How to take great wildlife pictures

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It is said that great wildlife photography comes from the heart and not the head. Whatever the case, capturing the Big Five in South Africa, orangutans in Southeast Asia or Emperor Penguins in Antarctica requires a lot of patience, and much luck. The trouble is, you never quite know what’s going to happen next - but that’s what makes it so exciting, too. The following tips will help you get the best wildlife shots out of your trip by being prepared...well as prepared as you can be.

Get the right gear

One great step in achieving that great image is having the right gear for the purpose. This doesn’t mean you have to have the most expensive or the latest equipment to take good wildlife photographs, but you must have a thorough knowledge of the right kit for the right situation and how to use it properly. Otherwise, you’ll be consulting the manual, completely oblivious to your subject posing for you.

Pick the right camera

While digital SLRs are recommended with a lens focal length of 300-400mm, you can get away with a decent compact that has a good zoom lens, at least up to 10x. Different trips will require different equipment; a trip to the Galapagos where the animals come close a compact digital will do the job, but in rainforested Tanjung Puting National Park, great images of a fast-moving, canopy-dwelling orangutan might require the aid of a faster machine.

Related article: Ask Lonely Planet: How do you take a photo from a bus window (and much more)?

Young orangutan

Young orangutan gets his fill of bananas at a feeding platform in Tanjung Puting National Park, Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Travel light

Hanging off the side of a truck during wildlife safaris in Africa with a giant telephoto lens in one hand and a beaming flash in the other is not going to get you fantastic shots or make you many friends. Don’t bundle yourself up with cumbersome equipment and multiple lenses you’re not going to have time to set up or change. Take only what you need and pack it into a single, manageable photographic daypack.

Practice makes perfect

Head to your local wildlife park or zoo and practise taking photos of the wildlife there. It’s also imperative to get an idea of the environment you’re going to be taking photos in. If you’re intending to visit a rainforest to take photos of gibbons, head to an environment that has low light levels and program your camera settings accordingly. An ISO setting of 400 and above generally works best.

The right lens for the right subject

Image by Mr. T in DC

A 300-400mm lens will allow you to focus in closely on an animal that is much further away – perhaps a leopard resting in a tree. Remember, the shorter the lens, the closer you will need to get to your subject for it to be full frame – a 100mm lens might not be the lens of choice when you’re photographing that crocodile then! The shorter lenses are particularly useful for taking images of animals in landscapes and habitats where you want to give a general impression of the area you are visiting, as they offer you great flexibility in how you compose your images. Many entry level DSLRs come with a twin lens kit with both these options.

Don’t forget the habitat

When shooting desert wildlife, it is a crime not to make the desert part of the picture. Try to visualise the scene before you take it; if your subject is walking, have the animal leading into the picture and try to use prominent natural features to frame the shot. Taking a wider view can also introduce mood and a sense of wilderness and can transform your image into a picture rather than a snapshot. The subject will need to be equal or brighter than the background, otherwise the image will not be balanced.

When photographing penguins, for instance, or perhaps a herd of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the Kenyan plains, a good-quality wide-angle lens is a must. Try to choose one that doesn’t overlap with the zoom too much and isn’t too wide: a 24–70mm lens is a great combination and weighs virtually nothing.

Timing is everything

And in this case, it often means an early start. Animals are least active in the middle of the day, so if you want to avoid snooze shots, head out in the early morning or late in the afternoon when the light is also at its best.

Baby gibbons Crystal and Phi Phi

Rescued baby white-handed gibbons at the Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre, Phuket, Thailand

Portraits of animals do not differ too much to that of people. Try to shoot animals from the neck up and position it in the corner, framing their head in the centre. Maintaining a sharp focus on the eyes is imperative, otherwise the image will fail. Low light or cloudy days are better for shooting – in bright sunlight you will struggle to see the eyes. Don’t just go for the straight portrait; try to vary your photography to make the most of the light. Look at different angles for the sunrise. Backlit shots can work really well and you may get the ring-of-fire effect.

Get some handy extras

Give the person who thought of focal length extensions a medal for services to wildlife photography! These multiply the focal length of your lens by a factor of between 1.2x and 1.6x. This provides the equivalent of a longer lens, allowing you to get close to animals without physically having to do so and without spending any extra money. Purrrrrr…fect.