we know who has gotten hooked on photographing wildlife started out
same way: they simply found wild animals fascinating,
wanted to know more about them, and most importantly wanted to experience
them in their natural environment. But if ever there was a hobby that
requires patience, this is it. Diehard wildlife photographers will sit
for hours in cold, lonely blinds, enduring bug bites and miserable weather
conditions for the chance to photograph a deer coming out to graze or
a moose feeding along the edge of a lake.
Even when you have a subject that seems
to be cooperative, there are many other issues. Is he doing something
interesting? Is he in the right light? Can you capture him going that
fast? What about the background? All inexperienced wildlife enthusiasts
can point to boxes of film that were wasted because, even though they
caught the animal, the composition, lighting, or pose just wasn't worthwhile.
For Yellowstone wildlife images, please visit our
Wildlife Directory. We have photos in Flash and Non-Flash versions
Learning to take good wildlife photos
is one of the most rewarding aspects of outdoor photography, but it
requires skill, patience, and a good degree of luck. At the end of the
day, though, we think you'll find that the rewards are not just in the
pictures you take, but in the incredible sense of wonder you get from
sharing a wild animal's world for just a little while.
Pursuing wild animals in their natural
habitat is rarely performed under ideal conditions. We find our best
opportunities in the early morning or late in the day, when lighting
conditions are difficult. The subjects are shy and skittish and often
require a lot of distance between themselves and humans. Most move very
quickly. And it's often necessary to travel into remote places to pursue
Fortunately, the photographer who is
interested in specializing in these elusive subjects has a wide array
of equipment options to help. An outfit for wildlife photography, using
a 35mm single-lens-reflex camera, can get expensive. Before you get
started, make sure that you'll do enough of this type of photography
to warrant the expenditure.
The choice of lenses on the market is
truly impressive, and this makes it difficult to know where to start.
Our first suggestion is to begin with your camera manufacturer-see what
lenses it offers in its line. You'll have a good idea what quality to
expect, and the telephoto you choose may be more compatible with the
other lenses in your outfit. Lenses from the same manufacturer often
take the same filters, resulting in a considerable savings. You may
also find that the similarities in terms of focus and metering make
them easier to use.
A lens with a long focal length is an
absolute must for pursuing wildlife, but you may immediately find yourself
with a case of sticker shock. Long lenses can be expensive, so it's
important to know what features are most important.
Because of the distances involved, a
good choice for starting your outfit is a 300mm lens, the smallest
of the long-focal-length lenses, which range from 300mm to 1000mm or
more. We recommend buying the highest-quality lens you can; it's disappointing
to go through all the effort of stalking and capturing your subjects
only to find that your images aren't sharp because you have a poor lens.
Many wildlife photographers consider
300mm too short and prefer to work with a 400mm lens. There are some
good zooms on the market also, but keep in mind that high-quality zooms
are often very expensive. They also tend to be much heavier than
prime lenses, which makes them harder to hand-hold and lug around in
the field. Hand-holding any lens over 300mm isn't practical anyway,
because your inability to stabilize a lens of this size will probably
produce less-than-sharp pictures.
There are products that help anchor these
long lenses while also assisting in tracking your subject. A tripod is useful, of course, for mounting your camera when you won't be moving
around a lot. Invest in one that's as heavy and sturdy as you can afford
to carry. It's a good idea to paint the legs and upper post in a flat
black, green, or brown color to camouflage the device and prevent its
shiny surface from capturing the attention of your subjects. You can
also use camouflage tape-the same kind that bow hunters use. We also
wrap hard-cell foam insulating material on our tripod legs; it's flat
gray, and provides a little cushioning to protect our shoulders when
we haul the supports around.
A monopod is a good choice if
you're going to be working in good lighting conditions. It's a simple
one-legged stand that helps stabilize your camera, but makes it a little
easier to stalk. We only use a monopod when we're shooting fast shutter
speeds, usually 1/125 second or more, because absolute stability
is not guaranteed the way it is with a tripod.
For photographing birds in flight or
stalking moving animals, the shoulder stock is very helpful.
