Two veteran National Geographic photographers impart their tips on how to photograph animals in the wild.

The name of the game in wildlife photography—whether you’re attempting to capture a herd of elephants on the Serengeti Plains or squirrels in your backyard—is patience. Wild animals are going to do what they’re going to do. Unfortunately, you can’t ask them to gaze this way, do something cute, or stand where the light is better. You have to be there, and ready, when they decide to appear cute or do something interesting. Be prepared to wait, and wait, and wait—it takes a long time to get good wildlife shots, even longer to create great ones.

But it’s not wasted time. The longer you spend with an animal or a group of animals, the better you get to know them and their behaviors. You get to see the idiosyncrasies of different individuals, and you’ll get to the point where you can anticipate what they might do at a particular time of day or in a certain situation. Knowing which cubs are more playful or in which location a male prefers to lie up will help you get your images.

And, as is true of all types of photography, the more time you spend with your subjects, the more likely your images will be intimate and revealing. You know them better, and it will show.

Here’s an example. I discovered this female cheetah and her cub one day in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. I captured a decent shot of the two of them the first afternoon, but I felt I could do better. So, rather than run all over the park photographing various animals, I spent the next week—every day from before dawn to after dusk—with the two of them. And I’m pleased I did. I got to know them and their habits, and they became so used to my car that I could get quite near without bothering them.

These are only a few of the hundreds of photos I made of the two cheetahs during that week, but they will give you some notion of what you can get when you stick with your subjects. Think what I might have received if I’d stayed even longer!

Two Cheetahs Images – Browse 2,472 Stock Photos, Vectors, and Video | Adobe  Stock

Gear and Stuff

I made all these photos from my car. There are so many people driving around the national parks in Africa and elsewhere that the animals simply ignore cars and it’s simple to get close.

distinct animals are distinct, of course: Herbivores like impalas and gazelles tend to be fairly skittish and have greater flight distances than carnivores like cheetahs and lions, who can be very blasé. On hot, sunny days, I’ve had lion cubs crawl under my car to get in the shade (and to gnaw on the brake lines and tires).

Telephoto lenses are a must for wildlife photography—how long depends on how near you can get and on the size of your subject. I made most of these cheetah images with a 300mm f2.8, but that’s because they were so tolerant of me. Birds, small and flighty, need really long optics. So do animals that are timid. For these, I use a 400mm or 600mm, though these lenses are large, heavy, and not a lot of fun to lug around. It’s not a huge problem when shooting from a vehicle, but if I’m hiking I sometimes use a teleconverter on the 300mm. They’re small and light, come in various degrees of magnification, and greatly increase the reach of your lenses. The downside is that image resolution is not quite as good and you lose some stops of light—but my back and shoulders are a lot happier.

Read Also: The Impact of Space on Elephants' Lives

Character and Environment

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Another thing to consider when photographing wildlife is the old “push/pull.” Animals have personalities, and you want to convey that. But you don’t want to be working really close with long lenses all the time. You need to demonstrate their environment too—habitat says a lot. Back off and use wide-angle lenses to give viewers a sense of where the animals dwell.

There’s a lot of information about Cape buffalos in this wide view. We see that they live in large groups, that the land is fairly dry, and that they visit water holes. But we don’t get much of a sense about Cape buffalo personality. That’s when we need the tight picture.

One More Thing

When you’re out photographing wildlife, don’t just pay attention to what are termed the charismatic megafauna—the big animals that get most of our attention. Of course we all want excellent photos of the big guys, but there are many other forms of life around. Some of them are really beautiful, and all of them are fascinating. Whenever you’re out there, whether hiking or sitting in your car waiting for something to happen, glance around. You’ll be astonished at what you might discover. Photograph that too!