If you like to be outdoors, then photographing wildlife may be your calling. Whenever you are photographing animals, patience is required, and a genuine love for nature will help you succeed in this type of photography.
White-tailed deer/Mule deer
Like most deer, white-tailed deer are extremely skittish and have excellent hearing – to spot predators (and photographers), so you must be very quiet and approach them from down wind. Wearing camouflage clothing will help to conceal you and let you get as close as possible without spooking the deer. Movement is what gives the photographer away, so be patient and still when you are in your chosen spot. Once the deer get close, you’ll need to use a fast telephoto zoom (100mm to 300mm) to capture the action. Patience is the name of the game here, so waiting with a tripod will keep you from getting fatigued. You can photograph white-tailed deer in the summer when their coats are a deep reddish-brown, or in the fall and winter when the coats become dull gray for protection and concealment. In the summer the male bucks are in “velvet”, a fuzzy collection of blood vessels that nourish the growing antlers. They lose the velvet, and have their full antlers prior to the autumn mating season, known as the “rut”. Antlers later fall off in the winter. Some game farms or zoos have captive deer, and can provide easier photographic opportunities.
Elk are large deer with big antlers. They mostly inhabit woodlands. If you are fortunate enough to be in an area that has Elk, then a good technique is to use a tripod and wait for the animals to appear. If you are shooting on a bright day, use a polarizing filter to keep the sky blue and contrast down to a minimum. Autumn rut (mating season) can provide exciting action as the bull elk compete for the attention of females. Their bugling calls are a useful aid in locating elk during the rut.
Among the forest animals in North America, Moose are the largest and perhaps most majestic. They are the largest member of the deer family, and do not survive well in captivity, so you’ll need to photograph them in their natural state. Moose are fairly fearless creatures with up to six foot long antlers – they don’t have too many natural predators, so you can get closer than you would expect. Try to photograph moose in the early spring when the weather is changing and moose are frequenting lakes, rivers and streams (for more dynamic backgrounds). Photographic opportunities sometimes present themselves while driving around moose country when moose visit muddy areas along the sides of roads known as moose wallows. In general, you might not need a tripod, but a monopod and a fast, long telephoto lens (say a 300mm) will do the trick. An aperture of f/4 to f/5.6 will give you just enough depth of field to capture the moose and blur the background.
Squirrels are fun creatures to photograph, and are well known to many as one of the common types of backyard wildlife. As such, they are a great subject to use to hone your skills as a wildlife photographer. Their movements can be quick, and their daily activity involves both use of the ground and trees. You’ll want a really fast zoom lens (at least a f/2.8) so you can shoot at 1/250s or 1/500s to capture all the cute movements and behavior of these creatures. What is nice is that you don’t always have to be on your toes to catch these fast-moving animals. As anyone with a bird feeder knows, squirrels will find ways to get to your bird seed, and a bird feeder will offer a great opportunity for you to photograph squirrels. If needed, you may increase your ISO so that you can use the fastest shutter speeds.
Foxes are fast moving and wary animals. They are experts at hiding from humans if they want to. You’ll have to be patient and quiet when hunting foxes to photograph, so find a wooded area that you know is a fox playground and wait. This is going to require some research to know about fox habitat. Use a shutter speed from 1/200s or faster if you are shooting on a clear day to avoid blur. A zoom or telephoto lens will let you get interesting photos of the crafty animal without being too close. Keep your camera on automatic autofocus (AI Focus AF Canon/AF-A Nikon) so you can take the image as soon as a fox appears, because it may disappear quickly!
Rabits and Porcupines
Cottontail rabbits and porcupines can also serve as extraordinary subjects for photography, yet they can be difficult to see, let alone capture on film. You can hope to find them in or around many wooded areas of the United States. Cottontails are often active in the early morning near sunrise, and may come to use grassy areas near the edge of woods. The time of day near sunrise provides striking photographic opportunities, so an early morning ventured out with the camera will probably provide great photographic opportunity even if you don’t see a rabbit. Porcupines are found in habitats where evergreen conifer trees are abundant. You should research their habitat and be prepared to wait two or three days without seeing them. But you can always get lucky, and luck favors the prepared – which means a zoom telephoto lens (80mm to 300) and possible camouflage to blend in to the environment as much as possible.
