Animals are remarkable subjects for photography. There's a lot of variety within the animal kingdom that it gives photographers many opportunities to capture incredible moments. I spent a week in South Africa and Zimbabwe on a project with Lonely Planet and G Adventures, photographing the enormous and minuscule models of the savannah. This post will be useful for beginner and intermediate camera owners who want to learn how to photography wildlife with any camera.
I'll be unzipping my camera bag and explaining the gear, camera settings and editing software I used, how to be discreet on location along with lighting techniques and how to frame your shots. I used a mirrorless camera to capture the images you'll see in this post, although most of the techniques I'll be explaining can be applied to DSLRs, point-and-shoot cameras, cellphones and infamous tablet “photographers.”
"The animal kingdom offers an infinite variety of artistic photos; bursting with brightly coloured feathers, rich textures and distinctive patterns."
Gear I Used to Photograph Wildlife in Africa:
Main Camera Body:
"The camera doesn’t make the photographer. Don’t upgrade until you are better than your camera."
Let me explain...
Someone with very little photography experience won’t take good pictures on a $5,000 camera. They might as well stick with a cellphone or point-and-shoot. Before you purchase expensive gear, ensure you understand camera basics first. This includes how to manually adjust your aperture, shutter speed and ISO. These three camera settings are the foundation of 100% of your photos. Some cellphones nowadays have these camera settings built-in. I use the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 & 9 with manual photo settings and the ability to shoot in RAW. If your camera has the ability to change lenses, I recommend getting at least a 200mm, so you can "get up close" to your subjects without physically getting close. You can even get interchangeable lenses for your cellphone these days.
For my Sony A7R III, I picked up a 100-400 f4 from B&H Photo, and it’s perfect for wildlife photography. If you don’t have a zoom lens, then set your picture to the highest quality possible so you have options to magnify in editing. Don’t use digital zoom on your camera, this only causes a loss in quality.
Sony Camera Image Settings:
Format: RAW (Uncompressed)
Aspect Ratio: 3:2
Color Space: sRGB
Shooting Mode: Burst Photo
Being Discreet When Photographing Wildlife
The art of wildlife photography requires the art of being unseen. Animals are easily startled and will flee if they see a threat. Typically they have excellent hearing and sense of smell; which you can use to your own advantage. Standing down-wind from your subject will ensure they can’t sniff you out. The shutter-click of a camera is enough to send your model to the hills so if you’re using a cellphone or tablet, set your sound to OFF. The Sony A7 series has a “silent shooting” mode, so you can snap away undetected. Larger DSLRs won’t have the silent shooting option so wrapping your camera body in a cloth will reduce the shutter noise.
Staying in your safari vehicle is another way to stay discreet when photographing wildlife. While in Kruger National Park we spotted the BIG 5 animals and to our surprise they were not disturbed at all by vehicles. Our guide explained that the animals know vehicles are not predators due to their shape and smell. However, if a passenger stepped out of the vehicle, the human shape and scent activates the fight or flight instinct in the subject.
"If you are photographing animals on foot, ensure you aren’t wearing brightly coloured clothing so you blend into your surroundings."
Lighting Your Shot
All of photography is the art of capturing light reflecting off a subject. Since we are focusing on animal photography, most likely you are using daylight. If you’ve ever seen a time-lapse video, you understand how drastic a scene changes as the sunlight moves. The term “Golden Hour” refers to the golden lighting appearing at sunrise and sunset, getting those colourful creamy shots to show off. Shooting during midday generally produces “flat” images having shadows directly below the subject. Going out on cloudy days results in a smooth evenly lit subject without shadows (if that’s what you’re going for). Next time it’s a cloudy day, look for your shadow. Chances are it’s no where to be found or very difficult to spot. Some photographers prefer the no shadow look while others want those defined lit and dark areas on their subjects. Ensure you have your camera white balance settings set according to your light source (most likely daylight) to produce colours as your eye sees them (unless you’re colour blind).
Animal photography tests your camera skills to the eleventh degree no matter what you’re shooting with. Cellphones these days have remarkable quality and give you the ability to shoot in manual and raw format, which is incredible! I’ve used my Samsung Note 8 & 9 for dozens of images and the quality is remarkable. Now grab your camera, flip that mode into manual and play with the ISO, shutter speed and aperture. This is when you start having fun with your photography. Fast moving animals require a high shutter speed, dark lit animals would need higher ISO and still animals (ie. a turtle) you could get away with a longer exposure.
"Capturing the wings of a hummingbird requires drastically different camera settings to that of a sleeping rhino."
I always shoot in RAW format to capture more detail in the dark and light sections of my images. This gives me the ability to adjust those details in editing. If your camera doesn’t have RAW format, stick to jpeg with the highest megapixel and quality possible. The larger your image, the more you can magnify in editing and maintain quality.
Most of my images are edited using Adobe Lightroom, it’s really the industry standard for image editing. I don’t recommend using Photoshop, even though I used this for years and didn’t want to transition. Once I did, a whole new world of editing opened up to my photos. The best tool is by far the ability to create presets and apply them to all your images with a click. This can save hours of work and makes your photo collection look bangarang! I have also used an app on my phone called Snapseed to edit photos. It’s free and very easy to use. I recommend this for any beginner photographers or those editing on the go.