Photography & Filming

Wildlife Photography Tips: Answering Common Questions (Part 1)

Welcome to the first article in a series dedicated to wildlife photography. I’m going to respond to some common questions I’ve heard from wildlife photographers both online and in my workshops. I’ll try to give you honest answers about equipment, planning, settings, and the process of wildlife photography in the field.

Australian Crow_Australia
NIKON D500 + 400mm f/2.8 @ 400mm, ISO 200, 1/2500, f/3.5

When is the best time to photograph wildlife?

There are two parts to this question: time of day and time of year.

Time of day is easy. Different species are active in the morning, daytime, sunset, and night. There is almost always something to photograph, though. You can choose a time of day based on the species you’re after (make sure to learn its behavioral patterns), or based on getting good lighting conditions. Or you could base it around your schedule. There’s no wrong approach.

As for the time of year, a great thing about wildlife photography is that you can do it practically all year round. However, that doesn’t mean you can photograph anything at any time. As the distance from the equator increases, so do the differences between the seasons. This brings with it a change in the rhythm of animal behavior, and therefore different subjects to photograph.

Step one is to learn as much as you can about the animals you are photographing and plan your photo shoots accordingly. For example, in the temperate zone, early winter is a good time to photograph birds around feeders. Spring is good for migratory birds, and high animal activity in general. Whereas autumn is good for the flood of colorful trees, and summer is ideal for macro photography, especially on foggy days with dew on the grass at sunrise.

As for the tropics, seasonality is not nearly as pronounced as it is in the temperate zone. I dare say you can go to the equatorial countries at almost any time and find something to photograph. However, I would recommend visiting these countries before or just after the rainy season – not enough so that you’re stuck inside, but so that you get a bit of rain and atmosphere on certain days. Also, bird activity is greater at this time of year.

Spotted woodpecker_02
NIKON D500 + Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR @ 420mm, ISO 800, 1/500, f/6.3

I am a busy person and don’t have much free time. However, I love wildlife photography and would like to devote myself to this genre. Is there a solution?

There is definitely a solution, and paradoxically, it can lead to better results than if you had a lot of time. The answer is to do more photography on your home turf.

That may sound disappointing compared to traveling to exotic destinations, but I can tell you from experience that a lot of your best photos wildlife photos can happen near home. The problem is that when you are at an exotic location, you will usually be moving around and changing locations every few days at the most. Often, the result is photos that skim the surface and don’t reflect much of the animal’s behavior.

Meanwhile, if you photograph near home, your job will likely force you to shoot in the early morning or late afternoon. This is when the light is best and animal activity is at its highest. Also, you have the opportunity to return to the same location over a long period of time and really start to understand your subject. It also allows you to try less traditional techniques such as wide-angle close-ups, external flash photography, and so on.

You live in a city where this is not possible? Not to worry! Surely there is at least one park, river, or botanical garden in your area. I really like botanical gardens, by the way. The advantage of an urban environment is that the animals that inhabit it have largely shed their shyness. Otherwise, their coexistence with humans would not even be possible. Moreover, the inhospitality of the surrounding concrete jungle causes the animals to concentrate in relatively large numbers in these green islands.

NIKON D810 + Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR @ 170mm, ISO 1250, 1/160, f/3.5

I have a limited budget and I definitely can’t afford a camera like the Nikon Z9, Sony A1 or Canon R5. Not to mention fast telephoto lenses. Would you recommend any equipment I could use to photograph wildlife?

Don’t succumb to the marketing pressure that you won’t get a great photo unless you have the best equipment on the market. Even with a used camera for a few hundred dollars, you can take photos that will turn heads, go on gallery walls, win contests, or whatever your goal may be. After all, the very cameras that cost a few hundred dollars on the used market today are the ones that were on the cutting edge of technology just a few years ago.

Of course, today’s cameras offer you the convenience of advanced autofocus with eye detection, higher resolution, a noiseless shutter, and a few other benefits. But these are all things that fall into the “nice to have” category, and they aren’t necessary.

In terms of specific recommendations, depending on your budget, a used Nikon D7000 goes for very little these days. For Canon, you can’t go wrong with the 7D Mark II (or the original 7D to save money). And if your budget is a bit higher, a used Nikon D7500 or D500 will be excellent as well.

NIKON D7000 + 105mm f/2.8 @ 105mm, ISO 280, 1/400, f/4.0 © Spencer Cox

The situation with lenses is a bit more complicated. Their price is not dropping as fast as the price of aging cameras, although the rise of mirrorless cameras means that some older DSLR lenses are now excellent bargains. For example, used Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 or Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L lenses can now be purchased for a fraction of their original price.

Stepping outside the realm of DSLRs, cameras with smaller Micro 4/3 sensors also offer good value for money. They also have the advantage of being very portable. For example, models from Olympus such as the OM-D E-M1 Mark II (or Mark III) and the Panasonic Lumix G9 are worth considering. They also have some well-priced telephoto lenses, and various other features for wildlife photography like excellent autofocus systems.

In short, the basic answer is that you can step back a generation (or down a sensor size) and get less expensive used equipment, while still using what pros were using at the time. You won’t be missing much, despite what today’s marketing executives would like you to believe.

Common Agama_South Africa
NIKON D200 @ 380mm, ISO 400, 1/350, f/8.0

This concludes the first part of a series of questions and answers about wildlife photography. Do you have any questions for me to answer in this series? Feel free to post it in the comments below and I’ll try to answer it next time!

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