WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY

How to shoot spectacular wildlife photos with your Canon camera

Ten innovative tips and techniques to take your wildlife photography to the next level.
Canon Camera
Unpredictable animals that move quickly, infrequently and erratically can be some of the most challenging subjects to photograph.

But the right knowledge will make it easier to achieve images you're proud of. Not unlike sports photography, preparing effectively, finding the right position, knowing what kit you need (and how to use it), and expecting the unexpected are all key considerations for shooting wildlife.

Here are our top 10 tips for capturing great wildlife images.

1. Get to know your subject

A brown bear standing behind leafy shrubs, the air around it filled with flies.

It can be helpful to learn how animals in the wild move, act and behave, so you can figure out the best way to photograph them. Taken on a Canon EOS 90D with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 1/500 sec, f/5.6 and ISO2500. © Markus Varesvuo

Having knowledge of the habitat and behaviour of the animal you are photographing is vitally important and will save hours in the field. Knowing what time of the year a species is active will help with your shoot planning. Great wildlife images are rarely taken without knowledge and organisation.

2. Practice makes perfect

A swan rising up out of the water with its wings extended.

Wildlife photography takes patience and practice – but waiting for the perfect moment can yield incredible results. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 600mm F4L IS USM lens at 1/1600 sec, f/4 and ISO800.

There's not much point being in the right place at the right time if you aren't able to capture what's in front of you. Shooting split-second moments takes practice. Capturing skittish animals means you'll have to go through trial and error until you know what works for you.

Consider setting up feeders for birds in your garden and shooting them through the window or from a makeshift hide, using a zoom lens with a telephoto reach such as the Canon RF 24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM or Canon RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM. A zoom lens will allow you to adjust your focal length, for example the 400mm reach of the RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM, which means you can zoom in on even the smallest of creatures without disturbing them.

Alternatively, spend time at the nearby park or animal sanctuary with your camera to better understand animal behaviour. The more you train your eye and your reaction times, the better you'll do when shooting in the wild.

3. Get up close

A close-up of the red eye and fluffy feathered head of a tropical bird.

It's generally best to focus on the eyes of an animal, as this is the point to which the viewer's attention is naturally drawn. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 164mm, 1/160 sec, f/5.6 and ISO400.

Most great wildlife images show the action close-up. Physically getting close to wildlife usually results in behavioural changes or worse – scaring them off completely. Using a long lens is essential to produce images that show the action in detail, and you can crop your final image to get even closer.

Animal-tracking AF on the Canon EOS R5 and EOS R6 is able to recognise dogs, cats and birds, detecting either the body, face or eye of the subject, meaning you can capture pin-sharp images of animals on the move.

4. Pick the right lens

A red squirrel perched on a branch high in a tree.

A long telephoto lens is all but essential for wildlife photography, where you need to keep a respectful distance. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 200mm, 1/320 sec, f/4 and ISO5000. © Robert Marc Lehmann

When it comes to lenses, it pays to choose wisely. The new RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM has a powerful zoom range that enables great versatility. For even greater super-telephoto reach on a camera such as the Canon EOS RP, there are the Canon RF 600mm F11 IS STM and RF 800mm F11 IS STM prime lenses.

If you have an APS-C format Canon camera and want to start small in terms of both build and budget, consider the EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM lens for DSLRs or the EF-M 55-200mm f/4.5-6.3 IS STM lens for M-series mirrorless cameras such as the Canon EOS M50 Mark II.

The sensor in an APS-C camera is smaller than the sensor in a full-frame camera. An APS-C camera does not capture the full width of the image that the same lens would produce on a full-frame camera – there's a "crop factor" of about 1.6x, which has the effect of zooming in on the scene, because your subject is that much bigger in the frame. This means that using a 200mm lens on an APS-C camera gives you a field of view equivalent to a 320mm lens on a full-frame camera – in other words, the "effective focal length" is 1.6x greater.

5. Keep it steady

A fox cub standing on a mossy mound.

In many wildlife shooting scenarios, you won't have time to set up a tripod. Image stabilisation comes to the rescue, ensuring consistently sharp handheld shots even with long telephoto and macro lenses.

Camera-shake is the enemy of sharp shots when using telephoto lenses.

The vast majority of Canon's telephoto lenses feature highly effective optical image stabilisation to combat this, typically equating to around 3-stops to 5-stops in exposure value. This can make a huge difference in handheld wildlife photography, where fast shutter speeds can be impractical in anything other than direct sunlight. The 5-stop Image Stabilizer on the Canon RF 600mm F11 IS STM should enable consistently sharp shots at 1/20 of a second instead of 1/640.

Use the Image Stabilizer for telephoto and macro photography, especially when working with the camera handheld. However, if your camera is on a tripod then it is often better to switch off the Image Stabilizer.

