The more you can learn about your subject, the more you can anticipate and predict the animal’s behaviour. For me, photographing wildlife is all about capturing a moment– whether it is a mother and cub coming into frame to touch noses, or the moment a kingfisher dives in to the water. If you can recognise the signs and body language, you can take valuable seconds off your reaction time and be ready for the moment.
You can learn so much about wildlife behaviour by just observing.
When you are starting out this is a key skill to learn. Sometimes people just fire away hundreds of images and miss shots because they simply don’t spend any time looking outside of the viewfinder and actually observing.
Sometimes it is a good idea if you want to really get the best images possible to visit a location in advance without your camera to just observe, this can be done with a notebook and pen or mentally. It can be done at home or in the local park with garden birds.
A simple online search for the animal or bird you want to photograph, will provide you with a list or description of specific behaviours that are common for that species. Read and research. Make notes.
Online videos and photographs are also a good source of information, and you can use this to view behaviour in more detail.
Another source of information are wildlife documentaries on the tv or streaming services.
Guides and Expert Knowledge
Spend time with photographers or people who are experts in a specific subject. For example, the first time I went to the Isle of Mull to photograph otters I went out with an experienced guide and otter specialist. I did this to learn the appropriate field craft and behaviour needed to capture the images I wanted. In general, with all safaris and tours, you get what you pay for and spending that little extra to go with an experienced guide will help you capture the images you want.
In order to take action shots of wild animals you have to find them first. It’s not as hard as you’d think. If you take a walk through the local forest, you’ll be surprised by how many different animal species you can find.
Another great way to find wild animals is to go to the nearest public park. Wild animals in public parks are usually less timid since they are used to humans.
Songbirds are especially easy to find in parks. Grab some sunflower seeds or homemade fat balls, and you can easily get them to come close to you.
What you need to keep in mind for when you encounter an animal species you haven’t photographed before, is to observe them. Try to figure out their habits and if there’s any pattern to their behaviour.
The more time you spend observing and researching a particular animal species, the better you can empathize with them. You might even start to predict their behaviour and plan your shots in advance.
If you try to photograph timid animals, don’t forget to wear camouflage clothes or even a camouflage tent. This will help you disguise yourself when approaching animals and not scare them off.
Why bother with all this?
If you are like me – you will have a passion for wildlife and just absolutely love spending time with nature, so learning about it is of interest to me and as important as taking the images. Understanding behaviour helps you to further tell the subjects story and connect that story with the viewer, but it also enables you to be ready for action, ready for what is likely to happen.
It also ensures that you can recognise signs of any distress or discomfort that your actions may be causing to the subject you are trying to photograph. No shot is worth disturbing an animal for. Being able to interpret the behaviour of an animal will help you get closer without causing any harm to it. The best images are taken when the animal is aware of your presence but has accepted you or when it doesn’t even know that you are there.
Every time I go out to do any wildlife photography, before I even leave the house, I always set my camera up the same way. It is always set up to capture action and behaviour. Everything always happens very quickly and when you need to be ready to capture a moment you need to be confident in the settings that you have. You can then adjust the settings accordingly to capture portraits and be more creative if the situation arises.
- ISO – Set to Auto ISO. Minimum Shutter Speed 1000
- Camera Mode – Aperture Priority. Set at F4 (Wide open) will always mean that I get the fastest shutter speed possible.
- Focus Mode – Continuous Autofocus. Group Autofocus Mode
- White Balance – Auto
- Camera Metering Mode – Evaluative Mode
- Camera File Mode – Raw
- Camera Burst Mode – Burst not single shot.
To read in more detail about Auto ISO and Aperture Priority read my blog post here
These are always the settings I use when I start any session in the field. The settings are built for speed and action, they are set to capture movement.
If something happens quickly in the majority of situations, you will be able to capture the type of images that you want.
If you are photographing something that moves quicker than you can change the minimum shutter speed in Auto ISO to 2500 for example.
The correct settings alongside researching your subject and their typical behaviour will give you the edge when it comes to capturing wildlife images full of impact and drama.
Some examples of when I used these settings are below:
Diving Kingfisher. East Kilbride. Scotland. F4. 1/1000.ISO 560. D850. 600mm lens
This kingfisher was perched on an overhanging branch and kept diving in to the water to wash itself. After observing the behaviour for a while I was able to pre focus on the water and anticipate where the kingfisher would dive. There is a fair amount of luck involved in this type of shot due to you having to predict where the kingfisher will dive, but when it dives in to wash rather than feed, it tends to pick the same spot and makes this a little easier.
All of the settings were set to the default settings described above
Fighting Finches. Dumfries. Scotland.F4. 1/2000. ISO 3200. D850. 200-400mm lens
This image was taken at a commercial hide where sunflower seed hearts are placed on a tree stump. The finches land on the side of the tree stump and when another lands they fight. After observing the behaviour for a while I could work out the slight change in behaviour that would signal a disagreement. I focused on the finch that landed first and then as the other one landed and they flew upwards I could take a burst of images. As long as they fly directly upwards and are on the same focal plain as where they landed it is quite simple to capture this type of image
All of the settings were set to the default settings apart from the minimum shutter speed on auto ISO which was changed to 1/2000.
