How to Photograph Wildlife

August 5, 2016

Taking photos of wildlife can be a tricky business, as you’ve probably discovered. First of all, you’ve got to find the animal you want to photograph, and when you do find it, you have to be careful to not scare it off. But there are ways that you can minimize this possibility.

Here are ideas that can help you avoid this problem, especially when the animal is near you and can see you – and also hear the sounds you make. Some of these ideas are obvious, but others may be more subtle.

Clothing. Wear drab-colored clothes – those that blend into the environment: dark green, black, etc. Some people think that animals can’t see color, but research has shown that most animals, including birds, can see color.

If the animal you’re trying to photograph sees a color that’s not normal to its surroundings, it will pay attention to the out-of-place color (your red shirt, for example) and probably run or fly away. For more information about color and animals see http://www.colormatters.com/color-matters-for-kids/how-animals-see-color

Roseate Spoonbill landing

Roseate Spoonbill

Sound. This is crucial: In their environment, usually away from human civilization, wildlife hears only the sounds of nature (wind, rain, etc.) and communication calls among their own species (and perhaps other species). “Unnatural” sounds, such as human sounds (and noises produced by humans), can cause wildlife to go into alert status, look where these sounds are, and then run away from the sound source.

Many animals have excellent hearing and research evidence shows that unusual sounds can stress them, especially if those sounds are loud. Therefore, animals will be attentive to sounds photographers might make, so it’s a good idea to be as quiet as possible when setting up camera equipment. For a comprehensive review of sound and animals, see “The Effect of Noise on Wildlife: A Literature Review” http://www.wfae.net/library/articles/radle_effect_noise_wildlife.pdf

White Pelican flying away

White Pelican

Motion. I’ve found that “slow motion” is the best approach to photographing animals, especially if you’re trying to get a little closer to an animal that’s known to be rather “jumpy.” My technique is walking very slowly with my camera gear, hesitating every few steps and freezing my motion.

Animals (especially birds) are very sensitive to motion, but they feel less of a threat when your movements are very slow. Stopping your motion every once in a while is very helpful. You just can’t be in a hurry to take photos.

Zebra Butterfly on penta flower

Zebra Butterfly

Smell. This might seem like a minor topic for taking photos of wildlife, but it’s already known that some animals, especially the larger ones, can detect human smell (which is very strong – ask any dog) from a a considerable distance (bears are the champs, as they can smell food, and perhaps humans, from up to 18 miles away). However, there’s a lot of research on animal smelling abilities that still needs to be done.

Nevertheless, I would chose to photograph upwind from the larger animals, where my smell probably can’t be detected. For more information about animal smell detection, read http://largestfastestsmartest.co.uk/animals-with-the-best-sense-of-smell-in-the-world/

Female black bear in tree

Female Black Bear

Photographing with groups. I suggest you avoid photographing wildlife with a group of photographers. Several photographers can frighten wildlife, especially if anyone in the photography group moves around quickly and/or talks loudly. An exception is when the animal is some distance from the photography group, for example, when the group members have to use long telephoto lenses. Chances are good that the animal can’t hear the group or see them clearly.

Taking photos from your car. If you’re driving and notice an animal you want to photograph, roll down the car window and shoot the photo. Many times the appearance of just the car doesn’t seem to bother the animal. Time and time again I’ve noticed that an animal will run or fly away as soon as you get out of your car and start setting up your photo equipment.

Just a final word: Be careful with the environment! Photographers often forge their way through delicate areas in the woods to capture a perfect photo. In doing so, sometimes they unconsciously tramp on insects, delicate flowers and grasses, or break bushes and tree limbs.

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