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When it comes to wildlife photography, there are three fundamental things that will get you National Geographic quality photographs: (1) Purchase a 600mm lens. (2) Always have the eye(s) in focus on the animal. (3) Learn the best manual settings to use on your camera. The last two aren’t that hard to do but the cost of a good 600mm lens is extremely expensive. However, for most situations, a more budget-friendly lens will suffice.
Let’s start out with simple things you can do to get great nature and wildlife shots and we’ll work our way up to more advanced topics.
Bugs are fascinating creatures (as long as they stay outside!) and can make for stunning photographs. A good macro lens will allow you to capture images. However, some of you may be surprised to learn that a zoom lens may be preferable. Have you ever tried to photograph butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies? It’s impossible to get up close to them as they will take off when sensing danger is nearby.
One technique for photographing dragonflies is to zoom in on the insect, click off several pictures, then take one step forward and take several more shots. Keep repeating this process as it helps to get as close as possible. Invariably, the dragonfly will take off, but it’s common for them to return to the same spot. Just be patient and wait to see if the insect will come back.
If you have room in your yard, consider planting a butterfly garden. You can order seeds online or pick them up at the lawn and garden section of your local big box store. The flowers will attract butterflies and other types of insects. The best part is they will come to you instead of you having to go out to find them. As the world becomes more urbanized, you’ll be doing a small part in helping to create habitat and help maintain biodiversity which is a win-win. And you’ll increase your chances of getting some of those wonderful photographs you see in books and on the internet.
Having that 600mm lens will come in handy when getting those owl shots as they are flying across a meadow or in the sky. Quite frankly though, just finding owls and other birds of prey is not that easy let alone photographing them. You still can get close enough to birds where a lower end zoom lens will allow you to get the photographs you are looking for.
Even in large cities you can find birds, especially where there is water. It’s best to go at the crack of dawn and head out to the parks and green spaces where birds will congregate. You will still want to use a zoom lens and many times a 300mm lens will work well. Birds will be out and about in the early morning but will retreat and disappear as more people begin to appear and the noises of the city become louder.
Lakes and oceans are also good places to find birds. If you live by an ocean there will likely be fishing charters and at the end of the day people will clean the fish and birds will gather hoping for scraps. You will be on a pier with a marina in the background so it’s unlikely you will get photographs of birds in the wild but it can be fun as humans and birds interact with each other.
Many birds are migratory and there are refuges set aside where birds can stop to rest and find food. Depending on the species and location, you may be able to get very close to the birds. You will of course need to do homework to find out where to go and what time of year. In some cases a blind will be available where you can hide inside and do your photography while being less obtrusive.
If you have room in your yard, you can set up a bird feeder to attract birds. If possible, set up some sticks or some type of stand that looks natural. The idea is for the birds to have a place to land where it looks natural. Photographing the birds on the stand or sticks will be more interesting and authentic looking compared to birds on a feeder. Place the stand and feeder so you can shoot through a window and where the background looks natural or at least neutral.
Another option is to photograph rescue birds. You nay need to do some digging on the internet but look for wildlife rescue venues and organizations. Birds that have been injured and cannot return to the wild may be on hand and periodically these organizations will display the birds for photographers. The birds will be in close proximity but you may still want to bring a zoom lens as there may be restrictions for how close you can get to the birds. Flash photography may not be allowed so be sure to know how to manually set your camera. Photography opportunities for rescue birds is fairly common but hard to find because it only caters to a small group of photographers. Hearing about these shoots and getting information can be sporadic. Search hard on the internet and contact local nature centers to see if they might know anything. Try using keywords such a RAPTOR or BIRDS OF PREY along with PHOTOGRAPHY and see if you can find anything when trying different word combinations.
If you go to a rescue bird shoot the birds may be tethered or have bands on their legs. You will need to remove these with photo editing software if you want an image that looks natural. Some venues will accommodate by having a natural looking setting while others may be more sterile. A phone call or email will hopefully give you the information you’re looking for depending on the types of pictures you are hoping to get.
FOUR LEGGED ANIMALS
Animals such as deer are fairly used to humans and will get close to you but are skittish enough to keep moving. Again, a modest zoom lens will allow you to get close to the animal. It’s also not that difficult to photograph urban animals such as raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, etc. The more wild animals such as elk, moose, bear, they can be more shy and difficult to photograph. There are places where animals will ignore humans but getting pictures of a bear going through garbage cans is not what wildlife photographers usually want.
