The Dark Side of Wildlife Photography•
Posted on January 27 2019
The Dark Side of Wildlife Photography
Wildlife Photographer | Guide | Podcast Host for the PhotoCast | Founder of Alotech
Whether you photograph wildlife often or not, you probably know that the time you spend in the field often correlates to the quality of your final images.
On the other hand, you probably also think that “luck” is the most important factor that helps you create differentiated photos compared to other wildlife photographers.
Therefore, you might believe that despite all your effort and time spent in the field your final images just come down to “luck.”
Then, there are those that disagree. Yes, some infrequent photographers that go out into the field to photograph wildlife might happen to stumble into an awesome animal interaction. However, an infrequent wildlife photographer might do this once, but they will not be able to consistently capture unique interactions.
Instead, the wildlife photographer that spends the most time in the field does not get lucky, but through their hard work and devoted time they just appear to be “lucky.”
Well, both groups… and neither of them.
In my opinion, you do need “luck” to be a good wildlife photographer. However, I believe “luck” is correlated to the more time you spend in the field and the harder you work. Yes, some people happen to get the photo of a lifetime without spending much time in the field. For me, I find that I have to spend an adequate time in the field to get the photos I really want to capture.
I am not going to lie to you; early in my career, as a wildlife photographer, when someone looked at my photos and told me I got “lucky” it did internally bother me.
I am sure you can relate to this because people only see our final images, and not the time and hard work behind each photo.
For me, there are three elements that go into the success of walking away with a photo that I am satisfied with.
1. The scouting and the choice of location
2. Your understanding of animal behavior and how to approach animals
3. The time you spend observing and photographing animals
Starting with the first point, the amount of time you spend looking at maps and researching online to determine the location you want to go to photograph an animal will help you be “at the right place and the right time.”
Locations are so important for us, wildlife photographers. In my experience in the field, I have found that you increase your chances of capturing great photos when animals act naturally. Therefore, if you can photograph animals in locations where they are used to humans then, if you are not obnoxious, your presence will not alter their behavior.
I am not saying that animals have to be used to seeing us to capture great photos. What I am saying though is that it will make your life a lot easier. For example, if your goal is to photograph Coyotes your life will be a lot easier if you frequent places where we don’t hunt them.
Another example would be to photograph birds like Great Blue Herons in areas they are not afraid of us because you will be able to wade in the water with them as well as not alter their behavior. Now, this general principle does not apply to all wildlife.
I have photographed animals like Bighorn Sheep, Dall Sheep, and Mountain Goats in areas where they have virtually no contact with humans. Some animals are not afraid of us if approached the right way.
If you live in an area where the animals run at the sight of us, and there are no areas where they are not as afraid, then your life is just a little bit harder. You might have to utilize other resources like photographing from blinds or hides, camouflage, and more discrete tracking and stalking techniques. For me, what works the best with skittish animals is a ghillie suit.
I prefer a ghillie suit over a blind because I can stay camouflaged into my surroundings as well as having the ability to be mobile. If I am wearing a ghillie suit what I like to do is get to a location where the animal I want to photograph frequents an hour or two before they normally show up. I patiently wait, and once I see the animal I slowly approach.
A technique I like to use when approaching wildlife is when their head is up stay still. Then, when they put their head down to eat you slowly approach them. Also, I prefer not to go straight at an animal. I personally like to approach at a more indirect way such as a horizontal line that gets me closer, but I am not walking directly at them. The reason I like to do this is because if the animal does happen to spot me I am hoping that the animal feels less threatened.
There is a reason why Yellowstone National Park is visited by so many photographers around the world; your life is a lot easier when animals are used to us. Although, I do find the experience more enjoyable and rewarding when I need be camouflaged into my surroundings to prevent them from displaying unnatural behavior or running away.
Understanding animal behavior and how to approach animals plays a critical role on your final images. I can’t stress this enough on how important animal behavior is. If you can predict what an animal is going to do next, then you can position yourself to get the best photos.
I like to think of animal behavior in two parts; the first part is more of a global behavior. What I mean by global behavior is something that is attributable to all animals of that species. For example, when you see Moose swaying gait (fancy term for them tilting their head back and forth like a seesaw) you should get ready for the bull Moose to fight or to spar.
The second part of animal behavior is local behavior. What I mean by local behavior is behavioral characteristics that are attributable to one specific animal. The only way you get to know the local behavior in the field is to spend time with that particular animal.
Many animals follow roughly the same “schedule” depending on things like weather, the seasons… This applies to both animals as well as birds. For example, a Coyote I photographed in the winter would frequent, in roughly the same vicinity, the same resting place in the winter depending on the weather conditions. For this particular Coyote, when the weather was colder than about -20F it would lay down mid-day at this one particular area on a mountain to sun itself.
Local behavior also applies to birds. For example, in Florida many wading birds will frequent the same tidal pools to hunt depending on the tides. For birds you know you are seeing the same animal because all you have to do is find a banded one to track.
Animals, just like us, deviate from their “schedules.” However, being able to just roughly predict where an animal is going to at a particular time will help you increase your chances of capturing great images.
The time you spend photographing animals often correlates to the amount of great images you capture on a regular basis. For me, this is one of the hardest points I try to tell my guiding clients because me spending everyday in the field for the whole Moose rut or the whole Black Skimmer nesting season allows me to put myself in better situations to capture unique behavior.
For example, take my Black Skimmer chick hugging its parents beak. Yes, I was “lucky” to a certain extent. What you don’t see though is everyday, for seasons, I am at the beach laying down in the sand with a sore neck from looking up as I focus on one Black Skimmer pair the entire season. The amount of time I have spent guiding and photographing Black Skimmers allowed me to be in the right position at the right time if something unique was going to happen between that pair of nesting Skimmers and chicks.
I am not trying to say that “luck” does not play a role in each one of our photographs. What I am trying to say though is that the amount of time you spend scouting and choosing locations, the amount of time you spend understanding global and local animal behavior as well as how to approach that specific animal, and the time you spend in the field will correlate with the amount of “luck” you appear to have.
I hope my article has helped you, and I would love to hear your thoughts below.
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