Photo by Peter Bargh.
Knowing what wildlife will appear where and when will save you time and stop you walking around for a shot you may never find. Knowing what they eat is also important as, for example, it can mean you end up capturing a shot of a Blackbird rather than a Blue Tit in your garden.
Make sure you know how your camera and any other gear you have out with you works before you're outside in your hide. It may sound like a daft statement but knowing how to quickly adjust a setting can make all the difference when you only have a few seconds to take a shot.
Winter can be hard work for wildlife as they have to work harder to find food sources but this can make them slightly easier to track down. In nature reserves, look for places you can set up near hedgerows used for feeding and back home you can set up your own feeders to attract birds who are still around for the winter months. Don't just suddenly start feeding them then stop once you have your images though.
Shots of birds on feeders are good but for more natural-looking images try placing perches such as branches or even a spade near the feeder which they can land on before going for the food. You can also put nuts, berries, seeds and fat-balls in holes and cracks in trees to attract them to land.
Be Patient And Ready
Animals and birds scare easy so don't think you can just head outside, get your camera out and start shooting. Nature reserves usually have hides dotted around you can use and when you're out in the field or in your own garden, set up a portable hide. Once your hide is up, be prepared to wait a while before any wildlife comes your way as it'll take them some time to realise you're not a threat. Although in nature reserves and parks where wildlife is more used to human contact you probably won't have to wait quite as long. Don't make any sudden movements and take some time to just look at the scene around you instead of getting your camera out straight away. By doing so your subject is more likely to return and you don't have to spend as much time out in the cold.
If you're working at home and have a window you can shoot from, set up inside and either shoot through the glass (make sure you're close up to the pane to cut down on reflections) or open up the window if you can. You can then stay warm with the heating on and still get the wildlife shots you're looking for.
Longer lenses (400mm is a good place to start) are generally a must, however you can use slightly shorter lenses it just means you have to work harder at getting closer to your subject. When using longer lenses and sitting, waiting for long periods of time you don't want to be holding your camera so take your tripod out with you. If you're out walking a monopod is a worthwhile consideration as they're easier to manoeuvre, however a tripod will work just fine if you don't own one.
Wildlife don't hang around for long and some, such as hares, move quickly so quick shutter speeds are needed to freeze movement and to capture skittish behaviour. If you're shutter speed is too low there's a chance your shot will have blur in it as they move quicker than you think, especially birds who quickly turn their heads into different positions. To get the quicker shutter speeds you'll most likely need to crank up the ISO but as most digital cameras now cope with ISOs up and beyond 800 without noise becoming too much of an issue, you shouldn't have any problems with doing that.
Backgrounds And Composition
No matter where you're shooting your wildlife shots you need to have a good look around the viewfinder to make sure there's nothing in the background that will distract the viewer. Throwing the background out of focus can look great, however this can cause parts of your subject, particularly when working with small subjects such as birds, to also go out of focus. If this happens try using a slightly smaller aperture as getting the subject sharp is what's more important.
You may have to work quickly but this doesn't mean you should forget about composition all together. Do give your subject space and try not to capture them when looking out of frame as your viewer will follow their gaze and move their eyes out of shot. Do shoot while they're in different positions too as you may find a side profile shot works much better than one where they are head on, for example.
Be At Their Angle
A low position gets you down to the animal's level and can help avoid messy backgrounds. Out in the field this could mean laying on the ground to get a shot of a squirrel foresting for food and in your garden you could end up placing feeders lower than you first thought so your lens lines up with them more easily.
Not that many places in the UK have had much snow as of yet but when a bit of the white stuff does fall it gives photographers the chance to shoot against clutter free backgrounds that really create the essence of winter. Snow also gives you the chance to find tracks wildlife have left so find a well-trodden path and set up near by. Dawn and dusk are good times to be out but do wrap up warm and take a head torch with you so you can see what you're doing. Pay attention to where the wind is blowing too as wildlife are good at picking up scents.
Do be aware that snow can confuse your camera and you can end up with shots that are underexposed. Keep checking your histogram to make sure the exposure's OK and use exposure compensation if needs be to brighten your shot.
There are places in the UK and right around the world that are more popular than others for wildlife photography. There's nothing wrong with visiting these popular places but please respect the wildlife and don't overcrowd them. You may also want to spend some time finding places you can shoot in closer to home as not only do they stand the chance of not being as popular, you don't have as far to travel which means you can spend longer brushing up on your technique rather than travelling.