Photographing wildlife is a challenging and highly rewarding pursuit. Wildlife adds a magical element to any nature experience. Most of us interact with some form of wildlife on a daily basis. With some basic equipment, a little preparation, and a focused effort, you can achieve outstanding results–and often within a relatively short distance from your home.
While wildlife photography usually conjures up images of exotic locations like Kenya or Alaska, the lower 48 states are rich with wildlife. We are fortunate here in America to have such an extensive system of national parks, state parks, and wildlife refuges throughout the country. These preserves are often havens for wildlife in a world of increasing habitat loss. Yellowstone is the crown jewel of national parks and boasts the highest concentrations of wild animals in the contiguous U.S.. The Yellowstone ecosystem is comprised of some 28 million acres and claims some of North America’s most impressive species–including grizzly bears, wolves, elk, and bison. Living here in Mount Shasta, I am blessed to have the Klamath National Wildlife Refuges just an hour away. The Klamath Refuges are a major stopover along the Pacific Flyway and home to the largest wintering population of bald eagles in the lower 48. Millions of birds migrate through the Refuges every Spring and Fall. Many areas throughout the country offer similar opportunities for photographing wildlife.
When we think of wildlife, we tend to think of the larger and more obvious species–but let’s not overlook the small and seemingly commonplace. Several photographers have opened our eyes to the beauty and wonder of the myriad tiny creatures with whom we share this Earth. Every living organism is a miracle of creation, and as unique and fascinating as any other when observed closely. Insects comprise the largest number of species in the animal kingdom–over 1 million recognized species worldwide. North America alone is home to more than 88,000 species of insects, so don’t overlook them as potential subjects. They are among the planet’s most fantastic critters. Check out The Smaller Majority, by Piotr Naskrecki. The photography is stunning!
You can shoot exceptional wildlife photographs with the most basic equipment. The majority of cameras come standard with some kind of zoom lens. Longer focal lengths have more reach and allow you to work at greater distances from your subject. Animals tend to be wary of humans and some are simply too dangerous to photograph at close range. If you are serious about wildlife photography, a 300 to 500mm telephoto is optimal. Many camera manufacturers sell telephotos up to 1200mm. These lenses get quite pricey. At these long focal lengths, you want the very best glass you can afford. Even a 200mm length can yield professional results. Roosevelt Elk (above) was taken handheld with a Canon 200mm f/4 telephoto lens. Canon now offers a 70-200mm f/2.8 image-stabilized zoom. This is an exceptionally sharp and versatile lens and is excellent for photographing wildlife or people, landscapes or cityscapes.
Teleconverters mount between the camera body and lens to increase focal length. They are available in 1.4x and 2x. A 200mm f/4 telephoto with a 2x teleconverter becomes a 400mm f/8 lens. I always recommend using a tripod and cable release with telephotos.
It isn’t necessary to spend thousands of dollars on long telephotos to capture striking wildlife images. Vision and imagination are the primary components to strong image-making. More gear does not equate to better photography–it simply means more possibilities. A 50mm lens in the hands of a competent photographer can yield dramatic results. A macro lens is specifically designed for close-up photography and works especially well with small amphibians, reptiles, and insects, as well as wildflowers. Macros usually come in two focal lengths–50 and 100mm. An inexpensive alternative to the macro lens are extension tubes, which increase the distance between the lens element and sensor, offering up to larger-than-lifesize magnification. They commonly come in a set of three (12, 20, and 36mm) and can be used in varying combinations to achieve different magnifications. Many photographers use a ring flash to light their subject. Any external flash will work if you’re in need of one. You may also want to use a flash diffuser to soften the illumination.
Great photographs rarely just happen. They are typically the product of hard work and dedicated effort–years in the field, studying and knowing the subject. A little homework here can mean the difference between seeing wildlife at all and coming away with an exceptional image. Do your homework and have a plan. For me, one of the great joys of photography is the continual education I receive. Mother Nature is the ultimate educator and we, as human beings, stand to learn much about ourselves through observing nature.
Animals are usually most active in the early morning and evening hours. Spring and Fall are times of great activity. Fall is the mating season. Elk and big-horned sheep are in the rut and banging heads for mating rites. Spring is a time of renewal and rebirth. Moose are calving and myriad birds are hatching. These are dynamic seasons for a wildlife photographer. For that very reason, they also warrant caution. These are wild animals and the seemingly most docile creature can turn frightfully dangerous if approached. Always give animals plenty of distance, and be especially wary of animals with young. For them, survival is a serious matter.
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a grizzly bear peering down your lens. First and foremost–remain aware of your surroundings and your safety. With that ingrained, pay attention to the image-making part of the process–composition and lighting. Scan the viewfinder for any distracting elements and eliminate them. Think ahead to the finished photograph. Do you want to isolate the subject against a soft background or do you prefer maximum depth-of-field for sharp detail? Do you want to freeze motion or accent it with a long exposure? Anticipate where any action might occur and be ready. As the light changes, take meter readings and make test shots. If you live in close proximity to wildlife habitat, make repeated trips and look for new and interesting vantage points. Take note of the light throughout the day and throughout the seasons. Animals, like human beings, are part of their environment. Look to place them in their surroundings. It can provide a telling insight into the nature of the animal.
A few last words–and for some of us, I am overstating the obvious–wild animals have an extremely acute sense of smell. If Fido has just ridden in your lap for the last 150 miles, any animal will know it. Avoid using scented products–shampoo, soap, and laundry detergent. No colognes or perfumes. Women should also be aware of their cycle when in the wild. It can attract curious and sometimes unwanted visitors. If you’re photographing grizzly bears in Glacier National Park, carry pepper spray and hope you don’t have to use it.
The continued survival of hundreds and thousands of species of wildlife all around the world are stressed with a rapidly declining habitat, pollution, and other environmental pressures. Please be respectful of all the creatures you encounter. Give them ample space. NO photograph is so important as to stress an animal in the making of it! We are privileged to bear witness to the processes of nature. And when it comes down to it, in the wild, we are the visitors.
Check out the work of Frans Lanting. This man exemplifies fine art nature photography in a way that few are able!
I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions.
Until next time, happy image-making…