In 2019, a global United Nations report revealed that a staggering one million species are at risk of extinction due to human activity, including deforestation, climate change, bush meat hunting and poaching, development, pollution, and overfishing.
For many wildlife photographers, the plight of these species has served as a call to action. Whether they’re sharing pictures of rare and endangered animals or documenting the lives of those harmed by human activity, they serve as witnesses to this critical point in our planet’s history.
At a time when wildlife photography also feels more accessible than ever, we asked six experts about how they create stirring, unforgettable pictures without exploiting animals or their environments. Beyond the “likes” and shares or the allure of going viral, they shared their tips for capturing timeless images that have the power to change both hearts and minds.
“The huddle is the emperor penguins’ secret weapon against the cold and a technique that they use in order to stay warm as a group. It is one of the most marvellous and unique examples of cooperation in the animal kingdom. In a huddle, every bird will be standing close to neighbouring birds sharing dissipated body heat with the rest. As a result, the birds in the entire group will be able to regulate their body temperature more efficiently and stay warm even on a very cold day. Teamwork at its best!”
1. Immerse yourself in one subject, place, or species
“Try to completely immerse yourself in topics with which you feel a strong connection—even if you don’t understand why at first,” the award-winning nature photographer Stefan Christmann advises. “I personally fell in love with emperor penguins. That’s how I created the images that won me the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Portfolio Award in 2019 and put me on the cover of National Geographic Magazine.
“Photography is utterly personal and subjective, and if you truly care about what you do, you will have success eventually. The deeper you dive into the specifics of a landscape or an animal, the more intimate and intriguing your images will become.
“When I first started, I always tried to get ‘the’ shot whenever I went out. Today, I know that it takes a lot of time and dedication to get a good photograph and that sometimes the experience out in nature is worth much more than the actual frame. Immerse yourself in your subject, and you will take good photos of it. That’s my main takeaway from almost 20 years of nature photography.”
2. Educate yourself, and then educate the public
Learning to understand animal behaviour, including patterns and signs of stress, was the top tip among the photographers we interviewed. That behaviour will depend on the species, the location, and the time of year, so research is critical.
“Right now is an important time to be somebody who shares stories about wildlife and habitats in a way that educates people,” Stefan tells us. “Being a wildlife photographer puts me on the visual side of things, but I also write. Even on my Instagram feed, you will rarely find an image without a proper explanation of the shown behaviour or some background on the situation.
“This is one way to give back to nature and show my gratitude. I have experienced countless magical moments with the emperor penguins of Atka-Bay, for example, and it is of the utmost importance that people get educated about their vulnerability. I want to spread the message that if we all do something small, it adds up to something big and can make a difference. We need to try—all of us.
“I see countless wonderful, artistic images every day, but without an engaging background story, they are just pretty pictures. I feel much more drawn to photo essays and stories that teach me something new. Something that surprises me. Something that makes me angry. Or something that makes me smile.”
3. Follow the rules
If you’re photographing in an animal’s habitat, you’re in their home, so observe the rules and guidelines in place to protect them. “I would never destroy the landscape by going into protected areas,” Stefan says. “The same is true for animals. I could never be happy about an image if I knew that I had to actively interfere with the natural world in order to capture it. It would not hold any value to me. However, knowing that I captured a great image by being a silent and passive observer of a scene is such a rewarding feeling.”
4. Avoid influencing animal behaviour
“If an animal knows you are there, you are creating an impact on it,” the wild horse photographer Debra Garside explains. “It is so important for wildlife photographers to recognise this because the result of that pressure may or may not be immediately obvious. Just because an animal is tolerating your presence does not mean they are okay with it or that it is healthy for them to be habituated.”
5. Never use lures
This tip goes hand-in-hand with the one above. “I always put the welfare of the animal first and practice minimal impact photography,” the nature photographer Georgina Steytler tells us. “I never deliberately flush animals or use lures such as call playback, which have the potential to cause undue stress and danger to birds, especially when they are called away from a nest or into the open. I am also against the use of live baiting. I think that you should never have to sacrifice the life of one animal just to get a photo of another.”
6. Wake up early, and stay out late
“I find that the most common mistake that aspiring photographers make is going out at the wrong time of day,” Georgina admits. “For example, they will try to shoot wildlife in mid-morning or afternoon when the light can be quite harsh.
