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‘Never work with chil­dren or an­i­mals’ is an old show­biz say­ing, and wild an­i­mals are even more tricky to deal with, but that’s half of the fun of wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy, which is as much about ac­tu­ally get­ting to the point of hav­ing the sub­ject in your viewfinder as the re­sult­ing pic­ture.

Wildlife is one of the more chal­leng­ing fields of pho­tog­ra­phy, but highly re­ward­ing when it all comes to­gether with your sub­ject, set­ting and light­ing. This rarely hap­pens by ac­ci­dent, so suc­cess is very much linked to thor­ough prepa­ra­tion. Here are some things to con­sider be­fore you head for the wilds.


In the an­i­mal world, wild means un­tamed. Which, in turn, means much higher lev­els of un­pre­dictabil­ity – and this is un­doubt­edly the main chal­lenge of wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy. These sub­jects sim­ply aren’t go­ing to take any no­tice of your script, so you’re go­ing to have to adapt to their be­hav­iour pat­terns, habits and habi­tats if you want to just see any­thing, let alone pho­to­graph it.

The good news is that the more you learn about your sub­jects, the more you can ef­fec­tively tame some of the un­pre­dictabil­ity, and at least be in the right place at the right time, which is at least half the bat­tle. This prepa­ra­tion, then, is an es­sen­tial part of wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy, as is thor­oughly know­ing your equip­ment and be­ing fully con­ver­sant with tech­ni­cal el­e­ments such as man­ual fo­cus­ing and ex­po­sure con­trol, and creative con­sid­er­a­tions such as com­po­si­tion and fram­ing. In the ex­cite­ment of the mo­ment – when you’re fi­nally star­ing down the lens at your sub­ject – you need to keep a clear head but also to work fast, to make the most of the op­por­tu­nity which can so of­ten be fleet­ing, and al­most cer­tainly won’t be re­peated.

Long Shots

Wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy cov­ers a broad spec­trum of sub­jects, in­clud­ing birds, in­sects, rep­tiles and mam­mals both large and small, but the link­ing fac­tor is that they are pho­tographed in their nat­u­ral habi­tats… in the wild.

This said, there’s no bet­ter place to start prac­tic­ing your tech­niques and skills than at a zoo – par­tic­u­larly the ‘open’ type such as Taronga Western Plains Zoo at Dubbo in cen­tral NSW – or a wildlife park. This lo­ca­tions en­able you to take a short-cut in terms of one of wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy’s big­gest chal­lenges… ac­tu­ally find­ing your sub­ject. Con­se­quently, you can con­cen­trate more on the pho­tog­ra­phy side of things – com­po­si­tion, fo­cus­ing, ex­po­sure , white bal­ance. You can also de­ter­mine at what part of the day the light­ing looks best and how to deal with is­sues that you’re likely to en­counter in the wilds, such as strong back light­ing. Ex­per­i­ment with fram­ing, as close-ups can look great but a wider shot which in­cludes, for ex­am­ple, veg­e­ta­tion or more back­ground, can help give con­text and a sense of the an­i­mal’s habi­tat (just like an en­vi­ron­men­tal por­trait). In fact, a wider view can help es­tab­lish that the pho­to­graph wasn’t taken at a zoo!

Wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy is still mostly as­so­ci­ated with tele­photo lenses, which es­sen­tially means any­thing with a fo­cal length longer than 200mm in the 35mm for­mat or the equiv­a­lent on the smaller imag­ing sen­sor sizes. You’ll of­ten need a tele­photo lens for wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy be­cause in most cases your sub­ject is afraid of you, and so keep­ing your dis­tance is es­sen­tial to avoid an an­i­mal or bird be­ing scared off. With 35mm film, a long lens was also a very big lens (not to men­tion be­ing very ex­pen­sive too), but the smaller-than-35mm sen­sors now al­low for an ef­fec­tive in­crease in fo­cal length with­out the usual penal­ties. Ad­di­tion­ally, mir­ror­less cam­era de­signs can also al­low for some re­duc­tions in the size of longer tele­photo lenses, which also has other ben­e­fits such as eas­ier hand-held shoot­ing. This is fur­ther en­hanced by the con­tin­ued de­vel­op­ment of ever more ef­fec­tive im­age sta­bil­i­sa­tion sys­tems and bet­ter noise re­duc­tion when us­ing higher sen­si­tiv­ity (ISO) set­tings, which al­lows faster shut­ter speeds to still be used in low light sit­u­a­tions. As the mag­ni­fi­ca­tion power of a lens in­creases so does the risk of cam­era shake when shoot­ing at slower shut­ter speeds, which is why a tri­pod was once an es­sen­tial part of any wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher’s kit. In re­al­ity, it still prob­a­bly is, but now it’s pos­si­ble to use a lighter weight model or even maybe a

mono­pod. In­ci­den­tally, the ex­tra in­vest­ment in a car­bon­fi­bre tri­pod is money well spent here, as even a very com­pact travel-type model will still pro­vide the sta­bil­ity you need when shoot­ing with a longer lens, but is much lighter to carry.

