uLearn.Photography - part of FilmPhotoAcademy.com



Animals are all around us, big and small, pets and pests, furry and cute, scaly and scary.
In this lesson you will learn how to photograph animals both in the wild and in the zoo, creating wonderful images of fascinating creatures.

The best wildlife photography is a portrait of an animal.  Just as with a human the eyes are the crucial element.  Direct eye contact or at least a strong view of the eyes are a fundamental requirement.
You also need to get a shot, any shot, before looking for a better way of shooting.  Animals won't pose for you, they won't stay still and they refuse to take direction!   So grab a shot, and then look for ways of improving the shot.
If you have a chance to be patient then all the better.  Get your camera set up, pre-focus on the animal and wait patiently for the decisive moment.

© Ali Arsh

Animals are small and because often you cannot approach them they can be surprisingly small in the picture.  Use a longer lens (100mm to 400mm) to zoom in close to an animal.  Using a longer lens increases the chance of camera shake, so you will need faster shutter speed (remember the rule of thumb, your shutter speed needs to around your focal length, so at 400mm you need at least 1/400th of a second if not faster).

Approaching Animals


To get closer to animals use the following methods:  
  • Appear non-threatening, meander towards them, not directly, move at an angle to the animal.
  • Don't look directly at the animal; it is predators that make eye contact.
  • Move like a ninja, quietly as you can and slowly and smoothly.
  • Appear as small as possible, sometimes you need to crouch or even crawl.   
  • Work alone.  The more of you there are, the more likely you are to scare the animal.
  • Be sensitive to the animal, don't disturb nests for example

© Ali Arsh
Animals tend to live in natural environments, so be prepared for messy and distracting surroundings. Look out for things growing out the animals head. Use a narrow depth of field (f/4 or less) to throw foreground and background detail out of focus.

If you've got a good spot and can see the animals without disturbing them, then be patient. Observe their behaviour, watch for activities that will make good images. For birds this might be feeding, or water diving. For squirrels and rodents then it will be holding food or eating. For larger animals they are usually more interesting when still and poised.

© Ali Arsh

A bird feeder doesn't have to look like a plastic, shop bought feeder.  By using the same place on a tin can or flower pot or dead wood you can create a more realistic and less photographically intrusive feeding place.
© Nottsexminer

Shooting At Home


If you have animals that regularly come close to your house then you've got it made.  Encourage them with food; this might be a bird feeder or scraps for foxes - whatever the animal eats.    Choose a place that will work photographically with a clear, distraction free background and a good line of sight from your camera.   Feed at the same spot regularly.
You may want the location in sunlight to bring out the fine textures and colours of the animal.
You may be able to setup your camera in your house and get a good view, try not to shoot through windows though.  In that case you can sit comfortably and just be patient waiting for the activity to happen.

Remote Shooting for Wildlife


The slightly more advanced method is to put the camera out close to the feeding site and use a remote release. Your best method is to use a wireless release as these can be used at quite long range. Long range cables are expensive and a bit erratic.

Small trigger is hand held.  The receiver and cable connect to your remote camera.

The more sophisticated method is to use a remote viewer so you can see what your camera sees.  These units take a live feed from your camera.  Cost is variable, but around 200 is typical.   There are new apps becoming available for smartphones which can do this for a lot less money.

Then there is the alternative approach of leaving everything unattended and using a motion sensor or timer.   This might ultimately be your only choice if animals are very shy, infrequent visitors or very fast.   Obviously beyond the initial setup of your equipment you have very little control of the shots taken.

In all these cases your camera has to be set up in advance. You need a good balance of aperture against shutter speed. Set your camera to aperture priority and set an appropriate aperture to give you enough depth of field to record the interesting bits - say the bird and bird-feeder - but that puts the rest of the scene out of focus.

You can use auto-focus, but the movement and noise of the camera might be enough to scare the animal away. You can use manual focus - in which case target the feeder.

You can use flash photography. This may be a must to both freeze the motion of the animal and also put a catchlight into the eyes. Some animals have no reaction to the flash; others will flee the scene instantly. If you are using aperture priority with the flash in auto mode then this will give you a nice fill flash effect and a sparkle in the eye.

