Tips for photographing wildlife on wildlands

flickr, mikebaird

What better way to carry your wilderness experience back to your home than to capture amazing photographs of those who call these wild places home?

Visiting wilderness creates memories to cherish for years. Here are some tips for creating photographs to capture memories of the wild creatures you see.

Get all our tips for capturing memorable photographs in wilderness

Keep your distance

Viewing wildlife from a distance will not only insure your safety, but the safety of the animal. Rather than approaching an animal to take their photograph, try to get the best picture you can from where you are when you first see them. National Park regulations require visitors to stay:

  • at least 25 yards, or five car lengths, from most large animals
  • 100 yards, or the length of a football field, from bears and wolves

Taking a picture from a distance allows the photographer to also capture the landscape the animal lives in. Use the tools listed below to get more up-close shots. Or try capturing less threatening or threatened wildlife like insects if you want to get real close.

Gear for enthusiasts

Be sure to bring these essentials:

  • telephoto lens, with built-in image stabilization (IS) if possible (the faster the shutter capabilities the better)
  • tripod, ball-head mount suggested
  • materials to protect you and your equipment from inclement weather, like plastic and/or waterproof bags

Consider also packing these:

  • remote trigger, for getting your camera closer to your subject without you getting closer yourself
  • binoculars and adapter, which you can use to magnify your camera's view
  • macro lens, for extreme close-ups of small creatures or plant life

Capturing wildlife

The more you know about your subject, the better. If you know where your favorite animal likes to fly, crawl or swim, it will be much easier to locate them. If you know their typical behavior, you are more likely to anticipate great shots. Spend time just observing, the longer the better, and hidden if possible. 

Need-to-know skills

Once you are prepared, and willing to be patient, you will just need to practice! Here's some techniques that will give you an advantage:

  • switching quickly between focus points or modes
  • finding the minimum shutter speed that will capture a sharp image 
  • using wider apertures to focus on subject and shoot in low light
  • adjusting your ISO to allow for faster shutter speeds
  • shooting with a slower shutter speed and panning steadily to capture motion 

Timing is everything

Taking photos during midday hours works best if the sky is overcast, but otherwise plan to do so early in the morning and/or during the last hours of sunlight for the best light. This also works well because most animals are less active when temperatures are higher. Keep in mind several factors when planning for spying wildlife:

  • Time of year. Not only do some animals migrate over the year, but their behavior changes as well. In autumn, they may be more protective due to mating rituals or winter preparations, so it is even more important to keep your distance. Be mindful that seasons also affect the elevations that wildlife may prefer. Of course seasons affect the landscapes and backgrounds wildlife will be set in as well.
  • Animal behavior. Do a little research beforehand to better understand how to spot the creatures you most want to see. Some species are active during the day, others at night and some at dawn and dusk. Again, knowing what to expect goes a long way.
  • Latitude. This affects the length of daylight, which may be especially important if you are visiting Alaska. Of course it also determines what animals might be present in the area for the season.

Composition basics

Here are a few last tips for getting winning shots:

  • Position yourself at eye-level and focus on the subject's eyes. This is the single most important thing to keep in mind.
  • Keep both of your eyes open, balancing your attention between your camera's viewfinder and your peripheral vision of the animal's movement.
  • Look for light coming from a side angle or behind the subject to create dramatic highlights and shadows.


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