July 27, 2012
A way to see—and celebrate—more wildlife
by Debra Firmani
Photographing wildlife is a way to celebrate the beauty and natural diversity we experience and want to preserve. Wildlife photography can be unpredictable, and that’s part of what makes it fun. You never quite know what bird or animal will cross your path or how sunlight will transform a field.
Wandering around and photographing whatever surprises you can be a delight. But knowing more about wildlife behavior will increase your opportunities to see and photograph interesting things. Here are some tips.
Butterflies and Other Insects
- Insects tend to be easier to approach in the early morning and late evening, when their movements are slower.
- Look for butterflies basking with open wings on the tops of flowers and other objects, absorbing the sun’s warmth on cool mornings, or “puddling”: obtaining sodium and other nutrients from moist areas of dirt, sand, manure, urine, and carrion.
- Provide a shallow dish for puddling. Fill it with sand and keep it damp.
- Birds tend to be busiest in the morning.
- Individuals or small flocks are usually more easily approached than large flocks.
- Never alter vegetation to reveal a nest for photographing. It may not be possible to restore it, and, in any case, you may draw the attention of predators to the nest.
Amphibians and Reptiles
- Amphibians and reptiles are easily frightened, so approach them slowly.
- Attract these shy creatures to your yard with native plants and rocks.
- Careful observation and study will help you anticipate their behavior so you can be ready to photograph them.
- Animals are typically most active in the early morning or late evening, which is also when the light is warm and soft. (A cloudy day provides soft, even light.)
- When wildlife is in motion, instead of taking still shots, hold down the shutter release and keep the camera focused on the action—like taking a mini-movie.
Lots of books, articles, and websites will give you advice on photography and equipment. But techniques and equipment are no substitute for an artistic eye and putting thought into your photo. And don’t underestimate the value of being in the right place at the right time!
Choose an Effective Point of View
- Get down low when photographing wildlife. The lower your position, the shallower the viewing angle and the more engaging the image will be.
- Lower angles of shooting also tend to provide more appealing backgrounds.
- Position yourself so that nothing unattractive or distracting clutters the view.
Create Engaging Compositions
- Include part of the habitat to make the photo more interesting.
- Make sure the animal’s face is nicely lit, preferably with natural light, and focus your camera lens most clearly on the animal’s eyes. When the eyes are clear in a photo, the whole image is more appealing.
- Capture a moment when an animal is engaged in a particular behavior, such as feeding, bathing, or carrying nesting material.
Keep Eyes and Mind Open
- Be open to what’s around you and make the most of the opportunities that arise.
- While you are framing a shot with one eye, watch with your other eye so you see what else may be happening that is also worthy of photographing.
- Don’t rule out taking photos on “bad” weather days, as they can yield some wonderful images. Just be sure to protect your camera properly.
- Always be alert to your surroundings and educate yourself about safety precautions.
- Use your knowledge of animals to find opportunities that don’t interfere with their normal activities.
- Wear a hat on windy days— blowing hair can scare birds.
- Approach slowly and quietly, and don’t make sudden movements.
- Learn animals’ body language and vocalizations, so you can recognize when you can take a good picture and when you need to back off.
- Be patient and discrete to get photos showing natural behavior. Sit quietly in the same place for ten to twenty minutes or try standing or sitting behind something.
- Keep a respectful distance, and never do anything that would alert predators to the presence of nests or young animals.
- If you see that you are making an animal nervous, find another subject to photograph.
- When photographing at home, keep companion animals in the house; when away, leave them at home.
For more tips on responsibly photographing wildlife, visit the Leave No Trace website.
» Allinder, Cathy. “An Incredible Journey.” In Nature Photographer. Winter 2006/2007, pp. 42-44.
» Lee, Weldon. “Five Steps to Great Wildlife Images.” In Nature Photographer. Winter 2006/2007, pp. 90-92.
» Morris, Arthur. The Art of Bird Photography: The Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2003.
» Simmons, Rulon E. Photographing Birds. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2006 .
» Tappan, D.S. “Wildlife Photography” (Part I: Code of Ethics, and Part II: Tips to Get You Started) on www.dstappan.com/essays, accessed 1 December 2008.
Create a sanctuary
Enjoy the company of your wild neighbors, and the photo oportunities they will provide in your own yard. Every day, more and more wildlife habitat is lost to the spread of development. But you can help wild animals in urban and suburban areas by offering them sanctuary in your own backyard (or front yard, roof-top garden, or deck), no matter how small. Learn how your green space can become an Urban Wildlife Sanctuary.
Debra Firmani is a writer and long-time advocate for animals and nature. Her articles on wildlife, wild lands, backyard habitat creation, and nature education have appeared in print and online.