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Photographing Wildlife


Everybody we know who has gotten hooked on photographing wildlife started out the same way: they simply found wild animals fascinating, wanted to know more about them, and most importantly wanted to experience them in their natural environment. But if ever there was a hobby that requires patience, this is it. Diehard wildlife photographers will sit for hours in cold, lonely blinds, enduring bug bites and miserable weather conditions for the chance to photograph a deer coming out to graze or a moose feeding along the edge of a lake.

Even when you have a subject that seems to be cooperative, there are many other issues. Is he doing something interesting? Is he in the right light? Can you capture him going that fast? What about the background? All inexperienced wildlife enthusiasts can point to boxes of film that were wasted because, even though they caught the animal, the composition, lighting, or pose just wasn't worthwhile.


For Yellowstone wildlife images, please visit our
Wildlife Directory. We have photos in Flash and Non-Flash versions

Learning to take good wildlife photos is one of the most rewarding aspects of outdoor photography, but it requires skill, patience, and a good degree of luck. At the end of the day, though, we think you'll find that the rewards are not just in the pictures you take, but in the incredible sense of wonder you get from sharing a wild animal's world for just a little while.

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EQUIPMENT

Pursuing wild animals in their natural habitat is rarely performed under ideal conditions. We find our best opportunities in the early morning or late in the day, when lighting conditions are difficult. The subjects are shy and skittish and often require a lot of distance between themselves and humans. Most move very quickly. And it's often necessary to travel into remote places to pursue them.

Fortunately, the photographer who is interested in specializing in these elusive subjects has a wide array of equipment options to help. An outfit for wildlife photography, using a 35mm single-lens-reflex camera, can get expensive. Before you get started, make sure that you'll do enough of this type of photography to warrant the expenditure.

The choice of lenses on the market is truly impressive, and this makes it difficult to know where to start. Our first suggestion is to begin with your camera manufacturer-see what lenses it offers in its line. You'll have a good idea what quality to expect, and the telephoto you choose may be more compatible with the other lenses in your outfit. Lenses from the same manufacturer often take the same filters, resulting in a considerable savings. You may also find that the similarities in terms of focus and metering make them easier to use.

A lens with a long focal length is an absolute must for pursuing wildlife, but you may immediately find yourself with a case of sticker shock. Long lenses can be expensive, so it's important to know what features are most important.

Because of the distances involved, a good choice for starting your outfit is a 300mm lens, the smallest of the long-focal-length lenses, which range from 300mm to 1000mm or more. We recommend buying the highest-quality lens you can; it's disappointing to go through all the effort of stalking and capturing your subjects only to find that your images aren't sharp because you have a poor lens.

Many wildlife photographers consider 300mm too short and prefer to work with a 400mm lens. There are some good zooms on the market also, but keep in mind that high-quality zooms are often very expensive. They also tend to be much heavier than prime lenses, which makes them harder to hand-hold and lug around in the field. Hand-holding any lens over 300mm isn't practical anyway, because your inability to stabilize a lens of this size will probably produce less-than-sharp pictures.

There are products that help anchor these long lenses while also assisting in tracking your subject. A tripod is useful, of course, for mounting your camera when you won't be moving around a lot. Invest in one that's as heavy and sturdy as you can afford to carry. It's a good idea to paint the legs and upper post in a flat black, green, or brown color to camouflage the device and prevent its shiny surface from capturing the attention of your subjects. You can also use camouflage tape-the same kind that bow hunters use. We also wrap hard-cell foam insulating material on our tripod legs; it's flat gray, and provides a little cushioning to protect our shoulders when we haul the supports around.

A monopod is a good choice if you're going to be working in good lighting conditions. It's a simple one-legged stand that helps stabilize your camera, but makes it a little easier to stalk. We only use a monopod when we're shooting fast shutter speeds, usually 1/125 second or more, because absolute stability is not guaranteed the way it is with a tripod.

