Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


May cover image

Picture This: Better Wildlife Photography

Avoiding these three errors will get you closer to pulling off that winning animal shot.

By Earl Nottingham

As you turn the pages in your favorite outdoor magazine, you may notice that the beautiful wildlife images taken by professional photographers seem to jump off the page with visual impact and possess a certain “presence.” This leads many aspiring photographers to wonder, “Why can’t I get good pictures like that?”

There are three basic reasons why most wildlife photos DON’T attain that “wow” factor that we all look for.

Not getting close enough

All too often, that animal we photographed from our vehicle or front porch ends up looking like a small speck in the distance, despite having a good zoom/telephoto lens on the camera. Many  photographers mistakenly believe that a longer lens will magically bring an animal up close, allowing them to shoot from hundreds of feet or more. The dirty little secret is that, even with a powerful lens such as a 300mm, up to a 600mm, you still have to be physically close, especially for a close-up portrait shot. This is where patience, planning and luck pay off.


Getting close may involve setting up a blind, stalking an animal or photographing in areas where animals are not spooked by human presence. These could include backyard feeders, parks, zoos, wildlife refuges or game ranches. The best image will be the one that fills the frame with the animal, leaving just enough room around it to show its environment. Don’t forget the rules of composition, though, and avoid centering any subject in the dead-center of the frame.

Not using creative lighting

As you look over the images taken by professional wildlife photographers, you will likely notice that, almost without exception, they were taken under artistically pleasing lighting conditions. Usually, this involves the “magic light” times of morning or evening, when the warm-colored light creates a much more pleasing color palette than the harsh and contrasty noon to midday sun.

Alternately, shooting under atmospheric conditions as fog, or even rain, can add an artistic feel. Rarely will you see any great photograph taken under a noon sun on a clear day without some type of lighting modifier such as a reflector or diffuser.

Unfortunately, most photographers get started too late in the morning and miss the best lighting. As the old saw goes, “You snooze — you lose.”

Not showing animal behavior or body language

Even with a good close-up taken under nice lighting, if the animal is just standing there you’ve lost a big portion of the recipe for an outstanding wildlife photograph. By showing some unique aspect of an animal’s behavior, body language or motion, you can add that extra dimension that puts your photo over the top.  Capturing a sharp image of any animal in motion can be challenging, but it’s much better than a static pose. This is where practicing with your equipment (especially auto-focus features) pays off in the spontaneity required.


If the animal is not in motion, be patient and wait for those moments when it exhibits some type of behavior, such as when a deer snorts or makes a rub or scrape. Some great bird behavior includes preening, bathing or getting ready to take off.

The stealthy and elusive quality of most animals means that luck is always a factor for any wildlife photographer — amateur or professional. However, with some prior planning of the location and time of day to shoot, as well as the patience to wait for that split-second of unique behavior, you can increase the odds of getting that trophy wildlife photograph.

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For more on TP&W magazine photography, go to our Photography page


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