Introduction to wildlife photography: part 3

First published:
February 4, 2021
February 12, 2024

Introduction to wildlife photography: part 3

First published:
February 4, 2021
February 12, 2024

Cover image by Tom Mason

Now you've learned some of the basics of wildlife photography - it’s time to get out in the field and track down some local subjects to hone your new skills!

Part 3 Where to take wildlife images locally

The last two parts of this guide covered some of the basics of wildlife photography, exploring the gear and moving into the key elements around camera settings, and some basic composition.

It’s now time to get out in the field and track down some local subjects...

Local projects

Now the best piece of advice, and something I tend to say all the time to photographers when I’m teaching, is to work on local projects...

You see, the greatest asset you can have as wildlife photographers is time. Time with your subjects in order to get to know and understand them, time to watch their habits and movements and wait for the perfect combination of light, subject and composition to come together at the same time.

The odds of this happening are low, and certainly even lower when you only visit a location once our twice due to it being far from home. So, the best bet when you’re getting started is to find wildlife on your doorstep. Working on a project and returning to the same place to find the same subjects or shoot in a defined area will focus your mind and keep you improving your images.

Learning to edit when building a portfolio, developing your style and improving your image quality, is something that’s far harder to do when you keep chopping and changing locations or subjects, and really only make record images from day shoots instead of planning, and going after the images you want.

The process of training close to home will ensure you’ll perfect your craft, and in time, you'll be more than capable of producing some stunning shots when you do finally have the chance to venture further for more exotic subjects!

Here's some ideas for local projects:

- Garden birds

When it comes to a starter kit for wildlife photography, garden birds are an accessible and abundant project for almost any photographer around the world.

Bird and bird feeder in the garden
Feeding birds in the garden offers a great year round photography project - and it doesn't get more local than that!

Easily developed, a garden bird photography project is an ideal way of putting exposure, autofocus and composition into practice, while also being really great fun!

To get started, and to get the subject to come to you, it really comes down to feeding the local birds... If you hang a selection of seed and nut feeders, it will often start to bring in local wild birds within a matter of days or a week. Of course, depending on your location you’ll get different species, more rural areas often offering a more diverse selection.

In urban environments these small feeding stations can be a magnet for wildlife looking for a meal. This is best done over the winter months, and be sure to keep feeding in order to maintain the flocks returning. It will also give the birds the best chance of survival through the tougher winter months.

Two birds on a telephone cable
Even if you don't feed the birds often - urban areas offer chances to get close to birds such as starlings in your street.

Now of course birds on feeders don't look great, and so the key here is to plan and set up some more natural-looking perches. A simple process - find some local twigs to fit either side of your feeders, which will serve as a natural hopping on and off points for when birds are coming in.

When it comes to the twigs, a good guide is to choose perches that are roughly the size of the bird’s closed feet. Around half a centimetre works well for smaller garden birds, with larger stumps and logs for species such as woodpeckers. You’ll want to be able to swap the perches over to mix up your images, so I find reusable cable ties (zip ties) work great for positioning new sticks, and making them easy to change out for new image ideas.

Woodpecker on a branch
Using a variety of feeds and perches can increase your garden visitors and offer some unique chances to photograph subjects such as woodpeckers.
Winter bird on a winter branch
Be sure to have your garden feeders ready for winter as snow can also transform your images.

Position your feeder and perches somewhere close to natural vegetation, as this will encourage birds across with a greater feeling of safety, but be sure to think about the background and foreground when setting up. Using your chosen telephoto lens from the position you’ll be shooting from (be it a hide in the garden, an open window or a door to the kitchen), adjust the position of the feeders and perches to ensure you have a nice clean background that is a good 5-10 metres away behind your subject, so as to reduce any distracting elements.

With everything in place, and a little luck, soon you’ll have multiple subjects coming into the garden regularly for food. And from your chosen spot, you’ll be able to shoot a portfolio of images. Focus on developing your images by switching up the perches, and reacting to changing light conditions and weather - you'll gain so many options for great wildlife images.

