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Wildlife Photography Tips

written by Greg Cope

One of the hardest and most frustrating aspects of wildlife photography is not only finding wildlife, but the actual process of composing and taking the photograph without disturbing wildlife. By knowing a little about the behavior of your subject(s), as well as your own behavior, you can greatly increase your chances of getting the photograph you are looking for. Making yourself part of the environment - minimizing the impact your presence has on the behavior of your subject - can make all the difference in getting positioned for a nicely angled, clear, and beautiful photo.

photograph of a western screech owl at Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve

Red Tailed Hawk: Photographed in a crowded park, this hawk seemed used to the constant human presence in its habitat. I had dropped both my tripod and backpack to get a better shot of this scene.

1) Get Outside: Of course the more time you are outside, the more opportunities you will have at seeing wildlife. But possibly just as important is where and when you are outside. Good light is important and along these lines, many species tend to be more active during the early and later times of day (I find some of the best times to encounter wildlife is a sunny morning just after a storm has moved through the area). Locations frequented by many people tend to have wildlife that is accustomed to human presence, raising the possibility of seeing wildlife, and raising your chances of having time to compose a photograph. One incredible example of this is at Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve, a very popular outdoor recreation spot near the Silicon Valley in Central California. A seldom seen and very shy Western Screech Owl made its home in an oak tree directly adjacent to a road, giving onlookers - several hundred per day - an incredible chance to bird watch.

2) Be Patient: Patience always pays off in wildlife photography. Before the shot you must be patient to find wildlife. During the shot you must be patient and not rushed. And afterwards you must be patient to avoid disturbing your subject as well as nearby wildlife. Being impatient, hurried, loud, upset about a missed opportunity - this can all lead to disturbing your subject as well as nearby wildlife.

a bobcat being a predator by stalking its prey

Bobcat hunting: I had originally surprised the Bobcat, being too close before it saw me. After it knew I was there, I was patient and let it get used to my presence, enabling me to watch some unique behavior.

3) Move Slowly. Moving slowly might be obvious, but more than once I have been caught in the excitement only to have the opportunity slip away by my quick moves. I have learned this lesson the hard way time and again, but to this day I still make the mistake of making rapid movements only to look up and find by subject gone.

4) Be Quiet, but Make Noise. Some of my favorite photographs were taken when the animal knew I was there. On many of those occasions I could have hidden but intentionally let it know I was there - a light cough, shuffle of the feet, or any small non-threatening noise - sometime the process of hiding can be perceived as a threat.

White Tailed Kite perched on a post in the Field of Blufftop Coastal Park in the setting sun

White Tailed Kite: A normally shy bird, it was not only perched in a crowded area, but I also approached very slowly at a diagonal.

5) Size Matters. What a difference a large backpack and/or tripod makes. Many times nowadays I will leave both behind. Even if the light isn't optimal I will opt for high ISO over a tripod. More than once I have seen wildlife flee, whether it be from my backpack or tripod I cannot for sure say, but in my experience there has always been a correlation.

6) Approach at a Diagonal. Walking directly toward wildlife works in curtain situations, but in the majority of cases can easily chase it away. When possible I almost always approach at an angle, using very slow motions that are almost perpendicular to a direct path.

7) Avoid Eye Contact. Eye contact can be seen as a threat by wildlife, easily scaring them away. But in addition, when I am near or try to approach wildlife I will often do so facing backwards or sideways looking away, as if I don't even know of the animal's presence. During these times however, I always try and keep my camera pointed toward the animal - trying to create the perception there is no connection between my large camera lens and my aiming gazes toward the animal.

8) Use a Blind: Cover yourself in camouflage fabric, hide in a portable camouflage tent, or take pictures from a building or vehicle: hiding yourself is the easy part. The hard part is knowing where and/or when to cover yourself. Blinds are a whole topic on their own, suffice it to say if you know where a species may be and can guess at when it may be there, it sometimes can be best to cover up and wait it out. Plus, who knows what will wander along and surprise you.

9) Make Wildlife Come to You: A tip based more toward bird photography than mammal photography: get a feeder. Bird seed, peanuts, peanut butter, sunflower seeds, and Suet are all things that birds will love. Provide perches nearby situated for good light and a good background. The birds will come.

two deer grazing in a meadow on the Bighorn Plateau with kaweah peaks as a backdrop

Grazing Deer: Sometimes getting closer doesn't always make a better image.

10) Have your camera ready. More than once I've been bitten by the problem of having my camera stowed away in my backpack at the wrong time. Its always optimal - although sometimes perhaps not practical - to have your camera at the ready. When I carry my camera, many times I will meter the light (expecting the worst out of what is around me) and set my camera settings (exposure mode, iso, aperture, etc..) for those conditions. Many times doing so has bought me the extra seconds I needed to snap off a few shots.

Conclusions: These are only a few tips to try while practicing wildlife photography. It should be remembered the safety of wildlife should ALWAYS be your first priority. More than once I have been in the presence of a brazen and selfish photographer, and in the process of getting their shot they disturbed not only the wildlife, but also created a visual impact on wildlife's habitat. The American Birding Association's Principles of Birding Ethics should be applied to all wildlife photography. And keep in mind, sometimes getting closer does not always guarantee a better image.