Beginner's guide to wildlife photography

A wild flower patch is a wildlife oasis - and a perfect environment for a wildlife photo safari. Wildlife Gadgetman Jason Alexander shares his top camera tips.

Bee hovering over a wild flower
Having the latest DSLR camera body and a selection of lenses can open up a world of photographic possibilities. But even if you don't have the latest DSLR or a 600mm f2.8 lens wildlife photography is still an option.

You’ll be amazed at the images you can achieve with a simple compact camera or even your mobile phone. Many of the basic principles of wildlife photography are exactly the same regardless of the equipment you use and with a few simple tricks and tips up your sleeve you’ll be on the way to transforming your wildlife photographs from simple snaps to awe-inspiring captures.

Be inspired

When you are just starting out on your wildlife photography journey, coming up with interesting ideas for photographic subjects can be a little daunting. Type in ‘wildlife photography’ into Google and you’ll be presented with over 18 million results to choose from. Follow links back to the original website on images that really jump out at you and you may find the story behind them and details about how the photographer captured the shot.

Do your preparation and research

Young person holding a camera and a smart phone

You don’t have to spend thousands of pounds on equipment: a great place to start is with the camera on your smartphone or an inexpensive compact camera.

  • Learn about your potential subjects: investigate what wildlife you are likely to see in your space and read as much as you can about it. Finding out about feeding and breeding habit is always a good place to start. This may inspire you to create additional habitats or feeding stations to maximise your photographic opportunities. What plants are likely to attract what types of wildlife? 
  • Read the manual: sounds obvious but you’ll be surprised just how much you learn about the available features on your camera. You may even pick up some general photography tips and creative ideas too.
  • Learn some basic photography techniques: there are numerous ‘golden rules’ with photography but probably the most important to be aware of initially is the ‘rule of thirds’. You’ll find a little more detail about this below.
  • Spend lots of time in your Grow Wild space: the more time you spend in it, the more wildlife you will spot. Try and wander around at different times of day, particularly early in the morning just after sunrise or later in the evening in the hour before sunset.
  • The welfare of wildlife should always come first: if you minimise disturbance and minimise stress to your subject you will maximise your chances of taking that perfect wildlife photo.

Use your camera's features

If you are using a compact digital camera here are the key features to look out for:

  • Optical zoom: nice big close-ups are always a great way to capture the essence of your subject and work particularly well for wildlife so having a zoom facility on your camera is definite bonus. Avoid using any digital zoom facility as this will drastically reduce the resolution of your images.
  • Macro mode: most compact cameras have a macro facility (usually indicated by a flower icon) - this is perfect for frame filling close-ups of insects and flowers.
  • Landscape mode: usually indicated by a mountains icon this setting will offer the widest angle views possible, maximising your depth of view. This is ideal for showing the full beauty of your wild flower patch.
  • Timer: a timer mode can be extremely useful to minimise camera shake and should give you much sharper shots. This obviously needs to be used in conjunction with a tripod or another method of supporting the camera. The camera on your smartphone can be surprisingly effective at taking shots of wildlife, plus there are numerous affordable photography accessories you could consider including a clip-on macro lens and a tripod mount.
  • Tripod or alternative: walls, trees or fence posts can all be used. A small beanbag is also handy to carry around as this will help protect the base of your camera and can help steady your shot. Don’t have a small beanbag? Take an old sock (with no holes), fill a third with uncooked rice or bird food, twist the sock in the middle a couple of times and then fold the top back over the bottom.
Smartphone on a tripod

Consider composition

One of the easiest ways to instantly improve your wildlife photographs is to think about composition: where the key elements are within the frame and how your eyes move between them. The ‘rule of thirds’ is a common phrase in photography and fortunately it’s easy to follow. Imagine lines running through the frame both vertically and horizontally that divide the image into nine sections. Check the settings on your camera or phone and chances are you’ll find a feature that enables you to superimpose a grid on your screen to help with this.

Image with guidelines running through the frame acting as an aid to composition

Positioning the point or points of interest on these lines will make the overall image more aesthetically pleasing. Where the lines cross are sweet spots; offering the optimum position for your subject. By following the ‘rule of thirds’ you should instantly start seeing some improvements in your photography.

Time your pictures 

Weather conditions and time of day can have a major impact on your photographs. The ‘golden hour’ (longer than an hour in winter) is the time around sunrise and sunset when the sun is lower in the sky and light has to travel through more of the atmosphere giving it a wonderful golden glow. It lights subjects from the side creating pleasing shadows and adding texture and depth to your photos.

Butterfly feeding from a wild flower

Try to avoid the hours around the middle of the day as the animals or plants you are trying to photograph will be lit from the top, which is not as pleasing to the eye. Your smartphone or compact camera may also struggle to expose the scene correctly if there are highly contrasting bright spots and dark shadows. Cloudy days can be useful as the clouds can act as a giant diffuser offering a soft uniform light. This can be particularly useful when taking macro shots.

Ladybird on a flower

Edit and share

Sometimes a minor tweak here and there can transform an image into something special. Cropping an image is probably the most common form of editing along with a little sharpening or tweaking of the colour or contrast. There is a vast selection of photo editing software available ranging in price but free options should suffice when you are first starting out. Similarly, there are plenty of free photo editing apps available for phones. 

Don’t be afraid to post your pics on social media to get useful feedback - most other wildlife photographers are willing to offer encouragement and advice. 

Share your Grow Wild pics with us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram or by emailing us at [email protected].