A lot of flash units have a zoom capability; push the zoom out so it is just focussing on the area the animal will be in. You don't want to over illuminate the surrounding area and your batteries will last longer.

With all of these setups you want the camera at eye height or slightly below. Just like taking a people portrait. Avoid the awkward looking down at a small animal shot.

© Dave Hogg

Shooting in Zoos


For most of us a zoo is the only place we'll get to see exotic animals. When taking zoo photos you have a choice. Are you are either going to show an "honest" picture including elements of the zoo? Are you going to create a scene that looks more natural?

Shooting Through Fences


The main issue with a zoo is of course fencing and barriers. While zoos are getting better all the time at eliminating these barriers for some animals they are always going to be there. But there are some things you can do to reduce or eliminate the fence altogether.

© Chi King

Firstly getting as close to the fence as possible can you either get your lens through the fence (safely) or you can shoot through the fence and crop in to the animal? If you can't do that then step back a little and shoot with as wide an aperture as possible (f/4 or less). This gives you a very narrow depth of field and will put the fence out of focus. You may be able to make it disappear altogether doing this. This also has the benefit of eliminating a lot of the rest of the environment as well.

Your auto-focus might want to keep picking on the fence as a focus point, so switch to manual focus instead.

© Martin Fisch

Shooting Distance


The next problem is that in any good zoo the animals will have a reasonable space to roam around in.  They will be at a distance from you.  Use the longest lens you can (100m or more).  A long lens will help with reducing depth of field - again reducing distractions.
Shoot the whole animals' body, but then you can try and get close-ups of the animals' face.

Shooting Through Glass


If you have to shoot through glass then these tips will help you reduce issues caused by glass.

Firstly find a clean area of glass away from children's finger prints. If necessary give it a clean (but don't use your lens cloth).

Secondly, hold the lens right against the glass. This will eliminate any reflections and glare from the glass and throw any dirt completely out of focus and invisible.

Thirdly, if you can't go against the glass use a lens hood and get as close to the glass as possible.

Finally, if you have reflections in the glass use a polarising filter to remove them.

Flash in Zoos


In general don't. You will rarely be close enough that the flash will help the picture. If you are shooting in a darker area then you really want to capture the ambient light, since that is probably part of the animal's natural environment.

Shooting Aquariums


Aquariums tend to be quite dark and so you will need to shoot at higher ISO (ISO 1600 or more). You can't use flash because that will just bounce off all the fine matter in the water and give you a very dirty, fogged out picture.

© Jerry

As with shooting animals through glass get a clean spot and put the lens (or lens hood) up against the glass. A polarising filter may cut down reflections, but you will also make the scene much darker in water. You may lose too much light to make a polariser worthwhile.

© Jenny
You will be pretty close to the fish, so you won't need a long lens, a 50mm lens would work well.   Use a wide aperture (f/4 or less) to get a good exposure and concentrate the image on the fish.
Fish are very colourful.  Either in camera or in software afterwards bump up the saturation to boost the colours.

Composition and Framing


Your freedom of movement may be a little constrained in a zoo - you probably have to follow fixed paths. But nevertheless move as much as you can to ensure you can correctly frame the animal, see its best side and remove as much background distraction as possible.

All the normal rules of portraiture apply. Crop in as close as you can. Focus on the eyes. A tight head shot of a lion is much more interesting than a loose body shot.

© Lori Branham

© Valerie
Make a note of feeding times for the animals.   Feeding activity will give you the most interesting photo opportunities.    Some animals also have specific "play" times.   Don't forget the golden hour, if the zoo is still open close to sunset you can get some gorgeous images.



Your assignment for this chapter is to create one good portrait of an animal.
You can shoot any animal.  Here are some ideas:
1) Your own pet
2) A friend's pet (they will love to have a good picture in return)
3) A local zoo
4) A local wildlife park
5) A Petting Zoo
6) Birds in your garden
7) Dogs walking in the park