30+ top tips to improve your wildlife photography

Over 30 marvellous wildlife photography tips and techniques that I’ve compiled over the years. The list is periodically updated with new tips and refined techniques that I frequently use. Get out there and put them to good use!


  1. Good support is the essential element for sharp photographs in low-light. Get yourself sorted and invest in a quality tripod with separate tripod head. Please avoid the flimsy, wildlife-freaking silver ‘hobby’ camcorder tripods.
  2. Your tripod’s legs are not welded to the ground. Remember you can move to the side and in height. You’ll regret apathy later when you’re thinking about the “what if…” and “if only…” A metre or two to the side can make a big difference to the background when using a telephoto. Getting low-down with a shallow depth-of-field will diffuse foreground and background making the subject pop.
  3. Polarisers are great for deepening the blues in a washed out sky, but they also reduce contrast, saturate colours, and minimise glare and reflections from water. You can also add a polariser if you want to slow the shutter speed by 2-stops to get that flowing-cotton effect with rivers, streams, and shoreline where you need a shutter speed of more than one second. Ideally, if that’s your thing, invest in an ND filter.
  4. The cold will drain old batteries, especially old NiCads. On freezing days, keep batteries close to your skin, inside the inner-pocket of a fleece where your body-heat will protect them.
  5. On safari, always have your camera to hand with the lens cap off. If it’s zipped away in a bag, with the lens cap on, you will miss those critical seconds where swift reactions are vital. If you’re worried about dust, invest in a camera/lens cover or slip the camera into a pillowcase ‘borrowed’ from your camp.
  6. Humidity is a serious issue for electronics in the jungle. Best solution: every night, place everything in a tight-fitting container (such as Pelicase) and add a moderate heat source (like disposable hand-warmer) and large silica gel packs. The heat evaporates the moisture and the silica gel collects it. This works just as well if you’re caught in a downpour. If you’re desperate, bury your electronics in a bag of rice.
  7. Cut down on the amount of equipment you carry. There is no need to have a dozen lenses that cover every focal length and all eventualities – you can move, so move your legs, or move the vehicle. I use two bodies, 16-35mm, 70-200mm, and 600 prime. This is my standard safari/travel kit.
  8. Proper clothing is vastly under-estimated in outdoor photography. In cold weather, wear technical fabrics – wicking layers under good quality fleece/down materials. Jeans and cottons will get wet, cold and stay cold. The more comfortable you are, the longer your session will last in difficult conditions – never under-estimate comfort and don’t be a hero! It makes no difference to publishers and magazine editors… Unless they’re writing your obituary.
  9. Always carry a good quality lens cloth and puffer. There is no need to be super fastidious over every tiny spec on the lens, but clean it properly when you do. Breathing and just rubbing it with the bottom of your T-shirt will eventually create a mass of small abrasions. Large micro-fibre lens clothes are available at high-street opticians – same material but much cheaper.
  10. Think of depth of field like a sandwich filling. The higher the ƒ-number (ƒ/16, ƒ/22), the deeper the filling, the smaller the f/number (ƒ/5.6, ƒ/4.0) the more shallow. So, for landscapes you want a deep-filled scooby-snack and for subject popping portraits, a simple jam sandwich is best. These sarnie metaphors working for you?
  11. A simple short-cut for the hyperfocal distance on a wide-angle lens (when you don’t have your iPhone or calculator on you) is to set your aperture to f/16 or f/22 and focus about a third of the way into the scene. Practically everything from lens to infinity will be in focus.
  12. Photographing at the subject’s eye-level makes for a more intimate and engaging photograph. Used with a combination of telephoto lens and wide-open aperture, the background is reduced to a nice blur creating that differential focus that makes the subject stand out.
  13. I shoot on Continuous (AI Servo) even when taking wildlife portraits. If your subject simply looks away to the side and you are focus-locked, your focus will then be off. When using big glass and a wide-open aperture, you may only be working with only 1-2 cms depth-of-field (DOF) or less at close range.
  14. The only time I use Single Shot Focus is when photographing a static object (still-life) or when I need to compose a shot with the subject outside of the focus points. In this case, I switch from Continuous (AI Servo) to Single (One Shot), focus with the nearest focus point, recompose, and then take the shot. It’s my alternative to ‘back button’ focussing.
  15. With telephoto lenses, your depth of field (DOF) is significantly compressed. There’s very little difference between ‘single stops’ (f/4 to f/5.6) when you’re up close. When you need to make a difference in DOF, move from f/4 to f/8 to f/16, etc. Third-stops and single stops will only make a negligible difference to DOF but major negative impact to your shutter speed – don’t get caught up on the technicalities of ‘sweet spots’ and ƒ-numbers.
  16. You will always pay for greater depth of field with slower shutter speeds. Too slow and you’ll get camera shake. Resolve the issue by increasing your ISO or simply by supporting the camera properly – don’t be lazy, take out that tripod!
  17. Shooting sharp crisp images in low-light is harder without expensive fast lenses. However, you can still achieve the results: By picking your moments carefully when the subject is motionless; Get a faster shutter speed by increasing your ISO; Set your aperture wide open to its max. f/5.6 or f/4; And not forgetting – USE THE TRIPOD!
  18. In aperture priority (Av), think of your metering system as an officious bureaucrat that wants everything mid-tone grey. If the subject is bright, it’ll give a faster shutter speed to make it darker. Conversely, if the subject is dark, it’ll give a slower shutter speed to make it brighter. Learn your camera’s exposure bias, learn to manually compensate and take control!