This device ranges from a lightweight aluminum support that balances
on your chest to a heavier wooden gun-stock style. Your stock should
be comfortable, provide good stability, and allow you to move quickly.
After trying a number of styles, we still haven't found the perfect
stock. This seems to be a common complaint-many photographers buy stocks
and then adapt them to their particular preferences.
A motor drive seems to be an obvious choice for photographing moving wildlife. It's
true that these devices are convenient: they're faster and less distracting
than having to thumb-crank after every shot, and you don't run the risk
of missing a shot because you forgot to advance the film. We would hate
to be without ours. But don't expect to use it to fire in rapid sequence,
assuming that you'll be able to capture the full movement of the animal.
Even at full speed, you'll still only catch a fraction of the animal's
motion. And with moving animals, it's almost impossible to keep a sharp
focus that long anyway. You can waste a lot of film shooting this way.
We find that we rarely shoot more than two or three exposures at one
Some photographers feel that the motor
drive's noise can scare the animals. While this may be true to some
extent, it hasn't been our experience. In some cases, though, such as
when we're photographing songbirds up close, even the snap of the mirror
is too much noise. While shooting birds nesting near our home, we have
actually tried insulating the camera with foam and rubber bands to muffle
the sound. But the best thing to do when your camera distracts the subject
is to take a break and give your subject a chance to settle before beginning
If your camera gives you the choice of
interchangeable focusing screens, you may want to invest in a clear
matte focusing screen for shooting wildlife. Most camera outfits
come with a split-image focusing screen. These may be fine for general
photography, but we don't find them nearly as easy to use on photographs
that require small aperture settings or long lenses.
The most important factor in getting
good photos of wild animals is knowing as much as possible about them.
Wild animals inhabit a world that has little to do with ours, and they
can be dangerous, particularly if you don't know what to expect.
Advance study can help you make sense
of the animal's habitat. Local field guides can let you know what species
can be found in certain regions and give you an idea of your subject's
favorite territories. Find out the species' nocturnal feeding habits.
Learn what individuals like to eat and where. Do they move in groups
or are they solitary? How do they react in various types of weather?
Take careful note of their mating seasons as well as when females will
be giving birth, because emotions often run high during these times.
One of the real pleasures of photographing
animals is simply observing them in their natural habitat. You'll learn
more from one animal himself than you will from any number of books.
Watch his actions and try to figure out what he's doing and why. Animals
rarely act randomly; almost everything they do has a purpose. A male
elk pawing the ground and bugling during mating season is acting out
a ritual for attracting the attention of a local female. Chances are
good that he'll return to the spot often; tomorrow you can be waiting
Don't let the docile nature of a grazing
moose fool you into complacency. While most animals are happy to ignore
you or even avoid your presence, few will stand for a rapid approach
and none will willingly allow you near their offspring. Watch for signs
of displeasure on the animal's part: a twitch of his tail, stamping
a foot, or pinning his ears back are all signs that he's not happy with
Not long ago we had the rare pleasure
of running into triplet black bear cubs. They were adorable and we couldn't
wait to get them on film. Though Morn was not in sight, we soon heard
her complaints from the brush and realized we were between her and the
cubs. We hightailed it out of there-singing songs, walking slowly backward,
and doing everything we could to show her how uninterested we were in
her and the cubs. She followed us until she was satisfied that we were
leaving, then turned back to her family. Unfortunately, all we have
from that encounter are our memories!
Birds make fascinating subjects for the
wildlife photographer. Because they can be found almost anywhere, they
may not require the strenuous effort that's needed when you shoot large
mammals. But they do require patience.
For people who feed birds, there are
lots of opportunities for pictures. It's unlikely you'll get great shots
at the feeder, but there are a couple of tricks that can help put the
birds into a more natural setting. We mount branches near the feeders
so birds can hop off the perches and pose for us at a spot where we
can control backgrounds and the birds are used to our presence. We sometimes
use a flash for close-ups at the feeder. If the background isn't too
close, the light falls off quickly, illuminating only the subject. Try
a fast shutter speed and a relatively small f-stop to get a nice, even
background: 1/250 second at fl6 should produce good results.
