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Wildlife Photography – Consider Your Subject First

The following Wildlife Photography article was submitted by wildlife photographer and author Joe McDonald from hoothollow.com. Learn more about Joe and his work at the end of this post.

Most everyone wants to learn new techniques or secrets, methods or tricks that can help one to improve their wildlife photography. I’m all for the sharing of information, but I think its important to address an equally important aspect of photographing wildlife, and that is the need to do so benignly and without harming the subjects you are shooting.

Wildlife Photography - BisonBison: Although a bison may resemble a cow, and acts similiarly when merely grazing, this huge resident of several western US parks is potentially very dangerous. Each year several people are seriously injured when they move up too closely to a bison grazing or lying about.

Here in the United States wildlife photography is not, for the most part, regulated in any way. In contrast to Britain, here in the States if one is lucky enough to find a bird’s nest there are few restrictions upon ‘working’ that nest, especially if the nest is on private land. Our national parks impose restrictions on photographing at nests or den sites, which is fortunate considering the number of visitors that pass through these parks each year, but on private land, if you have access, anything goes.

I say this not to whet anyone’s appetite to rush across the pond to photograph in America but instead to highlight the need for American photographers, as indeed for all photographers, to consider the welfare of their subjects first. While we may all be interested in making great pictures, the most important consideration of any wildlife photographer should be the subject’s well being. How can that be done?

In American National Parks where large and potentially dangerous mammals roam, not stressing or pushing an animal may be as beneficial to the photographer as to the animal. I’ve met a number of photographers who have moved too close to bison, moose, elk, and even white-tailed deer and been charged, although in each case the photographer escaped unscathed. Unfortunately, every couple of years some photographer gets mauled or killed by a grizzly bear, often because the photographer approached too closely and triggered the attack.

Grizzlies are dangerous, and indeed are the one animal that I’m genuinely afraid of and that I worry about when traveling afield out west. I know several people who have been charged, and one who has been mauled, and in every case the attacks came without warning and by complete surprise. Give a bear plenty of room, and just hope that you see a bear before it sees you.


I mention this because in most cases, when there is a bear attack, it is the bear that suffers. If the bear can be found it’s often destroyed, and, in cases where there is a fatality, more than one bear may be killed to guarantee the culprit is caught. Large herbivores are less likely to be destroyed after a dangerous interaction since attacks are often rut-induced, when a moose or elk is approached too closely and instead of fleeing decides, instead, to show everyone whose boss..

While I may be guilty of rambling on from birds to mammals as I introduce my premise, I’m doing so to underscore the need to self-police ourselves, regardless of whether or not there are particular rules or restrictions in place. That being said, here’s some points to consider when working with wildlife, behaviors or philosophies my wife and I adhere to as we photograph wildlife around the world.

Move slow and stay low. That’s a mantra we follow as we approach or work around wildlife, moving slowly in an almost tai-chai fashion so that no sudden movement frightens the subject. In most cases it’s almost impossible to actually sneak up on an animal but, by moving slowly and unthreateningly, one can often move in close enough for a good photograph without causing alarm.

Wildlife Photography - Great Crested FlycatcherGreat Crested Flycatcher with a captured tiger swallowtail butterfly: Although the bird was nesting in a birdhouse in my backyard, I avoided shooting there and instead placed my blind near a convenient hunting perch the bird used. The flycatcher would often land on this perch with its prey before flying into the nest box.

It’s equally important that when you’re finished shooting you move out with the same degree of deliberation required for moving in. Here in the States there are some bird photographers I know who will move in for tighter and tighter images until the subject flies off. That’s wrong, and as you approach any bird or mammal, if it displays nervousness or signs of stress you should back off. .By doing so, many animals actually become habituated to photographers and eventually show little interest in someone close by.

I’ve never been a big fan of nest photography, especially of song birds and other species that may nest in thick cover. If cover must be moved or removed to provide an opening for your lens or your flashes the nest simply should not be shot. Cavity- or box-nesting birds often do so in more open locations and photography doesn’t pose the same threat, but either way, your presence may stress the bird or influence its behavior or nesting success, and frankly its not worth it.

I advocate a far more benign approach, where I photograph birds at favorite perches or near feeding or watering stations I’ve erected. Finding a favorite perch often involves time spent in observing, which should be as much fun and as rewarding as actually shooting the subject.

This often involves the use of hides or blinds, and sitting inside a blind for any length of time, especially if nothing is happening, requires a degree of patience. But this is good, as it forces you to slow down and to actually observe. In our US National Parks blinds are not permitted, but they’re generally not needed either for the species one can photograph, but on private land a good blind is invaluable for working birds and mammals.

For many, however, sitting in a blind for long periods of time is easier said than done. If you’re like me, if nothing is happening I’ll start fretting about the things I could be doing back in the office, catching up on editing that never seems to end, or answering emails, or returning calls. I’d like to say that I ignore all that and stoically peak out of my peep hole waiting for my subject to appear, but I don’t. Instead, as blasphemous as this may sound, I often read!

Granted, by reading in a blind I sometimes miss a shot because I don’t notice the appearance of my subject. Most of the time, however, my subjects reveal themselves, by their movement through the brush or by a call. When my subject approaches, I drop whatever I’m reading and get ready. I’m not an idiot here, as I sometimes can’t take the chance since some subjects offer no warning as to when they may appear, and for those I simply forego the book!

Reading, however, liberates me, since it seems I have so little time to do so that the time spent in the blind doing so, whether photographically productive or not, is time well-spent. I look at this pragmatically, honestly soul-searching the often conflicting demands of the office with my desire to photograph, and I reason that if I’m productively utilizing my time I’m more inclined to stay in the blind, waiting, where otherwise I might succumb to office pressures and leave prematurely.

My use and placement of a blind or hide subscribes to my initial tenet of doing no harm, as I position a blind in a location I’ve judged safe for the subjects I’m shooting. To do so may require prior observation, and generally requires common sense as well. Unless you are extraordinarily lucky, the act of sitting inside a hide will not guarantee great shots, or any shots for that matter. To be successful, a blind needs to be located where an animal is likely to be, at a food or water source, at a look out, or a favorite resting spot. Knowing where to place the blind is half the trick, but there really is no trick involved, just simple odd-fashioned observation.

About the AuthorJoe McDonald has written 7 books on wildlife and digital nature photography (see some of them below). He is a multiple winner of the prestigious BBC contest and he and his wife Mary run workshops and photo tours in wildlife photography (specializing in East Africa) – you can contact them via email at info@hoothollow.com or visit them online at hoothollow.com

Wildlife Photography Books by Joe McDonald

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Darren Rowse
Darren Rowse

is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals.

He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

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