5 tips to help your wildlife photography

5 simple tips to help your wildlife photography!

For many years I have spent hours and hours in the field everyday. Sometimes when you really really want something so bad you have to live, eat, breath, sleep, 24 hours a day about it. I'm not asking you to do the same, as today I offer some simple tips that will help make the difference in your photography.. 

  • 1, Know your subject. Anybody can photograph an animal or a bird, but to understand it is something completely different. For days on end I would show up at my local river and watch the waterfowl that would swim up and down the water. I observed each species individually and as a group to see how they acted. I watched when they were in a specific area at what time of the day, different lighting, so many scenarios would run through my mind. Each day I went closer and closer to see my limits of encroaching on waterfowl. I watched and I watched and then one day I decided to make the magic happen (well in my mind in was magic) to photograph a bird in the wild vs and location where minimal human existence happens can be two totally different things. Habituation to human presence can make photography that much easier or harder.

So, here's my moment, I realize this is the time of day all the ducks fly off and go upstream. They do this so they can float down the natural current to fish for food and slowly come into their target area. As soon as I realized this happened I grabbed my camera and ran across the bridge of the river, tumbled down the hill and go myself into position to be right at a famous fishing hole. I was wearing clothes that was very close in colour to the vegetation, once laying down on my stomach I grabbed some tall grass and laid it over top of me to make a natural blind. I was reading once when you photograph birds that minimal movement if not any is always best. And when you think its ok to move, don't! I lay still with my camera facing the position of my target, not moving my camera an inch knowing my target will swim right into my field of view. And then, the magic happened. All my hard work paid off and I got the shot I desired and spent all that time working for. 

  • 2, Understanding depth of field and how it works. Before you get out and shoot in the field make sure you understand just how depth of field is effected with your camera. Many people buy that 2.8 or f4 lens and think it creates beautiful backgrounds. Well I can't say you are wrong at all but what I can say is you need to make sure your subject has the proper portion or important part in focus. Let's give you an example if you are shooting a small backyard bird at F4 on a 500mm lens on a full frame camera. At a distance of 30 feet from the camera to the subject your depth of field will be 3.0 inches total. This means you have 1.5 of an inch in front of the subject and 1.5 of an inch behind the subject. If a bird is looking at you face on and its 6 inches long you need to figure out whats most important to you. Do you want a subject completely sharp from beak to tip of the tail?. Or do you want the face in focus and the background nice and creamy looking? Let me show you some calculations to show you how different depth of filed can change.

Dept of field calculator at 400mm on a full frame camera. Orange is 20 feet, Yellow is 30 feet, Blue is 40 feet, Green is 50feet from the subject. The left side of the chart is the amount of depth of field in inches. The bottom of the chart is depth of field settings.

Now lets look at those same settings but on a crop sensor camera with a 1.5x magnification. 

This chart is @400 mm on a crop sensor with 1.5x magnification

Same design as chart above only using 500mm focal length on a full frame camera

Same chart as above only using 500mm focal length on a Crop sensor camera with 1.5x magnification

So we can see that a crop sensor camera has less depth of field then a full frame camera. Also that our distance from a subject can really effect our depth of field as well. Just as an example in the chart above if I was shooting a small bird and was 20 feet away @500mm on a crop sensor camera my depth of field @f4 is .8 of an inch and 1.2 inches @ f6.3. That really is not a big difference at all, so we either need to back up from our subject or use a even larger number f stop if we want more depth of field. Feel free to print off these charts and use them in the field as a referance to help your understanding for depth of field improve.  

Lets look at a few images to see how depth of field effected my images. 

So in the above image they were both taken @ f4 for aperture. In the Dove image you can see the stick on the left in front of the bird and the tail are both soft. I could of used something more like 5.6 or 6.3 to help achieve better depth of field. If that was the look I was going for? The image on the right of the Bluejay was also shot at f4 but the subject was sideways to me. So the shallow depth of field allowed a tack sharp depth of field on my subject.

