Hunting Wildlife With Your Camera
By Tamia Nelson
April 2, 2013
Life depends on water. So it's not exactly surprising that water is a magnet for wild creatures. And we paddlers reap the rewards. Our chance encounters with wildlife, living free and unfettered, are the highlights of any trip. It's only natural, therefore, that canoeists and kayakers will want to take something home to recall our wild times to mind in later years. But it isn't as easy as it sounds. Chance encounters are just that. They're hard to prepare for. Moreover, sightings of large mammals and big birds — the trophies whose pictures adorn most wildlife calendars — are very rare. And how close do you really want to get to a moose or a musk ox, anyway? Not very.
But there's more to wildlife photography than the pursuit of the so‑called "charismatic megafauna," and it's probably time we put the trophy‑room mentality of the 19th‑century big‑game hunters behind us. Consider the contrasting example of Jean‑Henri Fabre. Forced to resign his teaching post at the age of 47 by "the animosity of clerics and conservatives," he devoted the latter part of his life to observing and recording the behavior of the insects in his house and garden. The result was the Souvenirs entomologiques, a series of monographs that still commands the respect of professional entomologists. It also makes fascinating reading for the rest of us.
And insects are just the start for the observant paddler‑photographer. While few of us will have condors or golden eagles soaring over our heads, birds of some sort can be seen almost everywhere. Even the much‑maligned "rock dove" (aka that notorious flâneur, the pigeon) will repay the unprejudiced observer with endless hours of enjoyment. I've written about photographing birds before, of course, and I've had something to say about macrophotography — the insect hunter's "weapon" of choice — as well. So this time I'll be turning my attention to the small mammals. But don't jump to conclusions. The fact that you have squirrels in your garden doesn't mean they'll always be easy to photograph. Your telephoto lens will still find plenty of employment, and I'll have more to say about this shortly.
Sometimes, though, you'll be lucky enough to find your subject right under your feet. As I did, one evening many years ago, when a vole ("field mouse") stared me down from the entrance to his burrow, just outside my door. The photo below is a poor‑quality scan of the 35 mm original, but there's no mistaking the stalwart little fellow's determination to stand his ground against all comers, is there?
I've never again had such a close encounter with one of these elusive little creatures. Any would‑be wildlife photographer must come to terms with this harsh reality: Your subjects don't wait on your convenience. A landscape photographer can return to a chosen spot time and time again, until conditions are perfect and all the stars are in alignment. Her subject won't flee. Did you forget your favorite wide‑angle lens? No problem. You can come back tomorrow. Or the next day. Or next week. The hills and waters will be waiting for you. A wildlife photographer, on the other hand, has no choice. You must seize the moment, and what you seize is what you'll get. Period. So readiness is all. If wildlife photographers wanted a motto, they couldn't do better than "Be prepared."
That said, reality intrudes. On most paddling holidays, wildlife photography isn't at the top of the agenda. There are rapids to run, lakes to cross, and meals to cook. You may even want to drop a fly in a promising pool in hopes of tickling the fancy of a trout. Photography will therefore be a catch‑as‑catch‑can affair. Still, you can do a lot to nudge the odds your way by emulating the serious wildlife photographer, beginning right at the beginning, by choosing …
The Right Gear
To start with, use what you have. You'll get better results with a simple point‑and‑shoot camera — a camera whose idiosyncrasies you've mastered and whose limitations you understand — than you would with a state‑of‑the‑art professional model that you've just taken out of the box. Which isn't to say that professional gear is a waste of money. It isn't. But it's best to acquire your kit piecemeal, as your experience grows. And the first new item you buy should almost certainly be a …
Digital SLR. This is the key that opens the door to the wider world of photography.
