Living (and understanding) The Wild Life

One of the most effective forms of wildlife photography, is to use a series of photos to tell a story.  The most common is the action series.  A bird perched on a post, spreading its wings and bursting into flight.  The list goes on in that category.  Another is to arrange a series of photos to develop a story of animal behavior.  They do not have to be taken at the same time, or even taken of the same actual animal.  A Beaver building a dam, or a bird building a nest is a good example.  Can we build a series of images of a wildlife subject when they exhibit no real action and very little behavior?  Yes! I approach those cooperative type subjects much the same as if I were photographing a mountain.  Different focal lengths, different angles and different times of day.  If your subject is resting in an interesting or unusual environment, then so much the better.

The same Snowy Owl on the same winter morning appears in all four of the images below.

This first photo was made with a zoom lens set at 120mm.

This second picture was made from the other side of the sign, with the same lens set at 220mm.

For this image I brought out my 500mm f4 warhorse, but remained at a fair distance from this pretty little male Snowy.  I made this shot from the window of a compact car.

Finally I very slowly (maybe 30 minutes) moved close to my subject, made about four frames and quietly left the area.  I made this photo from outside the car so I could set my tripod at a point high enough to bring my view a bit closer to eye level.  I said thanks and headed for home, already an hour late.

I have forever gotten questions as to how I get so close to wildlife subjects. Many of you who read this blog already know all the tricks of the trade, but for those of you who are newcomers, here goes.  First of all I work mostly with a 500mm lens, and I occasionally add a 1.4 converter.  Secondly, since the advent of digital photography, I crop many of my images.  Beware!  You need sharp images with good detail for anything beyond a moderate crop.  One of the primary techniques that all photographers use to get close to wild animals is, we shoot from our vehicles.  Wildlife will often tolerate a close approach if you just stay in your car.  This works best in areas where auto/truck traffic is a common experience.  On rare occasions I have worked from a photo blind/hide.  I have a small bag blind that works pretty well if it is not too windy.  I have used many permanent photo blinds and these almost always work well.  I do stalk/walk in an effort to get close to wildlife.  I do not walk straight at them preferring to move slowly in a zig zag fashion.  I do not hide or sneak towards my subject.  They will already know that you are there. I stop frequently and use my camera lens when I want to look straight at the animal.  I begin making pictures from quite a distance as this gets them used to the sound of the camera. I stop when I notice the animal beginning to pay attention to me. That is where I stay. You will be shocked at how often animals, and by that I mean birds, mammals and herps, will approach you with curiosity and come very close to you, when you don’t push it.  I have a limit as to how close I will walk towards wildlife but I always allow them to approach me.  This includes Black Bears, wolves, Badgers and other animals.  I simply keep on shooting but otherwise ignore them.

When I started doing serious wildlife photography, I was constantly frustrated with wildlife and their desire to fly or run away from me.  I discovered the stalking techniques that I discuss above, and found myself getting closer and closer to wild animals. One winter’s day in Cassville Wisconsin, I stalked an immature Bald Eagle perched low in a tree.  It allowed me within ten feet.  A year or so later I used the same nonchalant zig zag technique and finally stopped almost at touching distance ( four feet) from a low perched Red-tailed Hawk.  Traffic was stopping on the near-by road, just to watch this spectacle. I was proud of myself. I left the hawk where I found it, and headed for my car only to see several people leave their vehicles to try to do what I did.  That was the last time that I intentionally walked this closely to a wild animal. Thankfully my Red-tailed friend flew as it watched the crowd heading its way.

Of course many wild animals eat other animals. It is the natural order of things. Wildlife/nature photographers make pictures of these happenings not because we like to see wildlife killed, but because we are there to help tell the story of the natural world.

On another day the mouse being stripped of its fur by an American Kestrel, or the Eastern Groundhog being displayed by the Red Fox vixen, might have been my singular photographic subject.  It is the way of nature.

There are many stories that need to be told about wildlife behavior.  Like with these Pronghorns they are not always the “cool shots” that we love to make. Education is important and the nature photographer is a major asset in that pursuit.

I have always been a photographer who believes that we can create nature images that are pure art, and others that are totally photo journalism, and some pictures that fulfill both destinies.  In my opinion the same photographer can accomplish all of those individual goals.  Each category, like each photographer, has its own special value.

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2 Responses to Living (and understanding) The Wild Life

  1. ron says:

    You didn’t tell about when we were in Orr,MN, when the big black bear came up and wanted to steal your 500mm lens. :>)

  2. She made some fine pictures with that lens too. Seriously I did forget that one but I thank you for saving my lens. My photography would have taken a big step backward without it.

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