How-To: Photographing Animals

How-To: Photographing Animals at Home and in the Wild
Text and Photos by Lynne Eodice

If you’re like me—a photographer who is also an animal lover—chances are, your furry four-legged friends are among your favorite subjects. But photographing animals, whether it’s your pet dog or a zebra at the zoo, requires patience, good timing and skill. It’s difficult to pose them (in some cases, impossible), and they won’t sit still for long.

The first thing you will want to decide is what you want to portray about the animal you’re photographing. Is it the graceful beauty of a cat, the protective nature of a mother bison with her calf, or the energy of your dog running on the beach? The good news is that you probably won’t have to travel to exotic locales to find good photo opportunities. Animal subjects can be found as close as your own backyard or the local zoo.

Pets: Lighting, Action and Angles

Photos captured of pets
click the thumbnails to see full-size images

If you’re photographing your own pet, you probably know its personality pretty well and can anticipate how it will act in different situations. Once you’ve decided when and where you’d like to take pictures of Fifi or Fido, think about the lighting and where you should be to capture certain behavior. For example, if your cat typically lies down in a particular part of the room, consider using a high ISO setting (like 400 or faster), to capture your cat in a low-light setting. To add more light, use a little fill-flash, or even bounce a little light off the ceiling.

Many of your best images of pets will be from their level, which often means lying on the floor or the ground. It’s the best way to capture their expressions, and it conveys something of what the world is like at their level. And get close, either physically or with a moderate telephoto lens. If your pet is well trained, you might be able to get him/her to sit or lie down in a photogenic spot of your choosing. And don’t forget—a cooperative pet should always be rewarded with a tasty treat. Make the photo session one that’s enjoyable for all involved, as you would with a human’s portrait session.

If you want to freeze the motion of a fast-moving animal, put your camera on its shutter-priority mode and select a fast shutter speed like 1/500 or faster. Shoot portraits as well as behavioral images, and be sure to take some pictures that show the pet’s relationship with different members of the family. These photos will bring back fond memories for years to come.

Zoos & Sanctuaries: Close-ups in Confinement

There are a wide variety of places in which wildlife can be found—and many are very close to home. For example, in addition to having a wonderful zoo, San Diego, California also has the Wild Animal Park, in which visitors can view wildlife in a natural, authentic looking habitat from a tram that travels throughout the park. Want to go on safari without leaving the U.S.? Orlando, Florida, has a Disney theme park called Animal Kingdom, in which animals can be viewed in spacious, African Serengeti-like plains. Zoos, and animal sanctuaries offer the opportunity to view the greatest variety of wildlife in a relatively small radius.

There are several ways to approach animal photography in these settings. You can take portraits or other tight shots of the animals, or capture wider views that show the environments in which the animals are confined. If close portraits are what you’re after, try to get as tight a shot as you can and blur the background with a wide aperture, since it’s not a native habitat for the animal.  Use a long telephoto lens (80mm – 300mm work well with most DSLRs), or a shorter one with a teleconverter. To show an animal in its enclosure, stand back and use a wide-angle lens (around 10mm – 24mm).

The good news is that most zoos and animal sanctuaries don’t have restrictions on photography, so you’ll probably be able to use a tripod or monopod—a necessity with most long lenses.

Into the Wild: Time and Telephoto Lenses

Photos captured of animals in wild animal parks
click the thumbnails to see full-size images

National parks and game preserves offer spectacular glimpses of the animal world. Many parks have displays and brochures about their wildlife that offer great tips. The Internet and books can also give you a lot of information on what to look for. Talk to park rangers, as they usually know various animals’ hangouts and habits. Learn as much as possible about their behavior patterns, such as their feeding and nesting habits and their modes of defense.

As a general rule, most animals venture out early in the morning or late in the afternoon, rather than at midday. And like portraits of people, close-ups of animals will be the most flattering when the illumination is the soft light of an overcast day. Early or late afternoon light can be very dramatic as well. The low light of morning or afternoon can emphasize an animal’s contours and the texture of its fur or feathers. In daylight, you should be able to use a fast shutter speed (1/250 second or faster) that’s necessary to capture a moving subject. If possible, set your camera up on a tripod in a location that gives you clear visibility, and a safe distance from danger.

Photos captured of animals in wild animal parks
click the thumbnails to see full-size images

Many wildlife parks will only allow shooting from the safety of your automobile, so you’ll want to use a long telephoto lens (200mm or longer) to bring wildlife subjects in close. Take caution when shooting in the wild, and always maintain a safe distance. During particular seasons, even deer have been known to attack.

In places like Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, wildlife may be more accustomed to human visitors. Bison are very commonplace, in addition to deer and elk. In any case, a long telephoto lens, patience, and a little luck all play a role in photographing animals in the wild. Taking pictures of wild animals takes a lot of time, and you must be as unobtrusive as possible. The animals should be unaware or at least undisturbed by your presence so that you can photograph their natural behavior.

Whether you photograph animals at the neighborhood dog park, the local zoo, or at a National Park, you’ll find that this can be a very rewarding and educational experience!

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7 Responses to “How-To: Photographing Animals”

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  2. Clippingshop says:

    Wonderful shoots…Step by step explanation was good. I am sure it will help people to shoot animals.

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