What's next? Well, there's little doubt that most wildlife photographers would feel lost without a …
Telephoto Lens. After all, wildlife is wild. It likes to keep its distance. So buy a long lens and leave it on your camera unless you're shooting scenics or taking snapshots around the campfire. Your buddies will wait while you change lenses — and so will the hills — but that red squirrel chattering high in the tall pine will have scurried away in 10 seconds or less. You won't have time to grope around for your telephoto lens, let alone fit it to your camera. You're either ready for the shot or you're not. There's no middle ground
Serious wildlife photographers will want a bright, long lens: a 300 mm ƒ/4, say, though a 500 mm lens would be even better. Zoom lenses give you flexibility, but prime (fixed focal length) lenses are often sharper. Unfortunately, good lenses of either sort cost big bucks, and impecunious shutterbugs may have no choice but to make do with teleconverters, add‑on lenses that increase the focal length of an existing lens. The combination of short lens and teleconverter can never match the performance of a long lens, but it's a good way to test the waters, and it will give you a chance to save up for the real thing.
Whatever your lens, it will likely be improved by the addition of a …
Lens Hood. This cuts down on glare and reduces the chance that reflected light from your lens's front element will alert a shy subject to your presence. And while you're at it, make or buy a …
Camera Shroud. For some reason known only to the Mad Men and their focus groupies, a lot of cameras are now brightly colored, and many lens bodies are sheathed in silver or white cladding. This may look way cool in the sales rep's press packet, but it's a bloody nuisance if you don't want to be noticed. Cover your garish gear in something drab when you're stalking wildlife.
OK. Glare and bling are bad. But a trembling hand is worse, especially when you're shooting with a long lens. Luckily, the remedy is simple: Buy (and use) a …
Tripod or Monopod. Mainstays of the serious photographer's armory, tripods and monopods do much to calm things down. In fact, a good tripod will be rock‑solid. But tripods are heavy, bulky, and fussy, too, while monopods do only half the job. And you never seem to have either one handy when you need it most. So if you want to be ready for whatever comes your way, be sure you also master the art of holding your camera steady without the help of a tripod or monopod. It's time well spent.
Short exposures are another way to fight shake‑induced blur. A fast shutter speed is therefore de rigueur. But in the low‑light conditions that often prevail in the woods, when your lens is already wide open, or nearly so, the only practical way to shorten exposures is to increase your sensor's sensitivity. To put it another way, you have to …
Use a High ISO. This isn't something you can buy. It's not an add‑on or an accessory. Your camera will determine how high you can go before color "noise" ruins your shots. Not all cameras are equal in this regard, however. Far from it. Check the reviews before you part with your money.
That's enough kit to meet the needs of most wildlife photographers, though the pros will want more. Of course, even if you have a full professional outfit, it won't do you any good if it isn't both instantly accessible and protected from the assaults of wave and weather. Unfortunately, these two requirements are necessarily at odds. Some sort of compromise is always necessary. Owners of waterproof cameras may be inclined to dispute this blanket assertion, I suppose, but waterproof cameras have limitations of their own. And waterproof housings for digital SLRs don't come cheap.
The same tradeoffs apply when the photographer steps ashore. Your desire to protect your camera and lenses will always be at odds with your need to get at them quickly. Rucksacks, shoulder bags, and belt packs all have their advocates, and the subject is much discussed on photographers' forums. It's a balancing act with no universally agreed answers. You'll have to decide where your fancy lies. And something of the same sort also applies to the broad category of …
Personal Clothing and Accessories
There are a few absolutes, however. Wild creatures live by their wits, and they depend on their senses. If you want to see them while they're still within range of your lens, you'll have to make yourself as inconspicuous as possible. You can begin by donning a …
Brimmed Hat. Not only will the brim shield your camera and lens from drizzle, but the shadow it casts will help to hide your face in bright sunlight. (Dark‑skinned paddlers have an obvious advantage here.) A mosquito headnet does an even better job, as does camouflage face paint, though I'd imagine that few paddlers outside the Special Boat Service will want to go to such lengths.
