Wondering how wildlife photographers get so close to the wildlife? Aside from powerful lenses on their cameras, wildlife photographers use several techniques to capture their subjects on film, including researching their animals to know their habits and stalking the animals correctly so as not to startle them. The key to it all is to appear as non-threatening as possible and approach slowly.
Animals are so wonderful. There are so many varieties and species, so many looks and colours that it’s almost hard to believe they all come from one planet, However, as anyone who has ever owned a dog or a cat will know, photographing them can be a nightmare; perfectly photogenic the first second, and little hairy demon blur the next. With so many of us not even able to get a picture of our sleeping pooch without disturbing them, many wonder how wildlife photographers can get so close.
Well, it’s one of those things which is very simple to explain in broad terms but contains a hundred little things to remember once you begin peeling back the layers. But it all comes down to one simple rule of thumb: don’t be scary. How are you supposed to not be scary? Well, we’ll discuss how not to be terrifying down below.
Related Reading: Are Wildlife Biologists Happy?
Wildlife Photographers Study Their Subject
This is the first thing you should try to do, for many obvious reasons. For one thing, if the bird species you’re hoping to take a picture of are active at dawn and dusk on the shorelines, then blundering into a forest in the middle of the day isn’t going to do you much good.
Research can help you establish a schedule for most animals which will help you in deciding your own schedule for photographing them. For example, if you wanted to photograph birds, you’d know:
- At dawn, they are active for the first few hours
- They are pretty inactive around noon
- At dusk, they have a little explosion of energy around half an hour before the sun goes down
And with these points, you could establish your own schedule.
Likewise, a little research will tell you the likelihood of these animals you’re hoping to get a nice snap of being familiar with humans. Are they in a national park where they probably see humans all the time (And maybe get a little morsel from them every now and again)? Then you won’t have to be so careful as the kinds of animals who are completely isolated and have never seen a human before.
They Plan Their Approach
Okay, so now onto the more general ‘How Not To Be Terrifying’ stuff you could use for almost any animal. Wildlife photographers everywhere have all probably shared the experience of taking a painfully slow path towards their subjects – only for their plan to be ruined at the last minute by an errant stick snapping underfoot and scaring all the animals away.
Before approaching an animal, with quiet being the key, make sure you take note of what could be a problem and avoid that. A little effort in this department will go a long way.
Wildlife Photographers Approach Slowly And Indirectly
Whether it’s birds or mammals, predator or prey, approaching fast and directly is going to be taken as a threatening move. Most people would probably do this because they’re excited to see a new animal and scared the shot may run (or fly) away before they can capture it.
But this is just a fool’s move; if you’re scared of losing the picture and sprint towards the animal, then you will definitely lose the shot – or worse, might provoke a threatening move right back.
- Approach slowly.
- Get on your hands and knees, or even stomach if you have to.
- Get used to stopping and starting.
- Try to do what you can to give your subject a wide berth and stay parallel to it, then slowly work your way back in.
They Become A Food Ninja
What I mean by this is give them some food, and then melt into the shadows. If you linger long enough in one area without moving, then eventually, you will become part of the environment for most of the wildlife. If you leave a tasty little bribe a few feet away from you and then sit patiently then eventually, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to get the shot you want.
They Don’t Make Eye Contact
This is true whether you’re walking or on the ground on your belly. If you do everything on this list so far: creep forward slowly, hide in the background, bait them – but you’re staring intensely at them the whole time, then all that behaviour suddenly looks exactly like that of an apex predator to most animals, and you’ll not have much success. Instead, don’t act like you’re interested in them.
Act as if you can’t even see them, like your camera, or that tree up ahead of you is just so much more fascinating than they could ever be, and you’ll likely have much more success.
Wildlife Photographers Read The Room… Or Forest
Again, this can be helped by doing some research towards your subjects, since all animals behave differently in very subtle ways but a lot of this has to do with experience.
But there is a rule of thumb you can follow, and that is to assume that if an animal changes its behaviours when you’re creeping in, it’s because of you. Stop moving and let the animal get used to your presence. Once the animal has been reassured that you’re not a predator looking to eat them, you can start trying to move again.
Once the animal, or group of animals, has become accustomed to your presence, then you can get to where you need to be to get the best shots.
They Never, EVER Chase
This may seem obvious on paper, but in practice, when you’re caught up in the moment, it can be easy to forget, but chasing an animal never works out for a picture. If they’re running or flying away, let them go. Not only will you only be getting butt-shots at best if you’re trying to take pictures of a fleeing animal (Not very impressive for a portfolio!) but you’re making an absolute racket which means the animal is just going to keep on running.
Instead, try to predict where the animal is going to be (again, another boon to research) and stay there. If you lose them, just take the L and try again another day.
Patience Is A Virtue
In this case, when I say patience, I do mean patience – when you set up for a wildlife shoot, you have to be prepared that you’re not likely to get the shots you want in an hour. Maybe not even in an afternoon. It may take hours on its own for animals to get used to your presence enough to not flee when you try to move to get a better angle, so be prepared that to get some really close up shots, you might have to be there all day, or even for the whole season.
One of the biggest destroyers to good photos, and the main contributor to you not following these rules correctly is impatience, so before you attempt to take some close-up wildlife pictures, be prepared for what you’re going in for. Bring some sandwiches.
In conclusion, aside from a high-end camera with a 1500mm lens, some of the best techniques wildlife photographers use to get close up shots of wildlife are: study the subject, plan a silent approach, move slowly in a wide berth before moving back in, become part of the environment through not moving, not making eye contact, feeding them, never chasing and remaining patient whilst you try to take photos.