5 quick tips for better wildlife shots

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Wildlife photography presents dozens of challenges for a photographer - you need good gear, hours of patience, the ability to understand and empathise with your subjects, and of course access to the animals themselves. If you're looking to get started, or want to take your wildlife images from snapshots to pro shots, here's a few quick tips to help you on your way.

Nikon D850, 500mm f/5.6 lens. 1/800s @ f5.6, ISO 400.
Nikon D850, 500mm f/5.6 lens. 1/800s @ f5.6, ISO 400.

1) Avoid Placing Your Subject in the Centre of the Frame

When starting out, many wildlife photographers place their subject directly in the centre of the frame. If at all possible, avoid doing this. Instead, compose your image so that the animal’s face is across the intersecting ‘rule-of-third’ lines.

If you place the subject in the centre, it often forces the viewer’s eyes to stay on the subject, which can end up producing a very average image. By composing your subject off-centre, it makes for a much more pleasing image, as the viewer will tend to look at what else is surrounding the subject.

Nikon D810, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens + TC @ 400mm. 1/500s @ f5.6, ISO 400.
Nikon D810, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens + TC @ 400mm. 1/500s @ f5.6, ISO 400.

 2) Shoot at Eye Level

From the very beginning when I first started learning about wildlife photography some 25 years ago, I was told by my photographic mentor to ‘shoot at eye level’. Rather than standing up and pointing your camera and lens down onto an animal that’s on the ground, get down as low as you can.

Photographing wildlife at their level is so much more pleasing to the eye, and also puts you on the same level as your subject, rather than dominating or looming over them like if shot from above.

The same goes for shooting straight up at an animal. Its not always possible to get to their level, but by stepping back a few metres, for example, your composition will be so much nicer. In some cases, if there is a hill nearby or some steps, I suggest walking up the hill or steps so that you are on a similar level as the subject. One exception to this rule is when there is a bird (or birds) flying above you.

Nikon D850, 500mm f/5.6 lens. 1/1600s @ f5, ISO 200.
Nikon D850, 500mm f/5.6 lens. 1/1600s @ f5, ISO 200.

3) Watch out for Distracting Backgrounds

I have judged thousands of images in nature and wildlife photography competitions, but so often, I have seen amazing wildlife images ruined by a very distracting background.

If you look at an image and your eye goes straight to the distraction, rather than the subject, it ruins the effect you are trying to convey. By distractions, I am referring to things like man-made objects (buildings, fences, cars etc), bright highlights or blurred out trees and branches. In many situations, you can move around the subject until you have a smooth, blurred out background that doesn’t compete with the subject.

If your subject is cooperative, I suggest shooting a few frames and then checking the images on the camera’s LCD screen. If a distraction pops out at you like a sore thumb, then change the angle or direction from which you are photographing.

In some instances, if there is a distracting shiny leaf in the background, simply pick it up and move it out of the way. It’s much easier to do this in situ, rather than trying to clone out the distraction during post-processing!

As an aside, many nature photography competitions don’t allow cloning of any sort, so it's always best to move the distraction while you are physically out photographing rather than trying to correct it later in post.

Nikon D850, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens @ 200mm. 1/100s @ f5, ISO 800.
Nikon D850, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens @ 200mm. 1/100s @ f5, ISO 800.

4) Focus on the Eyes

One very important rule when photographing wildlife is to focus on the eyes of your subject. If the animal/bird is way out in the distance and tiny in the frame, then focusing on the actual subject is fine.

But if you are closer, then it’s the eye that your camera’s focus point should be on. When viewing an image, whether it be online, in a publication or as a framed print, it doesn’t work as well if the eyes aren’t in focus.

The first thing we tend to look at when looking at an image of an animal is the eyes, so it makes perfect sense to focus on them. In some instances, such as when you are photographing wildlife in an abstract or arty way, this rule doesn’t count but for most situations, it is very important.

Nikon D850, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens + TC @ 400mm. 1/2000s @ f5.6, ISO 200.
Nikon D850, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens + TC @ 400mm. 1/2000s @ f5.6, ISO 200.

5) Best use of Negative Space

An alternative to tight or close up shots of wildlife is the use of ‘negative space’ in wildlife photography. This is where the subject is a very small part of the image and looks out or is travelling across a vast landscape. In many wildlife photography competitions, the category ‘animals in the environment’ has become increasingly popular.

The aim of such images is to capture on camera not only an interesting image of an animal, but also the environment in which this particular species lives. A stunning landscape, coupled with the subject, can make for some impressive shots.

The space around the subject can greatly change the viewer’s perception of the image they are looking at. Basically, the negative space around a subject can tell the ‘story’ of the image.

Finally, the best thing I can suggest is to get out there with your camera and try some of these techniques. Practise, try new techniques, then practise some more. 

Michael Snedic has been photographing Australia’s wildlife and natural beauty for nearly a quarter of a century! He is widely published, is a Nikon School tutor and is an in-demand speaker at Camera Clubs and Photography Conventions across Australia.

Michael is the founder of WildNature Photo Expeditions, specialising in nature-based photography workshops to destinations such as Lord Howe Island, Tasmania (Cradle Mountain, Freycinet, the Bay of Fires and the Tarkine region), Girraween and Lamington National Parks, Carnarvon Gorge, Kakadu National Park and the Wildflowers of WA, as well as overseas destinations.

To see more of his work, visit www.michaelsnedic.com

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