Wildlife photography is an exciting challenge. When you hit the trail, you have no idea what creatures you’ll meet along the way. It's a school of photography that requires you to stay alert and carefully scan your surroundings, searching for even the slightest movement in the grass or a rustle in the leaves. For the best results in capturing those unpredictable encounters with wildlife (and having the best photos to share on Instagram), here are a few things I keep in mind.
Animals will not wait for you to change out your lens. To save time, I keep a 75-300mm lens on my Canon 5D Mark II. It’s a simple telephoto lens with a wide range, plus, it allows me to take close up shots while maintaining a safe distance.
Stick With A Telephoto Lens
This is a photo of a sloth I came across in the Hacienda Baru National Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica. By being ready with my telephoto, I was able to take this photo from a distance that did not make the sloth feel threatened. I also saved time by having my telephoto lens ready to go. Not like this little guy was going anywhere fast, but saving time and being at a safe distance meant I didn’t disturb him for long.
Leverage the Lighting
As clouds pass and as the day progresses, so does the lighting. That’s why I periodically take time to adjust my camera’s settings. There’s nothing worse than accidentally taking a bunch of underexposed shots when wildlife appears.
Lighting at the beach is especially challenging but beautiful if you’ve got the right settings. I met this lone male Spanish Mustang in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was past midday but not quite the Golden Hour, so the sun reflecting off of the sand and the ocean behind this horse was harsh, but created a beautiful glow effect around the grass and the horse.
Remember You’re the Guest
The best mindset to have when trying to photograph wildlife is to be the guest. I am the one coming into the animal’s homeland, and whatever they present to me is a gracious gift. It would not just be rude, but dangerous to try to get the animal’s attention and make him pose for the shot I am expecting. I am merely an observer into the daily life of an animal in the wild.
It’s extremely dangerous to interact with bears. Once while photographing grizzlies in Denali National Park, a man in my group whistled at a bear to make him look up. Not only was it disrespectful to the bear, but it put everyone in our group in danger. So when I came across this bear in Glacier National Park, I knew to stay quiet, take my photos and move on quickly, so as not to invade the bear’s space.
Read The Animal’s Body Language
Animals don’t have words but they speak volumes in how they carry themselves. An animal arching it’s back, growling, or swaying is a sure sign that the animals wants nothing to do with you, and you should back off (remember, you’re the guest). If you have a gut feeling that you’re not welcome, then most likely that animal is throwing some “back off” vibes.
This raccoon in Vancouver’s Stanley Park was not having it. As soon as the shutter snapped the raccoon snarled and I knew it was time to continue down the Seawall path.
They Know You’re There
They can hear you. They can most likely see you. As a National Parks ranger once told me “the wildlife just sees us as other animals.”
I was lucky enough to catch the elk migration across the alpine tundra on Trail Ridge Road of Rocky Mountain National Park. These are animals that have grown accustomed to the presence of humans. By the time they reach Estes Park a few miles down the mountain range, they’re greeted by people approaching them to take photos as if they’re domesticated animals. But they are not, and their seemingly mild temperament is not a free pass to get close.
When I took this photo, this young buck was looking straight in my direction. And though he didn’t mind the presence of people being there, he was alert and ready to leave or defend the gang of elk if anyone got too close.
Speak Up. It’s Safe to Make Your Presence Known
This mountain goat blocked the narrow path on the way back down from Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park. To our right was a steep hill and to our left, a wall of rock. We didn’t want to make the mountain goat feel threatened by walking past, or startle him by trying to sneak past, so we had to wait for him to pass us before we could continue. We tried to make ourselves less intimidating by speaking to the goat in a calm and even tone, until he casually walked by.
Use Burst for Quick Moving Animals
This small Capuchin monkey caused a lot of commotion in the canopy of the Hacienda Baru National Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica. He was fast and his movements were unpredictable. Using burst helped me capture the moment he took a short break on branch before climbing higher into the canopy.
Stay Close to Your Guide
If you’re on a boat, sit right behind the captain. If you’re on a bus going through Denali National Park, sit right behind the ranger who is driving. They know where to look for wildlife and they see the wildlife first. When the ranger spotted a group of moose on the side of the road of Denali National Park, I was able to snap a photo first, before other photographers were able to set up their tripods.
Get a Photo of the Animal in Its Environment
A photo of an animal in its environment can tell a larger story. I snapped this moment while sailing in the Kenai Fjords with the Major Marine Tours. Zooming out and capturing the mountains and the other ship gives the photo a real sense of place, a story, and gives the eye a lot of beauty to take in.
Catch Them in Action
I wasn’t expecting to see a bald eagle while canoeing in Somes Sound just outside of Acadia National Park. But I was ready with my camera safely tucked away in my dry bag, just in case. And I’m glad I came prepared. Just as we were passing by Bar Island, an eagle set off from the trees. Not only are photos of animals in movement a challenge, but it’s like capturing the spirit of that animal. You see its authentic, natural beauty.
Embrace the Funny Moments
What’s fun about photographing animals is that they don’t care about their appearance. They’re not self-conscious and they don’t worry about which is their better side.
Bison seem like such stern animals, but capturing this moment in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley of a couple of bison rolling around in the dirt made for a funnier, more unique photograph.