A Wildlife Photographer Shares Her Best Tips For Beginners In Search Of The Perfect Shot

Loree Johnson was itching to get out with her camera on the weekends and after work. This was 2013, and she was about to leave her comfortable, full-time career as an IT specialist in favor of the intimidating unknown: becoming a full-time traveling photographer.

This wasn’t a sudden leap into the unknown, but it was no less exciting and nerve-wracking for Loree. She had already been photographing and honing her skills over 5 years and had even begun to sell a few large prints of her work to adoring clients around the US. But photographing full-time? That was a challenge that held its own appeal and fascination.

”It was in the spring of 2009 I discovered my calling as a photographer. Up to that point, I had spent my life searching, yet unsure exactly what I was searching for. I began to plot a future that revolved around photography and my other love, travel. It took several years and many sacrifices, but in the fall of 2014 I began an adventure that I hope will continue the rest of my days.”

Loree left the town she’d called home for many years, along with the house she had imagined she might retire in, and set out on the road with her dog, Luna, in a 29-foot RV she had purchased second-hand a couple years earlier.

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“There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.”
― Jack Kerouac

Soon, she realized she’d had the right idea. Traveling full-time presented many challenges, but it was exhilarating for someone with a deep sense of wanderlust and a passion for capturing natural beauty that led her to explore the Western U.S. and its stunning landscapes.

Not long after hitting the road, Loree realized that she wanted to spend time cultivating a style of photography she was still new to: capturing wildlife.

Photographing wildlife had begun as a hobby, just like photography. She’d practiced by taking photos of local birds nesting in her backyard. Luna as a puppy had served as an adorable model as well. But now, she decided to go for increasingly difficult assignments: reclusive Great Horned Owls and jewel-toned mountain Bluebirds.

Loree found that photographing wildlife presented thrilling challenges that were unique, compared to other forms of photography. You had to be prepared and think fast on your feet, and sometimes hours would pass without any activity – and then suddenly, a flurry of movement would happen and you could go home empty-handed if you missed the shot.

But as she kept searching for those moments and learning firsthand about photographing wildlife, she got better and better at capturing those moments. But, as with any art, there’s more than a lifetime’s worth of knowledge to be learned and moments to capture.

“The recording of a scene is only part of it. The real challenge is to capture the sense of being in that moment, in that particular spot. The most compelling photographs I’ve seen take me away to that place, that time, and evoke feelings of being there. If you can smell the air, hear the birds, feel the wind, or just imagine the peace, then I have succeeded. This is what I hope to accomplish each time I make an image.”

I asked Loree to share the most valuable tips she’s learned through the years when photographing wildlife. Below are her Top Ten wildlife photography tips for beginners:

10 Wildlife Photography Tips for Beginners:

1: Use a fast shutter speed.

“As a general rule, I like to use a shutter speed of somewhere between 1/1500s and 1/2000s. For really fast subjects, like Falcons or hummingbirds, even faster. (1/2500s to 1/3000s) Even when birds and other animals are “still,” they are rarely completely still. With a fast shutter speed, you often catch the little movements which would otherwise be blurred.”

 This young hawk was perched in a tree near a viewing platform at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. The blink happened very fast and was not noticeable to my eyes, but the quick shutter speed caught it. Nikon D7100 with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 500mm, f8, 1/1600, ISO 640.

Mid-Blink | This young hawk was perched in a tree near a viewing platform at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. The blink happened very fast and was not noticeable to my eyes, but the quick shutter speed caught it. Nikon D7100 with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 500mm, f8, 1/1600, ISO 640.

2: Adjust for proper exposure.

“There are many ways to achieve a properly exposed image with an adequately fast shutter speed. What I do is set my camera for aperture priority, choose aperture I want (usually f7.1 or f/8), point it at an area where the light is about the same as where I expect to be shooting, and adjust the ISO until the camera sets the shutter to an acceptable speed. The ISO required will depend on how bright (or not) the conditions are.”

