Wildlife Photography Tips: How to Photograph Wildlife in Natural Light

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Right up there with nature and landscape photography, wildlife photography is one of the most popular forms of photography out there. It seems everybody wants to photograph cute and cuddly critters whether they’re covered in feathers, fur, or dare I say it, scales. One of the best ways to capture these amazing creatures at their best is using natural light.

Here are my tips + tricks for photographing wildlife in natural light for the ultimate outdoor images.

 Black bear with two cubs in the White Mountain National Forest

Why use natural light?

When I photograph wildlife, I prefer to rely on natural light for a couple of reasons. The first is that I’m not really a wildlife photographer. By that I mean wildlife is not the main focus of my photography. Therefore I don’t feel the need (actually I’m just too cheap) to invest in expensive off-camera lighting equipment. With the exception of loons, I don’t often actively pursue enough wildlife with my camera to justify the expense.

That being said, with the amount of time I spend backpacking and photographing in the New Hampshire wilderness, wildlife is always a possibility, and I’m always on the lookout for it, where I might see it, and how to best use the available light to photograph it.

The second reason is that being primarily a landscape photographer who is out with my camera early and late in the day when the sun is low in the sky, which also happens to coincide with the times of day when wildlife is most active, what better time to photograph wildlife should I encounter it after I’ve already photographed a sunrise or sunset. The wonderful warm light of these golden hours, the light that makes the landscape look so good, can work wonders when lighting wildlife as well.

 

Common loon adult with young chick on its back.

 

 

As you can see, even though wildlife isn’t the primary focus of my photography, I have been very lucky over the years and have had several once in a lifetime “right place at the right time” animal encounters. Knowing how to use the natural light to my advantage when these encounters occur has enabled me to come away with some pretty good photos. 

 

Whitetail Doe, Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park.

 

Tip #1: Know your quarry.

Unless you intend to rely on sheer dumb luck when it comes to finding and photographing wildlife, knowing a little about the animal you want to photograph, their preferred food, habitat, travel routes and times, can be invaluable in helping you successfully photograph them.

For example, whitetail deer will often enter and exit a field to feed using the same trails at approximately the same times on a daily basis. Knowing the animals habits can assist you when it comes to being there when they make their daily visit to the area, or at least recognize an area and time of day when viewing wildlife is a possibility.

 

Water snake and damselfly

Tip #2: Know the light.

So now you know where and when the wildlife you’d like to photograph are visiting a certain area, but you have no idea which direction the light will be coming from on the morning or evening you’re planning be there? You’re in luck, a neat little app, which also happens to be free for the desktop version, called The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) is all you need. With the app, also available for most smart photo platforms, you can plot exactly which direction the sun will be shining at any given time, on any given day, for any given location, world wide. I use TPE primarily for planning my landscape photography, but I’ve found it also works extremely well in helping me pick a spot that will have the sun behind me while I wait for whatever wildlife I may be photographing to show itself.

Having the sun behind you, either directly or at an angle, is important because this can make it harder for the animal to see you, since they’ll be looking into the sun. It will also reduce or eliminate harsh shadows falling across your subject resulting in a more pleasing photo.

One more ever important reason for having the sun behind you and shining into the eyes of the animal you’re trying to photograph are catchlights. Catchlights will put the gleam in your subjects eyes giving them a much more lively appearance.

Tip #3: Shutter speed — keep it high.

When photographing wildlife, which is almost always a moving, you want to keep a high enough shutter speed to freeze the action to help counter subject movement, camera movement, or both. A good rule of thumb for shutter speed is the reciprocal of the lenses focal length. For instance, if you’re using a 200mm lens, you want a minimum shutter speed of 1/200th second, a 500mm means 1/500th second, and so on. If you’re using a crop sensor camera you’ll need to multiply the focal length by 1.5 or 1.6, depending on brand, to get the effective focal length to get your shutter speed. If I can I’ll try to get an even higher shutter speed, just in case.

Tip #4: Increase ISO — don’t worry about noise

More often that not due to the low light you’ll likely be photographing in, you won’t be able to achieve a fast enough shutter speed by opening up your lens to its widest aperture alone. You will also have to increase the ISO setting on your camera. When I’m photographing wildlife one of the first settings I change on my camera is to set it at ISO 800.  I’ll set it as high as I need to in order to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action.

For those of you concerned about excessive high ISO noise, I tend to live by a quote from Rick Sammon. “If a picture is so boring you notice the noise, you’ve got a boring picture.” I don’t know about you, but I’ll take an exciting photo that’s sharp and in focus, but may be slightly noisy, over a blurry and boring photo that is noise free.

All of these tips have worked very well for me, and hopefully will give you the same success when you come across your next wildlife photo opportunity!

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