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How to capture stunning images of endangered wildlife

Each year, millions of animals around the world are displaced by habitat loss, killed by poachers and trophy hunters, or removed from the wild to live in captivity. The facts can seem overwhelming, but behind the statistics are individual elephants, lions, tigers, rhinos, and more, each with stories to tell. At their best, wildlife photographers show us what’s at stake not only on a massive scale but also on a smaller one. They introduce us to herds, families, packs, and communities.

Wild animals can be noble, awe-inspiring, and even frightening, and the photographers who dare to document their lives come away with some of the most extraordinary tales ever told. Still, instead of sensationalizing the animal kingdom, true conservation photography teaches us about the nuances of the wild and inspires thoughtfulness, compassion, and care. We asked five outstanding photographers to recall their most intense up-close and personal encounters with wild animals. Read on to see how they stayed safe, protected their subjects, and left with the photographs of a lifetime.

1. “The animal should always come first, then the picture.”

PhotocechCZ

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Image by PhotocechCZ.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II camera, EF300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens. Settings: Exposure 1/3200 sec; f2.8; ISO 320.

What is the most memorable close-up or personal experience you’ve had while photographing a wild animal?

I dedicate a lot of my time to feline photography, from tigers in India to jaguars in Brazil and even lynx in my home country, the Czech Republic. Not only the big cats but most felines in general are threatened by the loss of habitat, the loss of their natural food, and also poaching.

I photographed this tiger in India from my car. It’s been a while since my first time in India trying to catch a glimpse of this majestic beast. Since then, I have come back every year, and as my experience grew, I finally found my second home in Ranthambhore National Park. I know the local people, the local roads, the local rocks, and especially the local tigers.

This guy’s name is Kumbha, and I know him very well. He is a huge male, and he rules his territory a little farther from the famous Ranthambhore Fort. He is already more than ten years old and a father multiple times over. The last time, he had two cubs with a female named Ladli. In this moment, I got lucky in that myself, my guide, and the driver found him when he was marking a big part of his territory. He was very calm, and the image was close, intimate and razor sharp.

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Image by PhotocechCZ.

Pro Tip:

It’s always about getting proper information. There are often strict rules about tourism and photography that you need to know and follow while in the wild. A lot of wildlife photographers want to get their picture at any cost and don’t care about the animal. The animal should alwayscome first, then the picture. As for conservation, the first step is to only visit the national parks and spend your money with the locals. I always try to surround myself with good, reliable local people, guides, and drivers.

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2. “Always have your camera settings set for the particular moment/lighting.”

Brina L. Bunt

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Image by Brina L. Bunt.

Nikon D7000 camera, Nikkor 28-300mm lens. Settings: Focal length 45mm; exposure 1/800 sec; f8; ISO 1250.

What is the most memorable close-up or personal experience you’ve had while photographing a wild animal?

I have had many wonderful photography experiences in Africa, but one that comes to mind frequently is gorilla trekking. I was fortunate to have three gorilla trekking experiences in Bwindi and had close encounters with many individuals, including silverbacks and nursing infants. You only get one hour with the gorillas, and that time flies by because of the intensity and the adrenaline. The gorillas are habituated and will often approach their human visitors; if you’re lucky, they will even touch you. One gorilla even licked a friend of mine.

During my second trek, a large black-back male charged the man next to me to display his dominance. The gorilla ended up leaning against my body as I sat on the ground. I have to admit, it was absolutely thrilling, but I was slightly terrified. A massive creature who just threatened another human being was leaning against me like I was his to protect. Gorilla trekking ranks as one of the best experiences of my life; every time you go, it’s a unique experience, as every animal has their individual personality and interacts differently with the human visitors. If you’re an animal lover, this should definitely be on your bucket list.

Pro Tip:

Always have your camera settings set for the particular moment/lighting. You will miss opportunities if you are fussing with your gear or changing lenses, so take two cameras if possible and have a prime, sharp lens on one and a telephoto superzoom lens on the other for versatility. Turn off the car whenever possible to prevent vibration, but you will need a stabilizer (tripod) of some sort either way. I use a simple bean bag pillow for my tripod, and it works perfectly.

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3. “The wildlife should always come first, and the welfare of the subject should never be compromised for the sake of photography.”

Julian W.