For photographing birds in flight or stalking moving animals, the shoulder stock is very helpful. This device ranges from a lightweight aluminum support that balances on your chest to a heavier wooden gun-stock style. Your stock should be comfortable, provide good stability, and allow you to move quickly. After trying a number of styles, we still haven't found the perfect stock. This seems to be a common complaint-many photographers buy stocks and then adapt them to their particular preferences.

A motor drive seems to be an obvious choice for photographing moving wildlife. It's true that these devices are convenient: they're faster and less distracting than having to thumb-crank after every shot, and you don't run the risk of missing a shot because you forgot to advance the film. We would hate to be without ours. But don't expect to use it to fire in rapid sequence, assuming that you'll be able to capture the full movement of the animal. Even at full speed, you'll still only catch a fraction of the animal's motion. And with moving animals, it's almost impossible to keep a sharp focus that long anyway. You can waste a lot of film shooting this way. We find that we rarely shoot more than two or three exposures at one time.

Some photographers feel that the motor drive's noise can scare the animals. While this may be true to some extent, it hasn't been our experience. In some cases, though, such as when we're photographing songbirds up close, even the snap of the mirror is too much noise. While shooting birds nesting near our home, we have actually tried insulating the camera with foam and rubber bands to muffle the sound. But the best thing to do when your camera distracts the subject is to take a break and give your subject a chance to settle before beginning again.

If your camera gives you the choice of interchangeable focusing screens, you may want to invest in a clear matte focusing screen for shooting wildlife. Most camera outfits come with a split-image focusing screen. These may be fine for general photography, but we don't find them nearly as easy to use on photographs that require small aperture settings or long lenses.

 

ANIMAL NATURE

The most important factor in getting good photos of wild animals is knowing as much as possible about them. Wild animals inhabit a world that has little to do with ours, and they can be dangerous, particularly if you don't know what to expect.

Advance study can help you make sense of the animal's habitat. Local field guides can let you know what species can be found in certain regions and give you an idea of your subject's favorite territories. Find out the species' nocturnal feeding habits. Learn what individuals like to eat and where. Do they move in groups or are they solitary? How do they react in various types of weather? Take careful note of their mating seasons as well as when females will be giving birth, because emotions often run high during these times.

One of the real pleasures of photographing animals is simply observing them in their natural habitat. You'll learn more from one animal himself than you will from any number of books. Watch his actions and try to figure out what he's doing and why. Animals rarely act randomly; almost everything they do has a purpose. A male elk pawing the ground and bugling during mating season is acting out a ritual for attracting the attention of a local female. Chances are good that he'll return to the spot often; tomorrow you can be waiting for him.

Don't let the docile nature of a grazing moose fool you into complacency. While most animals are happy to ignore you or even avoid your presence, few will stand for a rapid approach and none will willingly allow you near their offspring. Watch for signs of displeasure on the animal's part: a twitch of his tail, stamping a foot, or pinning his ears back are all signs that he's not happy with your presence.

Not long ago we had the rare pleasure of running into triplet black bear cubs. They were adorable and we couldn't wait to get them on film. Though Morn was not in sight, we soon heard her complaints from the brush and realized we were between her and the cubs. We hightailed it out of there-singing songs, walking slowly backward, and doing everything we could to show her how uninterested we were in her and the cubs. She followed us until she was satisfied that we were leaving, then turned back to her family. Unfortunately, all we have from that encounter are our memories!

Birds make fascinating subjects for the wildlife photographer. Because they can be found almost anywhere, they may not require the strenuous effort that's needed when you shoot large mammals. But they do require patience.

For people who feed birds, there are lots of opportunities for pictures. It's unlikely you'll get great shots at the feeder, but there are a couple of tricks that can help put the birds into a more natural setting. We mount branches near the feeders so birds can hop off the perches and pose for us at a spot where we can control backgrounds and the birds are used to our presence. We sometimes use a flash for close-ups at the feeder. If the background isn't too close, the light falls off quickly, illuminating only the subject. Try a fast shutter speed and a relatively small f-stop to get a nice, even background: 1/250 second at fl6 should produce good results.