In­evitably, wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy will in­volve trekking to a cho­sen lo­ca­tion, so it’s nec­es­sary to bal­ance how much weight you’ll have to carry ver­sus your ca­pac­ity to get the shots you want and make the most of what­ever op­por­tu­ni­ties present them­selves. How­ever, to­day it’s pos­si­ble to travel a lot lighter with­out com­pro­mis­ing your pho­to­graphic ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

The more in­volved you be­come with shoot­ing wildlife sub­jects, it’s likely you will need to con­sider buy­ing a more spe­cialised lens – whether it be a longer tele­photo or a 1:1 macro – but you may well be able to get started with what you al­ready have, at least ini­tially. On the pages here we’ve se­lected a few tasty tele­pho­tos, both primes and zooms, for you to con­sider, de­pend­ing on your re­quire­ments and bud­get.

Mind you, not all wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy de­mands su­pertele­photo fo­cal lengths (i.e. be­yond 400mm) and, with the idea of set­ting a scene and in­clud­ing more habi­tat, you may well be able to use shorter lenses such as a 70-200mm or 70-300mm zoom. A tele­con­verter may well be a short-term so­lu­tion, giv­ing you a 1.4x or 2.0x in­crease in the base fo­cal length for a mod­est out­lay, al­though the penalty is a loss of lens speed (by ei­ther one or two stops re­spec­tively) and pos­si­bly a re­duc­tion in the over­all op­ti­cal qual­ity. Some man­u­fac­tur­ers of­fer tele­con­vert­ers that are matched to spe­cific lenses in their range and hence min­imise any loss of op­ti­cal qual­ity.

Is your ex­ist­ing cam­era body up to the job? Well, given that many cur­rent D-SLRs and mir­ror­less models are weather-proofed and ca­pa­ble of quite fast con­tin­u­ous shoot­ing speeds, it’s more than likely, but bear in mind that dura­bil­ity is a key re­quire­ment so higher-end cam­eras are go­ing to be bet­ter suited to the wear and tear of shoot­ing in dif­fi­cult lo­ca­tions and weather con­di­tions.

Stay Fo­cused

Sharp­ness is a key as­pect of most wildlife pho­to­graphs, firstly be­cause it can be very dif­fi­cult to


achieve with fast-mov­ing or er­ratic sub­jects, and se­condly be­cause the well-de­fined re­pro­duc­tion of fine de­tails – such as fur or feath­ers – is very im­por­tant.

The lat­est gen­er­a­tion of faster aut­o­fo­cus­ing sys­tems with greater scene cov­er­age and more, but smaller mea­sur­ing points are mak­ing this eas­ier to achieve. More re­li­able sub­ject track­ing, bet­ter low-light sen­si­tiv­ity and ca­pac­ity to use clus­ters of fo­cus­ing points to cre­ate zones that bet­ter match a spe­cific sub­ject or sit­u­a­tion all help too, but there are still times when man­ual fo­cus­ing will be the bet­ter op­tion. For starters, when longer lenses are used, the slower max­i­mum aper­ture (say f5.6 or f6.3) means that fewer AF points are op­er­a­tional and crosstype points may only op­erate as sin­gle ar­rays. This be­comes even more of an is­sue if you’re us­ing a tele­con­verter to boost the fo­cal length even fur­ther, and which also re­sults in a fur­ther drop in lens speed. Some AF sys­tems don’t op­erate at all if the lens aper­ture drops to f8.0 or smaller, and many still have dif­fi­cul­ties with mov­ing sub­jects that don’t fol­low a straight line or con­tin­u­ally change speed.

Of course, fo­cus­ing man­u­ally is slower than an AF sys­tem oper­at­ing in op­ti­mum con­di­tions, so a handy tech­nique to learn is pre­fo­cus­ing. If you know where your sub­ject is likely to be as it moves along, fo­cus at that point and then wait, press­ing the shut­ter re­lease just be­fore it ar­rives so you don’t miss the shot. Some cam­eras now al­low for cap­ture to be­gin even be­fore shut­ter re­lease so you have a still bet­ter chance of get­ting the per­fect shot – and ob­vi­ously it helps if you’re shoot­ing at a faster frame rate. The video-based ‘frame grab’ func­tions such as Pana­sonic’s ‘4K Photo’ which cap­ture at ei­ther 30 or 60 fps are ide­ally suited to high-speed wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy. The lat­est ‘6K Photo’ func­tion cap­tures at 30 fps and gives 18 megapix­els frames.