“Unless it’s a cloudy day (in which case, you can get away with shooting at all times), you should try to go out just after sunrise and before sunset during the ‘Golden Hours.’ This will have a huge impact on the quality of your images.”
7. Watch your shutter speed
This tip was mentioned more than once, by both Georgina and Debra. “Not having a fast-enough shutter speed is the most common technical mistake aspiring wildlife photographers make, especially with birds,” Debra says. “Birds are a readily accessible form of wildlife, but they can also be one of the most difficult, so this is not the place to start. Don’t be afraid to push your ISO up to compensate for your shutter speed. With all the great editing software out there now, it is pretty easy to deal with ISO noise.”
The jury’s still out on whether manual mode or aperture priority mode works best (some say one, and some say the other), but those two are your best bet for creating sharp, focused photos.
8. Capture the good and the bad
Wild animals are beautiful, and capturing the magic of the natural world helps to preserve it. At the same time, uplifting images only tell part of the story. The truth is that we have destroyed much of our planet’s wildlife and their habitats, and that’s worth documenting as well.
“I feel a little frustrated that, in the aftermath of the bushfires in Australia, more nature photographers are not going out there and documenting life in the burnt habitats,” Georgina says. “We need those images to remind people of the devastation and to ensure it never happens again.”
9. Stay close to home
“Pick a subject that you enjoy photographing in the region where you live,” the natural history photographer Justin Gilligan, who focuses on Australian nature and conservation, suggests. “It might even be a particular type of insect in your own backyard (literally!), or a wetland area near your home that you can access easily. The more time you spend with a particular subject, the more you get to understand it, and the better the resulting images will be.
“I think spending a lot of money to go to faraway places that many wildlife photographers have already visited is a mistake. It is a real challenge to come up with something different in a place where everyone has been. Your time is better spent at an easy-to-access location—somewhere that you can keep visiting and even become a specialist in.”
10. Look for surprises
“The element of surprise is a critical factor,” Justin explains. “The technical skills needed to adequately capture a wildlife photograph in nice light are a given; however, it’s a special photo that shows something that the audience hasn’t seen before. It might be a rare animal, unusual behaviour, or an amazing setting. The key is to study what images already exist for a given subject and then expand upon them to create something new and surprising that captures the audience’s attention.”
11. Find the humanity
It might sound strange to suggest looking for humanity when photographing animals, but wildlife photography is as much about empathy and compassion as it is about sharpness and resolution. “I wish more wildlife photographers were more aware of the web of life—the interconnectedness and interdependence of all living creatures,” the scientist and nature photographer Jan van der Greef admits.
“It is important to show the beauty and magnificence of nature, but it’s also important to make people realise that we are part of nature. Whatever we do to nature, we do to ourselves. When we feel that oneness with the natural world, we protect it.
“In my view, a great wildlife photo communicates the beauty of nature in a unique way at a unique point in time. It surprises you every time you see it. Often, aspiring wildlife photographers will overthink and allow the voice of judgement to block their creativity. They sometimes forget to connect and feel what the situation has to offer, and that’s the most important part.”
12. Do it for love, not for fame
“A lot of photographers nowadays take photos for the ‘likes’ on social media or just to please their audience,” the award-winning 18-year-old nature photographer Ariel Fields laments. “It’s important not to let social media influence you too much or to dictate what you post and what you don’t. Stay true to yourself, and take pictures because you’re passionate about it.
“For me, that includes the Striped Hyena project; my goal is to create awareness by educating people about this solitary, beautiful, elusive, and at-risk species. Photography is a powerful tool for conservation and gives a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves.”
13. Be patient
“You have got to have patience,” Ariel continues. “Only those who have patience and are dedicated will succeed in this field. Do not lose the hope or courage that got you interested in the first place—wildlife photography is hard! You have to get up early and stay out late. 95% of the time, you will fail, but at the end of the day, that’s what makes you great.”
14. Give back
“All of my workshops and many of my art pieces have a percentage dedicated to wildlife initiatives,” Debra Garside tells us. Find ways to help the animals you photograph, whether it’s supporting a local organisation or speaking out about exploitation. Sometimes, it’s not enough to do no harm—you also have to give something back.
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.