20 Nature & Wildlife Photography Tips

Pine marten (martes martes) in flowering heather, Scotland (Peter Cairns)

Now let’s be straight, there are plenty of good books and DVDs out there showing you how to become a better nature photographer.  So why are these tips any different?  Well rather than it being a full-blown banquet of information, it’s more of a drop-in buffet bar – tasty snippets of helpful advice in bite-size chunks.  I’m no techie-expert but I do have a few years of making lots of mistakes (and hopefully learning from them) under my belt.  I hope by passing on some of these nature and wildlife photography tips you might short circuit part of that painful process.

1. Viewpoint

Uinta ground squirrel (Spermophilus armatus), Yellowstone National Park, USA - Peter Cairns


Getting down low (or at least level) with wildlife subjects does two things: It throws the background out of focus making the subject ‘pop’ and it provides a more intimate interpretation of the subject’s character. The ‘mush’ effect at the bottom of the frame, is created using a telephoto lens with a narrow depth of field. This technique works particularly well with birds on water.


2. ‘Bad’ weather

European goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) in snow, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland (Peter Cairns)


Bad weather is good weather as far as I’m concerned. When it starts raining, or better still, snowing, don’t head for home. If you haven’t got a camera cover, a carrier bag and an elastic band will do the job – the important thing is that you stay out shooting in the most exciting conditions. Bad weather is not as common as you think so make the most of it


3. Backlighting

Herring gull (Larus argentatus) backlit in flight, Norway (Peter Cairns)


I just love backlighting! Photographing your subject ‘into the light’ (towards the sun) against a dark (shadowed) background can deliver stunning results. The lighting can be difficult to manage but essentially your subject should be lit from behind and your background dark so that the ‘rim light’ shows up clearly. Use a lens hood (extended if necessary) to prevent flare from the sun appearing in your picture.


4. Workflow

Photographer working on image of brown bear, Finland (Peter Cairns)


Big subject this but one that was requested. I edit in PhotoMechanic keeping only the very best images (be ruthless). It helps not to edit straight away but to leave for a few weeks. I import to Adobe Lightroom – use colour temp, fill in light, recovery, vibrancy and saturation (occasionally others) and output as a tiff to a master file which I back up onto a RAID system plus a separate external drive.


5. Work locally

Red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) in winter pine forest, Scotland (Peter Cairns)


It’s great to go off on a photo-trip but don’t overlook subjects close at hand. Ducks and geese in town parks, garden birds and even landfill sites can all be productive locations. It’s not the rarity of the subject that matters, it’s how you bring it to life and working regularly in one place, allow its story to be told.


6. Wide aperture

Pine marten (martes martes) in flowering heather, Scotland (Peter Cairns)


A book can be written about the effect of different aperture’s, but here’s my take.  For wildlife subjects I usually shoot at a wide aperture – f5.6 or even f4.  Depth of field is minimal but this gives a lovely compressed effect.  I always focus on the eye of the subject and if that’s sharp, I don’t get worked up about the rest.


7. High key effect


White subject, white background – it isn’t going to work is it? Yes it can…sometimes. In certain conditions, slightly overexposing a pale subject against a similar toned background can deliver an almost ghostly image. In essence this shot takes the histogram as far right as is possible (without burning anything out) and I’ve then ‘blackened’ the dark bits of the bird for contrast. Works well with arctic terns too!


8. Silhouettes

Red deer (Cervus elaphus) stag silhouetted, Scotland (Peter Cairns)


Choose your subject carefully with silhouettes. Easily recognisable and distinct shapes work best – red deer are perfect, grey seals less so. With the benefit of detail taken away, the viewer only has the shape to work with so make sure the whole subject is placed against the sky/background, make sure all legs are distinct from each other and in this case, I waited until the stag looked at me so the antlers were symmetrical. The result is that this is obviously a red deer stag even though the body is blacked out. For exposure, take a reading from the sky, lock it and shoot – everything will be underexposed with your subject black (ish) and the sky rendered darker than it actually is.


9. Background

Black grouse (Tetrao tetrix) female in lekking area, Scotland (Peter Cairns)


Using long lenses for wildlife allows the subject to ‘pop’ thanks to a shallow depth of field. That doesn’t mean all backgrounds will be blurred – you need to be VERY careful. Choose a muted background (darker colours work best) as far away from your subject as possible. Move around your subject if possible lining up different backgrounds – a few feet can make a big difference.


10. Motion Blur


European brown bear (Ursus arctos) reflected in forest pool, Finland (Peter Cairns)

In low light levels when arresting subject movement isn’t possible – or indeed when you deliberately want to create the impression of movement – panning with your subject can be very effective. Shutter speed depends on how quickly your subject is moving but to give you an idea, this bear was shot at 1/8 sec.  With a horizontal pan it’s essential to avoid any camera movement up or down. And keep the pan smooth not jerky!