Fishing White Tailed Eagle. Isle of Mull. Scotland. F7,1. 1/1600. ISO 1250. +0.33. D850. 200-400mm lens
This image was taken on the Mull Charter Boat Trip on the Isle of Mull. The Eagles circle the boat and fish is thrown in to the water. They then swoop down and pick the fish off the top of the water.. I have done this trip many times and every time my images have improved. With the setting in place I just had to concentrate on tracking the Eagle as it started its approach towards the fish.
All of the settings were set to the default settings apart from the minimum shutter speed on auto ISO which was changed to 1/1600.
Angry Hippo. Masai Mara. Kenya. F5. 1/2500. ISO 1600. D3. 600mm lens
This image was taken when I was guiding clients in Masai Mara. There was a large crossing happening with thousands oif wildebeest piling in to the river. I had noticed the hippos lurking around for a while and previously had witnessed them getting aggressive towards other animals that came in to their territory.
On this particular day my clients were snapping away. I alerted them to the potential for some interaction with the hippos and then the wildebeest line headed towards the hippos and they started to snap and chase them in the water.
All of the settings were set to the default settings apart from the minimum shutter speed on auto ISO which was changed to 1/2500.
Playing Bear Cubs. Martinselkonen. Finland. F5. 1/500. ISO 1600. D7100. 600mm lens
This image was taken when I was guiding clients in Finland. June and July is an ideal time for the bear cubs. We were watching the cubs playing, they started to move closer to the hide and we were able to capture images of them. The camera that I shot this on is not as good in low light and high ISO so I had to sacrifice a little on the ideal shutter speed. The cubs spent a bit of time playing around and we were able to capture a good sequence of images.
All of the settings were set to the default settings apart from the minimum ISO on auto ISO which was changed to 1/500.
Red Collared Widow Birds. Masai Mara. Kenya. F5. 1/1000. ISO 500. D500. 600mm lens
This image was taken in Masai Mara. Red Collared Widow Birds breed from October to April and during this time the male is a dark black with a long tale and bright red around its head. To capture these birds in flight you have to understand a little about their behaviour. They fly around from bush to bush displaying to any nearby females.
Due to their eratic flight they are difficult to track in flight but it is possible.
All of the settings were set to the default settings described at the beginning of this section.
Breaching Minke Whale. Isle of Mull. Scotland. F6.3. 1/1000. ISO 200. +0.33. D850. 200-400mm lens
This image taken on a boat trip off of the coast of the Isle of Mull. On this particular trip we spotted a Minke Whale breaching in the distance. Minke Whales don’t very often breach and you usually see a splash on the horizon and then if you are lucky a fin in the water. As we got closer to where the whale was it breached again in virtually the same place. It repeated this behaviour a couple of times in different locations.
The main image at the top was taken on one of these occasions. It breached and went under, but I kept my lens on the same location and sure enough it breached again in the same location. The first image was actually shot on the opposite side of the boat to the whale between 2 peoples heads. I was only able to get the shot because I had applied the camera settings in advance.
All of the settings were set to the default settings described at the beginning of this section.
With animal behaviour the key is really in the camera settings. Shooting on Continuous Autofocus is essential if you want to keep your subject in focus whilst it is moving. Practice Focus Tracking on common subjects or even on pets at home. It really does make a difference if you are confident in your focus tracking technique.
Good positioning is also critical.
At the beginning of this section, I mentioned the importance of research, this is so important when attempting to capture interesting behaviour.
Also, through observation, for example with otters, if you watch them fishing out at sea and they bring a larger fish in to a rock on the shoreline, the chances are if they swim straight back out to the same fishing point, they will return to the same rock, so you position yourself as near to the rock as possible without causing distress to the otter.
The below Cheetah image was captured through good positioning.
We knew that she had cubs, when we first saw her, she was laying by some long grass but the cubs at this time were not visible, she walked away to stalk some gazelle in the distance, normally we would try to position for the hunt, however where she was hunting there were no roads and we did not have off road permits, so we waited where we left her. After about an hour she started to return to where we were, she had failed to make a kill, as she got closer, she began to call and out from the grass appeared 4 little furry heads. She walked towards the mound and sat up and called again, the cubs made their way to where she was sitting enabling us the opportunity to capture this image.
You cannot expect to just go out and capture awe inspiring images of wildlife in action. Granted you can sometimes get lucky. But you seriously increase your success rate by:
- Research your subjects behaviour – read as much as you can and study any videos and images that you can find.
- Practice your camera settings with more common subjects
- Use the settings described earlier in this post – set your camera to these settings before you go out and when you leave every sighting. You can play around with settings and fine tune them if needed but these will certainly give you a better chance of capturing the images that you want.
To find out more you can buy my ebook for just £2.99 on Amazon 436 pages packed full of images and tips on wildlife photography.
The Ultimate Beginners Guide to Wildlife Photography – from Taking a Shot to capturing a moment – buy it here
If you like this post then why not check out my post on Tips for better wildlife photography Images – Aperture Priority and Auto ISO
If you want the best experience and one on one tuition then why not join me on one of my photographic tours
Join me to capture images of playing bear cubs in Finland on a tour
Join me to capture images of hippos and red collared widowbirds in Kenya on a tour
Join me to capture images of whales or otters in Scotland on a tour
Join me for a workshop for diving kingfishers or fighting finchesScotland