Bird on an autumnal tree
Using natural perches close to your feeders is the best way for more striking elements to your compositions.

Don’t be afraid to experiment, work with a remote wide angle setup or add in foreground elements to shoot though, or frame your subjects differently. Maybe take cues from the garden environment to build an interesting array of compositions and frames. Being right on your doorstep - you can come back to it time and time again and you'll keep learning and developing.

An urban fox in a suburban garden
Larger wildlife can also be found in gardens too, foxes a great subject to work with close to home.
Portrait of a bird with a shallow depth of field
Gardens can offer great close up opportunities, look for foliage to shoot through and use as a foreground to add an extra element to your shots.

- Parks and waterways

Outside of the garden the next local area to make the most of is the parks and waterways, which can be found both in urban and rural areas.

Parks and watercourses offer numerous wildlife photography opportunities that are accessible for beginners, while still allowing for an expansion of subject choice and image options.

As these areas are frequented by regular human activity, the wildlife in parks, especially in cities and towns, is often far more approachable than that in the open country. This benefits you as a photographer, and gives you the chance to get closer to certain species.

Deer in Richmond Park, London
Urban parks (like this shot from Richmond Park, London) are great for deer and other larger wildlife, certainly worth a look if you have one close to home.

Larger wildlife is often viewable in these areas too. In the UK, the London parks host a fantastic array of species, from Red and Fallow Deer in Richmond and Bushy parks, to the Grey Herons of Regent’s Park.

These oases in the city offer plentiful photographic possibility. Most often parks have areas of water within them, duck ponds or lakes, that offer even more diversity to the wildlife. In these places wildlife is regularly fed, so you have the chance to get some wonderful close up views of many subjects.

Deer in the foliage in Richmond Park, London
Spending time with wildlife is key for the best photographic opportunities, each year I always try and put in a week of working with deer in London.

Now of course even in these man-made environments, you should be looking to make natural feeling images, and so it’s very important to be conscious of backgrounds, and work hard to get eye level with your subjects. By getting down on their level, you’ll immediately see an improvement within your frames. They will feel more natural and limit distractions in the background.

A great little place to start is choosing a spot with a nice amount of activity by the local pond or river, where ducks and waterbirds often congregate. Lie down flat on the ground (you might want to bring something like a ground sheet to keep you dry) and photograph the birds from as low an angle as possible, on the water’s edge. This change in viewpoint will be immediately apparent in your final images. Getting low will increase the separation between your subject and the background and will give you cleaner-looking images that have a natural feel to them.

Duck in an urban park
Parks and waterways often host some great shooting locations for common birds, positioning low on the waterline can allow for some natural looking perspectives -even in urban areas.

To take things further, think about finding more interesting background colours, be it from barges on a canal, or by shooting in harsh sidelight when the background falls into shadow, to mix things up.

If you are lucky enough to live close to a park or area with local herds of deer, these are another fantastic subject to get out and work with. Stalking takes practice if you want to get close enough for intimate portraits, but be sure to also try for more environmental images.

Bird flapping its wings on the water
Working from a low angle is a great way to make more natural looking images.

Using the compositional techniques we spoke about in part two, think about natural frames and leading lines.

When stalking (following your subject), make sure the wind direction is coming into your face for the best chance at getting close, and move slowly in order to reduce the risk of spooking your subject.

A good guide to go by, is only actively move closer when the wildlife returns to feeding - as this often shows they are not too stressed or alerted to danger.

With time and patience, taking photographs of deer in urban parks can be highly rewarding. Each year I still spend multiple days working to take new images of these subjects and find it to be a great, fun shoot that always brings me back to when I first started out in wildlife photography!

- Local nature reserves

In addition to the back garden and local parks, a local nature reserve that you visit regularly is a must for wildlife photographers. They are harder work than photographing wildlife at home or in the park, but they offer a great way to expand your shoots and potential subjects.

The first thing you’ll notice is the wildlife seems a lot further away. Nature reserves are often built for birdwatchers and many contain in-built wooden hides that, although they keep you concealed from wildlife, don’t always offer the best photographic opportunities, especially for the 'targeted species' they may have been put in place to view.

