The 9 rules successful wildlife photographers live by

Photography is an art form, and wildlife is an extremely challenging and exciting subject to shoot. The subjects are often illusive, fast moving and unpredictable. This article will highlight the guidelines you need to follow to increase your chances of capturing that ‘golden moment’ shot.

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Know your gear

As in any photography, the better you know your camera the better your chance of achieving the stand out shot. This is particularly true in wildlife photography since the action-packed moment usually only last about 20 seconds. Therefore, you need to be extremely familiar with your camera settings and the abilities of your lens to ensure that you capture the golden moment.

  • Know the minimum shutter speed with which you can achieve a sharp shot with your camera/lens combination.
  • Know how to move fast between focus points and focus modes
  • Know the highest ISO your camera can work at without too much noise

Understand your subject

Your aim when shooting wildlife is to capture unusual animal behaviour and emotion. In order to increase your chances, it is extremely important to do research into the subject you are shooting and to spend time getting to know any behavioural traits. This will help you to understand the animal better and predict in advance what might happen. This will allow you to be ready and prepared to capture the ‘golden moment’. If you are with a guide, use their extensive knowledge to ensure you capture strange and unusual behaviour.


An essential characteristic of successful wildlife photographers. The rule of thumb is that the most patient photographers achieve the most unusual – and therefore most interesting – shots. If patience comes naturally to you, then that is fantastic. If not, you need to train yourself to be patient. Observing your subject and getting to know their behavioural characteristics require patience, as you may have to return to an area a few times to enable the subject to get used to your presence.

Use a telephoto lens

Unless you are an incredible stalker and extremely patient, getting close to your subject is very challenging. This can be overcome by using a telephoto lens. Investing in a telephoto lens, will enable you to capture the action from a distance – giving you a bigger scope to play with. Don’t forget to shoot wide and also incorporate the background in certain shots.


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Focus on the eyes

With any creature, body language is a key indicator of emotion, with the eyes the most important indicator. They are a captivating part of all animals and by ensuring that the eyes are the main focal point in your photograph, it can make the shot extremely powerful. Therefore, it is essential that they are super sharp and in focus, you can enhance the colour and pop the eyes out when you are post-processing. When in the field, play around with using flash to pop out the eyes, particularly in low-light conditions.

Get creative whilst capturing motion.

There are a few options for capturing motion in your shots. These are either freezing the action or creating motion blur.

  • Freezing the action: it is essential to use a high-shutter speed in order to freeze the action.
  • Motion blur: this can allow you to achieve creative effects with your shots, allowing you to see movement within the shot.


Part of the challenge of capturing wildlife is putting it into context, by including the animals’ surroundings. Part of the art of wildlife photography is telling the story behind the animal and giving it a sense of place. On the contrary, don’t be worried about clearing litter out of your shot. Often done by landscape photographers, it is entirely acceptable to improve the scene in your shot by removing unwanted litter. You can do this either through physically moving the unsightly object out of your shot or by getting into a position or angle which excludes it from your frame and by setting your aperture to around F5.6 which will allow you to get the subject in focus with good separation from the background.


There are many things you can change in post-processing such as white balance, colour temperature, hue and to an extent noise. However, certain aspects of your photo cannot be altered. The following points are things that have to be shot correctly in the field otherwise your photo will be useless. Unfortunately (unless you are a photoshop genius) it is difficult to add on parts of an animal during post-processing. Therefore, when you are out in the field avoid unintentionally cutting off parts of the animal, as this creates a disjointed picture and by cutting of the tail tip, side of an ear etc.  your photo is instantly less captivating. Rather, if you decide to crop in on an animal do it properly and cut of the animal like you meant to, think about these things whilst you are in the field framing your shot.

Follow the light

Photography is about ‘painting with light’ so you need to use the light to your advantage. It can be difficult to shoot into the light but it is possible – especially when you want to achieve interesting effects. You can achieve sun flare and create silhouette effects. Make the most of the ‘golden hours’ of light. The early morning and late afternoon light will give you softer light with the sun being far from the earth. Midday, the sunlight can be extremely harsh which makes shooting difficult. On overcast days the clouds can act as a massive softbox soaking up the glare and this can also make for beautiful photos. The time of day is an important factor to consider when shooting wildlife as it will affect both the light and often the animal’s behaviour.

Blogger Profile - Clare James

Following a passion for adventure sports and wildlife conservation, Clare took up photography to document her travels and soon became addicted to the power of images. She specializes in underwater, adventure and wildlife photography and her work has been exhibited in Cornwall, UK. Clare previously worked with Africa Media as an instructor in the Wildlife and Adventure Photography program.

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