Great Gray Owl Swoop | On an overcast day in winter in the redwood forest, there is not much light. I had to push the ISO higher than normal to capture flight under these conditions. Nikon D800E with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 250mm, f6.3, 1/800, ISO 6400.

Great Gray Owl Swoop | On an overcast day in winter in the redwood forest, there is not much light. I had to push the ISO higher than normal to capture flight under these conditions. Nikon D800E with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 250mm, f6.3, 1/800, ISO 6400.

3: Know your camera.

“Cameras vary greatly in image quality, especially at high ISO. Familiarize yourself with how high you can set the ISO and still get an image you are happy with. Sometimes, conditions are such that you just can’t get what you want. In choosing where to make the sacrifice, remember that noise can sometimes be corrected later while blur cannot. Because of this, I almost always choose a larger aperture or higher ISO versus a slower shutter speed.”

Snake River Crossing | Once again, very low light, just after sunrise on a cold autumn morning. A high ISO setting and an elk that wasn't in a big hurry helped in getting this shot. Nikon D7100 with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 600mm, f6.3, 1/8000, ISO 25,600

Snake River Crossing | Once again, very low light, just after sunrise on a cold autumn morning. A high ISO setting and an elk that wasn’t in a big hurry helped in getting this shot. Nikon D7100 with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 600mm, f6.3, 1/800, ISO 25,600

4: Know your subject.

“Spend some time getting to know the birds or animals you wish to photograph. Hang out and watch their behavior. By getting to know the habits of the wildlife, you can anticipate what they will do, and you will be prepared to photograph the action.”

Gliding | After watching the heron rookery for a while, I noticed this particular bird kept flying from the nest to a specific spot in the trees and returning with sticks for its mate in the nest. Watching the behavior allowed me to anticipate when and where the bird would likely fly. Nikon D7100 with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 500mm, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 3200.

Gliding | After watching the heron rookery for a while, I noticed this particular bird kept flying from the nest to a specific spot in the trees and returning with sticks for its mate in the nest. Watching the behavior allowed me to anticipate when and where the bird would likely fly. Nikon D7100 with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 500mm, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 3200.

5: Don’t chase your subjects.

“You will end up with a lot of photos of animals running away, or birds flying away. The best way to photograph wildlife is not to pursue it, but to let it come to you. Some of my best photographs were captured from my car (stopped and turned off) or from a stationary position. Find a place where wildlife is likely to be, and wait. If you are moving, you spook the wildlife. If you are still, the animals get accustomed to your presence and go about their lives. Wildlife photography requires patience.”

Caspian Tern with Fish | This tern was sitting on the shore when I spotted it. Rather than try to get too close, I waited and watched. After it caught the fish, it circled around and made a pass right in front of me. Had I tried to pursue it when I first saw it, I would have missed this shot. Nikon D800E with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 500mm, f7.1, 1/4000, ISO 800.

Caspian Tern with Fish | This tern was sitting on the shore when I spotted it. Rather than try to get too close, I waited and watched. After it caught the fish, it circled around and made a pass right in front of me. Had I tried to pursue it when I first saw it, I would have missed this shot. Nikon D800E with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 500mm, f7.1, 1/4000, ISO 800.

6: Get a good zoom lens.

“Even if you are patient and put yourself in the right places, wild animals and birds rarely come as close as you would like them to. A good long zoom will bring your subjects up close and personal.”

Darth Hummer | Although this Costa's hummingbird chose to perch in a tree that was less than 20 feet away, the species is only about three inches in length. In cases like this, a long zoom really pays off. There was also only a split second when he turned his head just right for the sun to reflect off his gorget. Nikon D800E with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 550mm, f8, 1/2000, ISO 1000.

Darth Hummer | Although this Costa’s hummingbird chose to perch in a tree that was less than 20 feet away, the species is only about three inches in length. In cases like this, a long zoom really pays off. There was also only a split second when he turned his head just right for the sun to reflect off his gorget. Nikon D800E with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 550mm, f8, 1/2000, ISO 1000.

