We often approach photography from the perspective of capturing the moment as the moment occurs. While on vacation, for example, unless we are specifically on vacation to shoot, we rarely plan our activities around the best opportunity to make images. Instead, we plan our activities as they best fit in our schedule and capture images whenever the opportunity occurs.
Sometimes, however, getting the photos we want requires a little planning. In lessons 16 and 17, we talked about timing outdoor photography around the golden hour (or magic hour) to get the most appealing light. Wildlife photography is another type of photography that requires planning.
While I do not recommend using an iPhone for wildlife smaller than buffalo, regardless of which camera you’re using, if you want to capture wildlife, there is significantly more planning involved than for most subjects. Predictably, sometimes the best laid plan goes awry and, conversely, sometimes the best wildlife shots happen by accident. But, most of the time, having a plan helps.
Time of day. Many wildlife are most active around dawn and dusk. This works well since it usually corresponds with the best light. Knowing if the wildlife you seek falls into this pattern and planning to arrive at the best time increases the odds of not only seeing wildlife, but also seeing them do interesting things. Checking to see when the sun will rise and set on the day you’ll be shooting will help get your there on time.
Location, location, location. This is the real trick. Knowing where to find the wildlife you seek can sometimes seem like magic. In the days of the internet, it’s gotten a lot easier to get tips on locating popular hangouts for your favorite critters and even what they’re up to (like hatching eaglets, birthing elk, migrating rare birds). Sometimes the best source of this information is from posts by other photographers on Facebook or Flickr. There are also organizations who provide updates: for birds, check out a local chapter of the Ornithological Society and/or Audubon Society–ebird.org also provides migration hotspot updates; park websites often mention wildlife viewing areas; and the National Wildlife Federation seems to be trying to use social networking for sharing sightings via their Wildlife Watch program.
The Weather. Birds are tricky. During migration, they will move when winds are favorable and hang out in appropriate habitat along their migration route when winds are not. Here’s an article that explains the basics of weather and bird migration. My best birding day ever was in high winds and misting rain. Many types of Warblers had moved into a migration hotspot and then hunkered down in the understory of the woods for protection from the weather. Large mammals will move from higher elevations to lower ones as the seasons change, but day-to-day weather tends to affect how active they are more than where they’re found. However, the weather, especially in mountain areas, can have a very big impact on whether you can access the location you’re trying to get to or not. If you’re counting on driving to a wildlife viewing area in the winter in the Smokies, for example, check the road status. In the more South-Eastern mountains of the US, there is little snow clearing equipment and remote roads remain closed for much of the season. Additionally, rain, snow, and overcast skies will change the light and may even affect your subjects’ behavior. The less intense sunlight behind clouds means even, gray light all day long (which is not as nice as golden light, but means you can shoot in the middle of the afternoon without the harsh effects of overhead sun). Additionally, cooler, cloudy weather may increase the level of activity of the animals at times of day they might otherwise seek shade.
Luck. No matter how you study your subject, figure out where to find them, time your visit, plan around the weather, there is still luck involved. I have given up on carrying telephoto lenses while hiking on more than one occasion only to get my best view of wildlife when my telephoto lenses were back in the car. In fact, I’ve come to believe that leaving your telephotos behind guarantees you will see great wildlife. This does not, however, result in great photos.
All-in-all, knowing a lot about your subjects, where and when to find them, and what the weather will be like all increases the odds that you’ll have some luck and get a great shot. Some photographers like to stack the deck and hire guides who bait wildlife. Baiting wildlife teaches them to come out into the open and tolerate people standing around pointing objects at them. While cameras may be harmless, hunters are not. I am not opposed to hunting when it is practiced skillfully and prey is fully consumed, but I believe it should be fair. Animals that have been baited for photographers are at greater risk of falling prey to hunters, so I choose not to participate in such practices. This may explain why I so often go out to shoot wildlife but come home with landscape images. 🙂