Wildlife lookout in a nature reserve
Often wildlife reserves will have wooden hides to work from, often the require patience and visiting on a number of occasions in order to offer the best photographic opportunities.

With time, wildlife will come closer to hides, it just takes a lot longer, the exercise in patience a true entry into wildlife photography. However, the effort can often reward with stunning views of far more secretive subjects, that make wonderful images.

Of course outside of the hides, the paths will cut through various sections of habitat, like reedbed and marsh, and although on first visit they might not seem full of wildlife, spend time waiting on the tracks, and subjects will reveal themselves. In my experience I’ve found the tracks and trails from various locations around the UK’s nature reserves have provided some of my best wildlife photography encounters. Needless to say, patience and persistence are the name of the game.

Wooden walkway through reeds in a nature reserve
Nature reserves provide amazing spaces for wildlife, be sure to wait around on trails as well as in the hides as often these also make great shooting locations.
Kingfisher on a branch with a shallow depth of field
Kingfishers are a subject that often can be seen from hides on nature reserves, it might take a long wait to see one, but its certainly worth it

Another key point about local nature reserves that’s worth exploring is that of building a community of friends and fellow wildlife watchers. Talking to others in hides, and staff at reserves, can provide a host of insights into where to find or look for certain subjects.

Portrait of a water vole in a nature reserve
Some wildlife tends to be found in small quiet corners of local nature reserves - and if you ask staff and wardens, it can be a great way to learn of new subjects and locations.

Knowledge like this can open doors for possible images in areas you may have simply walked past without knowing about. I often find my network of friends and wildlife watchers help put me onto new subjects, so it’s certainly worth starting those friendly conversations in the hide!

Best practices for taking images

With a few locations in mind and scouted out, nailing those prize-winning shots is really down to constant effort and repetition.

Very few top class images are made on the first day out, and most are the result of consistent work - returning to locations time and time again before the final shot comes together. Over several visits, work out where subjects come close, then settle in these spots for the entire time you are out. Push aside the urge to move positions halfway through a shoot; all you will do is disturb the wildlife and basically nullify your hours on location!

Be sure you’re always on the lookout, as wildlife has the habit of sneaking up when you’re least expecting it. When you spot a possible subject be slow and considered and don’t immediately reach for the camera, as any fast movement will often send wildlife packing. Moving slowly, get your eye to the viewfinder and assess the exposure, press the shutter consciously, firing off a single frame or two and testing their reaction before your subject moves any closer.

Duck in flight
Autofocus tracking is a skill that needs to be practised and local wildlife such as ducks flying makes for a perfect training ground.

As the subject make its approach, think about how and where it will move, maybe a favoured post or perch, and be ready to frame that up. Keep watching the backgrounds and foregrounds, looking for ways to remove any distracting elements, and create a frame for added depth.

Keep shooting slowly, picking shots, but be ready to shoot a burst (where you take several shots in quick succession) if any action takes place. The skill of holding back at first will mean your camera’s buffer won’t fill too quickly, keeping it ready for when you need to shoot an extended sequence.

There’s nothing worse than holding down the shutter for the first few seconds only to miss the real action while the camera catches up! In quiet moments between wildlife encounters, be sure to swap batteries and change over memory cards if they are getting full, always looking to ensure you are ready for when the next subject shows and gets close!

So there you have it, a few great local locations to get out and work on developing, from the garden through to the local nature reserve. Finding wildlife on your doorstep will give you a huge array of possibilities to develop your images and hone your skills ready for more adventurous trips.

Bird in a graveyard
Graveyards are another great location for wildlife photography close to home.

Remember to keep working consistently and practice the core skills, even for just half an hour a day in the garden, before work or at lunch. The more time you can be behind the camera, the faster you’ll learn. Work to find a local project and just keep heading back: I guarantee you’ll start to see the rewards.

Have fun, get out there, and make some great wildlife images!

All images by Tom Mason unless otherwise stated.

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