Top Tips for Wildlife Photography

TOP TIPS FOR WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY: 

I love city travel, but wildlife has always been the most appealing subject for me. I grew up in rural nowheresville surrounded by forests and rivers, observing wildlife, fishing, hunting, learning how to live off the land. I returned to that way of life in my late 20s when I settled deep in the Appalachian Mountains where my closest neighbors were the shy and furry kind. Now in a city of a million people, it's more important than ever that I make trips into the natural world to spend time among North America's critters; it's about keeping my sanity really. Luckily, I can be in the stunning Canadian Rockies in 3 hours and it's only 30 minutes to the nearest National Park (Elk Island). I get the best of both worlds here in Edmonton: convenient city living and access to the great outdoors with relative ease. 

As a kid I developed a keen interest in the natural world. I watched Marty Stouffer's (now controversial) PBS program Wild America and Bob Ross paint epic, almost surreal, mountain scenes. I dreamed of visiting the west and seeing iconic wildlife. In my short time here in Alberta, I've managed to check many of those iconic species and places off the list (though I'll never be completely satisfied enough to move on entirely - revisiting familiar subjects is important). Over my short years I've learned some valuable information- some tips and tricks if you will- regarding how to photograph wildlife in an effective and ethical way. It's less about equipment than you might imagine and much more about patience and respect. You can only produce great images of subjects you're passionate about and respect. Here are my top tips for photographing wildlife:

 Bull Elk eating willows, Jasper National Park, Canada

Bull Elk eating willows, Jasper National Park, Canada

DO YOUR RESEARCH:

If you're going to Yellowstone, or the Galapagos, or your backyard, or wherever, make sure you've taken time to learn about the wildlife you may encounter. Knowing the biology (behavior, environment, natural diet, mating habits, etc.) of a species is essential in knowing when and where to find them and how best to get close without disrupting their behavior. 

PLAN YOUR SHOTS:

It's impossible to have complete control during a wildlife shoot. Wild animals are unpredictable, and if you're lucky enough (through preparation) to encounter the animal you want to photograph in the right light and environment, you never know how much time you're going to have with it. Make a list, at least a mental one, of the type of shots you want. Pre-visualize the type of background you want. Think about whether you'd like to go for tight head shots, or environmental portraits, or both. If it's a big event in the animal's biology, like mating season, for example, think about how you're going to tell that story and what types of shots you need to do it. Making a shot list will allow you to know what you want to accomplish, so you can more effectively use the limited time you have to capture the images you want. Try to get a variety of shots. Think wide, medium, and tight crops.

USE THE RIGHT GEAR:

Notice this tip isn't called "use the most expensive gear." You don't need a brand new $10,000 500mm f4 lens to photograph wildlife effectively. Let me repeat that: YOU DO NOT NEED A 500MM F4 LENS TO SHOOT WILDLIFEIf you've got the budget and plan on entering the extremely competitive and low paying profession of the Pro Wildlife Photographer, then by all means, get the $10,000 lens. I'm not going to. There are much cheaper alternatives to big fixed focal length lenses these days that won't break the bank or your back. About 90% of the wildlife shots I've captured have been with the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VR II, with or without the TC 17E II teleconverter, usually on a APS-C/DX camera.

I find that any lens with a focal length of 200-300mm is fine for most situations, especially with large mammals. I like to be able to zoom. Yes, zoom lenses are not going to be as sharp or as fast focusing as the 500mm F4 VR II or Canon equivalent... but it's only by a hair and has never been noticeable to me, and my wildlife photos are selling (sharpness largely depends on your technique). I'd recommend a 70-300mm zoom for the tight budget, or a 100-400mm/200-500mm for those that can spend a little more. The benefit of a zoom lens over a fixed is obvious. If you're in a situation where the subject comes in unexpectedly close, you'll be able to adjust your focal length instead of moving your body and spooking the animal. 