11. Keep at it!

Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) on frozen loch, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland (Peter Cairns)


Let’s face it, if it’s cold, wet or both, it’s easy to become disillusioned and to conclude “this isn’t working.” But if you’ve done the preparatory work, it makes no sense to pack up and go home. The best images are usually those that come after several hours/days/weeks of observation and gradually ‘working your subject’. People often assume wildlife photographers are patient – they’re not, they’re just persistent. This image took many many visits to a local loch before it came together.

12. Use manual exposure

Herring gull (Larus argentatus) backlit in flight, Flatanger, Norway (Peter Cairns)


OK so I sound like a dinosaur but cameras are still machines and even efficient machines have their limits. Using manual exposure allows you to take control and tell the camera what you want it to do. This is particularly useful with high contrast or backlit situations where you might want a darker/lighter background. Aperture priority is all very well but isn’t foolproof. Learn how to use manual and stick with it.


13. Know your subject

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Cairngorms National Park, Scotland (Peter Cairns)

Knowing where and when is the best time to photograph your chosen subject is half the battle. Red squirrels only have ear tufts in winter; ospreys only spend the summer in the UK; roe deer moult in April/May. This basic knowledge is the foundation for successful photography – it allows you to plan your annual schedule to coincide with when your subject will look its best or will be exhibiting interesting behaviour. Knowing how to operate an oven doesn’t make you a master chef – it’s the same with cameras and photography.


14. Record action


Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) breaching, Moray Firth, Scotland (Peter Cairns)

The standard of wildlife photography is now so high, simple portraits generally don’t cut it.  Look for unusual, interesting or humorous behaviour; photograph birds in flight or preening or displaying.  Capture mammals running or fighting.  Anticipation is often key – watch your subject and learn the signs for when something is about to happen.  Set a fast shutter speed and focus where possible on the eye.  Above all, be patient and wait for that decisive moment.  Oh…and be prepared to fail before you succeed.


15. Wide angle wildlife


Long tailed skua (Stercorarius longicaudus), Borgefjell National Park, Sweden (Peter Cairns)

Try recording your subject using a wide-angle lens. Although normally associated with landscape work, a wide-angle approach puts wildlife in context, it tells a story; it can also look visually dynamic. Subject choice is critical – you have to be MUCH closer than you think to make this work – you’ll therefore need a hide for wary subjects.


16. Go graphic


Sea stacks at Reynisdrangar at dusk, Iceland (Peter Cairns)

Very often it’s about what you leave out of a picture rather than what you include: ‘less is more’ as they say. Despite our inclination to ‘consume’ everything within a scene, eliminating, or at least minimising, detail is key to this approach. Clean, simple lines; a limited colour range and graphic shapes all work well and often make the viewer linger longer than they would over a more conventional interpretation. Think clean and crisp!


17. Break the Rules


Ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus) in winter plumage, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland (Peter Cairns)

There are certain ‘rules’ that if followed, contribute to visual harmony within an image. They are there for good reason but they can also be broken. At a time when photographic homogeneity threatens to bore our audience, go for quirky, go for whacky, go for jarring. Don’t be afraid to throw the rule book away!

18. Understand Light

Snow goose (Chen caerulescens) in evening light, New Mexico, USA (Peter Cairns)


It’s an old cliche but it really is all about the light. Watch it, study it and learn how to make it your friend; treat it with indifference and your images will suffer. It’s not just about light direction, it’s about quality of light. Look at many of your favourite images and most of them will not be down to subject choice but light.


19. Natural Patterns


Wood patterns in lodgepole pine, Yellowstone National Park, USA (Peter Cairns)

Telling a story about a place or a species is the best way to attract (and retain) an audience for your images. To that end, you need wide and varied coverage. Natural patterns provide a backdrop, a context to your story; they allow the viewer to ‘rest’ before going on to the next image. You can also build attractive montages from a collection of natural patterns.


20. Go blue!

View towards Isle of Rum from Eigg, Scotland (Peter Cairns)


Nature photographers are often encouraged to adopt ‘correct’ colour temperature (blue is bad and should be ‘warmed’ in post processing). If you photograph landscapes in the half light of dawn or dusk in northern locations, the light is blue. In my view that’s something that should be showcased and in certain situations, exaggerated. Don’t go mad and overdo it but there’s nothing wrong with loving your blues!

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8 thoughts on “20 Nature & Wildlife Photography Tips

  1. Thanks Pete. I’m no great photographer — such tips may make me better. Everything in this world relies on education — knowledge is useless unless dissipated. I rejoice when I find someone ready to let others learn of their expertise.

  2. Thanks for the particular great writeup. The idea actually was once a leisure profile the item Art pics. Appearance complex in order to way unveiled acceptable within you! Mind you, what exactly is sustain any correspondence?

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