Wildlife photography, sometimes referred to as nature photography, involves photographing wild animals in their native habitat.
Wildlife photographers shoot photos for magazines, books, DVDs, movies and television. Some even exhibit their work in museums and art galleries. The public has a fascination with wild animals of all types, and photos of mammals, fish, birds and reptiles in their natural surroundings will always be in demand.
This may sound like an easy way to make a living, but working as a wildlife photographer is actually one of the more challenging forms of photography today. Not only does it require solid technical skills such as proper lighting and exposure, but this type of photography also forces the photographer to practice good awareness and field skills as well.
For example, many wild animals are skittish and difficult to approach without spooking them. A good wildlife photographer understands animal behavior as it applies to the animal he or she is photographing. Some species are best photographed from the cover of a stationary blind, while others need to be stalked over great distances before that perfect shot is captured.
And some wild animals can be quite dangerous to photograph, even with a 500mm lens and behind a blind. A wildlife photographer typically operates within the animal’s native habitat, and can be seen as a threat, or even a meal, under the wrong circumstances. One should approach animals like bears or mountain lions only after a lot of training and experience in this type of photography.
About the job
Wildlife photography can be broken down into a number of different sub-specialties. For example, photos of wild animals are often used in coffee-table books and magazines, postcards, advertisements and more.
But other photographers specialize in domestic animals, which are often photographed as a way of illustrating training or grooming techniques, health care, anatomy or breed characteristics. There are even photographers who only shoot race horses, as these photos are popular and are sometimes used to determine the winner of the race.
While you can probably do some wildlife photography with basic camera equipment, if you’re serious about getting into this field, you’ll need to spend some money on a good digital SLR and at least one long focal-length lens, preferably 500mm or longer with a large enough aperature to allow for fast shutter speeds even in low light situations.
You’ll also need at least one wide-angle lens, a flash unit, a monopod, photographer’s vest with enough pockets to hold all your gear, compact binoculars, a safari hat, comfortable boots, and other essentials like sunscreen and insect repellant.
But don’t think that being a great wildlife photographer is all about the equipment. The camera is only a tool of the trade, like a chisel to a carpenter, and it’s only as good as the person holding it. Often the best wildlife and nature photographs are the result of being at the right place at the right time, and this kind of “luck” is usually the byproduct of hard work, knowledge, and a lot of experience.
Part of that experience is becoming familiar with the behavior patterns and social habits of the animals you’ll be photographing. Most people know not to get between a mother bear and her cub, for example, but you’ll also need to know the feeding routines of various animals, and the predator-prey relationship that exists between the hunter and the hunted.
Many of the best shots are anticipated, where the photographer is so in tune with the wild animals on the other side of the lens he or she can sense what their next action will be even before it happens.
Training and certification
One way to get some experience photographing wild animals is to visit a zoo in your area and spend an afternoon shooting the animals there. You can practice composition, anticipation, using depth of field and shutter speeds for effect, etc. This will also let you know if you have the patience and temperament for this type of work, as it’s not nearly as easy as it sounds.
As far as formal education, one place to start is by going to school and majoring in wildlife biology or animal behavior. You’ll also of course want to take some classes in photography, journalism, and art & design. It’s also good to take some outdoor survival classes, and make sure you’re physically fit enough to hike for miles in the backcountry.
There are also a number of good photography schools around the country you should consider as well. Just make sure they have good reputations, and offer the type of wildlife and nature work you’re looking for.
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