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Elephant on the African savannah

Checklist for better wildlife photography

We have created this checklist to summarize our approach to photographing wildlife. The list may seem overwhelming for those new to wildlife photography, but we assure you that many become instinctual as you practice and gain experience.

Planning Decisions

Pre-visualization review: If you have particular shots in mind, review those each morning before shooting to remind yourself of those scenes.

Communicate with your guides: If you photograph with a guide or a workshop leader, communicate your shot list. Without it, they cannot help you find the scenes you seek.

Do I need a blind?: If animals are particularly skittish, you may need to obscure your presence with a blind.

Is this going to be a black-and-white photo?: Should you be exposing your histogram farther to the right? Or do you need to adjust the exposure compensation to darken the blacks in the camera?

Have the correct camera gear:

  • Have spare batteries and memory cards.
  • Ensure that you have the right lenses for the various situations you encounter.
  • Have a backup camera available if you are in remote locations.
  • Ensure you have your monopod, tripod, or gimbal if your lens setup requires it.

Bring binoculars: Binoculars can be helpful for many types of wildlife photography. They allow you to spot and track animals at great distances. Using binoculars can identify animals moving towards you and help you position yourself as the animals approach.

Proper teamwork: If you are photographing with a group of people in a vehicle or blind, remember that your sudden movements or noises can impact others’ photos. Respect other photographers and collaborate to ensure everyone gets great images.

Camera Setting Decisions

Shutter speed fast enough to freeze motion: The most frequent reason for blurry wildlife photos is shutter speeds that are too slow for the action. Understand and anticipate the required shutter speed for each type of animal action. Read more in our guide for the best wildlife photography shutter speeds.

Aperture/Depth of field: Decide how much of the scene you want in focus. You will need smaller apertures for large animals or groups at staggered depths. Wider apertures will be required if you are trying to isolate animals and blur noisy backgrounds. Read more about depth of field for groups of animals.

Use as much ISO sensitivity as you need to get proper exposure: Use the minimum amount of ISO to obtain a proper exposure, according to the histogram. If faced with an extremely dark scene, boost the ISO to the upper limits that your camera supports. It can be the difference between getting a reasonable shot or no shot at all.

Choose the correct auto-focus mode: You want your camera in continuous autofocus mode to track animal movement. Learn the focus point modes of your camera and choose the appropriate one based on how fast and erratic the action is.

Enable continuous release mode: To capture a burst of images in sequence, know how to turn on your camera’s continuous release mode.

Use exposure compensation for difficult lighting: If you photograph under tricky light, such as white snow or against clear blue skies, know how to adjust exposure compensation.

Choose the best metering mode: A metering mode that evaluates the entire scene is almost always the best choice for most nature photography. This mode is known as matrix metering, evaluative metering, or multi-metering. Spot metering can be helpful for tricky lighting situations where you want to expose for a specific part of the image.

Composition Decisions

Focus on the eyes: The most important thing to focus on is the animal’s eyes or nearest eye. In-focus eyes allow your viewers to connect with the subject and are often the difference between great and mediocre photos.

Portrait or environmental image?: Up-close details of animal behavior can be stunning, but so can grand landscapes that show where the animals live. The photographer decides which to pursue, and we recommend that you watch for both opportunities.

Identify the direction of sunlight: Always be conscious of the direction of sunlight. The sun coming from behind you over your shoulders will give a nicely-lit scene compared to backlighting. However, there may be creative reasons to use side or rear lighting, or the scene may not allow you to move anywhere else.

Check for tangencies: Check the frame for tree limbs, horizons, or other objects intersecting unappealingly with the animal.

What is the final crop?: Do not constrain your images to the 4:6 aspect ratio of most camera sensors. Maybe you have a 16:9 panoramic image in mind or a 4:3 aspect ratio. If you think about the crop while shooting, you can place elements in the scene according to your intended aspect ratio.

Don’t crop off parts of the animal:

  • Check the edges of your frame to ensure that the entire animal is captured.
  • Do not forget about shadows or splashes in water that you might want to include.
  • Shoot slightly wider than you need to and crop in post-processing if necessary.

Experiment with your point of view: Get low to be at eye level with animals when possible. Shifting your camera up, down, or to the side can dramatically improve an image, particularly when intersecting elements and tangencies are in the scene.

Create emotion: Recognize images that evoke emotion. It might be laughter, fear, awe, or disgust. If you have those types of scenes in mind when shooting, you can be more selective about the wildlife photos that you capture.

Position animals in the frame: Placing the animal in the center of the frame can be a safe way to take a photo, as you can change your crop in post-processing. However, placing the animal in your desired location when shooting will give you the maximum number of pixels and flexibility when editing.

Read more about improving wildlife photography composition.

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