If you are a frog enthusiast and looking for some impressive shots, you need to use perfect exposure and lighting techniques to capture their vibrant texture, colors and details. You might have to travel to Central or South America to find the most eye-popping and colorful frogs such as the poison dart frogs. Just like other wild animals, frog photography requires you to get down to their level, or up to their level as the case may be – many types are found in trees. A telephoto lens will permit a closer perspective of the frog while working from a distance. However, some “willing” subjects may allow the use of a macro lens for striking close-ups. With telephoto, use a shallow depth of field to keep everything sharp in the foreground sharp, and blur out the distracting background elements.
Wild Cats and Wild Dogs
Though often very difficult to photograph, wild cats (bobcat, mountain lion, lynx) and wild dogs (coyotes, wolves, and foxes) exist in various regions of the United States. These imperial and agile animals make unique and impressive photographs. Again, a long lens, patience and preparation (the right camouflage clothing and a tripod) are the order of the day to capture these animals in a photograph. Winter may provide opportunity if you can discover the carcass of an animal like a deer. Hungry predators may come in for a free meal. Holding a photographic vigil in the icy chill of winter requires keeping the camera (and yourself) warm, so dress accordingly and bring the necessary blankets for the camera.
Otters and Beavers
Otters and beavers make great photographic subjects as well, but they are usually wary of humans, so you have to be cautious. You might think of yourself as a hunter/predator when photographing animals in the great outdoors, and behave accordingly. But instead of shooting a gun or a bow & arrow, you’re firing your camera. All the skill, care and preparation required in a hunt is required in photographing these animals. Your zoom telephoto lens is your “scope” and the frame-rate is your ability to get off multiple rounds to “take down” the animal (i.e. capture it on film). If you can locate a beaver dam or lodge, you have found the right habitat. Wearing camouflage clothing and waiting still with your camera ready on a tripod may get you some great photos.
Animal Tracks in the Winter
Photographing animal tracks in the snow is a great way to get outdoors in the middle of winter, and a wonderful way to learn the habits of wildlife. Tracks in the snow let you know that an animal has been there, even without having seen it. A useful trick for getting these photos right to is overexpose the shot by about 1 full stop. This is because all the metering modes will expose the white snow, as 18% grey, not true white, so by overexposing by a stop, you’ll achieve the brilliant white that you want. Time of day will have an effect on the look of your photos too. Early morning and late afternoon photos will have dark shadow inside the animal track because the sun is low on the horizon. This dark contrast will really help to bring out the track. Mid-day photos will be lighted even deep inside the animal track, and won’t have as much contrast. Experiment with the natural lighting by taking photos at different times of day to see the different looks that come from the same track. Following a set of animal tracks in the winter can often reveal a story. You’ll see where the animal stopped, and perhaps be able to figure out what it did. If you’re careful and lucky you can even follow the tracks to find the animal that made them!
Photographing wildlife can be a challenge. If you are dealing with a nimble creature, then choose a suitable shutter speed of at least 1/125th. If necessary increase the ISO so you can use a fast shutter speed. Try to choose a deep depth of field to capture the details of your subject and its surroundings. If there is a distracting background, then choose a large aperture (f/2-f/5.6) to keep only the animal in focus.
As well as a good camera, telephoto lenses are useful for most wildlife shots as you will usually have to keep your distance from the animals. Use a polarizer or neutral density filter if you are shooting on bright sunny days or in snowy conditions so that your images aren’t overexposed. Tripods or monopods are useful if you are thinking of going out into the wild as you can set up and wait for the animals to appear.
Wildlife photography is hugely rewarding if you have the patience and energy to pursue it. Remember that animals aren’t willing models, so they’re not trying to help you out with your objective – all you can hope for is that they will give you something good to photograph. This is why the “hunter/predator” mentality is required to get the most robust and dynamic images. Hunters – man or animal – are patient as they wait for their prey to get in just the right position to strike. That’s what you must do in order to get the impressive photos that you want – photos that will capture the attention of viewers.