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How To Approach Animals for Wildlife Photography

Written by Thomas C

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Posted on May 21 2019

How to Approach Animals for Wildlife Photography 

Thomas from Alotech
Wildlife Photographer | Guide | Podcast Host for the PhotoCast | Founder of Alotech

Tired of photographing but-shots of animals that sprint away? Tired of photographing but-shots of birds that fly away every time you try to get closer to capture a photo?

Don’t worry; it’s not your fault. Most wildlife photography articles are about gear vs. field technique (we all know the 600mm f/4 lens is great…)

In this article, I want to show you how you can get closer to wildlife without spooking the animal. The topics include:

  1. Where you should photograph wildlife
  2. The power of being patient
  3. The approach
  4. Utilizing the wind

1. Where you should photograph wildlife:

Where you decide to photograph wildlife can significantly influence an animals’ behavior. For example, specific locations like national parks, state parks, local parks, USFWS refuges… will be considerably easier to capture portfolio-worthy images.

When choosing a location, one of the biggest drivers in how an animal behaves around people is their frequency interacting with us. The benefit of photographing in high-traffic areas is that the animals you photograph will display natural behavior while allowing you to get close to them.

My favorite location to photograph Moose gets moderate human traffic on the trails, and little-to-no traffic off-trail. Even though this isn’t a high-traffic location, the Moose are used to people because during the winter they spend their time in a small town continually interacting with people.

Canon 5DS R, Canon 200mm f/2 IS | @200mm, f/2, 1/1600, ISO 100

If you are trying to photograph a particular species, I recommend that you visit your popular parks and recreation areas because this will allow you to:

  1. Get closer to wildlife
  2. Capture natural behavior because the animal doesn’t mind your presence

I understand you might not have a place like Yellowstone, or other popular state parks, near you. It is possible to get close and photograph natural behavior, with animals that tend to flee when they sense you.

2. The Power of Being Patient

Being patient applies to both skittish animals as well as ones that are more accustom to you. The biggest mistake I see wildlife photographers make is aggressively approaching animals when they see something like a Red Fox.

Seeing an animal is exciting. We all want to capture great photos of this Red Fox. Think of it this way: while you’re standing outside how would you like it if a Grizzly Bear locked eyes with you, and at the same time started to jog at you.

That feeling you would experience is the same feeling all prey has when you lock eyes with them and start to speed walk directly towards them. All you do by doing this is trigger their flight response, causing you to photograph but-shots.

The faster you move, the more quickly you will be detected. Many animals are built to sense movement to protect themselves from predators. Animals have rods in their eyes that are good at detecting motion, so the slower you move, the closer you will be able to approach animals.

3. The Approach

Staring at an animal and moving directly towards it is a recipe for disaster. Every animal has a comfort zone. Just picture a large circle around an animal. Animals that are used to you being present will have a drastically smaller circle around it vs. animals that rarely interact with you.

There are ways to make any animal’s circle of comfort smaller. The first technique is patience; the slower your approach, the closer you will be able to get. The next method is to ignore the animal you want to get close to. My favorite technique is to use a zig-zag pattern.

When you’re approaching an animal, a zig-zag pattern allows you to get closer to an animal without them even noticing it.  When using a zig-zag pattern, you should only move when the animal’s head is down (for example, when the animal is eating). When you see the animal pick its head up, then immediately stop moving.

What I like to do when an animal is looking at me is to play with the grass. This makes me look like I’m eating the grass. Even if the animal isn’t ‘tricked,’ playing with grass slows me down and allows me to be more patient.

You should also avoid eye contact. When approaching a skittish animal, I’ll face my body to the side, and never angle my head at the animal (I like to look down). I believe this helps me convey a less threatening message as I approach.

I also recommend you approach animals as low as possible. The closer your body is to the ground, the less threatening you look.

4. Utilizing the Wind

When approaching animals, you should always focus on the direction the wind is blowing. Animals have extremely powerful noses allowing them to sense your presence before they even see you.

The best technique when approaching an animal is downwind or utilizing cross-wind. Taking advantage of the wind while you’re in the field will allow you to mask your presence and give you the ability to get close and view natural behavior.

You have to remember that wildlife photography is all about patience. It has taken me hours to approach many animals. Regardless if you are photographing in a high-traffic or low-traffic area, a slow approach will allow you to get closer, while viewing natural behavior. Pausing and playing with grass when an animal looks at you, then utilizing a zig-zag pattern has allowed me to get close to countless skittish animals. If you decide to opt for a more covert option, utilizing wind direction will let you get close to animals, while remaining undetected because they can’t use their nose to sense your presence.

What are your techniques for approaching wildlife? Comment below to let me know!

Download Your Free Guide to Mastering Birds-in-Flight Photography

  1. Use the wind to know exactly where the bird is going to fly, and always capture the best angle
  2. Precisely predict exactly where a bird will take off by understanding 5 vital behavioral signs
  3. Discover the power of going low and occasionally high
  4. Never take an out-of-focus image again by mastering the 'V'
  5. Learn how to capture the ultimate wing position and body angle