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Image by Julian W.

Nikon D3s camera, 70-200mm F2.8 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/320 sec; f11; ISO 200.

What is the most memorable close-up or personal experience you’ve had while photographing a wild animal?

I was once on a game drive, and as we made a turn along the winding road, my ranger and I suddenly came across a bull African Elephant in musth. He was looking intently at us, making noises, and throwing some branches around to show his dominance. After a while, he got closer, and my quick-thinking ranger decided to start the engine to speed off if necessary. Just at this crucial moment, the engine failed to start! There was this cranking sound of the ignition, and it may have given the majestic Pachyderm a scare, as it was probably not a sound he expected to hear. In the end, he did not charge and overturn the vehicle. Instead, he chose to grunt loudly and move on slowly. But I probably had my stomach in my throat!

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Image by Julian W.

During the course of my photography career, I have also had the privilege of getting close to some animals like the white rhino, who is high on the poaching list. In such situations, I ensure that I do not geo-tag my photos, and I do not post them immediately on social media. That way, I make sure I don’t give away their possible location. Getting these precious photos also means that I can share them in conservation and photography talks in my community. It is my hope that through these efforts, the plight of the rhinos and other animals in similar situations can be brought to light.

Pro Tip:

An innate love and respect for Nature are fundamental. The wildlife should always come first, and the welfare of the subject should never be compromised for the sake of photography.

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4. “Carefully observe the subject, study aspects of its behavior, and only then make plans for shooting.”

Andrey Gudkov

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Image by Andrey Gudkov.

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II camera, Canon 100-400 mm lens. Settings:Focal length 275mm; exposure 1/3200 sec; f9; ISO 800.

What is the most memorable close-up or personal experience you’ve had while photographing a wild animal?

I first went to the island of St. Mary in Madagascar in 2010. My goal was to photograph the humpback whales who sail to this region of the Indian Ocean from the cold waters of the Antarctic with their young. It took me three seasons to get good footage of humpback whales during the right phase of their jump. In the first year, I did not get a single standing frame, although I saw whales flying in the distance many times.

When a bulk of thirty tons rises into the sky, it makes an impression. Whale watching has recently become a popular trend in tourism, but watching the whale from the shore and being in the sea on a small boat a few meters from this colossal animal are different things. The whale flies absolutely silently, so to guess its approach, you must catch the weakest changes in the contrast of the blue sea and white foam. The island of St. Mary is home to the base of the French organization Cetamada, one of the few non-profit structures engaged in scientific monitoring of humpback whales. Without the help of local biologists, our photo-hunting might have been less successful.

Pro Tip:

When photographing humpback whales, as well as any other animal in the wild, one must remember the ethics of the relationship between the photographer and the animal. It is important to remember that the photographer is only a guest in the world of nature and not the master. The photographer should respect the habits of animals. Do not disturb the animal’s way of life or invade its space. Carefully observe the subject, study aspects of its behavior, and only then make plans for shooting.

5. “Respect the environment. Try to be like a ghost and leave no trace.”

Piotr Krzeslak

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Image by Piotr Krzeslak.

Nikon D500 camera, Nikkor 200-400 VRI lens. Settings: Focal length 380mm; exposure 1/1250 sec; f4.5; ISO 400.

What is the most memorable close-up or personal experience you’ve had while photographing a wild animal?

I photographed a wild European Bison (Bison bonasus) herd in Poland. Everything was going well, and my friend had even told me earlier that photographing Bison was similar to photographing cows in a pasture. I went closer and closer, and the bison didn’t react at all. But in my stupidity, I eventually got too close to a buck, and he started charging me like a medieval knight. I dropped my equipment and ran into a small pond with cold water. The bison don’t like the water in winter, and this probably saved my life. The buck stopped and returned to the rest of the herd. I waited about thirty minutes to retrieve my equipment.

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Image by Piotr Krzeslak.

Pro Tip:

Always remember that you are photographing wild animals! They are unpredictable. If something could be dangerous to you or the animals, you must stop. Patience is more important than your equipment in this kind of photography. Know your subjects, and don’t do any harm to them. I learn about every species I want to photograph from books and from experienced people like foresters or academics. I know what they eat, how they live, and how to avoid harming them. Respect the environment. Try to be like a ghost and leave no trace.

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