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18 July 2023 - Expert Interviews

5 Wildlife Photography Tips by Alan Hewitt

Insider African Wildlife Photography Tips for Your Photo Safari

Photographing wildlife isn’t easy. Animals are often elusive, and when you do manage to encounter wildlife you want to photograph, you’ll often find yourself in less-than-optimal situations in terms of light and angle. That’s why it’s good to be prepared, know what you’re aiming for, and master your camera settings.

To help you get started, we’ve compiled some wildlife photography tips by Alan Hewitt, a UK-based wildlife photographer, conservationist, writer, and workshop leader. Alan, who is also an official UK ambassador for FUJIFILM, guides our photo safaris in South Africa, Botswana, and Tanzania. Whether you’re planning on joining one of these wildlife photo safaris or you just want to start photographing wildlife in your own surroundings, these tips for wildlife photography might come in handy.

1. Master your autofocus

Wildlife moves! Even if it’s just a tiny twitch of a bird’s head, a dramatic bird in flight or an apex predator hunting, we need to have our camera’s autofocus set up correctly to photograph it.

Firstly, continuous autofocus is the fundamental seIng. This means that as our finger is half squeezed on the shutter, our camera will be continuously evaluating and maintaining focus on the subject.

Secondly, we need to make sure we are telling the camera where we want it to focus. Your camera may have subject detection, but be aware of distractions, such as multiple species. I often use a ‘step-wise’ approach. If subject detection is effective, I will use it. If not, I will opt for a single point or spot focus. If I can get this point on a subject’s head or eye as it moves, great! But, if the subject is moving too quickly or erratically, I will use a dynamic combination or zone of autofocus points as I pan with my subject.

I photographed these vultures one after another, as they arrived to scavenge at a carcass in the Mara Triangle (Maasai Mara). With continuous autofocus and a 3×3 zone of autofocus points, I was able to pan and track with the birds as they swooped down to land.

wildlife photography tips

Photo Credit: Alan Hewitt (Fujifilm X-H2S & XF100-400mm)

2. Use the light creatively

When we’re working with wild animals in their habitat, we are working entirely on their terms. We can’t always get to certain positions and we can’t ask the animal to sit still for 5 minutes while we reposition. Sometimes this means we don’t have the light in what we may think is the ideal position for photographing wildlife.

We were following some male lions during last year’s Penda Photo Tours Timbavati trip. It was early in the morning as the sun was rising and we were in a position where the back lighting was very strong. A ‘normal’ exposure here would have rendered the lighting around the head and mane to be far too bright. Instead, some creative under-exposure created this beautiful back-lighting. It works best on animals like lions, hyenas, for example, where there is a lot of loose hair for the light to shine through and provide us with the shape.

wildlife photography tips

Photo Credit: Alan Hewitt (Fujifilm X-H2S & XF100-400mm)

3. Capture the action

Modern cameras are capable of rapid frame rates. For action photography with birds, for example, I may use 40 frames per second. This gives us a much greater range of photographs to choose from when looking for the most dramatic action.

Some mirrorless cameras also have a ‘pre-shot’ feature. As you are focused on your subject, the camera will silently take photographs and record them into the camera’s buffer memory. If the action starts you squeeze the shutter, and the previous moments will also then be recorded to the memory card. It’s a great tool for photographing very unpredictable moments of action, and one of the best wildlife photography tips you should try out!

Both of these features need to be used with caution. For me, it’s not about taking thousands of shots, it’s about getting the maximum number of frames in short, sharp bursts of action. This is where the action happens. Using very rapid frame rates and pre-shot together all of the time can lead to thousands of photographs being taken and lots of full memory cards.

We spotted this lilac-breasted roller up a tree. I wanted to get a take-off shot, that first one showing the beautiful colours of the wings, before it turned away. This can often happen so quickly without warning, so I engaged 40 frames per second and turned on pre-shot to capture the unpredictable and dramatic moment.

wildlife photography tips

Photo Credit: Alan Hewitt (Fujifilm X-H2S & XF100-400mm)

4. Go wider

Wildlife photography is often dominated by frame filling portraits. As much as I like photographs like this, I often try to think about a more contextual approach. This could be using negative space to include interesting habitat, relationships with other species, perhaps a dramatic backdrop or some interesting behaviour. I think we can often tell a natural history story with this approach.

I photographed this yellow-billed oxpecker on the ‘boss’ of a Cape Buffalo. I could have zoomed in a lot closer and filled the frame with the bird. But, in doing this I think we would have lost some of the natural history story and context which is taking place.

The oxpecker has a mutualistic relationship with the buffalo, it is a sanguivore – it feeds on blood. We often see them on mammals, such as giraffes, buffalo and zebras. They help clear the host animal of small ticks. However, this mutualism can turn into parasitism if the host has a wound as the oxpeckers can prevent healing.

I wanted to show the key features of the host animal to make it recognisable as a species. I carefully framed the area of the horns as the bird was siIng on the ‘boss’, where the horns meet. I didn’t need to include any more of the buffalo at the expense of the oxpecker but we can still record this relationship between species.

wildlife photography tips

Photo Credit: Alan Hewitt (Fujifilm X-H1 & XF100-400mm)

5. Set up your camera

My last tip for wildlife photography is to spend time setting up your camera to be able to quickly access and adjust autofocus seIngs, frame rates and exposure modes. Modern cameras can be highly customisable. Buttons and dials can often be re-programmed to be used in a way that we want them to be used. Custom setting banks may be present for different scenarios. I use these for subject detection modes and frame rates, for example.

Being able to change from a single point autofocus to a dynamic group of points for moving subjects may be assignable to a single button within reach of your thumb, and I can turn pre shot on and off using a button close to the shutter. The aim of all of this is to be able to make key changes to your camera set-up very quickly, while remaining focused on your subject and without moving your eye away from the viewfinder. These are key abilities when you’re figuring out how to photograph wildlife.

We spotted this leopard up a tree with its prey, an impala. Light was fading very quickly as I was trying to frame the composition carefully to avoid distracting areas of sky behind the tree. Easy access to increase the ISO to keep my shutter speed high enough, while keeping my eye to the viewfinder gave me the opportunity to take the shot when the composition was available.

wildlife photography tips

Photo Credit: Alan Hewitt (Fujifilm X-H2S & XF100-400mm)

Put These Wildlife Photography Tips to Use!

If you’re ready to learn how to photograph wildlife in real life, then put these expert African wildlife photography tips by joining one of our photo safaris. In fact, you can even join one with expert photographer, Alan Hewitt, himself!

Browse Our Wildlife Photography Safaris


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