Birds with youngsters also make great
subjects, because you'll be able to easily predict their daily habits.
You may even be able to install a small blind in your backyard for recording
their routines: set up a good distance away, then move a little closer
each day as they get comfortable with your presence. But make certain
to stay away from the nest during and right after egg laying-if you
frighten a bird then, it may abandon the nest.
The bottom line when photographing animals
is respect. If they're moving away from you or doing other things
that make it clear that they feel threatened, it's time to back off.
A 300mm lens should provide enough distance to get good shots while
maintaining the animal's privacy. As a wildlife photographer, you can
help guard the delicate balance between our world and theirs.
STALKING AND CONCEALMENT
Many of the wildlife photographers we
know who specialize in large rnammals used to be hunters. They have
traded their guns for cameras, but many of the skills they learned in
years of stalking prey serve them in good stead. Camouflaging your gear
will help you to keep your profile low. Wear dull clothes and try to
dull your shiniest gear. But don't fool yourself into thinking that
this will prevent you from being noticed by your subject. Chances are
very good he picked up your scent long before you knew he was there.
Staying downwind from your subject can
help alleviate this problem. We know some photographers who even keep
a piece of yarn on their tripods to help them track wind direction.
Moving slowly when you're near your subject
is very important. Practice being aware of every move you make. In some
cases it's not enough to walk slowly. Watch your hands: they could be
moving very quickly to adjust focus and exposure settings. Set a pace
with which the animal can be comfortable.
There are ways to get a little closer
to an animal in the wild that can be nonthreatening enough to give you
a few moments to shoot. Approach him from an angle and don't pay any attention to him. The moment he shows
signs of tension, stop what you're doing and direct your attention elsewhere.
Stay still and let the tension pass. Pretty soon, he'll get over his
concern, and if you're lucky he'll go back to doing what he was doing.
Approaching him straight on, sneaking up from behind, or staring directly
at him are all acts that he may associate with aggression, so be subtle.
Blinds can be very helpful if you know
where your subject is going to be, or if you expect to remain in one
position for a long time. Marsh birds, for example, often live in exposed
areas where you simply can't conceal yourself any other way.
Some photographers like to build blinds
out of materials handy in the field. But in our opinion this requires
too much reliance on luck, as well as a whole bag of tools for assembly.
It can also be disruptive to the environment.
If you're going to do much of this kind
of photography, it may be worthwhile to invest in a portable blind.
A good blind is lightweight and easy to transport; it should also assemble
quickly and allow you to shoot from a number of heights.
Don't forget that you're setting up this
blind because you plan to stay awhile. Comfort is important, so make
certain the blind is big enough for you to sit without crouching-a blind
is rendered ineffective if you bump against the fabric and cause the
whole thing to ripple.
Bring along a good seat, too; folding
stools can work, but on soft ground they may sink. Try to find something
with a good wide base.
GETTING THE GREAT SHOT
There are a few things to keep in mind
when you're out in the field, a few tricks that can help turn ordinary
shots into extraordinary ones.
Whenever possible, get your camera at
the animal's level or lower, which tends to enhance the animal's appearance
and create a more impressive image. Obviously, this isn't always practical,
but if you have a cooperative subject, give it a try.
Pay particular attention to your subject's
eyes when you're focusing: if the eyes are out of focus, the photo will
never look right, and the entire composition will seem out of focus.
Likewise, if you have a choice of compositions with or without the face
and eye showing, you'll find that the shot with the eye will almost
always be better.
As always, keep the background and foreground
clean. It's very easy to forget your surroundings when you have an animal
in your viewfinder. If you can,
look around the area and preplan your shot. Patience is required. We
once sat for hours waiting for a moose to cross a stream that he seemed
certain to eventually cross. The rocks and grass made the perfect foreground.
We had already surveyed the area and determined that no other shot was
really worth getting. When he finally crossed, we were ready.
There are a lot of good wild-animal shots
that capture the animal standing still or grazing. It takes patience
to capture your subject at just the right moment, but it's well worth
the wait. You'll be rewarded with trophies that you will definitely
want to hang on your walls.