Animal photography is surprisingly accessible; we all have pets or know someone with a pet, and we can find birds, insects and small mammals as near as our own backyard, or go to the zoo. It can be more challenging than other types of photography though because animals can be unpredictable, timid and temperamental, and don’t have a long attention span. You have to be prepared to put in time to get good photos. The moment you give up or turn your back might be the moment you miss the wide eyed stare of a bird who’s finally woken up. Try the tips below before you venture out on your first animal shoot.
Generally speaking, any lens with a focal length over 100mm will be useful for photographing animals, but depending on the distance between you and the animal, you may need even longer lens. Ask yourself the following questions to decide what is going to best suit your needs:
If your interest lies solely in photographing pets in the backyard or animals in captivity, a focal length of 200mm will be sufficient. Focal lengths of longer than 200mm are going to allow you to shoot a tightly cropped, very detailed picture of your subject, like the way you would capture a portrait of a person. However, you may be more interested in providing some context to your image by showing the animal’s habitat, and for this you can get away with a wider lens.
Shutter speed: You’ll need to be shooting with a high shutter speed (1/500th at the very least) to be able to freeze the motion of quick moving animals.
Aperture: First of all, let’s decide what type of image we’re going to be taking. A close up portrait is going to look better with the animal ‘separated’ from its background by using a shallower depth of field, using an aperture of around f5.6 or less.
A wider snapshot of the animal, or group of animals, in their habitat will need a larger depth of field above f5.6.
Timing, patience, persistence
Resign yourself to the fact that you will probably be stuck with natural lighting because most animals do not react well to flash. Try to avoid shooting in the middle of the day when the light and shadows are harshest if you can, otherwise try some other techniques if you have no choice to but shoot in strong light.
With pets work with your pet while they’re in a good mood. If you want them sitting or still, you’ll have the best luck after they’ve just woken up or getting sleepy. If you want photos with a bit more energy, just make sure you’re quick and well prepared. Instead of forcing pets to sit for you, try letting them do their thing and follow them, being sure to stay down to their level. You’ll be more likely to achieve photos that show off their true character this way.
Keep backgrounds clear. No matter how good the portrait, a distracting background will take away from its value. Try photographing your pet on a solid coloured blanket or rug, or in the garden with neat grass or flowers.