There is no wildlife or bird photography without a camera and lens, but I am here to tell you not to buy another piece of gear. It is not the camera or lens that will make you a better photographer; rather, the three things that will improve your wildlife photography are: to know your subject better, to know your gear better, and to know yourself better.
Of these three, I think the first to address is to know your subject better. And that means research—reading, tutorials, conversations—and time in the field, with or without your camera—walking and observing, making mental notes or even “IRL” notes on animal location, movements, and behavior. Do not overlook other aspects of your subject, such as the light, shadow, weather patterns, and landscape. There really is no substitute for experience and for making the time and having the patience to observe the behavior of your subject in its environment. This, of course, could mean a lifetime of observing your own backyard, or just giving yourself that extra day to study a new location you may be photographing for a week.
There are also ways to streamline or expand an understanding of your subject and its behavior patterns and movements. Aside from reading and research, this includes speaking with other photographers, or even scientists. Also, if you have your own property or other means, trail cameras can be very helpful in understanding animal behavior.
One thing I completely encourage: Tell the story of your encounter with the animal, incorporate the vision you have of your location into the photography. Don’t pretend that a city park is the Serengeti. Find ways to frame your image that illustrate your subject as part of the environment you are in; don’t frame out aspects to imply a different location or to isolate the animal out of context. Create the story you want to tell.
Let’s now consider how to know your photographic self better, as a method to improve your wildlife photography. This process encompasses a broad swath of ideas and behaviors, but at the top of that list should be the self-assurance that this is the type of photography you really want to be doing, because it takes time and dedication. I think many photographers fall into a trap that has us pursuing a kind of photography that we once told ourselves was the “real” photography, whether that be wildlife, news, or fashion, without asking ourselves how we like to spend our time when we photograph and what truly thrills us. If you have tried wildlife photography and know you enjoy the rigors and rewards, then pursue it with a confident and curious passion and you are well on your way to improving your work.
With that existential issue behind us, it is important to understand your own strengths and weaknesses and find ways to be more patient, stealthy, persistent, or creative in your pursuit. Also, understand the role that exercise, nutrition, hydration, and proper attire will have on your ability to stay present and engaged in your photography. A part of this self-awareness is understanding what it takes to get the photograph you want ethically. As it is said, there are no shortcuts, and good wildlife photography takes effort and time, patience and stillness, and a willingness to be uncomfortable. Embrace that, find ways to make it enjoyable, even consider photographing with a partner if that might help. If you want to be a better photographer, push yourself to be.
Finally, gear, the subject that we like to discuss at length in these pages. As mentioned, I am not encouraging you to buy a new super-telephoto lens or the latest camera; I am encouraging you instead to know the camera and lens you currently have. Depending on your camera, there are limits to what is photographically possible and to how well you can control your settings, but the more you know about its shutter speed capability and lens focal length, for example, the better you will choose when and why to push the shutter button.
Let’s assume, however, that you have a moderately priced DSLR or mirrorless camera and a standard zoom lens, something with which you can control exposure settings. With a setup like this, you can create great images. Start by getting comfortable with your camera, know how to operate it, change settings, and use it without having to dig into the menu. Create custom settings and get to know the feel and sound of the camera’s functions.
With an understanding of your camera’s operation, it’s time to experiment. Play with shutter speed, aperture setting, and focal length. Even without a long telephoto lens (or a gorgeous locale as a backdrop), improve your ability to get closer to animals without disturbing them and understand how best to compose in the frame you have, while still featuring your subject.
Instead of a tight and tack-sharp shot of a bird on the water, imagine a wider shot of many birds, and instead of bringing the subject into crisp focus, slow the shutter speed and you have this impressionistic scene of blurred wings taking flight over reflective and rippled water. Use control over the tools you have to make a shot that speaks of the moment and your relationship to that moment, and you will have created a great photograph.
Remember also that gear is not just camera and lens; it is film, battery life, basic accessories, and protection to keep the camera functioning out in the field. It is also transportation and maps and apps. Make sure the tools you are using are in the best condition possible and ready to withstand the rigors. Clothes and footwear and gloves are also gear. Know what you need to wear to keep yourself in the game, especially when it’s cold.
Start with what you have, photograph what and where you know, and bring your best self into the game. With this in mind, you will begin to see better results, and, with time, you will build upon that—hike farther, find new subjects, expand your tool set. But for now, take better wildlife photos without buying anything.
Let us hear your anecdotes on wildlife photography with or without expensive setups, in the Comments section, below.