7: Be ethical.

“Sometimes photographers go too far for that perfect shot. Don’t disturb nests, bait animals, or do anything that is harmful to the wildlife you are portraying. Not only is it not worth it, it’s just mean. And in some cases, it’s also illegal.”

Nailed the Landing  | There are ways to get close to wildlife without disturbing or harming the animals. This shot was taken in a city park where the city had constructed a nesting platform, complete with perches, for the osprey. These birds were very accustomed to having human visitors below their nest. Nikon D800E with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 550mm, f8, 1/3200, ISO 800.

Nailed the Landing  | There are ways to get close to wildlife without disturbing or harming the animals. This shot was taken in a city park where the city had constructed a nesting platform, complete with perches, for the osprey. These birds were very accustomed to having human visitors below their nest. Nikon D800E with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 550mm, f8, 1/3200, ISO 800.

8: Be flexible.

“With the exception of #7, all of these are just guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Stay aware of the conditions and circumstances you find yourself in and adjust your camera settings and your behavior accordingly. There are no failures, only opportunities to learn.”

Excuse Me, I Have a Nest to Build | While walking around the Oasis of Mara at Joshua Tree National Park, this greater roadrunner walked right up to me and stopped as if waiting for me to get out of its way. It was a completely unexpected moment and I had to move quickly in order to get the shot. Nikon D800E with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 550mm, f8, 1/800, ISO 400.

Excuse Me, I Have a Nest to Build | While walking around the Oasis of Mara at Joshua Tree National Park, this greater roadrunner walked right up to me and stopped as if waiting for me to get out of its way. It was a completely unexpected moment and I had to move quickly in order to get the shot. Nikon D800E with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 550mm, f8, 1/800, ISO 400.

9: Pay attention to everything.

“You may have gone out looking for one thing, but often you will encounter something else. Just because you went to the elk refuge to photograph elk, don’t ignore the hawk circling overhead. Some of my best photos were unexpected surprises that happened when I was on a quest for something else.”

Scrub Jay on a Joshua Tree | On this day, I was hoping to see desert bighorn sheep. I struck out on that account, but the composition of this bird on the spikes of a Joshua tree happens to be one of my favorite photos. D800E with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 550mm, f7.1, 1/3200, ISO 800.

Scrub Jay on a Joshua Tree | On this day, I was hoping to see desert bighorn sheep. I struck out on that account, but the composition of this bird on the spikes of a Joshua tree happens to be one of my favorite photos. D800E with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 550mm, f7.1, 1/3200, ISO 800.

10: Remember to enjoy the experience.

“For every great shot I ever got, there were hundreds that didn’t turn out, or that I missed altogether because I wasn’t quick enough. Wild animals and birds are unpredictable and sometimes you just have to be happy with the memory of what you saw.”

When I saw this photo on the camera screen, I was thrilled. Perfect pose, perfect background, droplets of water sparkling—I thought I nailed it. After uploading to my computer and zooming in, I saw how badly out of focus it actually is. Ah well, you win some, you lose some. Nikon D800E with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 550mm, f8, 1/1000, ISO 1250.

When I saw this photo on the camera screen, I was thrilled. Perfect pose, perfect background, droplets of water sparkling—I thought I nailed it. After uploading to my computer and zooming in, I saw how badly out of focus it actually is. Ah well, you win some, you lose some. Nikon D800E with Tamron 150-600mm lens, 550mm, f8, 1/1000, ISO 1250.

What equipment should I use?

Zoom Lens

You can begin shooting wildlife in your backyard with the camera you already have, but eventually, you’ll want the capabilities that more gear can afford. To start, having a lens in the 400mm or equivalent range will help you capture the wildlife photos you’ll be proud of. Aside from Canon and Nikon themselves, Sigma and Tamron are two high-quality brands that design excellent zoom lenses for photographers of varying experience and demands.

