The Secrets to Wildlife Photography - Sean McKinley

The Secrets to Wildlife Photography


    Okay so they aren't quite secrets, more like best practices but that doesn't sound nearly as catchy. In this post I'm going to go over the 'when', 'where', and 'what' that makes up my wildlife photography habits.

    First and foremost, we'll start with the 'when'; when to be up early or up late, depending on your subject. If you're looking to photograph a specific subject, it helps to know a bit about them; specifically when they're most active. For instance if you're wanting to photograph wolves you should be setup at the very crack of dawn in your spot of choice, which means potentially getting up well before sunrise to get to your destination on time.

  If you're uncertain of what you want to photograph, or you're absolutely certain you just want to photograph anything and everything, then typically dawn and dusk are your best times to photograph wildlife. The lightning during the early morning and late evening is often the most dramatic of the day, and this is usually when animals are most active. It should go without saying that being up at these times is not a guarantee that you'll see wildlife, but it certainly helps your odds.

    Another 'when' to be aware of is how the season relates to the subject you want to photograph; you'll probably have a tough time photographing bears in the northwestern United States in January since they're all hibernating. If you're wanting to photograph bull moose with huge paddles during late winter and early spring, you're going to be hard pressed since that's when they shed them. It certainly pays to know a bit about the animals you're wanting to photograph.

    Onto the 'where' aspect of wildlife photography; know where to find the animals you're looking for. As much as we love to see them, most wild animals don't love to be seen by us; they make it a point to either hide away or make sure they have a fast getaway if they need it. Moose are incredibly adept at blending themselves into their environment, typically behind tall willows. It never ceases to amaze me that a creature with a shoulder height as tall as me (6'2") can manage to hide so well. Black bears on the other hand are terribly fond of forested areas, where they can find food and plenty of places to climb. The only other piece of advice I can offer here is that if it was there once, it could be there again; it never hurts to check a spot where you've previously seen wildlife. I've seen a female black bear in the same general area in Yellowstone several years in a row, as animals tend to like known ground. In summation, know the habitat and behavior of the animal you're looking to photograph.

    Now for the 'what' aspect of wildlife photography; knowing what to do when you find something to photograph. To keep it short and sweet, be calm and respectful; keep your distance, don't shout or agitate the animals to get them to move so you can get a better shot, and certainly don't try to feed them. Keeping your distance keeps the animals relaxed, and it allows for a much more organic observing and photographing experience. It'll also give you more time around your subject, an animal that isn't agitated is an animal that isn't likely to make its way away from you in such a hurry. This means you're most likely going to *have* to invest in a telephoto lens (or camera trap), assuming you're not photographing animals outside of your car.

    I've spent a lot of time within the last year in Yellowstone, and the one thing that I find disappointing above all else is the direct harm people put themselves in when they get too close to the wildlife. I understand telephoto lenses are expensive, but if your camera does not have the reach then you simply should not make up for it by closing the distance between yourself and your wild subject. Individuals trying to get within 10 feet of a bison, with their kids in tow, not only sets a bad example for others but also endangers the lives of all creatures involved. Unfortunately animals involved in maiming or killing humans in parks like Yellowstone can be subject to euthanasia, so as to protect other park goers, and that's not an outcome that anyone wants.

    In summation: the best you can do is know your animals, be out early and out late, and respect the wonderful wildlife we share this planet with. The latter won't only help your photography, but it's also good for one's soul.

- Sean McKinley

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