There are plenty of tutorials around that tell you what you should do, but what exactly shouldn’t you do when taking a wildlife photo? Let’s look at some of the most common mistakes that can ruin your photograph in an instant.

1. Not Adjusting Your White Balance Manually

Do you leave your camera in the ‘auto’ white balance mode? If you think your photos look flat and the colors don’t quite look how you’d expect, then this is probably the reason. If you’re shooting in raw file format then you can adjust the white balance during post-production with no issues, but if you are shooting in JPEG, then this degrades the image.

Setting your white balance manually, even by just using the presets like ‘daylight’ and ‘cloudy’, will instantly bring your photos to life. ‘Cloudy’ is often the go-to white balance mode for the majority of situations. It pulls out the colors and makes your photos pop just a bit more.

2. Distracting Elements in the Background

When you spend so much time trying to properly frame and capture an animal on camera, you can ignore some of the other less important elements of the scene. But ignoring your backgrounds can be a costly mistake! Looking down the lens, you tend to isolate the subject in your mind as you are so focused on it, but when viewing the final image later on, the background can play a much bigger part.

Be careful of things like highlights in the backdrop. If you’re photographing an animal in a tree, you could easily pick up highlights breaking through the canopy. These spots of white can distract from the main feature of the photo.

More importantly, be aware of artifacts in the background (or even the foreground) that appear to ‘protrude’ from the subject. This can be anything from a stick to a long piece of grass.

ways to ruin a photo
This photo of a moorhen chick has a distracting stick in the background intersecting it. Positioning myself a few feet to the side would have removed this easily.


If you want a beautifully diffused background that is popular amongst wildlife photographers, then you can learn how to achieve that soft bokeh in this article. It is very useful for reducing the impact of distracting elements in the background, too.


3. Failing to Think About Why You Are Taking a Photo

If you have your heart set on capturing a photo of a specific animal then it’s easy to go into a frenzy and fire off countless shots when it finally appears. But this can be detrimental to your cause – it’s easy to forget about why you are taking the photo in the process. Without proper imagination applied to your photography, it is easy to end up taking a ‘snap’ of an animal instead of properly conveying it to the viewer.

Try to capture something more interesting about the animal than just the fact that it was there in front of you. Look to document behaviors or the ‘character’ of an animal instead of just its physical self. If you don’t, then you may just find yourself with a selection of fairly ordinary images that won’t stand out from the crowd.

red squirrel

The image above of a red squirrel shows it having a quick scratch. The movement was over in a couple of seconds, but because I was watching for different behaviors, I was ready to press the shutter. Doing so has allowed for much more interest in the image – you can even see the self-sharpening incisor teeth that are signatory of rodents like this.

4. Refusing to Edit Your Photos

There seems to be a growing idea of having to ‘get everything right in the camera’. This is a bit of a bugbear of mine, but I fully understand where these photographers are coming from. I run photography workshops with clients who want to improve their images, and it isn’t uncommon to come across this idea. These people are usually shooting in JPEG and never edit their pictures because they think it is ‘cheating’.

Well, when you’re shooting in JPEG, your camera is applying ‘picture styles’ that can be determined in the camera’s menu. This is actually editing and processing your photos for you, just like you would do in Photoshop (but not doing as good of a job). When you are shooting raw file format, your camera makes no adjustments at all and retains all the data captured in the file.

Northern Gannet Family

You then have to edit your photos or they will look awful and flat – plus, if you want to share them anywhere they need to be converted into something like a JPEG format. It’s completely normal edit your pictures, and it definitely isn’t cheating if you do it properly. You should edit to the point that you are reflecting the scene as you saw it.

I’m of course talking about adjustments like levels, highlights, shadows, sharpening, cropping etc. If you’re cloning out objects and cutting and pasting elements of the image, well that’s a different ball game. Heavy editing like this is looked down upon in the industry and it is easy to damage your integrity if you do this (especially if you don’t admit to any major edits you’ve made).

5. Being Afraid to Experiment

You can read as many tutorials as you want, but the most important thing to creating really special photos is to develop your own style. Don’t be afraid to experiment and break the rules. Start off by experimenting with light – it can make all the difference. Try different compositions – you don’t always need to adhere to the rule of thirds, especially if you have eye contact with the subject. Filling the frame with an animal staring down the lens can make for a strongly impacting photo.

Will Nicholls-5-4

The above photo uses the snowy background to create a high-key style for the image. If I may say so myself it works really well, and the light reflecting off the snow lights the undersides of the wings. This is unusual for photos of birds flying, as usually the light source is from above and the underside of the wing is in shadow. It’s for this reason that some people have mistaken it for a painting, and it’s this type of experimentation that makes photos stand out.