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1 May 2021

How to take great wildlife photography for spring 2021

Spring is busting out all over, setting photographers' trigger fingers twitching. We explore what makes a great wildlife camera and how to get the perfect shot
Woman taking picture of blooming flowers

With a camera in hand, you can immortalise a moment forever. Whether it's the colour pop of a newly bloomed flower, a family of ducklings trailing their parents in a perfect line or even a beloved family pet basking in the sun, an image of springtime can be irresistible.

We've shared some of our top tips to help you create the perfect shot to share on Facebook or Instagram, or even blow up to showcase on your living room wall.

If you're an uncertain or novice photographer, we've got your back - some of this advice covers the fundamentals that can make you a more confident photographer, even if you don't want top of the range equipment.

To take great shots you'll need a great camera - our digital camera reviews will help you find a winner, whether you're looking for a pop-in-the-pocket compact or a high-end mirrorless or DSLR.

What makes a good wildlife camera?

You don't necessarily need a high-end mirrorless or DSLR camera to capture a stunning nature shot. Social media is full of beautiful wildlife photos snapped on a smartphone, and our lab testing has found budget cameras that take crisp shots too.

That said, the quality of your camera becomes more important when you try to take more technical shots and you need to make use of advanced settings or specialist lenses.

For example, if you want to capture a bird whizzing by or your dog racing for a ball, you'll need a camera that has the performance features capable of taking a blur-free image.

Camera specs to look out for

A man taking a picture of flowers outdoors

  • Autofocus is where a camera works out where the subject of a shot is and composes it so that the subject is in focus without requiring you to mess around with settings. Most cameras have autofocus, but the quality varies. Our tests give every camera a star rating out of five for how well it focuses.
  • Image stabilisation reduces the effects of a camera being shaken during exposure. We give every camera a star rating for image stabilisation because it's important when you aren't using a tripod.
  • ISOlevels change your camera's sensitivity to light. If you're out until dusk, setting a higher ISO level will brighten the image in exchange for a small decrease in quality. Cameras use low ISO levels by default; more powerful cameras can reach higher levels.
  • Lenses are a vital part of photography. Phones, compact cameras and bridge cameras have fixed lenses, whereas DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have interchangeable lenses you can swap out. Lenses have different focal lengths and therefore different specialties, which we've covered below.
  • Shutter speed is the amount of time it takes for a camera to open and close its shutter. A powerful camera can reach rapid speeds as fast as 1/8000th of a second in some cases, to snap a moving subject without motion blur. You can also notch this down to shutter speeds as slow as half a second to create motion blur on purpose for an artistic effect.
  • Viewfinders let you hold your camera up to your eye to compose the shot, rather than relying on the preview screen, which can be easier in bright conditions and can reduce the risk of camera shake. Viewfinders found in most digital cameras, but not mobile phones and some compacts. Read more in our guide on optical vs electronic viewfinders.

We've highlighted a selection of cameras with features that could make them a good bet for outdoor photography at the end of this article.

Animal and bird photography

Whether you're snapping pets or wildlife, a key challenge is animals' unpredictability and skittishness.

Getting the perfect picture requires a lot of trial and error, patience, and clever positioning. With fast moving creatures, agility, luck, and being in the right place at the right time play a large part, as the sneaky critters rarely hold still for long enough for you to take time composing your shot.

There are, however, a couple of tactics that can help.

Use your camera's burst mode

Bird in flight

Animals won't pose for you, but shooting in burst mode means you can automatically take numerous shots in rapid succession. You'll get a gallery of images, so you can pick the one from that split second where your subject was perfectly positioned.

Powerful cameras can shoot at different frame rates per second (FPS). FPS is simply the number of images your camera will take in a second. About five FPS should be your expectation for an average DSLR or compact camera; higher-end ones will manage more than this.

Some phones can do this too, so check your settings. All iPhones from the last few years, for example, offer a 'Live Photos' setting - this records what happens between 1.5 seconds before and 1.5 seconds after you take a picture, giving you some leeway if your timing is askew; it shows as a sort of moving photo by default, but you can look at each frame individually and select the best. Bear in mind that live photos take up lots of memory.

Invest in a zoom lens

An interchangeable zoom lense

This is only an option for DSLR and mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses. A zoom lens, as its name suggests, lets you stay in the same place and 'zoom' in our out on your subject by changing the focal length.

Different lenses have different ranges of focal length; a zoom lens might be able to adjust between 18 and 100mm, for example.

  • A short focal length, will create a wide shot where the subjects look more distant.
  • At a longer focal length, the subject will appear much closer up - making it much easier to capture those particularly skittish creatures that would bolt if you got too close.

If your priority is zooming in on distant creatures, consider investing in a specialist telephoto lens. These have focal lengths starting at 50mm and going up to 500mm or even higher. You'll need a separate lens for wide-angle shots, though.

Increase your shutter speed to capture animals in motion

Dog playing fetch

If an animal whizzes by faster than your camera's shutter opens and closes, this will create motion blur; while this can create an artistic effect, it may not be what you're looking for. A rapid shutter speed will create a crisp image, freezing that darting robin or dog leaping for a ball mid-flight.

Slow shutter speeds also mean that the sensor is exposed to light for longer. This can be a boost for low-light photography, but increases the risk of shot-wrecking camera shake, so you'll need a tripod to keep the camera steady.

