How to Be A Better Wildlife and Nature Photographer

Great Egret in Flight. Don Edwards San Francisco Bay NWR, Fremont, California. June 8, 2015.

Great Egret. Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Fremont, California.

When I posted this photo on one of my Facebook pages, a friend posted this comment:

“I LOVE this egret photo!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Look at the right wing trailing in the water. How DO you capture these?!”

That is an excellent question.

So, how do I capture images like this? Just as important, how can you capture images like this?

Great Egrets, territorial dispute. SFBNWR.

Great Egrets, Territorial Dispute

Of course you need to be in the right place at the right time, but, to quote Louis Pasteur, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” Happy serendipitous moments happen to most anyone, but as many a professional nature photography will tell you, they seem to happen more often for people who are prepared for them.

You need to know enough about animal behavior to know when and where things are likely to happen. And you need the technical skills and experience to know what to do when a great moment happens. So based on my own experience, here are my tips to being a better wildlife (and nature) photographer.

Go to the best workshops.

Caribou, Taiga, Denali National Park, Alaska.

I have been to seminars and workshops by some of the world’s best photographers, including 5 days shooting with George Lepp in Denali National Park. I highly recommend seminars and workshops by George Lepp and Rod Planck. Each time either of them offer a workshop in my area, I go again. They inspire me. And I try to put that inspiration into the photography workshops and classes that I am doing.

Read the best books.

Wildlife Guidebooks

Wildlife Guidebooks

I read the best books on finding wildlife. And I read the best specialized books on how to photograph different kinds of wildlife (links below). Bird photography is different from amphibian photography which is different from photographing mammals which is different from . . . .

Wildlife Guide Books

A few of the excellent wildlife and nature photography books from Stackpole.

In addition to the “how to” books, I look at stunning photography by Frans Lanting, Art Wolfe, David Muench, Arthur Morris, Dewitt Jones, Jim Brandenburg, George Lepp and other nature and wildlife photographers who inspire me. When I grow up I want to be like them. I have way too many beautiful coffee table books in my library, and I read more at the library. You have to surround yourself with great images that inspire you.

Work on your timing.


Fumble, Army Football, West Point, NY.

I initially worked on my “decisive moment” skills as a freelance sports photographer for the Yukon Review Newspaper. In sports photography a fraction of a second is the difference between a great photo and a throw away. (Contrary to the opinion of a lot of amateurs, shooting 10 frames per second is not the key to capturing the right moment.) Head for the nearest sporting event and practice. It doesn’t matter if it is a kids t-ball game or an Olympic athlete.

Shannon Miller on the Beam

Shannon Miller, Olympic Gold Medalist

Exposure is critical.

One of the keys to great photography is great exposures (and autoexposure won’t get you there). There are reasons professionals are obsessed with accurate metering. Exposure is one of the keys to great color. If you miss the ideal exposure by more than 1/2 stop or so, the colors in your photos will shift in different directions and no amount of work in Photoshop will bring them back. In autoexposure mode your camera is designed to give you average exposures, not the best exposure. If you want the best exposures you have to take over your camera’s exposure controls and do it yourself. See my exposure links below.

Bull Elk Bugling, Moraine Pk, RMNP

Bull Elk Bugling. Moraine Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Metering for a white dog is different from metering for a black cat, just like metering for a white egret is different from metering for a dark elk. And it makes a difference whether the critter is front lit, side lit, back lit or in soft directionless light. Practice your exposure skills in all kinds of light on your pets or your friends’ pets. You need one white or very light pet, one black or very dark pet, and one that is medium toned.

Practice your skills.

Arctic Fox, Columbus Zoo.

Arctic Fox, Columbus Zoo.

Go to city parks (with lots of ducks and geese and squirrels) and zoos where you can practice your skills in a variety of lighting conditions. Then go to National Parks and other great locations where wildlife are found.

It takes time.


Pika, Alpine Tundra, Rocky Mountain National Park

There are lots of tips that you can pick up in an excellent seminar or workshop or book that will make am obvious difference in your photography in a fairly short period of time, but there are no shortcuts to great photography. So here is the serious truth, it takes years to really develop and fine tune your skills. (You already knew that.) I’ve spent years honing my craft and I am still working on that ever elusive goal of creating better images. The whole bumpy journey has been fun. The memories of a lot of frustrating failures are more than made up for by the wonderful moments when it all comes together.

