Photo tip - photographing wildlife

08th December 2008

Patience. The only reason photographing the natural world gets complicated is because we try to take short cuts; after all waiting can be rather tedious. So we try to speed things up a little by wandering around looking for the subject. If you want to photograph the rapidly disappearing posterior of every animal you ever see then this is fine. If you’re photographing slugs, ducks or road kill feel free to traipse after them; if not, you are going to have to let the wildlife come to you. I can’t emphasise enough how important patience is. When the BBC wildlife cameraman took the stunning (and rather amusing) footage of the birds of paradise for the Planet Earth series he spent eight weeks in a hide, 14 hours a day, seven days a week.

You need that kind of pig headed, stubbornness you normally reserve for arguments with your other half. Every other article on wildlife photography will say the same thing, so I won’t dwell on this fact other than to say, all those articles are right. You will need to be able to get up very early, you will have to wait around for hours, you will get cold, you will get tired and you will get bored. The good news is that you don’t really need to learn patience, you just have to accept it.


Planning comes shortly after patience and the best bit is that if you plan properly you won’t need to be quite so patient. You need to plan for a number of things, but the first thing to think about is the subject you want to photograph. It’s often said that the best wildlife photographers are the best naturalists because they understand their subject.

First, find your subject. This bit can be done in the comfort of your own home. My website can help you here - just type into my website search box the animal you want to see and you may well find a few of the best locations in the UK for spotting it. You can also click on this link and browse through the different locations, alphabetically ranked by county:

Alternatively you can try:

- The BBC book, Nature’s Calendar which gives you a month by month account of the best places to go and the best wildlife spectacles in the UK.
- Bill Oddie’s ‘How to Watch Wildlife’ has some useful tips.
- Your local Wildlife Trust website will be another good source of information and you can link through to it from here:

OK, so you’ve chosen your quarry and you know some of the best place to find it, but there are still plenty of things that can go wrong. Make sure that you have the right season and make sure you have the right habitat and the right time. Ospreys migrate to Africa in the Autumn, kingfishers like to fish in clean, slow moving, shallow water and starlings do their aerial spectacular at dusk before roosting. Know your ‘enemy’! And believe me they do feel like the enemy sometimes. When that darn barn owl (see link: flew over my head the second I had put my camera equipment away (clearly I hadn’t quite been patient enough that evening) I felt like swapping my camera for a shot gun (this was a joke before I receive any complaints!). These creatures will taunt you sometimes, trust me!

Anyhow, enough of my problems. If you know what the animal eats then you can set up near to its food source. Stoats eat rabbits, squirrels eat acorns and hedgehogs eat slugs, so if you want to photograph these things then position yourself near the relevant meal as it is normally easier to find. Alternatively you can set out your own food as bait. Some photographers even use tape recordings of bird song to lure unsuspecting birds - although I wouldn’t recommend doing this more than a few times in a given area because you are disrupting the bird’s daily routine and causing it to waste time and energy on a fruitless exercise.

Before I get onto the camera equipment, just a quick word about the rest of your gear. A hide is very useful because it allows you to move around a bit more without being seen and is generally more comfortable if you are prone to getting a bad back or aching knees, like me. They also hide your smell a bit too, in case the wind changes and starts blowing your ‘Eau De armpit’ in your subject’s direction. By the way, Eau De armpit is better than Eau De toilette in this instance, as any deer, fox or badger is going to run a mile when faced with Calvin Klein’s Obsession or Armani Code. The main drawback of a hide is that most of them are pretty much stationery so you can’t creep into a slightly better position if you need to. Also they restrict your vision so while you’re twiddling your thumbs a white-tailed sea eagle could be perched right next to you, just out of view.

I tend to use a hide in these situations:

- When photographing birds, as it is very difficult to get frame filling photos of small birds without a hide.
- When I have a particularly long wait. The hide allows me to sit on a chair and get comfortable without getting a wet bum.
- When photographing particularly skittish wildlife or small animals like rodents, weasels and stoats.
- When a tripod is necessary due to low light levels. That way you and the tripod can sit or stand as high as you like and you still won‘t be seen.

When positioning the hide and any bait ensure that the sunlight is coming from the right direction for the desired effect. If you want a silhouette at dusk then the sun needs to be straight ahead, but if you want to bring out the texture of fur on a fox then having the sun at 90 degrees is preferable.

When photographing without a hide you need to ensure that your clothes are dark, plain colours or camouflaged. Wearing a hat and gloves is highly recommended, particularly if your skin is as dazzlingly white as mine...

Finally, bring warm clothes. You can get pretty cold when you’re not moving around, even when the weather isn’t that bad. Also, when you are photographing the afternoon and into the evening the temperature can plummet and leave you in a sorry state.

Obviously there are so many variables here that it would require an entire book to go through all the permutations of equipment and settings you could ever need for wildlife photography. Therefore I will highlight some of the mistakes that are commonly made (by me) so you can avoid them. Take it from me, it’s best to learn from the mistakes of others, as you won’t live long enough to make them all yourself.

Before you set out consider what you are about to photograph and then set up the functions on the camera so that it is ready for the most likely eventuality. I’ve tried to photograph a barn owl and as it flew past I realised I had the camera on manual focus rather than Servo Auto focus, so the focusing mechanism couldn’t track the owls path. It’s immensely frustrating and it happens a lot, especially if you don’t have a clear focus of what you are intending to photograph and you’re simply wandering around aimlessly photographing whatever happens along. Clearly if you’re taking macro shots of a daffodil and a wild cat saunters past you’re going to have the wrong lens on the camera to capture it. So it pays to have a clear idea of what you are shooting that day and have the camera set up before you even leave the house.

Here’s some examples to give you an idea:

1. If you are photographing deer in a wood then you will need at least a 300mm lens and you will need a high ISO setting so that you can have the fastest shutter speed possible in the low light. If you are taking action shots then use Servo auto focus and ensure that you are on continuous shooting mode as one shot is never enough with moving animals. Make sure you have the right white balance too. You want it to be set to cloudy for a nice rich colour, or daytime for a more honest representation - but whatever you do don’t photograph wildlife with your white balance set to fluorescent or tungsten as you’ll get very odd coloured creatures.

2. For birds hiding in bushes you will want to be on manual focus or perhaps auto focus. Servo auto focus will be a problem because it will lock onto surrounding branches. Again, watch the white balance and ensure that you have a fast enough shutter speed with the ISO you have set. For more information on hand-held shutter speeds go to:

3. For photographing a gorilla at the zoo on a sunny day you can get away with a low ISO setting due to the bright light and since gorillas don’t move too much you can set to Auto Focus or manual focusing. However, since the gorilla is black and your camera is designed to try and make everything a mid-tone you will need to use the exposure compensation function to prevent the dark gorilla becoming too grey.

You get the idea - think about how you want the camera set up before you are presented with the animal flapping or galloping past. In the heat of the moment you either won’t have time, or won’t remember to set everything up correctly. Wildlife is generally too quick for us sedentary humans so we need to be anticipating what creatures will do, not reacting to what they are doing.

Finally, put the lens hood on to avoid the glare from the sun and take the lens cap off to avoid having to trudge home in shame.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the golfer Gary Player. When asked whether he thought he had been lucky after a successful round he replied with a little venom, “You know it’s funny, the more I practice the luckier I get!”

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