6. Keep focus

A bird of prey soaring through the sky.

If you're stealthy and manage not to scare away birds and other sensitive creatures, you can spend time practising different shooting techniques to hone your skills. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM lens at 451mm, 1/8000 sec, f/6.3 and ISO4000. © Robert Marc Lehmann

Ensuring your subject is sharp in the right area is important in wildlife pictures. Canon's range of mirrorless EOS M and EOS R cameras typically have a highly effective Dual Pixel AF system, which enables fast phase-detection autofocus right on the image sensor itself, and it also covers most of the image frame. Dual Pixel AF is also featured in most recent EOS DSLRs and is available when shooting in Live View mode.

Try to keep focus on the most important part of the subject, usually the eyes. The Canon EOS R5 and EOS R6 features an animal eye-detection autofocus mode, automatically searching for eyes in the scene and locking onto them. AI Servo autofocus mode continuously tracks wildlife on the move, even if it's moving very quickly, to ensure sharp shots. Try firing a burst of shots in your camera's fastest drive mode, to help nail the definitive moment.

7. Speed matters

A zebra running through a field.

To learn more about capturing movement in your images, check out our top tips for motion photography.

Getting your shutter speed right is a key part of capturing wildlife at its best. The logical step when shooting fast-moving action is to raise the shutter speed. However, you may want to introduce a little blur with a slower shutter speed, on the tips of a bird's wing for example, to add a sense of movement.

As you become more proficient with your equipment, you may want to lower the shutter speed even further, possibly as far down as 1/10 sec, and even introduce a panning technique to further increase the sense of movement.

The rule of thumb is that you need a shutter speed that's at least as fast as the reciprocal full-frame focal length. So if you're using a 600mm lens such as the Canon RF 600mm F11 IS STM, you'd need a shutter speed of at least 1/600 of a second when the IS is off – on most cameras this will be 1/640.

8. Consider the light: make the most of backlighting

A deer standing in long grass.

The ‘golden hour' is aptly named. The sun is low in the sky during the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset, giving a golden warmth to the quality of light. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM lens at 373mm, 1/1250 sec, f/8 and ISO1250. © Ben Hall

You can elevate your pictures by choosing the right lighting conditions to photograph your subjects. Taking into account the animals' behavioural patterns, try to use early morning or late evening sun for warm low light, which produces rich colour and deep shadows.

9. Controlling your depth of field

A deer poking its head above a carpet of ferns, which appear blurred.

Even though a telephoto lens might lack a 'fast' aperture rating, you can still use one to blur the background of your shots, as the long focal length can deliver the impression of a fairly tight depth of field, even at a relatively narrow aperture. This is thanks to the ability of telephoto lenses to compress distance, bringing blurred, out of focus backgrounds closer to your subject. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM lens at 400mm, 1/60 sec, f/8 and ISO1250. © Ben Hall

This tip is really important. In standard photography, it's common to use the Aperture Priority shooting mode (AV on your camera dial). For macro lenses, due to close working distances the aperture is closed down to f/16, f/22 or more to maximise the depth of field, and ensure the whole photo is in focus.

You can enhance your wildlife photography by using bokeh, making your subject the focal point of your image. However, you may want to avoid blurring the background if you want to capture wildlife in its natural environment.

A longer focal length can result in stronger background blur. This is the reason why telephoto zooms can be used to isolate a subject and transform the backdrop into detail-less blur. If you want to enhance the bokeh, take a few steps back and zoom in to a longer focal length.

10. Extreme close-ups

A brown jumping spider sat on a branch.

Macro photography of live subjects can be a challenge, so you'll need the right equipment and lots of patience to capture truly outstanding images. Taken on a Canon EOS 90D with a Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/8 and ISO500. © Pierre Anquet

Establishing the scene and placing your subject in its natural context can make for a striking wildlife image. For this you would require a wide-angle lens. For smaller subjects, such as birds and even insects, shooting in extreme close-up will prove more effective as a final image, so your subject doesn't get lost in a wide shot. This would require a dedicated macro lens. Although it's not a macro lens, you could even use the Canon RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM, which has a 0.41x magnification and close focusing capabilities that can produce images that are very close to macro shots.

Canon's current macro lenses tend to feature ‘hybrid image stabilisation', which corrects for both x-y shift as well as the more usual angular vibration. This makes them standout performers for handheld shooting of extreme close-ups. The Canon RF 35mm F1.8 IS Macro STM and RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM lenses are prime examples, offering a 0.5x magnification factor for macro shots at their closest focus distances.

The beauty of a macro lens is that it allows you to create photos that show something larger than we would normally see on screen or in print. You can show tiny insects as spectacular bug-eyed monsters or intricate details which would normally go unnoticed by the human eye.

If you're looking for the right lens for wildlife photography, why not check out our full guide.


Written by Matthew Richards

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