From kittens to chickens to cheetahs: the Photocritic guide to animal photography

The number of photos of cats floating about the Intergoogles is testimony to how much we love photographing animals. But I bet we could all do it a bit better, whether they're our pets, cows on the closest farm, or gazelles in the wild. We've put together our top tips, dos and don't, and favourite recommendations for animal photography.

Pets and domesticated animals

Photographing pets is distinctly similar to photographing children: get down to their level, gird yourself with patience, and be ready to move fast. Much like my favourite photos of my nieces and nephews, many of my favourite photos of animals have been captured sitting (or crouching, in the case of mucky straw) on the floor, allowing them to play about me and simply being ready to capture kittens, lambs, hens, dogs, and various assorted being cute or idiosyncratic.

Violet in the garden

The chances are that you'll be exhausted and maybe a bit dirty at the end of it, but you should have some good photos. There is, of course, a bit more to it than that.

The non-negotiables

When it comes to taking photos of animals, some things should be on the checklist every time.

Get the eyes in focus - just like a portrait of a human, your viewers will be looking to make eye-contact with the subject, so get the eyes sharp.

Just like a human portrait, get the eyes in focus

Capture spirit - again, it's the same with humans, you need the photograph to convey the playfulness, the inquisitiveness, or the quirkiness of the animal.

Mine! All mine! Now sod off!  Actually, this was one of Haje's foster kittens. The photo's mine and the kitten is now someone else's. But it's a kitten on the Internet. I couldn't think of a more appropriate image for this article.

The subject needs to be doing something - it doesn't matter if it's a dog asleep in a contrived position or a kitten chasing a toy, there needs to be something of interest happening in the shot.


Consider the background - you don't want clutter or a litter tray in the background of your photos, so pay attention to where you're taking them.

There's nothing in the background to distract from the lovely light and an unusually quiet Willis

Be respectful - Don't do anything that hurts or distresses an animal for the sake of a photo. Don't pick up rabbits by their ears, provoke dogs, or yank horses' chiffneys or headcollars. Not only will the animal not like you for it, but it's unacceptable behaviour.

The debateables

Depending on the type of photo you're trying to take, you will need to make some choices. There's no right or wrong to these points; they're up for consideration.

Flash - Some people say avoid it altogether, others say use it judiciously. I'd say for heavens sake don't startle a sleeping dog or potentially damage a very young animal's eyes with flash, but used properly, you can produce some cracking shots with artificial light.

Flash can work (Image by Haje)

Kit - I've photographed animals with all sorts of camera and lens combinations. Sometimes, it's been a case of grabbing what's closest, so my iPhone, to ensure that I didn't miss the moment. Then again, I've headed down to the yard armed with all manner of lenses and a dSLR for photographing horses. Remember the adage that the best camera is the one you have with you, but don't forget to think about what you're trying to achieve with your photos, from portraits to macros to action shots, and select your kit appropriately.

I don't have a caterpillar farm, but I did take it with my smartphone, because it's what I had to hand

The recommendations

Use a fast shutter speed - Unless you're trying panning, do aim to keep your shutter speed as fast as possible to avoid motion blur, particularly if you're aiming to capture animals at play. Up the ISO if you need to; noise is easier to fix than blur.

Consider your angles and proximity - while it's advisable to get down to the same level as your subjects, do consider shooting from above and below, too. The key here is to consider what you're doing and the story you're telling, rather than reverting to the default of standing up to shoot.

Look closely...

As well as the usual recommendation of getting closer, have you considered getting really close to your subject? Macro and abstract shots can work wonderfully to intrigue, inspire, and give a different perspective on your subject.

Grabbing their attention - I talk to dogs, use toys for cats, and make clip-clopping noises to encourage horses to prick their ears. If you know your pet, you'll know how to distract it or attract its attention. If the subject isn't your pet, talk to its owner.

Want pricked ears? Try clip-clopping with your tongue.

Be careful

Cats scratch, dogs bite, and horses kick. They're also sentient and can be unpredictable. Don't do anything to upset your subjects or that endangers you. It's common sense, really.


While photographing pets is similar to photographing children, you might notice some similarities between wildlife and sports photography. You're going to be out in the elements, watching for the perfect moment, and most likely with a big lens. However, wildlife photography isn't restricted to the African savannah. There are squirrels in the park, birds in the woods, spiders in their webs, and wild monkeys in the Thai temple complexes. You don't have to travel to exotic locations to take wonderful wildlife photos. And if you are fortunate enough to be going on safari, you can always get in some practice with deer at home.

Now you see him, soon you won't (Image by Haje)

Know your subject - If you want to make the most out of your subject, then you need to know what to expect from it. Where are you likely to find it? When is it active? When does it feed? What should and shouldn't you do around it? There's little point arriving in the Serengeti in June and expecting to see wildebeest, as by then they'll be on their way to the Masai Mara.

Know your kit - In order to be able to capture the wildlife images of your wildest dreams, you need to be intimately acquainted with your kit and understand its precise capabilities. How many extra stops does your image stabilisation really give you? What's the slowest speed at which you can hand-hold your camera? How high can you push your ISO before noise really becomes a problem? What's the optimal aperture for sharpness with your lenses? Do any of them have a proclivity to flare?

Don't let the monkey grab your kit (Image by Haje)

The better that you know your kit, the less time you'll have to spend fiddling and faffing and the more likely you are to make a crucial moment.

Use support - You might not necessarily want to use a tripod: it could be too cumbersome and too slow to move, but the chances are you'll need some kind of support for your camera when out in the field, particularly if you're using a long lens. Think about all of the options, from monopods to beanbags, and decide which one will work best for you.

