This article follows on from our previous “Inspirational Photography – Top 10 Tips for Beginners” by Isak Pretorius. Learn here how to improve your wildlife photography.

So now that you know what the “A”, “S” and “M” stand for on your camera dial, you want to create a wildlife photo portfolio that will make people stop and take notice. Getting the “bird on a stick” photo pin sharp is only part of the technical challenge you’ve mastered up till now, but what to do next?

Here is Isak’s top 10 tips for wildlife photographers that will take your photography to the next level.

1. Know your equipment

How often have you missed “the shot” because you could not move your autofocus point fast enough or you had to take your eye away from the viewfinder to look for the exposure compensation button on the camera? In wildlife photography things happen quickly and without warning which requires swift adjustments of camera settings by the photographer. Although years of experience will help to get a feel for the correct settings in any situation, it is important to practice changing the commonly used settings of all your cameras and lenses quickly and without looking.

Camera: Canon 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon 16-35mmf/2.8
Aperture: f/4
Shutter speed: 1/200
ISO: 800
Flash used: Yes, Canon ex580

2. You don’t need a long lens

Tight crops and photos with the subjects large in the frame, taken with long lenses, are great for creating impact. We get addicted to the crisp image you see through a 600mm or 500mm lens and they are often the first lenses we pick up when driving into a new sighting. The opposite is true however, and this is also great news for your wallet. You have a better chance of capturing a unique photo, showcasing the environment or capturing mood and atmosphere of the scene by using a shorter lens. The reality is that the bulk of the iconic photos in the libraries of the world’s best wildlife photographers were taken with short lenses. These include lenses like a 16-35mm, 24-70mm and a 70-200mm.

Camera: Canon 20D
Lens: Canon 24-70mmf/2.8
Aperture: f/8
Shutter speed: 1/1000
ISO: 200

3. Find a practise ground close to home

Like any activity, sport or hobby, you have to put in the time and practise to get better at it. Photography is not any different. When you go on that “once in a lifetime” dream trip you want to be ‘photography fit’ and ready to photograph at your best level from the moment you arrive. It can be difficult to practise wildlife photography when you live in a large city but these cities often have small nature reserves or bird sanctuaries close by. Find one with lots of subjects, even if they are not photogenic or charismatic, but go there to practise as often as you can.

Camera: Canon 20D
Lens: Canon 100-400mmf/5.6
Aperture: f/6.3
Shutter speed: 1/500
ISO: 400

4. Imitate iconic photos to learn the techniques

Photography consists of creative and technical elements. You envisage the photo you want to take through your own creativity and then require the technical skill to pull it off. One way to stimulate your creativity and learn what type of photos can be taken in the wild is to study the photos of the iconic or your favourite wildlife photographers. First, identify a few different type of photo styles, like backlit, front lit, side lit, spotlight, fast action and motion blur for example. Next, try and copy these photos at your local nature reserve or bird sanctuary. Even if the scene or subject is not spectacular, trying to imitate these photos will teach you the camera settings, focal length, angle of view and direction of light required for each type.

5. Travel!

We always feel the need to upgrade to the latest cameras and lenses. The new technology featured in the latest equipment often allows you to get photos you previously could not, like better noise performance at high ISO values for example. Now you can capture a better quality starry sky photo or give yourself a better chance at the perfect frame when the bird comes in to land at 14 frames per second instead of the 12 you had previously. In context of your current portfolio of photos, the latest equipment would only offer a small percentage of additional photos. Unless you have heaps of cash, my advice is to rather spend your money travelling and exploring new destinations that will add more variety to your portfolio.

Camera: Nikon D3
Lens: Nikon 14-24mmf/2.8
Aperture: f/2.8
Shutter speed: 25sec
ISO: 2500

6. One exceptional photo is better than a thousand good ones

The greatest wildlife photos are the ones that evoke emotion and show a subject in a spectacular new way. Those are the ones that make people stop, take notice and look to see who the photographer is. There is no formula for creating such a photo, but it would surely require time, effort and thinking differently about your subject. The cliche photos on the other hand, like the cheetah on the anthill or the elephants in front of Mount Kilimanjaro are fun to try. They have a lot of impact but would never earn you as much recognition as that one exceptional photo.

Camera: Canon 1D Mark IV
Lens: Sigma 150mm Macro
Aperture: f/16
Shutter speed: 1/50
ISO: 400

7. Be prepared for the best thing that could potentially happen

Learning the behaviour of your subjects and anticipating the action will help you to be ready for when that special moment happens. To take your photography to an even higher level you should also envisage the best thing that could potentially happen in the scene you’re watching. This includes changing your camera to the correct settings and having the right lens ready. When the leopard is sleeping in the tree you have to be ready with a wider lens when he comes down the tree for example. Most of the time what you envisage will not become reality, but for the one percent of the time that it does, you will be ready to capture an exceptional photograph.

Camera: Canon 1D Mark II N
Lens: Canon 600mmf/4 + 1.4tc
Aperture: f/8
Shutter speed: 1/800
ISO: 200

8. Get creative by forcing yourself to use all the lenses in the bag

When you have traveled and photographed for a number of years, chances are that you’ll come across scenes you might have photographed many times before. You could start to feel uninspired to photograph it again. One way to stimulate your own creativity is to force yourself to photograph the same scene using all the different lenses in your bag. With a scene of elephants for example it might include abstract portraits of their eyes and feet with a 600mm lens, then full body photos with a 70-200mm lens and finally some wide angle photos with a 16mm lens showing the elephants small in the frame below beautiful clouds in the sky.

Camera: Canon 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon 16-35mmf/2.8
Aperture: f/11
Shutter speed: 1/200
ISO: 100

9. Create your own style

This is probably one of the most difficult things to do but is the ultimate recognition for a wildlife photographer. You have successfully created your own style when someone see your work and can immediately tell that its yours, whether its from the use of vivid colours or textures, the contrasty black and white look or creating an artistic feel with motion blur for example. To some it comes naturally while others have to consciously work at it. There is no specific thing you have to do to achieve it, but you have to create a look and feel to your photos that are true to the way YOU see the natural world. I can’t tell you how to do this – I ‘m still trying, but thinking about it surely triggers the creative juices.

Camera: Canon 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon 600mmf/4 + 1.4tc
Aperture: f/32
Shutter speed: 1/20
ISO: 250

10. Have fun!

Forget about about what photos other people have taken, forget about impressing your photo club, forget about pleasing the online community where you post your photos, forget about taking photos in the style that a competition likes and forget about the perceived “rules” that exist. Photography is art and you have the freedom to do whatever you want. Take photos as part of YOUR creative view on the natural world, to impress yourself, and have fun doing it!

Take photos as if you are the only person to have ever done it!

Camera: Canon 1D Mark III
Lens: Canon 600mmf/4 + 1.4tc
Aperture: f/7.1
Shutter speed: 1/50
ISO: 200

Thanks Isak, for the latest tips!


Adobe Lightroom Training

Are you an outdoor photographer who loves taking photos but don’t like spending hours with post production work? Let Isak teach you a workflow on a software product designed for photographers that will allow you to:

1) Do more in less time

2) Create stunning images

3) Never lose another photo

He has training courses every month in Johannesburg.

Please visit his website ( for more information and email him at to book your spot!