Some photographers intentionally set low shutter speeds because the time lapse creates interesting visuals, but this is quite hard to get right. This is called long-exposure photography.

Flower and insect photography

It's the perfect time to snap spring flowers - whether it's crocuses, daffodils, tulips or hyacinths, or even the bugs that visit them.

Getting the perfect close-up that turns a photo from 'meh' to marvellous can be tricky, but there are some tips that stand true for these smaller, less volatile subjects.

Adjust your aperture

Bee on a flower with a shallow depth of field

When you want to focus in on a particular flower, or the bee feeding on its nectar, you may find that the background of the shot is full of clutter that draws the eye's attention away. To avoid this, you can use the advanced settings of a digital camera to change the aperture.

When you have a wide aperture (represented by a small f-stop number), you decrease the depth of field. This means that objects further away from the camera become blurry, while objects in the foreground remain crystal clear.

Some mobile phones allow you to achieve a similar effect through a dedicated portrait mode. If you have this setting, give it a try and see if it helps.

Think about how you frame your photo

Array of pink flowers

Unless it's a particularly breezy day, flowers and other fauna give you more freedom to compose your shot since the subject won't be whizzing around (unless you're capturing a bee or a butterfly in flight around said flowers, in which case our previous advice applies).

Avoid positioning the focal point - the thing you want to draw attention to - in the very centre of the frame.

A precisely centred image can look unnatural, as it doesn't represent how things appear in real life. It can also create a strange effect where the picture appears bisected.

The key is to just shift the main subject to the side, and slightly up or down, a little. This simple rule can help you create more natural, dynamic shots.

Macro photography: using the right lens

Macro picture of a flower

When you're capturing the inside of a flower or a ladybird perched on a leaf, you can create a striking image by having the subject take up the whole frame.

This is one of those types of photography where a smartphone probably won't cut it - it just won't have the ability to focus in on such a tight close up, and the image will almost certainly appear blurry. To take great macro shots, you'll need a mirrorless or DSLR camera with a dedicated macro lens.

A macro lens is designed for taking extremely up-close photos. These lenses have a reproduction ratio that is close to 1:1, which simply means that the sensor records the actual, full size of an object as it really is.

So the butterfly or toadstool that fills up your eyes' whole field of vision when viewed up close looks equally large when a good macro lens is used.

Be careful about your positioning. You can cast a shadow over the subject if you creep too close.

Choosing a macro lens

Macro lenses come in different focal lengths, from the short range (35-60mm) to the long range (150-200mm) and anywhere in-between.

For insects, flowers and small creatures, you want a macro lens with a longer focal length of 100m or above so you can stay around 30cm away from the subject. This will help you to avoid scaring insects away and obstructing light from above.

Three cameras with the features you need for wildlife photography

You don't need a specialist camera to apply many of our tips, but if you're keen on taking the plunge and getting a digital camera then here are three at different price points that, on paper, should fit the bill. You'll need to click through to our full digital camera reviews to find out if they made it as Which? Best Buys.

Panasonic Lumix S5, £1,799

Panasonic Lumix S5

This is one of the newest mirrorless cameras we've tested. At £1,799, it's not as pricey as some high-end cameras, but it's still far from cheap. Features that make it suitable for some of the more advanced photography we've talked about above include:

  • A high maximum shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second
  • A burst speed of five, high-quality frames per second with continuous autofocus
  • A large APS-C sensor, which puts it leagues ahead of phones and compact cameras in terms of the quality it can produce.

Is it worth spending the best part of £2,000 on? Find out in our Panasonic Lumix S5 review.

Olympus Tough TG-6, £369

Olympus Tough TG-6

This is a completely different kind of digital camera. It won't let you take some of the advanced photography we've talked about above, but it's made to be as hardy as possible, meaning that it can cope with drops, shocks and being dunked underwater.

If your idea of wildlife photography is battling against the elements with a few falls and bumps along the way, you'll probably want a camera that's durable.

At £369, this one's not prohibitively expensive to replace either in case you drop it irredeemably down a crevasse on your adventures.

The TG-6 isn't capable of switching lenses, reaching lightning fast shutter speeds, and it doesn't even have a viewfinder. But it's capable of a lot too, including:

  • The ability to change the aperture
  • You're able to select an ISO setting up to an impressive 12,800
  • You can take it underwater to capture wildlife you couldn't even imagine snapping otherwise.

Are you sacrificing image quality for toughness? Our expert review of the Olympus Tough TG-6 reveals all.

Panasonic LUMIX DC-GX880, £349

Panasonic LUMIX DC-GX880

This is the cheapest interchangeable lens camera on our site, at £349. It comes bundled with a 24-65mm zoom lens and, since it's a mirrorless camera, you can buy and attach compatible macro lenses or zoom lenses with a greater focal length.

If you want to be able to access the advanced settings we've discussed in this article, then this model fits the bill. It's less powerful than more premium cameras, but at a lower price point, it's suitable for novices and beginners. Handy wildlife photography features include:

  • On auto-mode, it's able to adjust the shutter speed according to whether it can detect moving objects
  • Its monitor flips out, which means you can preview selfies in the great outdoors.

Read our expert review of the Panasonic LUMIX DC-GX880 to find out whether a budget mirrorless camera is as good as an expensive one.