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Wildlife photography may seem like an attractive field of photography to you, but one of the most daunting things for beginners is how to actually go about finding the animals in the first place. Thanks to mankind’s destructive nature we’re used to seeing fleeting glimpses of animals, often far away, prompting heated debates between groups as to what is that winged black speck in the distance.
As a newcomer to wildlife photography, you may find yourself wondering how on Earth you are supposed to get even remotely close enough for a picture. Sure, you can maybe settle for an atmospheric habitat shot, with the subject small in the frame, but you’d be forgiven for wanting close-up portraits of animals too.
So let’s look at some of the ways you can achieve those super detailed close-up shots, showing every part of fur or feather.
One of the first places I visited when I first embarked on my journey as a wildlife photographer was a small wetland reserve. This reserve had some birds kept in open enclosures, as well as a river which was host to many wild ducks. Ducks tend to move slowly, at least when swimming casually along and are fairly easy to get close to (especially in a reserve frequented by well-intended people).
The best attraction for me, though, was the woodland hide. Situated in a quiet clump of trees, this woodland hide looked over a feeding station for wild birds. It was visited by mainly small passerines, such as great tits and bullfinches, but occasionally the odd predator would drop in such as a sparrow hawk.
If you can find yourself a local reserve like this one, or just a public wildlife hide in a good spot, put in the hours and try to think outside the box. You’ll most likely come away with some decent images that you can be proud of.
Not happy with a public hide? Get your own wildlife blind – a camouflage tent, if you will – and set it up wherever you think wildlife may frequent. This might even be in your backyard, and if you set up a small feeding station there you could have all sorts of birds and small mammals visiting. Bird feeders filled with sunflower seeds will quickly attract small passerine birds, with squirrels most likely making a visit there too.
Working in hides requires a lot of patience. In the past, I spent 15 hours a day for two weeks in a hide waiting for brown bears make an appearance. But even with animals that are visiting regularly, you’ll need to put in the hours to capture interesting behavior and something more than just a simple “bird on a stick” portrait shot.
If you’re really stuck for ideas or want to track down something a little more interesting, try setting up a small Bushnell trail camera in likely locations for animals. Such locations might be runs in a woodland (trodden down trails in the grass you can see, where animals move regularly). The camera will sit and watch 24/7 for you, triggering when something moves by. They’ll record video or take photos that you can later review, unveiling the secrets of a particular area to you.
Some animals are nocturnal, and in those cases, you could even try setting up a DSLR camera trap, although these are usually used by more practiced wildlife photographers. I wouldn’t recommend trying out this technique just yet if you are very new to the game, and instead, stick to the trail cameras for finding locations.
If you want to be a successful wildlife photographer, then you need good fieldcraft skills. You need to learn how to remain concealed, and silently approach animals without them noticing you. This involves learning to properly observe your subject. Only move when they are distracted. You should never approach an animal that is clearly alert and wary that something is nearby. Wait until they’re relaxed and unaware, before continuing to move closer.
But learn the limits. There’s going to be a point you need to stop, otherwise, you would be standing nose to nose with a moose or something similar. You’ll need to practice stalking techniques, with many failures no doubt, before you get it just right. Simple things like thinking about the material your clothes are made of, in order to prevent loud noises when your walk, will make all the difference.
Once you’ve done that, you’ll find yourself able to spot an animal at a distance and get closer and closer. It takes time, but it’s great fun and it definitely makes the final image more worthwhile thanks to the hard work you put in. I love to try stalking red deer – they’re big, charismatic subjects but they’re really wary of people. They’ll happily stare at you standing still, but once they spot you moving towards them they’ll run a mile.
Many of my wildlife photos are opportunistic. It doesn’t hurt to drive around with your camera in the passenger’s seat, keeping your eyes peeled for wildlife. In an ideal world, you’d have someone driving for you so you can pay 100% attention to the surrounding areas, rather than having to focus on the road.
Cars can be the best wildlife blinds available. Animals are so used to seeing them that they are mostly ignored. While you may get a photo from your car, this is also a great way to find the regular haunts for a particular animal. Dawn and dusk are the best times to start exploring when animals are generally most active.
Do you have any other tips for doing wildlife photography and finding animals to photograph? Please share in the comments below.