We all have them. Those photos from the family camping trip or from a hike in the woods--you know, when you spotted a deer or a wild turkey and you snapped a photo with your point-and-shoot. And now when you show that photo to your friends and family, you have to tell them what they're looking at because said deer or wild turkey is a mere spec in the center of the frame.
Wildlife photography is difficult, because wild animals are, believe it or not, even less willing to be photographed than an active toddler or a moody teenager. So what can you do to turn that little spec in the frame into a photo that any National Geographic photographer would be proud of?
Have the right equipment
It's sad, but true. Great wildlife photographs require good cameras and great lenses. A digital SLR is almost a requirement (though a compact camera with at least a 10x zoom will still do an OK job). For most shots, you will also need a long zoom lens for that DSLR--think 300-400mm at least, although the pros will go all the way up to 500 or 600. However, I'll explain some alternatives below if you don't have a lens like this. A universal rule of photographing wildlife is that you will get better shots if the animals don't know you're there, for a couple of reasons. First, an animal who isn't aware of your presence will behave naturally, which means your shots will be more honest; and second, that animal won't run off, thus leaving you with a photo of nothing but a furry behind. Which is, of course, why you need a long lens (which is the photographer-speak for a large zoom). A long lens will allow you to approach your subject with your camera instead of with your feet.
Before you spend your life savings on that African safari, visit your local zoo and practice photographing the animals there. Or, sit in your back yard and take pictures of the common animals, like squirrels and song birds. If you live in the suburbs, you can even practice on dogs and cats. Mastering the common animal first will improve your chances at getting amazing images on your day trip to the state park or on your once-in-lifetime trip to the Australian outback.
Patience, patience, patience
You're probably not going to get lucky on the average camping trip or wilderness hike, so don't just go out for a hike and hope you'll run into a coyote. Capturing a great shot because you just happened to wander into the path of an unsuspecting animal is an unlikely scenario. It's far more probable that the animal is going to spot you first and bound away before you can even lift your camera.
To get that great shot, choose the right time of day (wild animals are most active at dawn and dusk, when, coincidentally, the light is better for photos anyway). Choose a location that wild animals are known to frequent. Most wild animals are programmed to flee at the sight of a human walking on two legs, so position yourself low to the ground and wait for the animals to come to you. Set your shutter speed to at least 1/750 - your subject may move slowly or it may move quickly, and being ready with a fast shutter speed will ensure you get a great shot in either situation.
Keep your finger on that shutter button. You never know when an animal is going to do something cool, and you have to be ready. If you wait until you see that coyote leaping on a ground squirrel, you're going to miss the shot. So set your camera up for continuous, rapid-fire shooting, take aim and don't stop shooting until the animal moves away. And bring plenty of memory cards because you're going to fill them up pretty fast.
What if you don't have the right equipment?
Don't worry, all is not lost if you don't own an expensive 500-600mm zoom or even a 300-400. Great wildlife photography doesn't always have to be intimately close, so if your lens isn't particularly long and you're worried that flock of geese is going to take to the air if you try to get too close, remember that zooming out to capture the whole flock in its enormity can make for a striking image as well. And habitat is almost as important as the animal living in it - what's a great shot of a deer without a few complimentary photos that include the forest it lives in?
Remember too that not all "wild" animals are truly wild. You can still get amazing photos of animals that like to hang out where people live. Pigeons and seagulls are good examples of these types of animals, since they live by scavenging the food people drop, and are thus much less likely to retreat when they see you coming. Popular national and state parks may also provide homes to larger animals that are less wary of humans--for example, it's not uncommon to see elk in Yellowstone that don't have much fear of tourists.
Be smart and be safe
Exercise plenty of caution when photographing wild animals, even (and especially) those who don't seem to be afraid of you. Overeager photographers are commonly injured by their would-be subjects (think of the San Diego photographer who was recently killed by the Alaskan bear he was trying to photograph). So don't try to get too close to that rattlesnake, no matter how cool you think it looks. Don't approach a large animal with a baby. And don't go hunting for large wild animal photos alone--it's always safer to shoot with a friend.
Do your research
If you're shooting in a national park, talk to rangers about the behavior of the animals you want to photograph. Where do rutting deer go when the temperature starts to fall? Where is the best place to see buffalo? At what time of day are the birds of prey most active? Read up on the animal you're planning to stalk with your camera, and understand its habits. This will save you the disappointment of expecting action shots from animals who just want to sleep, or not being able to locate any wild animals at all because you're nowhere near their winter grounds.
For most of us, the opportunity to shoot wild animals isn't something that comes up every day. Wildlife photography comes with careful planning and often with the great expense of travel. So don't approach these opportunities lightly. Save up for some decent equipment and master the fine art of shooting animals in your local area. And when you plan your trip, gather as much information as you can about your location and your hoped-for subject. If you follow all these suggestions, you'll be far less likely to come home with boring shots, animal-less shots or worse, a bunch of photos of animal-shaped specs.
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