The same imperative will govern your choice of clothes, with the operative words being:
Blend In! At the least, you'll want to leave your high‑viz riverwear in your pack. And while you'll probably stop short of a ghillie suit, especially if there's any danger you'll go for an unplanned swim, you may want to don camouflage. When you're stalking wildlife, you need to fade into the background, not stand out. That also means you should exercise some …
Common Scents. By not wearing any. Scent, that is. I often smell fellow trail walkers long before I can see them. And as any paddler who's watched a bear tear a food pack apart to get at a triple‑wrapped jar of peanut butter can attest, wild creatures have a sense of smell that would put any human nose to shame. So if you're stalking wildlife, give the dryer sheets, scented detergents, and perfumed body wash a rest. Alternatively, smear yourself in peanut butter. That should guarantee some close‑up action. But then you'd better keep your running shoes on. (Do I have to add that I'm joking about the peanut butter body rub? I hope not.)
Sound, like smell, can also betray your presence to wary wild creatures. The remedy here is simple: Study to be quiet. And …
Just Say No to Velcro (and Its Many Imitators). Unless you can lay your hands on the silent Velcro that the US Army has apparently developed, you're better off with buttons and zips. HOOK‑AND‑LOOP FASTENERS MAKE A LOT OF NOISE. Get the point?
Lastly, there's one "accessory" that all would‑be wildlife photographers would do well to eschew:
Man's Best Friend. Rover may be a boon companion, and his nose and ears will certainly pick up much that you miss, but very few wild creatures regard him as a friend. If it's wildlife you're hoping to see, leave Rover at home.
So much for the preliminaries. Now let's consider …
Technique and Technicalities
The backcountry isn't a zoo. The inhabitants aren't confined to cages or moated enclosures. If you want to catch a glimpse of them as they live their lives, you'll have to meet them on their terms. And the first step is easy:
Do Your Homework. Before you leave for the put‑in, learn all you can about the creatures who live where you'll be paddling, paying special attention to the smaller animals who may have crossed your path unnoticed in the past. What do they eat? Where do they sleep? When are they likely to be up and about? In what ways are their tracks and scat distinctive? Are they talkative or silent? And what form does their "conversation" take? Cries? Growls? Chattering calls? Or visual displays? The more you know, the more you'll see. Ignorance may be bliss, but it's also a bliss‑poor basis for observation.
Then, once you've spotted your quarry, …
Keep Your Distance! Do I contradict myself? Not at all. This is merely good sense. Large animals can kill you, even without meaning to. (Look at the size of the tracks of a momma moose, if you have any doubts on this score.) Small animals, on the other hand, will probably think you want to kill them, and they'll lose no time in hiding away. Neither outcome is desirable, and you won't get a second chance in either case. Your long lens is your friend. Use it.
Remember, too, that even when you can't get a photo, you can still fix an image on the emulsion of memory. And these can be the best pictures of all.
Similar considerations come into play in connection with flash photography. Here the best advice is simple:
Turn It Off! You don't want to startle a large animal into striking out, or blind a small one with the dazzle from your high‑voltage strobe. Flashes are sometimes used to freeze action in staged wildlife shots, but they seldom yield good results in the field. In fact, the "logic" of flash photography runs counter to the guiding principle of wildlife stalking, namely, …
Patience Is a Virtue. The virtue, really. In contrast to much of modern life, the greatest rewards come to those who simply stand and stare. If you can remain silent for hours, not moving a muscle, yet still stay alert, you have the makings of a great wildlife photographer. Failing that, however, you can always …
Use a Blind. Oddly enough, canoes and kayaks make pretty good blinds. Few animals seem to associate a drifting boat with danger. I think I've seen more wildlife from the seat of a canoe than I ever have ashore, though a bicycle is a pretty good mobile blind, too. (Without intending to do so, I've ridden right up alongside a wary mother deer — and Farwell nearly ran smack into an amiable bear. He says it's hard to know who was more startled.) Mind your paddles, though. The glint of a double blade in sunlight can be as alarming as the flash of a strobe. Whenever stealth is paramount, kayakers may wish to emulate canoeists and use a single blade.