  • 3, understanding shutter speed. Shutter speed is a very important piece of the pie when it comes to wildlife photography. You can use it to manipulate a subject to portray movement or you can freeze a moment in time. Each offer different emotions to allow you to connect to a viewers eye. Every subject will require a different max shutter speed, this depends on how fast its movement will be. If you wanted to stop a bald eagle soring in the wind 1/1000 would likely be fast enough. If you wanted to stop a humming birds wings 1/1000 of a second would not even come close enough to freezing the motion. If you want to freeze a hummingbirds wings try something around 1/4000th of a second. But this begs a question to my eyes, is this natural? I never see a hummingbirds wings frozen in time with my eyes. To me they look like a vibrating ball with a stick body buzzing through the trees. 1/1000 in this case would create motion blur, or even lower of a shutter if you can get them to fly in one spot for a brief moment of time.

Let's go over a few different shutter speeds I use when out shooting wildlife to capture still motion.

  • Walking animals 1/500 to 1/1000 of a second

  • Running animals 1/1000 to 1/2500 of a second

  • Static birds 1/500 to 1/1000 of a second

  • Flying birds 1/1000 to 1/3200 of a second

  • Whales, dolphins, seals 1/1000 to 1/2000 of a second

Use your best judgement on anticipation of movement with your subject, as well remember a higher shutter speed generally requires a higher ISO. Another important point to remember is, try not to let your shutter speed drop below your focal length. If you do end up doing this make sure you turn on your stabilization in your lens. Generally speaking if you are shooting above your focal length and have steady hands the image stabilization should be turned off or it will actually be destructive to your image.  

Here are two images taken at the exact same shutter speed of 1/500th of a second. The grizzly cub on the left was standing still, he kept stopping to look at us. It was raining and super grey out so to help drop my iso I used 1/500 as it was not moving as it watched. On the image on the right hand side the mom and cub both walked into the image. Not only were they moving faster then what 1/500 could capture, I also had too shallow depth of field to have them all in focus. Should you be mad if this happens to you? No, just take it as a learning experience and take it to consideration for next time. 

  • 4, Don't underexpose dark subjects. To often I run into issues where clients complain their images are to noisey. The main reason for this is often people choose to underexpose to gain a faster shutter speed. But in reality they have lost all the detail in the shadows of their subject. I wrote a previous article about ETTR, expose to the right. This would be a good time to do this, push those ISO's and keep that exposure bright. Not to the point that you are blowing out those highlights, always be mindful of your highlights by either using a highlight monitor or watching the histogram in your image playback.

Being mindful of the highlights allowed me to pull out details in these images. Exposing for the body in spot meter allowed me to show detail in the hairs of the black bear. Exposing for the snow and shooting 1 stop over allowed me to fringe on the highlights of the bald eagle, showing details in the feathers. Exposing for the sun on the white belly of the puffin ensured there was enough details in the puffin feathers. And last the Humpback tail I exposed for the backlit sun light on the water, went half a stop over and this allowed me to pull the shadows on the underside of the tail that was blocked from the sunlight. When you are shooting try to wait for your subject to end up in a contrast type scene, this may take patience and all the luck in the world, but your images will always stand out! 

  • 5, Know your gear! Nothing will prepare you more in the field then knowing your camera inside and out. Learn your buttons without looking at them while you have the camera to your face. Test yourself constantly, aperture to the left is a lower f stop. Shutter to the right is a higher shutter speed as an example. If you have more then one camera, try to assign the dials all the same if you can. This will create muscle and mind memory so when the situation arises you will be ready to change settings on the fly without taking your camera away from your face.


I hope these tips help you out in the field, remember the more you know the better you will be once the situation unfolds in front of you. Happy shooting!


If you are interested in joining me on a wildlife workshop could I suggest Sea Birds in Newfoundland? https://www.northof49photography.com/southern-newfoundland-2020

Wildlife and sea life workshop in BC?  https://www.northof49photography.com/bc-whales-bears-2020