Crash Course
A Short Lesson In Wildlife Photography

Getting an animal's eyes in sharp focus is one of the most important elements in wildlife photography. Being honest about where a picture was taken is important, too. This tiger was photographed in captivity at Wild Eyes Animal Park in Montana. (Canon EOS 1V, Canon 100-400mm IS lens at 400mm, Kodak Portra 400 VC color print film.)
Photos © 2000, Rick Sammon, All Rights Reserved

Imagine this: You show up for a wildlife photography shoot in Africa. An expert guide with a Land Rover outfitted especially for photography meets you. Camera mounts are set securely in place on the doors of the vehicle. Several padded, easy-open cases for long lenses are mounted inside the vehicle. Beanbags are handy for supporting cameras and lenses in a hurry. You have plenty of film. Perhaps best of all, you have three months to shoot!

A dream come true? It sure did, for National Geographic photographer Chris Johns, one of the world's premier wildlife photographers. That's how he traveled while shooting his cheetah story for National Geographic (I know because I saw a television program on his adventures).

Well, I don't know about you, but I don't have all the aforementioned luxuries. However, I still get good wildlife pictures. And you can, too, by following a few basic wildlife photo tips.

Pack the right gear. The Boy Scouts of America follow the motto, "Be Pre-pared." That's good advice for wildlife photographers--who must be prepared for a wide variety of photo ops.

Wildlife photographers often face interesting and challenging situations. Having this baby bear crawl up my leg at Wild Eyes Animal Park was a bit unnerving€but not to the point where I forgot to take a picture. (Canon EOS 1V, Canon 17-35mm zoom at 17mm, Kodak Portra 400 VC color print film.)

Choose your lenses carefully. For my animal portraits, my basic lenses are my 70-200mm zoom and 100-400mm zoom. When an animal is far away, I use a 1.4x tele-converter on my 100-400mm zoom, which when set at 400mm gives me an effective focal length of 560mm. For pictures of animals in their habitats, I use my 17-35mm zoom--when I can get fairly close. If not, I use my 70-200mm zoom.

Don't forget filters. I use a polarizing filter to darken the sky and to reduce reflections on water. I use a warming filter to give my pictures deeper shades of red, orange, and yellow, a skylight filter to protect the front element of my lens, and a graduated filter to darken the sky when it's much brighter than the land in my pictures.

Film. Pack way more than you think you'll need. I use fast film for low light and fast action shooting. Lately, I've been using ISO 200 film pushed one and two stops. For bright-light shooting, I use ISO 100 film, which produces nice enlargements with no noticeable grain.

Batteries. Here, too, bring more than you think you'll need. Autofocus lenses and motor drives, essential for wildlife photography, use up battery power fast. Don't be caught without power. I pack a lot of batteries, and I'm glad my wife is sometimes along to carry them (as well as all my back-up gear: extra lenses, camera bodies, etc.).

Animal "kills" are a part of wildlife photography. In fact, recording them on film--still and movie--is considered lucky for wildlife photographers. If you feel sorry for the baby giraffe in this picture, which is being eaten by a lion, just think about the lion's cubs. They must eat, too. It's the circle of life. I took this picture in Botswana, Africa. (Canon EOS 1V, Canon 100-400mm IS lens at 400 with 1.4x tele-converter (effective focal length of 560mm), Kodak Elite Chrome Extra Color 100 film.)

Pack a flash. I never go out to photograph animals without my flash and a flash extender, which, you guessed it, extends the range of the flash. Flash extenders attach to flash heads with touch fasteners, so you can attach them and remove them quickly. You'll find them invaluable when an animal is in the shade and when you want to add some sparkle to an animal's eyes.

Tote a tripod. Sure it's no fun to lug around a tripod. But you'll be so happy you did when you need it in a low-light situation, when conditions dictate using a slow shutter speed. A monopod is a good second choice for a camera support. And if you will be shooting from a car, pack some socks before you leave home and fill 'em up with beans on site for custom-made beanbag supports. Me? I tote a tripod and a monopod, as well as a pair of socks!

Pack it in. The bag you pack your gear in is important, too. You want your gear protected, and you want quick access to it. I usually use a camera backpack, with a built-in rain hood. But that's just what I like. Before you choose a camera pack or packs, envision your shooting situations--from a vehicle, on foot, over rough or smoother terrain, etc.--and choose one that meets your needs and budget.

Work with a guide. If you want to maximize your time in the field, that is, find animals fast, then you must work with someone who knows the territory. Go it alone and you could spend many hours or days looking for wildlife. Sure, a guide will cost extra money, but in my 20 years of shooting, I've come to realize that it's a very good investment in my pictures.

Backgrounds can make or break a wildlife picture. To blur the background, as I did for this picture of a toucan, I used a long telephoto lens set at a wide aperture. To get a sharper background, use a wider angle lens and a smaller aperture. (Canon EOS 1N, Canon 300mm IS lens at f/4, Kodak Elite Chrome Extra Color 100 film. Frame added with Extensis PhotoFrame 2.0.)

Study your subject. Each species of animal has its own habits, and lives in a select habitat. If you know where to look and what to look for, you'll have a better chance of getting a behavioral photograph--a picture in which the animal is doing something that is part of its life. Find out as much as you can about the wildlife you'll be photographing. There is a lot of information on the web. Simply use a search engine like and type in the animal you want to photograph. Hundreds of listings will appear on your monitor in a few minutes.

One of the most important accessories in wildlife photography is a flash with a flash extender. Without the aid of my flash, this jaguar, photographed in the Belize Zoo, would have been nearly totally obscured by the shadows in the rain forest. (Canon EOS 1N, Canon 300mm IS lens, Kodak Elite Chrome Extra Color 100 film.)

Know The Basics
If you are new to wildlife photography, there are a few basic shooting techniques you should know.

For animal portraits, use long lenses set at wide apertures to blur the background.

Use a fast shutter speed (1/500 of a sec or faster) to "freeze" action; use a slow shutter speed (1/30 of a sec or slower) to blur motion.

Shoot in the early morning and late afternoon, when you get more colorful pictures, as well as more animal predation.

Focus on the animal's eyes. Miss that focus and you miss the shot.

Take lots of pictures of the same subject. Just like people, an animal's expression can change in an instant. Animals also blink. If you shoot several frames in rapid succession, you'll get a flattering picture of your subject.

Practice at home. Great wildlife photo opportunities come and go in an instant. That's why you must be ready to shoot on demand--in a few seconds. If you practice all your photographic techniques at home, perhaps at the local zoo or wildlife park, you'll get a much higher percentage of good pictures in the field than if you had just relaxed at home and looked at great wildlife pictures, which actually is a good idea, too. No, I don't mean relax! I mean look at wildlife pictures and think about how you could take those kinds of pictures, or perhaps even improve upon them.

One final tip: Respect the animals you photograph, as well as their habitats, many of which are dwindling.

Driving along a country road in Lombok, Indonesia, I passed this mother monkey holding her child. Because I had my camera ready for action, I got one of my favorite wildlife pictures. Message: Always be prepared to shoot! (Canon EOS 1N, Canon 70-200mm lens at 200mm, Kodak Elite Chrome Extra Color 100 film.)

And, this one is kind of simple, but all too true: you must go to someplace with great wildlife for great wildlife pictures. My favorite spots are Galapagos and Africa.

Rick Sammon is the host of the Photography Workshop series on the Do It Yourself Network and guest host of the Canon Photo Safari on ESPN.