By its very nature, wildlife photography is very elusive and requires immense dedication and effort. It's quite challenging to capture wildlife in its true essence, and it's this quest for perfection which adds allure and appeal to this genre of photography. Before I proceed with the tips, I'd like to make one strong statement: Please respect wildlife for what it is. Try your best to get a good photo, but never at the cost of ethics. No photo is more important than the animals themselves.
This article gives tips on the basic preparation required as well as some vital tips on behaving in a jungle and wildlife ethics. You may also be interested in reading this nature photography guide for additional photography tips and techniques.
1. Practice in Your Backyard First
Before you venture into the wild, get some hands-on practice shooting animals in your backyard. Try to capture quick-moving animals like chipmunks or birds. Learn their habits and behaviour. Go to the local zoo and try to get good shots of the animals there. There's no point going all the way to Kruger National Park if you can't take decent shots in your backyard.
2. Know Your Gear Perfectly
Spend some time….lots of time….fiddling with all the controls, knobs and levers of your camera, lenses, tripod and other accessories you may have with you, well before you embark on the trip. Make your finger 'see' the controls, so your eyes can remain focussed on the subject. Test out different apertures and the optimal settings in different lighting conditions. Test out what shutter speed blurs and what shutter speeds freezes a bird in flight. Again try it out in different lighting conditions. All this practice is critical as out in the wild, you won't have time to experiment with camera settings…many wild animals sightings can be fleeting and you may well miss your chance if not thoroughly prepared.
3. The Early Bird Gets The Worm
Might sound trivial, but many people fail to realize the importance of reaching early. Really early. Most animals are active during pre-dawn and dawn hours and to capture that, you've to get up much before they do.
Shooting wildlife requires immense patience. If you expect to get great shots each time you venture out with your camera, you're in for an awakening. Wildlife photography involves long hours of patiently waiting, often with no results at the end of the day. But unless you're prepared to invest time, you cannot expect good photos either. Remember the most appealing wildlife pictures are those wherein the animals are exhibiting some behaviour other than sitting or strolling around. To capture that, you need a lot of time and patience.
You have to be one with nature. That might involve long treks or hikes, climbing up a hill or rocky surfaces, going up a tree for a safe vantage point, bearing the heat/cold/rain or tolerating insects and other not-so-pleasant residents of the forest. So make sure you're in the right physical shape for facing the hardships of nature. If you're not, do start a mild workout/jogging routine right now.
6. Research Your Subject
Read up not only about the nature and habits of the animals you intend to shoot but also about the place and local customs. That'll make your trip easier. Knowing animal habits will help you anticipate their behaviour and set yourself for the perfect shot.
7. Don’t Go With Preconceived Notions
Always be prepared for something new or different that can happen. Don't look for the usual shots, like an eagle perched up a tree or a herd of gazelle grazing. Look out for unusual animal behaviour and try to capture that. Try a different point of view or angle of shot to bring in variety to your animal photography.
Another hint here is to try and capture emotions on the animal's face.
8. Be Alert to Your Surroundings
Nature is full of all kinds of visual and aural cues. Keep your eyes and ears perked and be sensitive to all you see and hear. Soon you'll start to identify calls of birds and animals and begin to form patterns. An alert call usually signifies impending action, which means a good photo-op. Also learn to recognize warning calls, so you don't end up getting charged at or attacked. Most animals give a mock charge and prefer not to attack directly, but if you venture too close or choose not to heed their warning, thing could turn nasty pretty soon.
9. Respect Wildlife
It's only too common to see people approaching closer and closer to an animal till it flees. Avoid that, as its does no good to either the animal or the photographer. Distressing animals has multiple disadvantages –
1. The animal wont return to a spot where it feels threatened or has had a bad experience.
2. You might be causing collateral damage to the animal by driving it away from its nest or breeding spot at critical times.
3. During hot summers as well as cold winters, animals need to conserve energy. You're doing them no favour by stalking and making them waste their energy fleeing you.
4. Be particularly careful never to interfere with animals caring for their young. Some birds desert their young permanently if you go too close to them.
5. And unless you call a photo of their bums a good photo, you're not going to get any from an animal intent on getting away from you.
Always respect the 'Comfort Zone' of animals, and they'll go about their business without bothering about you. That's the only way you're going to get any shots worth talking about.
10. A Safari is NOT a Picnic
One thing which irritates me to no end is when I go on a safari and spot a loud family with noisy kids in tow, dressed in bright colours, shouting and singing and having a merry time, and littering plastic wrappers and bottles all over the place. Kindly realize that a safari is vastly different from a picnic, and a National Park couldn't be further removed than your neighbourhood jogging park.