How not to photograph wildlife…

… or, “You’re gonna look like an idiot either way, so you might as well do it right.”

Living in close proximity to one of the nation’s largest cities is not the best place to be if you enjoy photographing nature. Fortunately, there are pockets of wilderness scattered about, not too far from home. One morning I decided to stop at a local preserve, and noticed a photographic opportunity before I’d even left my vehicle – a large white-tail deer. A buck with an enormous rack(stop giggling, I mean antlers) was grazing at the edge of the woods. He was slowly moving into the open, and in my mind’s eye I could see an image developing. Everything was perfect – light, background. It was going to be a lovely image. I put the car in park, turned off the ignition, quietly reached for my Nikon D80 with attached Sigma 120-400mm lens, and I waited… and waited… and waited. I probably waited for twenty minutes, as the buck was moving cautiously, but inevitably into position. The closer he got, the more magnificent he looked, and the more I was filled with excited anticipation. My lens was balanced on the edge of the car door window frame, awaiting the perfect moment, which was now very close. Just then, a large black SUV roared into the parking area, stopping about thirty feet from where I was parked. Out tumbled an even larger gentleman, dressed in an eye-searing lime green track suit, complete with “racing stripes.” In his hand he clutched a diminutive point and shoot camera. From the road he’d apparently seen the buck – my buck – and stopped to make his own image. Moving with all the grace of a drunken apartment building, he rushed towards the buck, camera held out in front of his face in the traditional “stinky diaper” pose one uses when framing via the rear screen. He began firing away, the camera’s tiny flash going off each time. Never mind the fact that he was still over one hundred feet from the buck, and the range of the flash was probably ten feet – his camera had a flash, and dammit, he was gonna use it.

*POP POP POP*

Unfortunately, the moment this gentlemen had poured out of his monster truck and began hurtling towards the buck like the Tunguska meteor, said buck had retreated to the safety of the woodland edge. The resulting photos were most likely blurry, underexposed images of the tree line. After a few brief moments, the human sorbet scampered back into his four-wheeled Death Star and disappeared into the morning mist… much as the buck – my buck – had disappeared back into the woods, never to be seen again…

So… how does one photograph wildlife? Firstly, by understanding the behavior of the animal you’re trying to photograph. This pays off in a couple of ways – understanding an animal’s behavior will help you locate it, which isn’t always easy. For instance, if you know when an animal feeds, and what it likes to eat, you’ve got a leg up. Also, understanding animal behavior means you’re more likely to come away with an interesting image of some unique behavior, rather than just another “portrait” type image. There’s nothing wrong with portrait images of course, but if you want something that will really stand out in a crowd, try to capture an animal interacting with it’s environment, engaging in a mating display, or some other unusual and rarely seen behavior.

Some photographers use camouflage blinds, and wait for the animals to come to them. However, if you’re careful, you can often get quite close to wild animals. The trick is to make yourself seem as non-threatening as possible. Don’t stare directly at the animal. Don’t make eye contact. Move slowly, and in a somewhat erratic pattern – don’t walk straight towards the animal. “Zigzag” your way forward. Slowly, gently reach towards any surrounding vegetation, and pretend to feed. Seriously. This is where the “you’re gonna look like an idiot either way” part comes in, but it really works. Be aware of the animal’s body language. You can often tell when an animal is feeling uneasy, or is about to bolt. When you sense an animal becoming uncomfortable, back off a bit. Give it time to settle down, become comfortable with your presence, and then begin moving closer again.

Of course, it’s important not to get too close, as even the most seemingly innocuous creature can inflict great damage if it feels threatened. Not long ago there was a story of a man in Russia killed by a beaver he was photographing. Some folks online found this humorous. I imagine his friends and family did not. We often speak of the beauty of nature, but it can also be quite unsentimental and unforgiving. Once again, this is where understanding an animal’s behavior and reading it’s body language becomes vitally important. No one wants their obituary to say “killed by a beaver.”

As with most tasks, education, observation, a little caution and a lot of patience goes a long way.

Elk rutting

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