top of page

16 ways to shoot a penguin (and other essential wildlife photography tips)

Demonstrating 16 key aspects of wildlife photography, these pictures were all taken within a few days of each other during a trip to the Falkland Islands.

Freezing the action

Porpoising penguins move at an incredible rate and you need a very fast shutter speed to stand any chance of capturing the moment they burst above the surface. Keep shutter speeds high by boosting the ISO rating. Also remember to set your camera to continuous shooting and use servo or predictive autofocus.

Gentoo penguin • ISO rating 400 • Shutter speed 1/2000s • Aperture f4.5 • Focal length 300mm

Going with the flow

Experimenting with slow shutter speeds inevitably means you lose detail, but the fluidity of images like this gentoo striding along a beach conveys the motion of wildlife far better than a

freeze-frame approach using a high shutter speed. Pan the camera with your moving subject and fire a sequence of shots.

Gentoo penguin • ISO rating 50 • Shutter speed 1/8s • Aperture f36 • Focal length 400mm

Take a wider view

Shooting wildlife with a wide-angle lens is both challenging and liberating. It’s a great way of showing animals in their natural habitat. If you can get close enough, wide-angle photography can also lead to some dramatic close-ups, but you may have to set your camera up on a tripod and use a remote trigger device.

Black-browed albatross • ISO rating 300 • Shutter speed 1/200s • Aperture f16 • Focal length 17mm

Look for details

Good photography is about telling a story. Once you’ve taken the obvious shots, like groups and portraits, try to focus on interesting details, abstracts and various aspects of behaviour that say more about the subject. In this way, you’ll develop a varied portfolio. On this blog, for example, you can see gentoo penguins in many guises!

Gentoo penguin • ISO rating 160 • Shutter speed 1/6400s • Aperture f5.6 • Focal length 100mm

Narrow depth of field

Adjust the aperture setting on your camera to control how much of the image is in focus. A wide aperture (around f2.8-4.5) creates a narrow depth of field and can be used to isolate a subject from its background. Here, a single nesting gentoo is picked out from a crowded penguin colony that’s been thrown out of focus.

Gentoo penguin • ISO rating 320 • Shutter speed 1/250s • Aperture f3.5 • Focal length 300mm

Golden hours

As with all photography, light is the key to successful images. Early morning and late afternoon are not only characterised by warm, saturated light and rich textures, but they are also the times when many wild animals are at their most active. This king penguin was returning to its rookery at dusk.

King penguin • ISO rating 50 • Shutter speed 1/30s • Aperture f5.6 • Focal length 350mm


Keeping the sun behind you, with light falling directly on your subject is all well and good, but take a risk occasionally and shoot into the light. You’ll find that backlighting gives added mood and ‘zing’ to many wildlife images, accentuating textures, such as the punky head feathers on this rockhopper penguin.

Rockhopper penguin • ISO rating 200 • Shutter speed 1/400s • Aperture f5.6 • Focal length 200mm

Maximum depth of field

To get everything in focus, from the foreground to the background, select a small aperture (around f16 and above). Here, the sand ripples, penguins and distant waves are all sharp. The compromise of a small aperture is that shutter speeds drop, so be sure to use a tripod to avoid any camera shake.

Gentoo penguin • ISO rating 50 • Shutter speed 1/40s • Aperture f18 • Focal length 120mm

Keep it simple

Simple and uncluttered compositions tend to make more striking images. By taking a low viewpoint and filling the frame with the head of this elephant seal, all attention is focused on his bulbous nose. A telephoto lens provides a tight crop – and keeps you a safe distance from potentially dangerous animals!

Elephant seal • ISO rating 50 • Shutter speed 1/125s • Aperture f5.6 • Focal length 400mm

Leave some space

By positioning your subject off-centre, you create space that it can either look into or, in the case of a moving animal, walk or fly into. This makes a far more pleasing composition than keeping everything dead centre. Although not shown here, a portrait format can also form a strong composition – particularly with birds.

Gentoo penguin • ISO rating 80 • Shutter speed 1/500s • Aperture f8 • Focal length 24mm

Sharp focus

The general rule is to always focus on the eyes. DSLRs have lots of tricks to help you keep a subject in focus. You can activate various focus points to cover different areas of the viewfinder and you can also select different autofocus modes. Predictive autofocus locks onto a subject and keeps it in focus when it moves.

Black-browed albatross • ISO rating 200 • Shutter speed 1/600s • Aperture f4.5 • Focal length 400mm

The right exposure

Modern DSLRs have very sophisticated metering systems, but you still need to be wary of situations when they are prone to under- or over-expose a subject. For a bird with white plumage, such as this albatross for example, accurate exposure is required to avoid the white plumage from ‘burning out’ and losing detail.

Black-browed albatross • ISO rating 200 • Shutter speed 1/800s • Aperture f5.6 • Focal length 370mm


Under-exposing a subject to form a silhouette against a dramatic sunset or predawn sky certainly conveys atmosphere. DSLRs, however, will often try to find detail in the subject. Ensure it stays a silhouette by taking a meter reading from the brighter background or setting exposure compensation to -1 or -2 stops.

Striated caracara • ISO rating 200 • Shutter speed 1/80s • Aperture f5.6 • Focal length 300mm

Low light

A big advantage of digital cameras over film ones is that sensors are much more sensitive to light, meaning you can continue shooting even when conditions are getting pretty murky. Long

after the sun had set, this trio of gentoo penguins could be photographed simply by pushing the camera’s ISO setting to 600.

Gentoo penguin • ISO rating 600 • Shutter speed 1/60s • Aperture f4.5 • Focal length 150mm

Know your subject

Don’t spend every minute with your eye glued to the viewfinder. Wildlife photography is as much about being a naturalist, observing behaviour and natural rhythms, as it is about taking pictures. This caracara had been prowling around a gentoo penguin colony for some time – interaction was inevitable.

Gentoo and striated caracara • ISO rating 400 • Shutter speed 1/1600s • Aperture f4.5 • Focal length 300mm

Keep your distance

If your wildlife photography affects the natural behaviour of your subject, you are too close. No photograph is important enough to jeopardise the breeding or hunting success of a wild

animal. Nor is any picture worth the degradation of the environment. Tread carefully, respect wildlife and know when to leave it in peace.

Black-browed albatross • ISO rating 200 • Shutter speed 1/160s • Aperture f9 • Focal length 85mm

334 views0 comments


bottom of page