When you introduce the element of wildlife into your photography, you also introduce a score of new complexities and aspects that can be very difficult to master – regardless of how good or expensive your equipment is.
In this post I’ll share 3 essential tips that have nothing to do with gear and everything to do with wildlife photography.
1. Be fully present in the moment (i.e. put your phone and thoughts away)
I once nearly stepped on a Cooper’s Hawk sitting on the ground with a fresh kill because I was looking at my phone. The hawk flew up right in front of me and took off with its prey before I had a chance to even think about getting a shot.
I was so close. It could have been perfect. But I missed it. I was frustrated for days.
Wildlife is unpredictable. You only have a split second to capture the moment before it’s gone. If you’re looking at your phone or preoccupied with other thoughts, you are going to suffer through excruciating experiences like the one I shared – a wildlife photographer’s worst nightmare.
The psychological explanation is pretty simple; multi-tasking is very hard on the human brain. Focusing on more than one task at a time takes a toll on performance – especially when complex tasks are involved.
Wildlife photography is a super complex task. Getting an interesting, sharp and well-composed photo is hard. You really have to be present and pay full attention to the nature and wildlife around you.
The photo below of the Tawny Owl in the hollow tree is a good example of a shot that I could easily have missed. I only got it because I was hyper focused on my surroundings. I’d been walking around for a few hours looking for a Tawny, but there were no signs of owls.
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“Holy crap! Was that a Tawny?” I thought to myself as I quietly set up my tripod and aimed the camera at the hole in the tree. I waited for to see what would happen and a few minutes later the shape reappeared. Sure enough – it was the Tawny I’d spent all morning looking for! Needless to say, I was totally stoked and snapped a series of shots with a huge smile on my face.
This is still one of my fondest wildlife photography memories and one of my personal favourite shots. And to think I could just as easily have missed it had I been even slightly distracted. In fact, I often wonder how much I miss when I go out shooting on days where for some reason I’m not quite dialled in.
2. Spend as Much Time as Possible in Nature Observing Wildlife
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Finding and approaching wildlife can be extremely difficult – especially if you’re not used to it. It takes a while before your brain starts picking up on the subtle shapes, movements and noises that alert you to the presence of an animal: a rusteling in the leaves, a sudden movement in the grass, a squeak from behind the rocks, a pattern in the tree that looks just a little different than the branches around it.
In the beginning it can be quite frustrating. But if you put in enough time and effort, a magical, hidden world will start emerging right in front of your eyes. When I first moved to BC and went looking for Anna’s Hummingbirds I hardly ever found any (partly because they’re tiny – only 4 inches).
But with time my ears and eyes have gotten so used to listening and looking for them that it is practically an automated process – as soon as I hear the song my brain knows exactly what to do. As a result I now find hummers every time I go looking for them.
(A recent video I took of a Male Anna’s Hummingbird in Stanley Park)
But being able to spot animals is just the first step. The real challenge is figuring out what to do next – how do you approach wild animals in nature without causing them undue stress or getting hurt? And how do you do you avoid acting like a bull in a China shop?
Just like humans, different animals have different personalities – some are pretty chill while others are super nervous. Moreover, different animals have different thresholds for how much human interference they’ll stand for.
What is common for all of them though, is the fact that they’ll show you warning signs when you’re getting too close or making them feel stressed.
If you spend enough time in nature observing wildlife, you can build up a “gut feeling” that’ll help you naturally find the right approach for the animal you are trying to photograph – but it takes patience, effort and not least a lot paying attention to small details.
Here are two rules of thumb I follow:
Don’t harass any animals – do your photography on their terms.
I believe in respecting animals and doing my photography on their terms. I’m always aware of my own behaviour and how I come across to the creatures around me. It is difficult to completely avoid bothering them and the main thing is to make sure you’re not harassing them and causing undue stress.
It is not cool to you keep bothering the same raptor over and over again forcing it to continuously flee from your presence. It is equally uncool to purposely yell at or throw stuff at an animal to try and get it to move so you can get your shot.
The animal isn’t there for your entertainment. You are the guest and you need to respect your wild hosts and make sure you’re being a well-behaved visitor.
Watch the animal closely and be aware of warning signs.
