Tips for young wildlife photographers: a one-day shoot with pro Dani Connor

Wildlife photographer and YouTube star Dani Connor shares her advice for succeeding in the industry, as she teams up with photography student Jonty Clark to capture stunning images of birds of prey.
A young kestrel perched on a wooden post, and with its wings arched, squawks fiercely.

Young British photographer Dani Connor established a professional name for herself during the Covid-19 pandemic, after becoming stuck in Swedish Lapland. Dani was volunteering at a wildlife reserve in the province when much of the world went into lockdown, and used the time to her advantage by building a close connection with the native wildlife – specifically a small group of red squirrels.

"I saw it as a very good opportunity to launch my career," she says. "I told myself I'd give it six months, and if I didn't get anywhere, I'd go back to my job at the Natural History Museum in London." After just half a year of dedicated effort, Dani had developed a following of 60,000 people across Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, and was being supported financially by subscribers on Patreon who had become invested in her work.

We asked Dani to share some of her top tips with student photographer Jonty Clark, who was keen to learn more about photographing animals in the wild. We provided Jonty with a Canon EOS R7, which Dani had used on a wildlife shoot in Spain, and set them up in a photography hide where they'd be guaranteed to spot fast-flying birds of prey.

Here's the advice Dani revealed on the day, accompanied by a selection of her and Jonty's best shots.

Tip 1: Immerse yourself in your subject's environment

In a bird hide, two young people study a picture of a kestrel sitting on a wooden post on a camera touchscreen.

Shooting in a bird hide meant Dani and Jonty could sit side by side, focused on the same action. Dani, who was shooting on her Canon EOS R5, gave feedback on Jonty's shots in real time, which meant he could adjust his approach before the next kestrel flew into frame.

Two kestrels, one sitting on a wooden post, the other hovering in the air with its claws lifted up, quarrel over food.

From the hide, Dani and Jonty were able to capture this kestrel family quarrelling among itself. Here, a juvenile demands food from its mother. Taken on a Canon EOS R7 with a Canon RF-S 18-150mm F3.5-6.3 IS STM lens at 150mm, 1/6400 sec, f/6.3 and ISO2500. © Jonty Clark

Shooting in a hide means it's possible to control the environment. Food is placed on objects in front of the hide to lure birds into shooting range. Activity is almost guaranteed, which made this type of location the obvious choice for a one-day shoot.

Dani spent a lot of time in hides at the beginning of her career while living in Sweden and still sees the benefits of using them today. "Shooting in hides means you have to push yourself to be creative and find ways to make your photos stand out from the images everyone else has taken in the same place. It's a great way to practise your technique and perfect for shooting side by side," she says.

Jonty's experience so far has mostly been in studios, photographing exotic pets as part of his university coursework. Reflecting on the day, he says: "I learnt a lot about kestrel behaviour from Dani, but also by spending a few hours observing the birds from the hide. By the end of the shoot, I could anticipate when they were going to swoop down out of the nearby trees, which gave me more time to prepare. Studio shots are all very manufactured, but it was amazing to witness wild behaviour. Juveniles quarrelling with older kestrels in front of us gave us amazing opportunities to get exciting shots."

Tip 2: Invest in a camera that can do it all

In a forest setting, a man takes a picture of something above him with a Canon camera and lens, as a woman watches, also looking up.

The Canon EOS R7 combined with a Canon RF-S 18-150mm F3.5-6.3 IS STM lens is the perfect all-rounder, with enough range to get close to the action. The versatile and compact Canon RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM is another great option if you want to get closer and take your wildlife photography to the next level.

A Canon camera and lens taken from below, with two smiling young people slightly blurred in the background looking at the touchscreen.

With a few pointers from Dani, Jonty, who usually shoots on a Canon EOS 90D, was able to hit the ground running with the EOS R7. "It took me no time at all to get used to it," he says.

Dani is a photographer first, but gets the attention of potential clients through the videos she uploads to YouTube. When starting out in the industry, it's a good idea to learn basic video skills too, even if only for self-promotion on social media. To do this, you'll need to choose the right kit.

"The Canon EOS R7 is an excellent all-round camera for those starting out as content creators," suggests Dani. "Something that sets it apart is its In-Body Image Stabilisation (IBIS), which is useful not only when shooting fast-moving subjects, but also when walking around creating vlogs of yourself out in the wild."

Jonty chose to pair the Canon EOS R7 with a Canon RF-S 18-150mm F3.5-6.3 IS STM lens, which has an optical Image Stabilizer built in to complement the IBIS found in the camera. "The image stabilisation was noticeably better than on my Canon EOS 90D," Jonty says, "and the camera just felt like such an improvement in all areas. Faster continuous shooting mode, more ISO range, auto-levelling – it was an amazing camera to shoot with, and would definitely give me all I need to start out on the journey to making this my full-time career."

Read our guide to the best wildlife photography lenses to find out more about lens options for capturing stunning images of wild animals and birds.

Tip 3: Focus on your subject's eyes

A kestrel sitting with its back to the camera on a wooden post. Its head is turned almost 180° degrees so that its eyes and beak can be seen.

