Friday, April 2, 2010

Spring into wildlife photography

I enjoy all types of nature photography, but wildlife photography may be the most rewarding.  It’s extremely challenging. Even if you’re lucky enough to find the animal you’re looking for, it may not be in the mood to pose for you. The challenging times are certainly frustrating, but they make you appreciate a stunning wildlife image all the more.

The spring migration (or fall migration, if you’re in the southern hemisphere) is a great time to photograph an even wider variety of wildlife. In Washington state, where I live, sandhill cranes started migrating through a few weeks ago; shorebirds will begin migrating up the coast in a couple weeks.

Nesting birds and animals coming out of hibernation to feed on colorful wildflowers provide even more opportunities.

Here are some tips I’ve developed over the years to maximize fun and minimize frustration:


Get over your lens envy

I was a wildlife photographer for many years before I was able to afford a really powerful telephoto lens. And I may have been more successful because of that.

There are two types of wildlife images: the trophy shot and the story shot. Having a really powerful lens tends to make people go for the trophy, for example, an image where only the bald eagle’s head fits into the frame. Those can be impressive images, but they don’t tell you the story of the animal.

Images that show where and how the animal lives within the context of its environment can be even more stunning. You can create these images with any lens. (You can read more tips on this in a previous post.)


Read and study

The more you know about your subject, the more likely you are to make great images of it. My bookshelf is full of field and wildlife behavior guides. I not only find them interesting, but helpful.

Photography is about being in the right place at the right time. There’s always an element of luck, but by knowing more about your subject, you can increase the odds in your favor.


You don’t have to travel

I love being in a remote corner on the opposite side of the world, photographing animals that I normally don’t get to see, but I’ve also learned to appreciate the pond that’s 10 minutes from my house.

First, if I photographed only when I travel, I wouldn’t have much of a library. More importantly, the pond has taught me a lot about wildlife. Being able to watch the pond – and its residents – change throughout the year helps me learn more about nature than I could pick up in just a few weeks in some foreign location. And, again, knowledge provides opportunity.


Make friends

There’s no substitute for experience, but talking with the locals when you’re on the road can make up some of the difference. Talk to as many people who appreciate wildlife as you can. You never know what they’ll share with you.

In New Zealand, I met a woman who drew me a map to a secluded beach where a rare type of penguin roosts for the night. I didn’t have to ask for that. Once she could see that I was passionate and respectful of wildlife, she volunteered the information. I never would have found that beach on my own.

In the Mojave Desert, a ranger led me to a desert tortoise that was several hundred yards off trail. I ended up giving his non-profit group an image they could use in materials to protect the tortoises’ habitat.


Don’t get too close

This tip is for the safety of you – and the wildlife.

As the word suggests, wildlife is wild – unpredictable. Your camera and lens won’t protect you from charging bears. There’s a well-documented photography-related death in Yellowstone National Park. A photographer walked right up to a seemingly docile bison. It mauled him. Don’t be that guy.

It’s also not good for the animals. Especially during the mating and migration seasons, animals need to conserve energy. The energy that they expend fleeing from you may be energy they needed to migrate or to raise their young. No photograph is worth an animal’s life.

Check out more of my wildlife photography in the Wildlife Gallery at

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