When you are photographing a wild animal, make sure you are keenly aware of the signs it is displaying.
If the animal is at ease just doing its thing even though you’re there, it’s a good sign. If the animal changes behaviour and displays nervous erratic movements, you should be extra aware and ready to back off. If it starts hissing or snarling at you, showing aggressive behaviour it is a very clear sign that you’ve crossed a boundary and outstayed your welcome.
I recommend doing some research and reading up on warning signs that different animals in your area display, that way you’ll be better prepared (and this point is the perfect segue to my third tip).
3. Do your homework before you go
Even the best gear in the world won’t make a difference if you can’t find any interesting wildlife to take photos of. The better you understand animal behaviour and habitat, the better your chances of capturing wild moments.
Moreover, the more serious you get about wildlife photography, the more you’ll want to seek out and capture specific species and behaviour – e.g. the salmon run here in BC when thousands of bald eagles congregate at certain hot spots in the mountains and by the coast.
Doing your homework, reading about different hot spots as well as various animals and their behavioural patterns can make a huge difference. Going out on trips and finding what you’re looking for is also much more satisfying than crossing your fingers and hoping you randomly run into something cool.
There are lots of helpful resources online that you can access for free. Here are a few of my favourites for when I go birding:
Ebird is run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and features data collected 100 million bird sightings every year. It includes checklists, guides to hotspots and species distribution maps.
If you’re going to a new place, try a few searches on Google and see what you find. Searches like “best places to bird in (location)”, “bird checklist (location)” or “where to find (species) in (location)” often yield helpful results. Check out ebird >>
This is a fantastic resource for anything bird-related. It features detailed, insightful guides and lots of helpful guides. They also offer a really cool Bird Guide App. Check out Audubon.org >>
Merlin Bird ID App
This app is an awesome resource that makes it easy to identify and learn about different species. It includes pictures and basic info on various birds as well as samples of the different sounds the birds make. You often hear birds before you see them and knowing what to listen for makes it a lot easier. Check out the App >>
It is almost to basic to mention here, nevertheless it can be a valuable step in doing your homework.
Whenever I go to explore a new area I spend a bit of time doing some research on Google. I usually start with a wide query like “best places to go birding in Stockholm” or “where to find owls is Stockholm“. That usually helps me hone in on a few specific locations. After that I’ll start searching for more detailed information on those locations, e.g. “owl Hjälstaviken” and so on.
The information you get will of course vary, but in most cases it’ll give you enough to at least narrow your search and give you a handful of promising spots to start exploring.
You can of course also check Amazon for birding/wildlife guide books – they often provide a lot of value for a small investment. I got a lot of value from The Birder’s Guide to Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. I recommend it if you’re planning on birding in BC.
Here in British Columbia at least, most provincial parks have nature houses with staff attached. I sometimes look them up on Google and call them to get some tips or ask if there’s been anything interesting going on. They are usually very nice people who are happy to share some insight with you. Just be humble and polite and accept the fact that they aren’t obligated to tell you anything.
A quick note on etiquette
I should also mention that doing research does not include spamming wildlife photographers on Facebook or Instagram with comments asking where he or she got that photo of the rare owl or elusive bobcat. If they didn’t post a location, it is probably because they don’t want to share it.
Serious wildlife photographers dedicate hours, days, week, months and years to finding these locations and there are several reasons why they might not want to tell others (let alone strangers) about these hot spots. The main reason being that there is a tendency that spots get overrun by photographers when news gets out that there’s something special going on. When that happens, it is inevitably the wildlife that ends up paying the price.
There is of course nothing wrong with making friends with folks you meet along the way and building a relationship that might result in them telling you about or taking you to secret locations. If your heart is in the right place and you earned it, it is all good. I think most wildlife photographers will agree with that.
Introducing the element of wildlife adds many new aspects that make photography even more difficult. Some of these challenges simply cannot be solved with gear. It takes a lot of practice and experience and time spent in nature observing wildlife.
Fully immersing yourself in the experience when you’re out in nature will not only give you better photos, it’ll make the whole thing much more enjoyable. So turn off the phone, give the thought-processor inside your head a rest and simply enjoy photographing wildlife.