I was leaning on something to help keep me stable for this shot

Be prepared - This isn't just about ensuring that you have the right camera kit with you and to hand, but also the right personal kit. In addition to cameras, lenses, filters, supports, remote triggers, batteries, and memory cards, you need to be dressed appropriately for the conditions and with changes of clothes if necessary. If you're as much as a feast for mosquitoes as I am, you'll need suitable insect repellant. You need to consider food and drink and appropriate storage for it. Do you require permits or a guide? And don't forget your sunscreen.

Getting a little bit of help from a machine (in this case, Triggertrap Mobile) made it easier to capture this photo.

Capture action - The same as with pets and domesticated animals, aim to photograph action. Or at least if an animal is doing nothing, it needs to be doing nothing in an interesting way, for example with a glorious sunrise behind it, or curled up asleep in an unlikely pose.

How could I not photograph him eating a yoghurt container?

Wide and close - You might well be using a long lens to photograph wildlife just to get close enough to identify it, but don't restrict yourself to close-ups. Think about placing your subject in its environment and providing it with context. Primarily, this is important for story-telling, but if you have travelled a long way to experience something magical, you'll want to record that, too.

I could have got even closer, but did I need to?

Conversely, abstract close-ups can make for very striking photos. Don't be afraid to experiment!

Consider the light - While it probably should go without saying to think carefully about the quality, quantity, and direction of light, it's worth repeating. You might well find that as well as providing the best light for photography, the golden hours are also when many animals are at their most active.

Early morning, Hyde Park

Be careful and enjoy - Just as with pet and domesticated animal photography, be careful and be respectful. Don't do anything to endanger yourself or your subjects. Remember to adhere to the required codes and to clean up after yourself.

Finally, remember to enjoy it. Absorb the atmosphere and don't be afraid to put down your camera, either. Sometimes the picture in your memory can be better than the one taken by your camera.

BBC Wildlife Magazine's Camera-trap Photo of the Year competition is open

Anyone who uses camera-traps to create images of wild animals, or uses camera-traps as part of their research into wild animals, the BBC, its Wildlife Magazine, and sponsors Lowepro, have a competition for you. It's the 2014 BBC Wildlife Magazine Camera-trap Photo of the Year competition.

The competition has been designed with both field researchers and amateurs in mind. It's split into two divisions: Camera-trap Research Project of the Year and Camera-trap Photo of the Year, each with three categories. It's rather pleasing to see photography as a tool, as well as the gorgeous images that it's capable of creating, being honoured simultaneously.

Winner of the 2013 Animal Portraits category: Linda Kerley/Amur Tiger Conservation in Lazovskii Zapovednik and Adjacent Areas – ZSL, Russian Far East

Camera-trap Research Project of the Year

This division is open exclusively to research projects that make use of camera-traps. Images can be submitted to one of three categories:

  • New behaviour: Images taken during the course of research that show behaviour never before recorded
  • New reach: Images taken during research that show a species never photographed before outside its known range
  • Rare species: Images taken during research that show a species that is rarely seen or never photographed in the wild

The winners of each of these categories will go forward to be judged for the title of Camera-trap Research Project of the Year and a £3,000 prize.

The judges will be selecting their winner based on the quality of the research and the importance of the images to the piece of research.

Camera-trap Photo of the Year

If you're not trying to track rare species of frog in South America or look for socialisation traits in South East Asian primates, but just like photographing the badgers in your garden, you've still a chance to put your images up for judging into one of these three categories:

  • Animal portraits: like any good portrait, images should capture the character or spirit of their subject
  • Animal Behaviour: A compelling image that shows interesting or unusual behaviour
  • British Wildlife: Amazing images that capture the spirit and behaviour of British wildlife

The winners of these categories will see their images published in the December 2014 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine and on the BBC Wildlife Magazine website, and will receive a Lowepro Flipside Sport 15L camera pack, worth £122. Then they'll go on to compete for the title Camera-trap Photographer of the Year.

The closing date for entries is 30 June 2014, and all photos must be submitted online. As always, please do read the rules and terms and conditions before submitting any photos. You can find those, together with entry details, on the Discover Wildlife website.

The ZSL Animal Photography Prize 2014 is now open!

The Zoological Society of London's Animal Photography Prize is now in its third year and open for entries. Seeing as you have to pay to submit your photos to the adult competition, we'll focus on the under-18s competition, which is free to enter. There are six categories and young photographers can enter one image into each. Each image needs to be different and they must relate clearly to the category into which they've been submitted. The categories are: The Perfect Moment, which rewards the patience needed to capture a stunning shot; Last Chance to See?, a focus on threatened habitats and endangered species; Weird & Wonderful looks for EDGE species, amazing adaptations, and unexpected surprises; Size Matters covers photos from the massive to the microscopic; The Birds and the Bees is for avians and invertebrates; and Deep & Meaningful is devoted to anything aquatic.

The junior winner of last year's Deep & Meaningful category: Knotted, by Connie Beith

The judging panel includes television presenter Kate Humble and ornithologist Bill Oddie. The photographers of the images that they deem to be best in catoegory (one for each), will receive two complimentary tickets to the presentation ceremony and preview evening in London, a personalised certificate, and £250 in prize money.

The young person whose image is awarded the 'Judges Choice' for overall winner will receive a certificate and an additional £500 in prize money.

To be eligible to enter the young person's competition, you need to be under 18 years of age on the competition's closing date: 1 April 2014.

All of the details are on the ZSL website, and as always we advise you to check out the terms and conditions.