Wildlife photography is difficult to achieve. Its subjects are unpredictable, the elements can work against you and it takes a lot of patience and practice. But the rewards are worth it; natural beauty and fleeting moments can be captured and immortalized forever.
If you want to take photos that do your subjects justice, you need the right tools. Smartphones can be handy for grabbing unexpected opportunities, but a smartphone camera won’t give you the quality and flexibility you need for exceptional wildlife photography.
To truly unleash your potential, you need a standalone camera, such as a DSLR or mirrorless model.
These cameras come with plenty of additional features, including zoom lenses and adjustable shutter speeds, which open up your wildlife photography potential to much more than just lucky timing. In this article, we’ll explain how some of the features of a good camera will help you freeze nature in a still.
Only the best cameras will take pictures impressive enough to be enlarged and feature prominently on your walls. Find out which models impressed our lab experts in our Reviews of DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.
What camera specs should I look for?
1. Shutter speed
This is the time a camera needs to take a photo. Lightning-fast shutter speeds are essential for capturing moving objects, like a bird in flight.
A slower shutter speed will produce a photo with motion blur. This can be useful for artistic and stylized shots – capturing long streaks of rain or the fuzzy trail of a bird in flight, for example – but it can also be a frustrating and unwanted effect.
All good DSLR and mirrorless cameras should have shutter speeds fast enough to keep up with the wildlife. For birds in flight, speeds between 1 / 8000th and 1 / 1000th of a second should freeze them in the frame.
2. Autofocus (AF)
This is where the camera uses sensors to automatically adjust the focus of the shot, constantly adjusting it as subjects move, leave, and enter the frame.
Auto focus technology has become very advanced. The OM-D E-M1 Mark III, for example, has 121 individual points, each responsible for detecting subjects and changing the focus accordingly.
At the other end of the market, cameras may have a dozen or less AF points. We rate each camera out of five stars for its focusing performance, so pay attention to that rating when shopping for a device.
At over £ 2,000, the OM-D E-M1 Mark III will have to offer more than autofocus capabilities. Find out if it justifies its high price in our entirety OM-D E-M1 Mark III review.
The ISO level represents the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor. Good cameras can achieve higher ISO settings, and high numbers increase the camera’s ability to take pictures in low light (although the cost can increase grain).
When shooting, you can set the ISO to automatic and choose a minimum shutter speed of 1/1000, which means the camera will work to provide brightness while maintaining a fast enough speed. It will come in handy during odd hours, dark days and dark spots, helping you conquer the environment.
Find out which cameras impressed us the most in our lab tests in our roundup of the best DSLR and mirrorless cameras.
What camera lenses should I use?
The advantage of DSLR or mirrorless cameras is that they have interchangeable lenses. This means that you can replace the lens that came with your camera with a lens that maximizes your chances of taking great wildlife photos.
Fixed-lens cameras, like bridge cameras, compact cameras, and phone cameras, restrict your ability to zoom in and focus on birds and animals from a distance.
For wildlife photography that allows you to take close-ups without having to physically approach you, you will need a telephoto; these have a long focal length. The definition of a telephoto lens varies among manufacturers, but you’re considering something 70mm or larger.
Professional photographers can use lenses up to 800mm, but the prices are getting insanely steep. The price you’re willing to pay is your decision, but – for most hobbyists – between 70 and 200mm should be enough as a compromise between focal length and affordability.
You will also come across zooms. A zoom is where you can change the focal length, meaning you can go from wide angle shooting to much closer shooting with a single lens. A zoom lens can have a range that can move between 18 and 200mm.
Zooms may not offer as much close-up potential as a telephoto lens, but can be more flexible if you don’t want to find yourself constantly switching between lenses.
Check out our digital camera accessories guide for a complete overview of the peripherals you can purchase to improve your camera’s performance.
How to take a great photo of wild animals
We could write a whole book about it and not cover it all. Trial and error is the key, and you will need to practice to achieve any type of mastery.
But if you have the right gear, it’s all about skill, patience, and being in the right place at the right time. Here are some tips to get you started.
- Shoot at fast shutter speeds So fast-moving creatures don’t get past your camera. The photo used a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the owl in the frame.
- Consider your background. Cluttered, messy, or spooky backgrounds can take a toll on your photo, especially if the background is crisp and pops out clearly. Play around with the depth of field so that only the foreground (and, in particular, the bird or animal you’re trying to photograph) is in focus.
- Shoot in bursts. High-end cameras are capable of capturing multiple frames per second, so put your device to work, then pick the best frame later. Storage has also made giant strides over the past decade, so we have more freedom to take photos freely and choose later.
- Watch out for the sun. In photography, light is essential, and the position and exposure of the sun will determine the quality of your photographs. Try to shoot with the sun behind or by your side, rather than shooting at it.
When is it best to take pictures of wild animals?
Spring and summer can be more attractive times to spend time in the great outdoors while waiting for that elusive photo, but it can also make photography more difficult as the foliage covers the birds and they hide in the lush surroundings.
However, if you are looking for certain birds, you need to choose the right season. Cold and rainy weather can also test our patience in the less favorable months. Each season has its unique challenges, so be adaptable.
To get expert insight, we asked Which? Gardening writer Adelaide Gray on the joys of birding and finding wildlife.
“I love to observe wildlife because I love knowing what I am seeing and it connects me to the changing seasons. I love to learn more about insects, birds and animals and understand the behavior I see.
“There is no ‘best time’ to view wildlife, but I especially love the springtime, watching migrating birds come home and spot the first butterflies and dragonflies as they emerge.”
If we’ve inspired you to look for a new camera to improve your wildlife photography, our guides on how to buy the best mirrorless camera and how to buy the best dslr camera are a great place to start.