  19. The Histogram is one of the most useful features of a digital camera. Master it! The LCD can lie and display images brighter than they actually are. The histogram never lies! Set it to Luminosity or RGB and check the right hand side clipping for over-exposure and the left for under-exposure.
  20. Floral photographs are best compiled as a ‘study’. Start by choosing the best specimen you can find. Begin photographing at a distance with a telephoto to capture the full plant portrait; get close-up with the wide-angle to show the subject in its environment – move around and underneath; get really close-up with a macro lens (or telephoto with extension tubes) to capture the details.
  21. Practice really does make perfect. If your only photo experience is once a year on holiday/safari, how are you supposed to improve? Get down to the local park or pond and practice as often as you can. Easier still, photograph the kids or pets running about, or visit the local football and rugby grounds. Get your practice in on those moving targets.
  22. Whenever I leave the safari camp or lodge, my camera is already powered-on and ready to shoot. On morning safaris, I set the ISO to 800+, on ƒ/4, with the centre focus-point selected. If anything happens, I can grab the shot quickly. If the subject hangs around, then I can modify and perfect it.
  23. Being a good photographer is as much about knowing ‘what not to shoot’ and what to leave out of the frame, than anything else. You only ever see a pro’s best work which means they are accomplished editors too!
  24. A simple short-cut for fill-in flash is to set the external flash to E-TTL, then dial in -2stops on your camera’s flash output control marked [⚡+/-]. If you have a Stofen diffuser attached, then -1 stop should be enough.
  25. For more dynamic and engaging composition, avoid placing the subject centre-frame – an exception is frame-filling portraits. Compose with the subject to the side or one in of the corners, looking into the space on the other side. Read up on the Rule-of-thirds or the Golden Ratio. They work for a reason and are great foundations to composition.
  26. Motion-blurs need a steady hand or tripod for a smooth pan. Pan in the direction of the subject with a shutter speed of around 1/10th to 1/30th sec depending on the subject’s speed. For example, a running cheetah can be nicely blurred at 1/100th sec. A walking tiger needs more than 1/10th sec. In my opinion, a good motion blur requires a recognisable subject with a reasonably sharp head/face. This method also works best in low-light or overcast conditions where the shutter-speed is innately low. If you have to really close down the aperture to lengthen the shutter-speed, you may find you just have an image full of dust spots.
  27. Digital sensors capture disproportionately more data in the ‘lights’ and ‘highlights’ allowing for intentional over-exposure (shooting to the right). In high-contrast conditions, I deliberately over-expose to get more detail in the shadows. I then control the exposure and highlight recovery in Adobe Lightroom to acquire the greatest tonal range. If you intentionally under-expose (shooting to the left) for fear of blowing highlights, you will have more noise and moiré in the shadows when you correct the exposure during processing.
  28. White Balance (WB) was originally designed for the press to counter colour-casts and have instantly publishable jpegs. In RAW, you can alter the white balance at a later date anyway. The WB makes no difference to your exposure.
  29. Cropping can drastically change the composition of an image. I find many wildlife and landscape images often benefit from a 2:1 or 2.5:1 panoramic crop. I frequently compose for the cropped image before I shoot it. Experiment with shots weakened by a blank white sky or excess foreground.
  30. Don’t be a machine-gunning ‘tog. Be selective and observant of your surroundings and the behaviour of the subject. Pick your moments with critical timing, waiting for that glancing look, intimate interaction, or drama. Don’t just shoot thousands of frames, hoping for the odd one to be good enough for a social media post. Photography is a craft. Photography is an art.
  31. It’s better to have a sharp shot with some noise, than a clean shot with a blurred subject. The latest DSLRs have superb noise reduction technology so when the light is low… USE IT and up the ISO. Most digital noise is lost during printing and conversion to low-res web images anyway. Don’t fear noise. Leave that to the pixel-peepers.
  32. If you are editing from a recent trip, give yourself a couple of weeks so the emotional sentiment and investment fades. You can then edit more objectively. You don’t have to delete images when digital storage is so cheap these days. Master editing and only show people your absolute, very best images.
  33. If you are still emotionally attached to thousands of images and cannot bring yourself to delete them, consider prioritising instead. Go through your shoot and give the sharp, in-frame images a 1-star rating, then set your library filter to just see those 1-star images. Next, go through again and pick out the best and give them 2-stars. Set your filter again, so you are just looking at the 2-stars. You haven’t deleted anything, but now you are looking at a much stronger edit – not reminding yourself of the dross lurking on the hard drive.

“Thank you for reading my top tips for wildlife photography. I hope you enjoyed it. I’ll be posting more seasonal guides and ‘top tips’ on here in the coming months. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing using the form below. You can even decide on the type of posts you want to receive. My other feature articles, photography guides and Photo Stories are always accessible from my homepage.”

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Elliott Neep

Currently based in Oxfordshire, UK. Experienced professional freelance wildlife photographer with portfolios from East Africa, India, Arctic, Antarctica and British Isles. Tour guide for ORYX Photography (SA) and Tatra Photography (UK). Represented by Getty Images™ and FLPA.

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