How to photograph urban wildlife - a beginner's guide

How to photograph urban wildlife - a beginner's guide

All images by Andrew Budziak

If you’re thinking about photographing those awesome animals to be found your city, this is the guide to get you started

1 The secret club

Urban wildlife is one of the most exciting kinds of photography for one reason: not many people do it or even know it’s a style of photography. A lot of great urban wildlife photos have come about by accident - a photographer is driving to a gig when a fox crosses the road with a mouth full of mice. That’s called luck. It’s something entirely different to head out specifically in cities, camera in hand, looking for scenes to capture that contain animals and urban elements. This means unlike most other kinds of wildlife photography, the field is wide open.

I love shooting urban wildlife. When I’m out in the city with my camera looking for incredible moments, I feel like I’m part of a secret club. And I’ve learned the hard way what works and what doesn’t. I’ve included some tips below that will hopefully serve as a good starting point if you’re interested in photographing the awesome wildlife that lives in your city.  Once you start photographing urban wildlife, it will be hard to stop.

Urban wildlife photography lets you get fascinating and unique images - f/6.3 | 1/2s | 24mm

2 The basic elements

This first tip might seem obvious, but it can be easy to forget in the fevered rush of coming across an awesome animal. All urban wildlife photos need two things: wildlife and city elements.

"All urban wildlife photos need two things: wildlife and city elements."

This is certainly up for debate, but I don’t think a photo of a coyote in a city forest with no signs of human-made objects makes a true urban wildlife photo. It might be a cool image, but without that urban element, it’s just a wildlife photo. So make sure the human made objects are obvious. This will help your subject really stand out in a remarkable way.

Make sure the human made objects in your image are obvious. This will help your wildlife subject stand out - f/5.6 | 1/1600s | 200mm

3 Any animal will do

One of the best secrets about urban wildlife photography is that even “boring” animals can make incredible photos in the right settings. Critters we might never think to photograph can provide the perfect subject to tell a city story. Mice, rats, voles and even insects in a dynamic setting with the right lighting can create a special image. Don’t worry about finding the rarest animal in your town — keep your focus on the scene and scenario and you’ll be happier with the results.  

Even a “boring” animal can create an interesting image in the right setting - f/6.3 | 1/8s | 28mm

4 Pick your spot and time

Animals are most active in the early morning, evening and night. Like with any wildlife photography, you need to know where these animals are if you hope to land a photo. The daytime hours are perfect for doing your research. Look for tracks, scat and remnants of a meal — bones, fur, or feathers. These will tell you where to return when it’s time to shoot.

"Take a photo of a spot where an animal might land. Is that an interesting photo even without an animal? If the answer is yes, you know when the animal does show up, your photo will be incredible."

While each city is built differently, there are certain areas that exist in almost every town and are favourites of urban wildlife.  Animals make use of not only our green spaces, but the corridors which connect them.  Train tracks — especially abandoned ones — are like mini highways for city animals. Additionally alleyways that back onto parks are used by nocturnal animals when our cars are parked for the night. If your city has a waterfront, that’s a great place to visit. Depending on the sand, beaches are excellent places for following tracks. If your city’s shoreline is bendy, it might also reveal a strong cityscape in the background.

A good tip for framing your subject is to look at the background in your shooting area. Take a photo of a spot where an animal might land. Is that an interesting photo even without an animal? If the answer is yes, you know when the animal does show up, your photo will be incredible. If the answer is no, look for a different and more dynamic setting. 

Waterfronts are excellent spots for creating strong urban wildlife images - f5 | 1/2500s | 148mm

Location video guide:

See our video on where best to find locations in cities at the bottom of this article!

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5 Camera settings and gear

Regarding gear, you will want a camera that’s good with low light. Wildlife activity in cities generally happens as the sun is coming up, setting, or after dark.  Know how high you can push the ISO on your camera before the noise becomes too much. 

"I find that a 70-200mm lens is often the perfect tool for photographing wildlife in the city: long enough to get animals at a bit of a distance, but wide enough to capture the scene."

It’s been my experience that due to the way city green spaces are laid out you are often much closer to your subject than if you were in a forest or jungle. This can create great photo opportunities but can also create a lot of challenges. You might find that your longest lenses in the 200-400mm range is too long to get a photo of the subject and the surrounding urban elements.  I find that a 70-200mm lens is often the perfect tool for photographing wildlife in the city: long enough to get animals at a bit of a distance, but wide enough to capture the scene.

When it comes to camera settings, you will need to be quick. Because you might be dealing with animals that are more comfortable with humans than their forest cousins, you might find yourself in the awesome and challenging situation where a deer, coyote or raccoon is walking directly towards you. In this instance, standard auto focus or your best attempts at manual focus will likely not be fast enough. To get around this problem, I have built a custom setting in my camera that is identical to my regular shooting mode  — aperture priority — but with continuous auto focus and the subject set for animal eyes. This is a relatively new feature that a lot of mirrorless cameras are now including and it’s a life saver when an animal is quickly heading in your direction. I’ve customized the controls on my camera so I can switch between these two shooting modes with one click, and the turn of a wheel.

That said, I’ve taken some of my favourite urban wildlife photos on my phone.  Fancy cameras are great, but if your eyes aren’t open, and you’re not being creative, no camera in the world will help you out.

Taken with my iPhone 13, this photo shows the aftermath of a kill: the impressions in the snow are from a bird that had swooped down and plucked a rodent from under the snow!

6 Don’t be a jerk

When it comes to ethics and urban wildlife photography, an easy rule to follow is don’t be a jerk to animals or other people.

"When it comes to ethics and urban wildlife photography, an easy rule to follow is don’t be a jerk to animals or other people."

Here are a few simple points that will make the shooting experience better for you, other people and wildlife: don’t trespass; don’t take photos of super young animals; don’t crowd; don’t put yourself in a position where you could spook the animal into traffic; don’t feed wildlife. These points will ensure your photos were captured ethically and you didn’t make enemies along the way. 

7 Take the long view

Once you’ve decided to join the secret club of urban wildlife photographers,  you might find you’re incredibly happy with the results, but you’re not getting as many images as you would like. Speaking from experience I can tell you the success rate is low. This is a tricky kind of photography. A lot has to go right to land an image. But don’t worry - slow and steady wins the race. It’s worth taking your time. Think in terms of months, not days. Focus on the enjoyment of the craft and remember you’re doing something special. 

Welcome to the club!

Video: where to photograph urban wildlife - a location guide