11 Secrets of Wildlife Photographers
By Erica Cirino
There is something about seeing a wild animal—a stalking tiger, soaring hawk, splashing whale, or slithering snake—that captivates the imagination. Yet these creatures are elusive, and it’s not easy to capture their splendor. So how can you get the perfect picture of a wild creature? Luckily, there are people out there who have devoted their lives to the art of wildlife photography, and mental_floss talked to a few who were willing to share their tips.
1. YOU DON’T NEED FANCY EQUIPMENT—BUT YOU NEED TO KNOW YOUR EQUIPMENT.
Florida-based conservation photographer Mac Stone says it’s a misconception that good photographers need top-of-the-line equipment in order to get a good shot. “There’s an old saying that goes, ‘The best camera is the one that’s in your pocket,’” he notes. Stone, who shoots all kinds of wild creatures from American alligators to burrowing owls, says the key is knowing how to use the equipment you have: Read your camera manual and experiment before going out to shoot in the field.
2. THINK LIKE AN ANIMAL.
Elephants in Amboseli National Park in Africa. Image credit: Carl Safina
If you want to catch an animal on camera, you need to think like an animal, says Richard Slattery, a Long Island-based professional photographer who has been photographing wild animals for more than 20 years.
“While I’m not a scientist, I’ve spent a lot of time with animal experts who have taught me to look for signs preceding animal action,” he notes. For example, when photographing humpback whales on whale-watching trips, Slattery has learned from whale experts to look for “bubble nets” on the water’s surface. These bubbles of air, exhaled from underwater, always precede a whale surfacing to swallow up fish and plankton—a perfect photo opportunity. Slattery suggests attending public lectures, watching documentaries, and reading books about wildlife to learn how to anticipate animal action.
3. LEARN TO READ NATURE’S CUES.
Besides knowing how to read animal behavior, it’s also critical to know how to read your environment, says Kristofer Rowe, who’s been professionally photographing ospreys and other birds since 2011. Once you know about the species you want to shoot, “you can increase your odds by knowing where and when to position yourself for optimum images,” he notes. Between April and October—osprey season in Connecticut, where he is based—Rowe says he uses the sunrise, tides, and winds to help him find ospreys and craft the perfect shot. The same educational strategies for learning about animal behavior can also be applied to learning about their environment.
4. BE AN AMBASSADOR FIRST, PHOTOGRAPHER SECOND.
Laysan albatross chick and parent. Image credit: Hob Osterlund
Professional wildlife photographer and writer Hob Osterlund has devoted her life to the conservation of one species: the albatross, a large seabird native to Hawaii, the state where she’s based. Albatross face many challenges to their survival, including feral cats, invasive species, ocean plastic, and habitat destruction. To get the best possible photos of these birds, Osterlund says, “Take shots that make people love and respect the animal. They need your help much more than you need an award.”
5. TAKE TONS OF SHOTS, THEN KEEP THE BEST.
Ecologist, author, and Safina Center founder/president Carl Safina has been photographing wild animals for decades. Over the years, this Long Island-based wildlife expert has traveled the world amassing thousands of beautiful photos of all kinds of wild creatures, from wolves to walruses. The key, he says, “Is to shoot lots of frames of the same thing; never think you’ve ‘got’ it—you can always get it better. Then, when you’re back home, comb through your images and delete those that don’t work so you can focus on the best images you’ve taken.”
6. DON’T BE AFRAID TO GET DIRTY.
You can expect to get at least a little mud on your shoes when trying to photograph wild animals (they live outside, after all). But Osterlund says you shouldn’t be afraid to really get down and dirty to get the shots you’re after. “I learned from the great Melissa Groo to lie down,” says Osterlund. “Get at eye level [with an animal] as much as possible. Buy elbow pads so you don’t tear your flesh off. Carry a small tarp.”
7. PRE-FOCUS YOUR CAMERA WHEN APPROPRIATE.
An incoming osprey. Image credit: Kristofer Rowe
It can be challenging to get a steady shot when on a boat or trying to photograph moving animals (or both), says professional photographer Jodi Frediani. Frediani, who is based in California, spends a lot of time photographing whales and other marine creatures. She says there are many situations where it pays to take advantage of your camera’s pre-focus feature in order to get a clear shot, such as when you’re on a boat. For example, when trying to get photos of humpback whales, Frediani says she’ll “pre-focus where I think a serial breaching will come up next.”
8. BE STUBBORN ABOUT GETTING THE SHOT YOU WANT ...
It’s easy to get discouraged in the field if you don’t get the shot you’re looking for on the first try. But Stone says it’s important not to give up on the images you want even if you fail a few (or many) times. “Really attack an image and go after it until you get it,” says Stone. “Go out every day to the place you want to get the image and really focus yourself on your task.” Eventually, with enough stubbornness, Stone says, you’re likely to get the image you’re after.
9. BUT DON’T FORGET TO APPRECIATE EVERYDAY MOMENTS.
Southern Pacific humpback whale mother and calf in Vava'u, the Kingdom of Tonga. Image credit: Jodi Frediani
Some of the best photographs of wild creatures capture very regular parts of their lives, such as feeding and sleeping. Frediani says she especially enjoys watching humpback whales lunge upward through the water’s surface to get a mouthful of krill, plankton, and small fish. While whale feeding is an everyday behavior, Frediani says she gets excited every time she gets on a boat to watch “these leviathans ‘making a living.’”
10. PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT’S ACTUALLY IN THE FRAME.
When it comes to crafting the right shot, framing is very important, says Safina. When you look through your viewfinder, think of its confines as a picture frame. You can always crop a photo, but often the best shots are framed correctly even before they’re taken. “Everything else you are aware of about your surroundings and the circumstances, the viewer will never see,” Safina says. So pay special attention to getting what you need in the frame and excluding the things that may distract your viewer.
11. BE RESPECTFUL.
Perhaps the most important secret to keep in mind is to respect the animals you’re photographing, Slattery says. Each type of animal has its own comfort level around humans. “Think about the ethics of each situation you’re in,” says Slattery. “If you could be harmed by getting close to an animal, or the animal could get stressed, stay far away and use a long magnifying lens.” It should go without saying, but no picture is worth harming an animal—or getting injured yourself.