown in spring and summer, beige and tan in fall.
  • Avoid items that rustle when you move and anything shiny (including glasses).
  • Hide behind natural blinds, such as boulders, trees, and bushes. And don't ignore opportunities on the way to the trailhead. In wildlife havens like Yellowstone, you're likely to glimpse all-star animals right from the park road. Cars make very effective blinds: Pull completely off of the road ahead of the animal's direction of travel. Open your window partway and place a jacket or shirt between the camera and glass for cushioning.

Compose the Perfect Shot | Find Your Prey | Conceal Yourself | Get in Position | Shoot Like a Pro

Get in Position

  • Approach animals slowly, from downwind. You don't want to startle them–you want them to get used to your presence. (Photographer Kennan Ward swears that turning his tripod upside down when approaching caribou makes him look like he has antlers.)
  • Observe the animal's direction of travel and move to where it will approach you.
  • Keep a safe distance. Yellowstone National Park recommends getting no closer than 25 yards (100 yards for bears). If the animal looks alarmed or retreats, you're too close.
  • Practice standard wildlife photography ethics. Don't chase an animal, make noises to get it to look at you, or interfere with its normal behavior or routine.

Compose the Perfect Shot | Find Your Prey | Conceal Yourself | Get in Position | Shoot Like a Pro

Shoot Like a Pro

Zoom Point-and-shoot: Choose a camera with an optical, not digital, zoom of at least 10X for crisp close-ups. Digital SLR: It's not just about the focal length (but 80-400mm is a good bet). Also look for a lens with the largest aperture (lowest f/stop) you can afford. This lets you shoot at faster speeds in dim light.

Tripod Use the six- to 10-inch-long, flexible Gorillapod ($20-$50) to steady your camera on logs, trees, and rocks. Or try an adjustable trekking pole with a built-in camera support (such as Trek-Tech's TrekPod Go! PRO; $230) for quick stability on the go.

Lighting Get the perfect shot by taking the same photo with several different ISOs (a measure of the camera's light sensitivity). In dim light, try 400 to 800. Dial back to 100 to 200 in bright light.

Movement Pan your camera with the subject. Adjust shutter speed (1/30 to blur the surroundings and capture a sense of motion, 1/500 and up to stop the action), track the animal as it approaches, press the shutter gently, and continue panning for a few seconds after the shot.