Using the EOS R5's animal Eye Detection AF ensures that your focus is exactly where you want it to be, at the precise moment you need it. This kestrel turned to look directly down Dani's lens for a split second before flying off, but that was all she needed to get this beautiful shot. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R, a Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens and a Canon Extender EF 1.4X III at 420mm, 1/8000 sec, f/4 and ISO1000. © Dani Connor

Two seated young people adjust the settings on a Canon camera, in this image shot from above.

The Canon EOS R7 is able to distinguish between people, animals and vehicles with incredible subject detection accuracy. If you know you're shooting animals all day, select Animals from the menu before heading out.

Animal Eye Detection AF is a feature that the Canon EOS R7 inherits from other professional cameras, such as the Canon EOS R5 and EOS R6, which takes the guesswork out of focusing on fast-moving subjects. "I love the animal eye detection mode on my EOS R5 because not only does it continuously track my subjects as they move, but it focuses on the eye automatically, which makes my job so much easier. The EOS R7 also has animal eye detection, which will really help those new to bird and wildlife photography," says Dani.

The Canon Photo Companion app is a useful tool for getting to grips with your camera's functions, with specific exercises, tutorials and tips for your camera model and skill level. "I customised my own buttons on the EOS R7," says Jonty, who found it easy to familiarise himself with the new camera. "I set the exposure lock button to select animal focus and then half depressed the shutter button to narrow in on the eye. Now that I've experienced these features, they feel essential for wildlife photography going forward."

In addition to these benefits, there are advantages of shooting with a crop sensor (APS-C) camera such as the Canon EOS R7. "APS-C sensor cameras allow you to get closer to your subject," says Dani. "I was shooting with a Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens and a Canon Extender EF 1.4X III on my Canon EOS R5, which gave me the equivalent focal length of 420mm, but Jonty's 150mm maximum range was extended to 240mm, thanks to the 1.6x crop factor. This was close enough to produce some amazing results from the hide and would be really great for walking around a city or local park when you want to get closer to your subject."

Tip 4: Never miss a shot with RAW burst mode

A kestrel with its wings fully outstretched prepares to land on a wooden post in a field.

By using RAW burst mode, Dani and Jonty were able to capture the full sequence of kestrels flying in from a nearby tree to land on the gateposts positioned in front of them. Once back at base they could select their favourites, like this one, in which the kestrel is in the perfect spot for the early morning light to illuminate its wings. Taken on a Canon EOS R7 with a Canon RF-S 18-150mm F3.5-6.3 IS STM lens at 150mm, 1/6400 sec, f/6.3 and ISO2500. © Jonty Clark

Two young people in a darkened bird hide study an image of a kestrel in flight on a camera touchscreen.

Jonty captured some incredible shots on the day, winning the respect of Dani.

Dani and Jonty experimented with RAW burst mode when shooting kestrels from the hide. The Canon EOS R7 allows 15 frames per second (fps) capture when using the mechanical shutter, or 30fps using the electronic shutter, which is the same number of frames per second as a movie. "It's incredibly fast, and particularly good for birds in flight, allowing you to pick the best photo from a sequence," says Dani.

Pre-shooting can also be enabled in this mode, which captures the moments half a second before the shutter is pressed and saves the images as individual RAW files. "This feature is so great because it allowed me to sort of go back in time. The kestrels were unpredictable, but this feature gave me a much bigger window to react and get the shot," says Jonty.

Tip 5: Create your own opportunities

A young woman and man walk in single file through a field of long grass. In the background, a small bird hide can be seen.

Dani recommends that all young photographers ask for opportunities to shadow those with more experience. It's one of the fastest ways to learn, and a great way to make yourself known in the industry.

A young woman and man sitting on a wooden log in a forest setting smile happily as they study a camera touchscreen.

Dani and Jonty learnt from each other on the day, and produced some amazing results by making the most of the wildlife-specific features on the Canon EOS R7.

"My biggest piece of advice for Jonty, and anyone looking to make it as a wildlife photographer, is to create opportunities. It's a very saturated market, but it's still possible to stand out," says Dani. She advised Jonty to shadow other pro photographers to see how they work, by simply asking, "Can I follow you for a day to see what you do?" – and to remember the importance of bringing personality to his online presence.

"People don't follow me because of my photography or because they want to see wildlife," continues Dani. "Wildlife photographers are expected to shoot good photos, but I gained a following because people wanted to hear what I had to say. I always introduce myself on YouTube videos because I know that as soon as people see personality, they're more interested in my content."

"It was so good to learn more about the marketing side of photography from Dani," says Jonty. "It's quite daunting seeing portfolios of experienced photographers who've had decades to perfect their art, but seeing what Dani's achieved in a short space of time by focusing on red squirrels and leveraging the power of social media is really inspiring."

Reflecting on the day, Jonty says: "With Dani's help, and because the camera helped me isolate subjects so easily, I quickly learned to adapt to a faster-paced environment."

Jonty ended the day feeling inspired, with a host of impressive shots to add to his portfolio, while Dani also took a lot from their time together, specifically making the most of the kit that you have: "I felt like I learnt from Jonty today, too," she concludes. "Whether I'm being taught or teaching someone else, there's always a transfer of information."

Written by Matthew Bowen

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