 Atlantic Puffins on Machias Seal Island, Canada

Atlantic Puffins on Machias Seal Island, Canada

As far as camera bodies go, any crop sensor (APS-C or DX) camera is great, like Canon's 7D or 80D series, or Nikon's D7000 series, or Fuji's X series, etc. The crop factor means you get "closer" to the subject without needing a longer lens. My 70-200mm is a 105-300mm on my D7100. Add the 1.7x teleconverter for extra reach, and I get a very compact 178.5-510mm set up. The downside is that crop sensor cameras are not quite as clean at high ISOs as full frame cameras, but that's the trade off. 

I'd recommend, as always, using a tripod when using long lenses, they are tiresome to hold for prolonged periods and when the light level's low, you'll wish you had it. Proper handling, a fast shutter speed (often requiring a high ISO), and solid support all aid in creating sharp wildlife photos. 

GIVE THE ANIMAL SPACE (NEVER DIRECTLY APPROACH WILDLIFE):

Your best chance at getting the shots you want from any wildlife situation is getting as close as possible. Depending on the species and their exposure to humans, you may be able to do this quite easily. Never directly approach a wild animal, however. Give them adequate space. You endanger yourself and wildlife when you put unnecessary stress on your subject and you are not going to get any good images.

How to Get Close to Wildlife:

The safest way to get close to wildlife is to approach indirectly, slowly, quietly, paying as little attention to the animal as possible until you're in position and have indicated that you're not a threat. Patience is key during this process - don't rush in. I have two methods I use often for getting close to wildlife when the animal is fully aware of my presence. One is the "lost wallet routine", the other I call "act like a goat." These are both pretty similar methods. Essentially, I act like I've lost my wallet and I'm looking for it on the ground, never directly looking at or making eye contact with the subject. When I'm acting "like a goat", I simply pretend I'm grazing or browsing on leaves, mimicking the subject's own activities. Seems silly doesn't it? Well, it works!

 Mountain Goat on a Hillside Meadow, Jasper National Park, Canada

Mountain Goat on a Hillside Meadow, Jasper National Park, Canada

Once the elk, ram, or mountain goat has resumed it's activities, determining that I just may be a strange-looking new member of their group, I get as close as I can slowly and seemingly without intention. If the subject lifts its head abruptly, or starts to move away, I'm too close. I then sit, and resume acting "like a goat" until trust is again restored. I never touch, pet, or feed a wild animal. I never get between mothers and their young, and I always make sure the animal has a clear exit if it chooses to walk away from me.

 Bighorn Ram, Jasper National Park, Canada

Bighorn Ram, Jasper National Park, Canada

The above are proven methods I use over and over with ungulates mainly. I make sure to give a wider birth to bull elk and other large antlered or horned creatures during the rut to avoid a dangerous situation. I do not use the methods above on predators like bears. Instead, I give them loads more space (about 50 yards if they exhibit non-threatening behavior) with a river, vehicle, or some other barrier between us. Photographing bears from a car is ideal, as bears in National Parks are usually not afraid or threatened by cars. 

SHOW RESPECT:

We've all seen the dumb tourists that disrespect wildlife by rushing up to animals with their cell phones for selfies and blurry over-processed Instagram shots. To be blunt, I hate these people - they are the scum of the tourism industry. I may very well have an instance where I beat someone senseless with my tripod before long. People seem to have little sense, especially when it comes to baby animals. Not everything in nature is a cute and fuzzy cartoon; dumb people have been gored and maimed by little friendly mountain goats. You know who really loses? The wildlife. If a less than intelligent human (or group of humans...) pushes an animal too far for a snap shot with their iPhone, and the spooked critter protects itself even with a bluff charge, that animal will be put down by parks officials. If someone leaves food garbage at their campsite, or worse, feeds wildlife deliberately, the bear, or wolf that comes back for more, now associating humans with food handouts, will be put down - potentially after someone else is hurt or killed. Not fair is it? Nope. Show respect to the environment and those who inhabit it. No picture is worth endangering the subject or yourself. 

 Cinnamon Black Bear Eating Dandelions, Jasper National Park, Canada

Cinnamon Black Bear Eating Dandelions, Jasper National Park, Canada

For more of my wildlife images, visit www.jonreaves.com. For the full list of my photography gear, click here