Many tele­photo aut­o­fo­cus lenses have fo­cus lim­iter set­tings which re­duce the dis­tance range to help speed things up, and some al­low for a fo­cus­ing dis­tance to be pre­set for in­stant re­call via the push of a but­ton. Both fea­tures are handy if you have a good idea of where your sub­ject is go­ing to be.

As with most sub­jects in pho­tog­ra­phy, depth-of-field is an im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion, and it’s al­ready in­her­ently quite shal­low when you’re us­ing a longer fo­cal length lens. If you’re also us­ing a wider aper­ture (in or­der to main­tain a faster shut­ter speed) then you’ll have even less depthof-field to play with, which makes pre­cise fo­cus­ing even more crit­i­cal. The gen­eral rule with wildlife sub­jects is make sure the eyes are sharp – as this is what most peo­ple look at first – and then de­ter­mine how much depth-of-field you need in or­der to in­clude any other im­por­tant de­tails. In many in­stances, some slight soft­en­ing be­hind the sub­ject’s head will still be quite ac­cept­able and, of course, out-of-fo­cus back­grounds en­sure there aren’t any dis­tract­ing de­tails to con­flict with the ‘hero’ of the pic­ture. The cam­era’s depth-of-field pre­view fa­cil­ity (ei­ther op­ti­cal or elec­tronic) will be ex­tremely help­ful in sit­u­a­tions where you have lim­ited sharp­ness to play with, as will un­der­stand­ing how to use the hy­per­fo­cal dis­tance. In a nut­shell, fo­cus­ing at the hy­per­fo­cal dis­tance al­lows you to make use of depthof-field that oth­er­wise would be ‘wasted’ be­cause the zone of sharp­ness is ex­tend­ing into ar­eas of the im­age where you don’t ac­tu­ally need it, es­pe­cially be­hind the sub­ject. If you bring your fo­cus­ing point fur­ther for­ward (i.e. in front of the sub­ject), you’re ef­fec­tively mov­ing the depth-of-field for­ward too, so more of the sub­ject (or even the fore­ground) will be in fo­cus, as well as the im­me­di­ate back­ground. Use the depth-of-field pre­view to de­ter­mine ex­actly what is sharp and what isn’t and ad­just the fo­cus­ing point ac­cord­ingly. You may well have no choice but to use

a smaller aper­ture, which will re­sult in a slower shut­ter speed. Im­age sta­bil­i­sa­tion may give you more lee­way here, but it’s ad­vis­able to have a tri­pod in re­serve if you think cam­era shake could be­come an is­sue. With mov­ing sub­jects you have the choice of freez­ing the ac­tion via a faster shut­ter speed or us­ing panning, which will al­low you to use a slower speed. The cam­era’s panning speed needs to match that of the sub­ject to en­sure it stays sharp, but the blurred back­grounds can be very ef­fec­tive at con­vey­ing a sense of move­ment. Use the small­est aper­ture that you can get away with to max­imise the depth-of-field which will cover for any changes be­tween the cam­era-to-sub­ject dis­tance while you’re panning.

Mod­ern multi-zone me­ter­ing sys­tems are mostly re­li­able even in con­trasty light­ing sit­u­a­tions, but strong back­light­ing can still cre­ate is­sues. In these sit­u­a­tions, try us­ing ei­ther se­lec­tive area or spot me­ter­ing with the mea­sure­ment taken off the main sub­ject and then locked into the cam­era if you need to re­com­pose the shot. A slightly lighter or darker back­ground is more de­sir­able than the sub­ject be­ing in­cor­rectly ex­posed. Flash can some­times be used in wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy, but with most an­i­mals you’ll only get the one shot be­fore your star­tled sub­ject bolts.

De­pend­ing on how in­volved you want to get, you might have to con­sider more spe­cialised equip­ment such as in­frared trig­gers, and even blinds or hides, so you can be bet­ter con­cealed. The ad­vice here would be to first get a feel for what you want to do and what can be achieved with the cam­era equip­ment you al­ready own, and then you’ll have a bet­ter idea of what’s needed to en­able more progress.

Know Thy Sub­ject

You’ll greatly in­crease your chances of suc­cess if you have a good un­der­stand­ing of your sub­ject mat­ter. This starts with the habi­tat – which can be very spe­cific with some species – and in­cludes feed­ing, breed­ing, daily rou­tines (par­tic­u­larly the times when they’re ac­tive) and, for birds, the mi­gra­tory sea­sons.

A great many birds only visit Aus­tralia at cer­tain times of year and also favour par­tic­u­lar lo­ca­tions (such as lakes or reser­voirs) so you’ll need to know all this if you want to pho­to­graph more un­usual or rarer species. If bird pho­tog­ra­phy is some­thing you’d like to pur­sue, a bird­watch­ing club could be a good place to start, es­pe­cially in terms of ac­quir­ing iden­ti­fi­ca­tion skills. Al­ter­na­tively, join­ing Birdlife Aus­tralia ( will give you ac­cess to a wealth of in­for­ma­tion (in­clud­ing a quar­terly mag­a­zine) and there’s a spe­cific sec­tion for keen pho­tog­ra­phers with reg­u­lar com­pe­ti­tions.

