A interchangeable lens camera is best but you can use a compact with a long zoom too. If you’re using a a camera the can use numerous lenses take a longer lens with you so you can work from a distance that doesn’t make the animal feel uncomfortable. However, you may get away with using a shorter lens if you’re visiting a zoo or are taking photos of ducks and other birds in your local park. If you have to shoot into the sun a lens hood will shade your lens and a monopod or beanbag will help steady your camera. To reduce reflections when shooting through glass and to reduce the amount of bounce light so that textures and tones in fur stand out more, pockets a polarising filter. An ND filter won’t be out of place either.
You can find information on nature reserves and other locations where wildlife can be found on the internet on sites such as those run by the Wildlife Trust and RSPB. You’ll be able to find out what reserves are near you and also what wildlife you can expect to see. If you want to photograph more exotic creatures pay a visit to a zoo where there will be plenty of opportunities to shoot wildlife shots. Petting zoos/children’s farms and butterfly houses are two more locations where you’ll be able to get close to your subjects. Many animals are more active during the morning or late afternoon while around noon, particularly if it’s a warm day, they tend to go to sleep so keep this in mind when you’re planning your day.
When it comes to nature reserves, you can go one day and end up with nothing and return a few days later to find the water’s brimming with wildlife. The same can be said for zoos too, a really busy day can mean you’re fighting to get close to the animals and end up with hardly any shots or the animals may all be hiding inside. Of course you can’t control this so you just have to keep your fingers-crossed and try another day if you’re unsuccessful. Getting your camera out too quickly can startle the animal you’re photographing too and they can decide not to return for some time. So, to stop this happening, get your gear out and just watch until they’re used to you then take your shots. Try and not appear too threatening and don’t make any sudden movements.
Gloriously sunny days may seem perfect conditions for a visit to the zoo but the light is often too bright and can cause deep, harsh shadows. Flash can fill in the shadows but as this can scare animals using it is often not advised. If you’re at a zoo, where you’ve paid to get in, it’s worth checking what you can and can’t do at the entrance on your way in. A slight covering of cloud, as long as it’s not raining, gives you the perfect conditions to shoot some wildlife shots in as the clouds act as a giant softbox, diffusing the light so you end up with shots that have even tones and are exposed well.
If you’re focusing on one subject make sure the eyes and face are sharp and throw the background out of focus with a wider aperture to stop any distracting backgrounds pulling attention away from your subject. Foliage, particularly when it’s blurred, makes a great, uncluttered background, especially when you’re focusing on something small such as butterflies and ladybirds.
Fill the frame with your subject as this will give your shot more impact and it can disguise your location so no one has to know you were taking your shots at the zoo. Just make sure you don’t amputate any limbs by accident by doing so. If in doubt don’t zoom in as far and crop the scene once you’re back at home in front of your computer.
Try to avoid shooting down as this can distort features instead get down low, to eye level if possible, to create a more dynamic shot.
To freeze movement you’ll need a quick-ish shutter speed (animal depending) and if you’re panning to follow them, try somewhere between 1/8sec to 1/30sec to blur the background but leave the animal sharp. Of course what speed you need will again differ from animal to animal.
If birds in flight are your target, you’ll need to get the focus locked on your subject straight away and use continuous focus as you pan to keep them sharp. To freeze their movement in air or when they’re splashing on the water try a shutter speed of around 1/500sec but if you want to be a little more creative try blurring the motion of the wings with a slower speed of around 1/30sec.
If you pack your wider lens you’ll be able to shoot a few wider shots of the nature reserve, lake, pond or zoo enclosure you’re photographing. Look for repetitive patterns such as Flamingos stood in a lake or amusing shots such as monkeys sat in their climbing frames. If you’re at a zoo take care not to get other visitors in your shot – try and get to the front of the enclosure if you can and if there’s no wire fencing or cage in your way, use a small aperture to ensure everything from the front to the back of the frame is in focus.
Unlike nature reserves, zoos are full of cages to keep you and the animals safe. Although they’re there to protect you and the animals shooting through wires and bars can be annoying, especially if they get in the way of your shot. You need to make sure that the face of the animal you’re photographing is lined up with one of the gaps, pick a wider aperture and wait for the animal to move back from the cage. By doing so the fence will be thrown out of focus and, hopefully, you won’t notice it. Inside you have glass fully of finger prints to contend with. To minimise reflections attach a lens hood or hold your hand to the side or above the lens. You may also need to switch to manual focus as cameras can be fooled by glass. If the glass is shaking from people touching it you can either wait for them to move on or use a slower shutter speed to minimise the shake. Just have your support handy in case the speeds drop too low.
No matter where you’re shooting your wildlife shots you need to have a good look around the viewfinder to make sure there’s nothing in the background that will distract the viewer. This could be an ice cream van at the park, a litter bin at a nature reserve or other visitors at the zoo. Keep an eye out for poles and other objects that can look like they’re growing out of the top of your subject’s head too.
Make sure you check your white balance when you move from indoors out and vica versa. You also need to give your equipment chance to acclimatise when moving between places that differ in temperature otherwise you’ll end up with condensation on the front of your lens which will make your shots hazy.