Animals in Their Native Habitat
Photographing animals in their natural habitat is not the easiest thing to do successfully. Wild animals are in tune with every natural sound, odor, and movement that they witness every day and night. If anything is out of the ordinary they notice it immediately and become skittish, making photographing them that much harder. We've all seen amazing animal pictures on magazine covers, and it makes it seem relatively easy to just walk in the woods and duplicate pictures like them. A number of pictures that you see in magazines are actually not of wild animals, but are animal models that are captive and often trained to pose for camera shots. So rule number one is unless you are really lucky you're probably not going to get a magazine cover shot every time you go out. It can happen, but those kinds of shots are very rare.
There are two main types of cameras that most of us are familiar with, the DSLR and point-and-shoot models. The DSLR is the digital version of the older 35mm SLR camera with changeable lenses, and the point-and-shoot models are the small hand-held cameras with a built-in zoom lens. The DSLR will produce the best pictures, simply because it offers more control of the camera to the photographer. If you're going to use a point-and-shoot camera make sure it has a good optical zoom length, not digital zoom. Digital zoom simply zooms in on a small segment of your photograph and quality quickly deteriorates.
If you are using the DSLR style camera you will benefit most by a lens of at least 400mm in length, especially when photographing birds from a distance. There's nothing more frustrating to me, then to see interesting or rare birds at a distance, then take a picture that only shows dots in the sky, because they are simply too far away to even recognize what they are. If you can't afford a zoom or prime lens that covers 400mm consider a tele-converter. These fit between your camera and the lens and increases its magnification. The two most popular sizes of converters are the 1.4x and the 2x. The 1.4x will turn a 300mm lens equal to a 420mm lens and using the 2x to a 600mm lens. A good quality converter will run between $120 and $200, but that's a lot cheaper than a 400mm lens. You will lose some light capturing ability because of the converters. You may even lose some auto-focus ability and speed on very cloudy days or under low light conditions. Once you gain some more experience you can work around these problems. You will also want a good UV filter and a circular polarizing filter. Buy the best you can afford, and try to stay away from the very cheap ones, bad glass will only produce bad pictures.
Once you decide what species of animal you want to photograph do some research and learn as much as you can about their habits and habitats. If you want to take pictures of waterfowl, you need to look along rivers, streams, lakes and in wetlands. You'll find them on occasion in fields, but the chances are statistically much lower that will be the case. If you are in a wetland and want to take pictures of geese, ducks and grebes look on and along the edges of the water, don't look in the trees. If you're looking for osprey, eagles and kingfishers, look in the trees, not on the water. Some species are more visible at dawn and others at dusk, while some not until after sunset.
A few more pieces of equipment I highly recommend are a tripod or mono-pod to secure your camera while taking pictures. When using longer lenses these two items, when used properly, will greatly enhance your pictures. Also consider a remote shutter release as well, anything that can cut down on vibration will help at long focal lengths. When in the field looking for your subjects, don't wear bright or very light-colored clothes. If at all possible buy yourself some camouflage clothing including pants, shirt and hat as well as a face mask or net. The more successful you are at breaking up the outline of your body, so you're not recognized by animals as being a human, the better off you'll be. If you're in an area where there is room to set up some sort of blind, you might consider one of the portable blinds. Last year I bought a Pop-Up camouflage blind that takes less than one minute to set up and after getting inside I'm hidden from view and animals can't see my movement. I use it when I find signs of animal movement, such as worn trails or bedding areas and when I know there's a good chance something will walk by during the time I'm sitting there. If you have to do a lot of walking and stalking stick to the clothing, it's easier to deal with.
Learn when the best times are to photograph your animal subjects. In this area when I'm looking for birds, some of my best photos are taken during the first three hours after sunrise and the last two hours before sunset. During the summer after 9am until late afternoon you just don't see many birds as they tend to gather high in the trees in the shaded areas of heavy foliage. Deer, commonly seen from just before dawn until an hour or so after. Watch open fields and along the edge of woods. After that you'll need to get into the woods and stalk to find them. They also move around during the late afternoon until early evening in the open again, and are most visible just before sunset.