The Na­tional Park ser­vices in each state pub­lish in­for­ma­tion spe­cific to their re­gions, which in­cludes the va­ri­ety of res­i­dent wildlife and the fa­cil­i­ties that are avail­able (such as hides for pho­tog­ra­phers). Some also run ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams and events where you can ben­e­fit from the knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence of ex­pert guides. For ex­am­ple, the NSW Na­tional Parks And Wildlife Ser­vice Web­site lists over 500 sites across the state for bird­watch­ing and “wildlife en­coun­ters”.

Bear in mind too, that if you plan to shoot in re­mote lo­ca­tions and per­haps stay on site for a day or more, you will need to have some ba­sic out­door skills and at least the ba­sic level of fit­ness needed to func­tion ef­fec­tively away from all the com­forts of home. Again, thor­ough prepa­ra­tion is es­sen­tial so you are fully aware of what you’re likely to en­counter in terms of the ter­rain, veg­e­ta­tion and weather con­di­tions (in­clud­ing day­time and night-time tem­per­a­tures).

In Aus­tralia, there are few mam­mals that present a risk to hu­mans (com­pared, of course, to the spi­ders and snakes), but


this isn’t the case in many other coun­tries, no­tably in Africa and the Amer­i­cas. Here, the abil­ity to read and un­der­stand an­i­mal body lan­guage is es­sen­tial, and you’ll also need to know how close is ‘close enough’ and when even the po­ten­tial of an award-win­ning shot re­ally isn’t worth the risk. In many of these coun­tries, hir­ing the ser­vices of an ex­pe­ri­enced guide or tracker will help you max­imise your pho­tog­ra­phy re­turns with­out com­pro­mis­ing your safety.

Pa­tience Is A Virtue

Un­doubt­edly the wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher’s most im­por­tant weapon is pa­tience, which means you’ll need to be pre­pared to put in plenty of time in the pur­suit of your sub­jects. On many oc­ca­sions, it’s all about wait­ing and watch­ing.

With some species it may well be a case of set­ting up and then stay­ing quiet and con­cealed un­til the right time of the day (which can of­ten be late af­ter­noon or early evening for a whole va­ri­ety of rea­sons). If you’ve made some noise get­ting to your de­sired lo­ca­tion for pho­tog­ra­phy (which is of­ten un­avoid­able), you’ll have to wait a while un­til any wildlife that’s been scared away feels con­fi­dent enough to re­turn. Al­ter­na­tively, you may have to stalk a sub­ject – which is a spe­cial skill in it­self – and this can of­ten take quite a bit of time un­til you and your quarry

are in both in the right po­si­tion for a great pic­ture.

Drink­ing holes or creeks are of­ten great lo­ca­tions for pho­tograph­ing both an­i­mals and birds, but again you’ll need to get in po­si­tion first and then be pre­pared to wait. Some­times it may be nec­es­sary to do a recce be­fore­hand to find the best lo­ca­tions, and this is where some spe­cific knowl­edge and skills (such as be­ing able to iden­tify foot­prints or skats) will be in­valu­able, help­ing to con­firm what an­i­mals are in the vicin­ity and can be re­li­ably ex­pected to put in an ap­pear­ance.

It’s very likely you’ll need to visit a lo­ca­tion on quite a few oc­ca­sions be­fore ev­ery­thing comes to­gether to cre­ate the best op­por­tu­ni­ties to get the pic­tures you want so you can add per­sis­tence to the list of at­tributes nec­es­sary for wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy. With all the time and ef­fort in­volved – not to men­tion the re­search and prepa­ra­tion – wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy de­mands a big com­mit­ment, but it’s a field where the chal­lenges of ac­tu­ally get­ting to the point of tak­ing a pic­ture guar­an­tee that the re­wards of a suc­cess­ful shoot are a whole lot more sat­is­fy­ing.

If you’re look­ing for in­spi­ra­tion, some of the best wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy in the world is on dis­play from 30 March to 8 Oc­to­ber: 100 im­ages from the fi­nal­ists and win­ners in the 2017 Wildlife Pho­tog­ra­pher

Of The Year com­pe­ti­tion are on show at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Mar­itime Mu­seum in Syd­ney. En­try is $20 which in­cludes ad­mis­sion to the mu­seum’s per­ma­nent gal­leries. Hours are 9.30am to 5.00pm daily.

For more in­for­ma­tion tele­phone (02) 9298 3777 or visit

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