Birds with youngsters also make great subjects, because you'll be able to easily predict their daily habits. You may even be able to install a small blind in your backyard for recording their routines: set up a good distance away, then move a little closer each day as they get comfortable with your presence. But make certain to stay away from the nest during and right after egg laying-if you frighten a bird then, it may abandon the nest.

The bottom line when photographing animals is respect. If they're moving away from you or doing other things that make it clear that they feel threatened, it's time to back off. A 300mm lens should provide enough distance to get good shots while maintaining the animal's privacy. As a wildlife photographer, you can help guard the delicate balance between our world and theirs.

STALKING AND CONCEALMENT

Many of the wildlife photographers we know who specialize in large rnammals used to be hunters. They have traded their guns for cameras, but many of the skills they learned in years of stalking prey serve them in good stead. Camouflaging your gear will help you to keep your profile low. Wear dull clothes and try to dull your shiniest gear. But don't fool yourself into thinking that this will prevent you from being noticed by your subject. Chances are very good he picked up your scent long before you knew he was there.

Staying downwind from your subject can help alleviate this problem. We know some photographers who even keep a piece of yarn on their tripods to help them track wind direction.

Moving slowly when you're near your subject is very important. Practice being aware of every move you make. In some cases it's not enough to walk slowly. Watch your hands: they could be moving very quickly to adjust focus and exposure settings. Set a pace with which the animal can be comfortable.

There are ways to get a little closer to an animal in the wild that can be nonthreatening enough to give you a few moments to shoot. Approach him from an angle and don't pay any attention to him. The moment he shows signs of tension, stop what you're doing and direct your attention elsewhere. Stay still and let the tension pass. Pretty soon, he'll get over his concern, and if you're lucky he'll go back to doing what he was doing. Approaching him straight on, sneaking up from behind, or staring directly at him are all acts that he may associate with aggression, so be subtle.

Blinds can be very helpful if you know where your subject is going to be, or if you expect to remain in one position for a long time. Marsh birds, for example, often live in exposed areas where you simply can't conceal yourself any other way.

Some photographers like to build blinds out of materials handy in the field. But in our opinion this requires too much reliance on luck, as well as a whole bag of tools for assembly. It can also be disruptive to the environment.

If you're going to do much of this kind of photography, it may be worthwhile to invest in a portable blind. A good blind is lightweight and easy to transport; it should also assemble quickly and allow you to shoot from a number of heights.

Don't forget that you're setting up this blind because you plan to stay awhile. Comfort is important, so make certain the blind is big enough for you to sit without crouching-a blind is rendered ineffective if you bump against the fabric and cause the whole thing to ripple.

Bring along a good seat, too; folding stools can work, but on soft ground they may sink. Try to find something with a good wide base.

GETTING THE GREAT SHOT

There are a few things to keep in mind when you're out in the field, a few tricks that can help turn ordinary shots into extraordinary ones.

Whenever possible, get your camera at the animal's level or lower, which tends to enhance the animal's appearance and create a more impressive image. Obviously, this isn't always practical, but if you have a cooperative subject, give it a try.

Pay particular attention to your subject's eyes when you're focusing: if the eyes are out of focus, the photo will never look right, and the entire composition will seem out of focus. Likewise, if you have a choice of compositions with or without the face and eye showing, you'll find that the shot with the eye will almost always be better.

As always, keep the background and foreground clean. It's very easy to forget your surroundings when you have an animal in your viewfinder. If you can, look around the area and preplan your shot. Patience is required. We once sat for hours waiting for a moose to cross a stream that he seemed certain to eventually cross. The rocks and grass made the perfect foreground. We had already surveyed the area and determined that no other shot was really worth getting. When he finally crossed, we were ready.

There are a lot of good wild-animal shots that capture the animal standing still or grazing. It takes patience to capture your subject at just the right moment, but it's well worth the wait. You'll be rewarded with trophies that you will definitely want to hang on your walls.

 

 


For more information on Yellowstone National Park and
the surrounding communities visit these helpful sites:

YellowstoneNationalPark.com
- YellowstoneLodging.com
YellowstoneFlyFishing.com


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