Set-up in the wilderness: answering your wildlife photography questions

Mead Norton answers readers’ questions about what they need to know to capture great wildlife photographs

How do you choose the right shutter speed? Is there a correct shutter speed?

Shooting wildlife is no different to shooting any other subject — there is no one correct shutter speed. It all depends on what you are shooting, and the look you are after. If the animal you are shooting is moving slowly, a slower shutter speed is fine, but if it is a fast-moving animal, and you want to freeze the action, you will need to use a fast shutter speed.

Mead Norton

Do you suggest making any adjustments to the ISO for wildlife photography?

The ISO setting you use when shooting wildlife will depend on what time of day you are shooting as well as what shutter speed and aperture you are shooting at. 

How can you get close to an animal without disrupting it and scaring it away?

Serious wildlife photographers go to great lengths to hide themselves and their gear to get ‘natural’ shots of the animals they are shooting, including building remote ‘traps’ or ‘blinds’. They also learn about the habits of the animals they want to shoot and use that knowledge to set up and wait for the animal — similar to how hunters track down their prey.

Mead Norton

What sort of safety precautions should I factor into my shoot?

What safety precautions you need to think about depend on where you are and what you are shooting. If you are going on a safari in Africa, you would follow the advice/instructions of your guides. If you are on your own, just be aware of the natural habitat you are in, and remember that, no matter how cute/fuzzy an animal might look, they are wild and unpredictable.

Assuming gear that has zips and Velcro upsets animals, what sort of gear should I take instead?

This is a hard one. Yes, loud noises can startle and upset animals and potentially ruin your perfect shot. The best advice I can give you is to limit the need to open your camera bag once you are set up to shoot. If you want to shoot with two different lenses, either get a second body (best option) or, if you don’t have a second body, get your other lens out and swap between them as necessary. If you absolutely must open your bag, I would suggest going with a bag that has a zip and just open it very slowly.

Mead Norton

Do I need to do any research before I go out shooting, or do I just chance it that I’ll find what I’m looking for?

It really depends on what your goal is when you are shooting. If you absolutely must get a shot of a wild animal, the more research you do on the animal you want to capture, the more likely it will be that you will get the shot you want. 

Is there a specific time of day I should look at shooting? Can you suggest what times are suitable for certain shots?

The time of day you want to shoot will really depend on the behaviour of the animals you want to shoot. Some animals are nocturnal, so, if you go out in the middle of the day, you will not be very likely to see anything. Generally, early morning and late evening are best for seeing most types of wildlife, as most animals lay low and rest in the middle of the day but tend to be more active in the morning/evening.

Mead Norton

How long have you spent in one spot for a shot? How long should I expect to spend waiting for the image I’m after?

It depends on what you are shooting and how important it is for you to get that shot. I know photographers who have set up remote cameras with motion triggers and have left them for three years to get the shot they wanted. 

How do you practise when you can’t get close to wildlife animals every day?

A great way to practise shooting animals is to visit your local zoo and shoot the animals that are on display. Most modern zoos do try to keep the animals in relatively natural-looking habitats, so you can get shots that look as if they could have been taken in the wild. 

Should I use autofocus or manual? Are there times when I could use one or the other?

I would recommend using autofocus most of the time when shooting wildlife — after all, animals are unpredictable, and you can’t exactly explain where you want them to go in the shot. But, if you do find a composition that really works, and know you can coax the animal into just the right position, you could use manual focus then. Also, when doing macro photography of insects, manual focus can come in handy.

Can you suggest some wildlife photographers’ work to explore and be inspired by?

Andy Rouse, Jon Cornforth, and Chris McLennan are some of my favourite wildlife photographers. But there are so many good ones out there. The best way I find to get inspired is, if I know I have a shoot/trip somewhere, I just do a Google search for images taken at the destination, or of the subject, to get an idea of what others have done, using that as my inspiration.

Mead Norton

What sort of camera and gear should I pack to ensure I capture the best shots?

Again, this all depends on where and what you want to shoot. A few must-haves for a wildlife photographer are a good tripod, the longest lens you can afford, a beanbag (for when you want to steady your camera but can’t set up a tripod), a remote shutter release, and lots of lens tissue paper (microfibre cloths are great but can collect a lot of dust and therefore become useless out in the field).

What advice would you give beginner wildlife photographers?

If you really want to be a wildlife photographer, you need to study animal behaviour and learn all you can about the region/animals you want to shoot. It is also a good idea not only to be a good photographer but also to develop outdoor-survival skills.

This article originally featured in D-Photo Issue No. 69. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below:

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Mead Norton

Mead Norton is a commercial photographer originally from Texas, now living in Rotorua. An outdoors and adventure specialist, Mead has shot for a range of clients, events, and publications, both locally and internationally, as well as hosted various workshops on the craft.

His portfolio comprises a wide array of subjects, including winter sports, biking, running, triathlon, water sports, travel, and portraiture — a repertoire that has won him a long list of happy clients, as well various industry awards.

As well as contributing valuable technical articles to D-Photo over the years, Mead regularly publishes helpful posts on his blog.