Of course, your boat won't make much of a blind on dry land. But once you step ashore, a tent or tarp can be pressed into service. And don't forget the versatile poncho. As with clothes, dull colors are best, but movement is what catches the eye of most wildlife. Use what you have, in other words, even if it's bright yellow. Just pitch it taut.
Some technical pointers, now, beginning with focus, where …
The Eyes Have It. Your subject's eyes should be the center of interest in your shot. Since your lens will likely be wide open to capture as much light as possible, the depth of field will be limited. By focusing on the eyes, you make the best of this less than ideal situation.
Focus can present other problems, too, particularly if your camera's autofocus proves unreliable, as it may well do when your subject is screened by vegetation. The remedy?
Do It Yourself. Manual focus puts a stop to your lens's interminable (and noisy) hunting. And it doesn't take any more time, either. But not all automation is bad. You'll have more than enough to do without having to set both aperture and shutter speed. So …
Give Shutter Speed Priority. And use the fastest shutter you can get away with. One oft‑quoted rule of thumb suggests choosing a shutter speed that's no slower than the reciprocal of your lens's focal length: 1⁄300 sec for a 300 mm lens, for instance. Light conditions will often make this impossible, but it's something to shoot for, at any rate.
Naturally, time of day influences the availability of light, and unfortunately for the photographer, many wild creatures are wholly or partly nocturnal. This is especially true in areas frequented by people (and their dogs). In some species — the beaver, for instance — a nocturnal lifeway may represent a behavioral adaptation to centuries of hunting. Whatever the reason, though, and despite the technical challenges, wildlife photographers soon learn to …
Love the Half‑Light. Dawn and dusk are good times to catch wildlife on the move. The day shift is going home to bed; the night shift is heading off in search of food. Sit quietly as the light grows (or dwindles) and …
Be Prepared. Fortune always favors the prepared mind. Even when you're plodding down the portage trail, decide how you'd bring your camera into play in the shortest possible time to capture a startled fox or elusive warbler. A case in point: If I'd been following my own advice, I might have gotten better pictures of this otter family. As it was, though, I had to be content with a half‑dozen blurry snapshots. There are no second chances in wildlife photography.
And now for the most important tip of all:
Practice! Wildlife is everywhere. Photograph the animals you see around you. You'll be surprised — or maybe you won't! — at just how hard it is to get a good photo of a chipmunk or a squirrel. If you train yourself to capture these fast‑moving creatures on your camera's memory card, you'll find it much easier to photograph a phlegmatic moose or lumbering bear when the opportunity presents itself. And that will be a trophy you'll want to hang on your wall.
Moose, musk ox or mink, bobcat or beaver — a chance sighting of any of these is something you'll long remember. And you'll have even more reason to rejoice if you can bag your trophy with your camera. But getting good photos of wildlife isn't easy, and this article can't make you an expert. No article can. Only practice (and patience) can do that. Still, I hope I've helped you on your way.
Related Articles From In the Same Boat
- Backcountry Photography, a topical collection of articles from In the Same Boat.
- Voices From the Wild, another collection of In the Same Boat articles, in which a few of our fellow travelers take the opportunity to say what's on their minds.
- "Little Stinkers? The Industry of Skunks" — He may not get much respect, but there's lot more to the skunk than his pungent calling‑card.
- "The Lord of the Trees," a portrait of the red squirrel, who crams a mighty big personality into a very small package.
- "Is it a Beaver or a Muskrat?" Can you tell the difference? Are you sure?
- "Wildcountry Palimpsest: Incident in a Beech Wood," the first of two short exercises in reading the "book of the woods," followed by …
- "Wildcountry Palimpsest: The Track of the Porcupine."
And an article from my own website, too:
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