Some photographers will build a blind or some type of hiding place in the wild and then wait. And wait. And wait. Getting those iconic shots is a matter of waiting and being patient. You will need to know the behavior of the animal you’re looking to photograph and the places most likely where they will show up.
National parks can be good locations because the animals may be more used to people and more accessible. It’s not uncommon for buffalo to cross a road in front of cars. Many people think it’s cute but they are still wild animals. Avoid getting in the way of animals and do not try to get close to them. Only get close to them where you can run to safety such as getting back into your car if an animal is to attack or charge you. You can go on YouTube and find plenty of videos of people being attacked by wild animals because they got too close. Some cases are graphic and bloody.
Always give animals respect and keep plenty of space between you and the animal. Utilize a zoom lens and a 300mm will be more than adequate in locations where the wildlife is accustomed to cars and tourists.
There are many types of excursions that will cater to photographers who want to photograph wildlife. The cost may be a challenge for the more exotic locations but many can be reasonable in price. There are tour companies with trips to South Africa and Kenya that make for a reasonably priced vacation and will include excursions into wildlife areas. There are trips to the far north where you can photograph polar bears. There are also tour companies that will sail cruise ships to Antarctica where you can photograph penguins, seals, and a variety of other wildlife such as birds you normally don’t see elsewhere. Antarctica is expensive but not out of reach if you’re willing to save for a once in a lifetime trip.
Some tour companies offer “quickie” trips to the Galapagos Islands that are not that expensive. You can also set aside time for wildlife photography when taking a more traditional vacation such as going to Disney World in Florida. During the coldest parts of winter the manatees will move inland to find warmer water so you might want to spend a day trying to photograph these animals. Hawaii and the coast of California have whale watching tours you can sign up for if you’re going at the right time of year.
Those iconic photographs of grizzly bears catching salmon as they go upstream to spawn, there are popular locations where photographers gather to snap these pictures. Some places are extremely popular so there is a lottery system in place. Sign up for the lottery and hope you get chosen. If you do, then head out to Alaska and bring your camera along. What people don’t realize is there are platforms that have been built where you can have a good vantage point to photograph the grizzlies as they cash in on the salmon run.
The tri-state area of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa along the Mississippi River is a well known region for photographing bald eagles. A few web searches will provide you with some of the prime spots where you can go to photograph the eagles. This is but one example where nature photography is more accessible than one might have thought.
Wherever you go in the world, do a few internet searches to see if there are any wildlife opportunities you can photograph. Unless you live in the area, you might have never known that Iowa is a great place for capturing images of bald eagles. What might be available where you live?
It should be obvious that you should not be destructive to an environment. Extreme cases involve people chopping down trees in order to have a better view. If you build a natural blind, only use material that is already on the ground and take the blind down when you’re done. Better yet, purchase a blind or camouflage coverings. There are camouflage garments and covers designed specifically for photographers.
Do not interfere with the natural behavior of animals. This includes approaching or getting too close to them. A human getting too close to an animal can cause stress. Putting out food to attract animals is not considered to be an ethical practice. Yes, we mentioned setting up a bird feeder but as habitat is reduced every year, it does help the bird population to maintain. Larger animals becoming dependent on food being put out for them can harm certain species in the long run.
One photographer was known for rigging a contraption that would mimic a mouse moving underneath the snow in order to photograph owls that were attracted to the sound. This can greatly confuse the bird for thinking there is mouse activity but not being rewarded for its efforts. Animals should not be tricked in any way in order for you to get a photograph.
Breeding season is a sensitive time for doing photography. Some nature areas will close and not allow humans to enter so that animals can breed or give birth without being stressed by human intrusion. Again, respect the animals and let them engage in important activities without being disturbed.
As you can see, photographing nature and wildlife is not that hard to do, even in urban areas. It’s more of a matter of paying attention to the opportunities that exist. It also doesn’t require a huge investment in equipment unless you want to go to extremes. You do need a decent zoom lens but a macro lens will also work when photographing the tiny things in your backyard. Simple things like a flower garden or bird feeder can help bring the wildlife to you.
Wildlife can be found in the quiet corners of an urban area. Trips and vacations can bring you to locations where there are other types of wildlife you can photograph. Perhaps the most important thing when it comes to photographing wildlife is to remain patient and to keep going out to shoot. People always talk about the “lucky” shot they got, but you can make your own luck and that comes from being persistent and learning as you go.