At a seminar, I heard this story. A beginner was complaining to “the master” about how long it would take to master the skills he was working on.

The master said: “How old will you be if it takes you 10 years to master this?”

Beginner: “I will be 35.”

Master: “How old will you be in 10 years if you don’t master this?”

Beginner: “35.” (long pause) “How come the same?”

I like that story. No matter how many years it takes for you to pursue your most important dreams, you will end up being just as old if you don’t. So why not go for it?!

Dewitt Jones is a world class commercial and National Geographic photographer. In one of my favorite videos, Extraordinary Visions, Dewitt says he spent years honing his technical skills (and this was after majoring in photography in college). This is the first step toward great photography (or anything else). The second step is to put yourself in the place of maximum opportunity. That pretty much says it all.

So get out there!

Find great places to create images and have fun!

Wyoming Ground Squirrel

Wyoming Ground Squirrel. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.


For Inspiration

A collection of the kind of books I read for beauty and inspiration.

Extraordinary Visions DVD by Dewitt Jones

Jim Brandenburg: Chased by the Light. A book and video to inspire your nature photography.

Sunrise Reflection, Rocky Mountain National Park

Sunrise, Beaver Pond, Rocky Mountain National Park


Exposure Book and Articles

Article: The Best Colors Come From the Best Exposures

Article: Why Is Exposure So Important? (with links to a series of exposure articles)

My book, Digital Photography Exposures for Dummies is one of the highest rated photography books at Magazine reviews describe it as one of the most complete, detailed, and comprehensive books on exposure. It covers intermediate and advanced exposures skills that are barely mentioned or not covered at all in other exposure books. When you master the basic skills you don’t need to buy another book to move on to advanced skills, so you are getting two books in one. It is getting harder to find Digital Photography Exposures for Dummies, and it is in demand so used prices now are $10 or more higher than new prices used to be. Grab your copy while you can still get one. More information here. Order it here.

“How To” Wildlife Photography Books

The Watchable Wildlife guides to finding wildlife.

How To Find Wildlife, The Best Books

How To Photograph Wildlife, The Best Books

The excellent “How To” series by Stackpole Books has separate books in the series on how to photograph each kind of wildlife.

Leonard Lee Rue III is one of the best and most prolific wildlife photographers. His how to books are How to Photograph Animals in the Wild (which is part of the Stackpole series). This book is my first choice for photographing wildlife (primarily mammals). Rue also wrote How I Photograph Wildlife and Nature. If you only read one of Rue’s books, get the Stackpole series book.

If you are looking for a brief introduction to bird photography, get the booklet Bird Photography: Pure and Simple by Arthur Morris. If you want to seriously pursue bird photography, there are two must read books, The Art of Bird Photography by Arthur Morris and How To Photograph Birds by Larry West (one of the Stackpole books).

The uniformly excellent Stackpole series of “How To” books (photo below) is written by a first class set of photographers and it is one of the best photography series anyone has every produced. Some of them have been mentioned already. Other books in the series are How to Photograph Insects and Spiders by Larry West, How to Photograph Reptiles and Amphibians by Larry West, How to Photograph Flowers by Heather Angel, and How to Photograph Underwater by Norbert Wu. The series also has two location guides by Joesph Lange, Photographer’s Guide to Yellowstone and the Tetons, and Photographer’s Guide to Grand Canyon and Northern Arizona. Some of the Stackpole books, despite being the best of the best, are out of print. Grab them while you can on the used market via Amazon.

Nature Photography Workshops and Seminars

OSU Stone Lab Photo Workshop

Photography Workshop, OSU’s Stone Laboratory, Gibraltar Island, Lake Erie.

George Lepp Workshops and Seminars

Rod Planck Seminars, Workshops and Tours

Capturing Natures Wonders with Jim Doty, Jr. – I currently do workshops on a regular basis in Colorado, Michigan, and Ohio.

Nature and Landscape Photography Books

Nature Photography Books

Nature Photography Books

The Best “How To” Nature Photography Books

Nature Photography Books: The Three Essentials. If you only read three nature photography books, put these on your “must read” list.

My Favorite Introduction to Landscape Photography. If you only read one book on landscape photography, this should be it. This is my favorite to recommend to new landscape photographers.

Two Excellent Nature Photography Books by Tony Sweet

Great “How To” Flower Photography Book by Tony Sweet