There are, of course, the high-end and more expensive telephoto lenses offered by Nikon and Canon which run into thousands of dollars. The most notable difference between these lenses and their less pricey counterparts is the aperture capabilities. Even a small difference, for instance, f/4 on a Canon 600mm, vs. f/6.3 on a Tamron zoom lens, allows you to shoot for longer in low light with better results, which may result in more and better wildlife photos after a shoot. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to fork over 10k for one of these lenses – they are available for rent if you decide you want the “big guns” for your next shoot.

For budding wildlife photographers that eventually opt for a nice zoom lens, there are several (relatively) affordable options out there that don’t compromise on quality.

Camera Bag

You’ll likely want a pretty rugged camera bag to carry your gear in that will also accommodate long lenses. One of the most raved-about long lens bags is the MindShift Gear Moose Peterson backpack, which comes in different sizes depending on your space needs. This is a nice choice for travelers as it also fits international airline carry-on bag size requirements. You’ll generally be able to fit a 600mm lens with a body detached, or a 500mm/200 – 400mm with the body attached, or you can even pack two longer lenses by removing the middle divider.

Water Protection

With even the more affordable zoom lenses running close or above a thousand dollars, keeping them protected during inevitable wet weather conditions is a no-brainer. The Think Tank Hydrophobia 300-600 V2 cover is one of the more well-known waterproof covers out there, and their products are durable in harsh conditions and long enough to work with lenses from 300 up to the 800mm range.

Optional:

Tripod

Some of the best wildlife opportunities happen early in the morning or late in the evening when light conditions may force you to use a slower shutter speed. Combine this with the magnified shaking effect that happens when using longer focal lengths and this makes having a tripod a good investment.

Another good reason to invest in a tripod is to prevent fatigue. By holding up a heavy camera body and zoom lens for hours while trying to get the perfect shot, your arms are bound to grow a little tired. If you know you’re going to be waiting in the same area for a long time, you can save your energy by having your gear waiting right in front of you.

But in the end, depending on what you’re shooting, a tripod may not be necessary. With the advent of lightweight, stabilizing, relatively affordable zoom lenses have liberated photographers from having to use tripods. It certainly pays off to develop the skills and steady hands you need to take crisp wildlife photos without a tripod.

Binoculars

Speaking of wildlife photography being a waiting game, binoculars are another great investment as a more practical option when scouring the landscape for animals. It’s going to be difficult doing all the scouting with your camera, so something like a monocular (which is lightweight and can slip into a small pocket) is a good idea for many photographers. If you’re not hiking to your location, for instance, if you’re shooting from your car, then binoculars are the best choice. Make sure you pick up a waterproof pair that magnifies at least 8X.

Teleconverter

Teleconverters, also called extenders, basically extend the reach of your long lens. They act as a literal extension that enhances the focal length of your lens. Nikon and Canon both sell extenders that work quite well when used with their compatible lenses, and it’s possible to get really fantastic images when using these, though extenders do tend to soften images slightly and reduce speed. To learn more about teleconverters, Digital Photography School has a great guide here.

Gimbal

A gimbal is a device that typically mounts on a tripod and allows you to balance your camera and lens combination and pan or tilt them in any direction with little effort. Because you’re often following wildlife in a certain path, this can help you lock in and capture photo or video without worrying about shake or unsteady movements. To learn more about Gimbals, check out this article from Outdoor Photographer here

Work In Progress

Sedona Moon | Loree Johnson

Sedona Moon | Loree Johnson

“Finding my passion late in life has been both exhilarating and challenging. On the one hand, I’m finally doing something meaningful with my life. On the other hand, there seems so little time left to master it. Certainly, it will be a work in progress for the rest of my days.”

Loree Johnson is a traveling nature photographer. She travels the western United States in her motorhome, seeking opportunities to photograph the landscapes and wildlife of the American West. She also volunteers her time at wildlife refuges as a way to help preserve and protect the birds and animals that provide much of her subject matter.

She currently uses a Nikon D7100 and a Nikon D800E. Her wildlife images are mostly captured with a Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD Zoom Lens.

You can visit her website and see the rest of her photography portfolio here.