I am 18 years old and looking to become a wildlife photographer, but am unsure where to start. I am confused due to the many courses, colleges, etc. available. Should I take a course? What will I need?

  • 6
    Go and make wildlife photos. Then analyze them and try to make better photos.
    – Zenit
    May 20 '16 at 12:41
  • Possible duplicate of Should I buy a DSLR to get started? May 20 '16 at 14:06
  • 12
    Everyone: we have several existing popular questions along the lines of "How to get started with type of photography". Why single this one out for harsh treatment?
    – mattdm
    May 20 '16 at 14:17

If you're going to take courses, I'd suggest you take them in zoology, wildlife preservation and management, or related fields about wildlife. While learning to master your camera and getting the correct lenses and support gear and learning the proper techniques for the type of wildlife you want to shoot is going to be important, the one skill you absolutely must master to shoot wildlife well is fieldcraft.

If you can't get to where you can see the beasties, you're not gonna be able to take pictures of the beasties.

Wildlife photography isn't just about snapping shots, it's also about learning how to stay downwind, how to use a hide or ghillie suit, how not to stress out an animal, knowing the right locations and seasons to find them, what they feed off, and what their natural behaviors are. At its best, it's about knowing about the animals as individuals and families. About knowing their biology, their anatomy, their breeding habits, the destruction/preservation of their habitats, migratory patterns, etc. etc. etc.

The quality of an image typically is about the time, effort, talent, and sheer determination the photographer put into getting the image. Go watch a behind-the-scenes episode of any of the more recent HD BBC wildlife series, such as Planet Earth and realize that each of those short segments probably took anywhere from six months to a year to plan and execute. That living in a hide for three weeks in an Amazonian jungle is how that National Geographic photo gets taken. That if you want to shoot snow leopards in the wild, you have to learn how to climb the Himalayas.

You can practice with a cheap 70-300 on the backyard birdies. This is the fun of learning and beginning. But I think this type of subject is more a matter of getting out there and doing it than sitting in a classroom learning about how to use back-button autofocus and supertelephoto holds. You can get that stuff off the interwebz. What you kinda can't get that way is terrific knowledge of who's in your own neighborhood.

  • 1
    It's true: missing the shot because you didn't know how close you could get to a critter without alarming it is every bit as painful as missing it because of lack of familiarity with your gear. May 20 '16 at 19:40
  • 1
    @junkyardsparkle I look back on how I used to regularly flush birds, and I mentally groan. I just hope I didn't make any of them abandon a nest of helpless chicks. Sometimes it's about more than getting the shot. :)
    – inkista
    May 20 '16 at 19:47
  • There are also parks and nature reserves which make excellent hunting grounds. May 21 '16 at 11:53
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    +1 but I would like to call out an addition in fieldcraft: learn some off-trail skills. Animals (especially big predators) aren't going to hang around popular hiking trails. Going off trail means being able to use a topo, compass, and how to not die if you do get turned around (Please carry a PLB as well). Happy hunting!
    – OnBreak.
    Jun 18 '19 at 15:39

You don't become a surgeon without first becoming a doctor. Similarly wildlife photography is a specialization of our hobby that you get into later.

I would recommend that you first buy a cheap beginner camera and lens and learn basic photography, click pictures of birds, pets and what not. If you find that photography is to your liking then invest in a telephoto lens, which will start you on the journey of photographing wildlife.

Lastly, it is easy to be enamored by beautiful photographs, but clicking those photographs is often highly technical and requires years of improvement- which, on the other hand may not be appealing to many, so, take baby-steps!

  • 1
    Well said, the op may be unsure if he actually likes photography.
    – Janardan S
    Mar 16 '17 at 11:57

Start by taking photos. I wouldn't worry with a class as much as with finding people to give you criticism and guidance.

Instead consider a Photo Trip. National Geographic for example offers a number of them throughout the year: National Geographic Expeditions. But you can find all sorts if you search Google for things like Wildlife Photography Trips

You can see these generally require:

All participants must bring a digital SLR or mirrorless camera, a laptop computer, and software for organizing and presenting images.

As far as equipment especially starting out, a DSLR would be better than a Mirrorless, but you don't need the top of the line in fact I'd encourage a used body, any DSLR will work fine whether Nikon, Pentax or Canon. You might soon want to invest in a Tripod that also becomes a Monopod --- weather gear can also be important. And I cannot stress enough for nearly any photographer moisturizer with SPF and a hat that doesn't get in your way much.

Then really just start. Whether its a local nature preserve or zoo - start taking photos. The difficult part of wildlife photography is that humans generally push out wildlife so be prepared to travel and hike and get out of cities and suburbs. That's why for this focus a Photo Trip could be a great way to jump start yourself. If there's a nice zoo near you that could be another place to make friends with.

  • 2
    Why would a DSLR be better than a mirrorless, "especially starting out"? I would say the differences are tiny, especially starting out. Otherwize fantastic answer, I would like to try out this National Geographic Expedition.
    – wedstrom
    May 20 '16 at 15:57
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    @wedstrom I think body should always be bought used especially when starting out. Getting say a Nikon D300 for $300 USD or so is going to be far superior than any comparable priced Mirrorless in terms of build quality, weather sealing, and autofocus. Maybe in another 10 years when Mirrorless have time to age this can be the other way or comparable since used Mirrorless will be very good but right now I'd take a used DSLR for wildlife. Older mirrorless that would match D300 also have poor EVF so the optical view will be better. May 20 '16 at 16:32
  • @wedstrom, I'd actually recommend asking that as a separate question. See also: How advanced is phase detect AF for bird photography compared to contrast detect AF?
    – inkista
    May 20 '16 at 17:58
  • @inkista Phase detection/Contrast detection hydbrid AF systems are now available for mirrorless, although obviously not in the low end or used variety.
    – wedstrom
    May 20 '16 at 18:00
  • @wedstrom, but not as a separate sensor array. Performance of the mirrorless phase-detection systems isn't necessarily up to par, but mirrorless also often lacks the choice of supertele lenses. Not for too much longer, one hopes.
    – inkista
    May 20 '16 at 18:13

You can simply start with a small camera, go to your closest zoo, and start clicking the animals pics. This is the best option for beginners, if you are doing good, then go on photo tour with expert who can help you to take the best shots.

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