In this new series of blog articles and videos, I’ll be sharing with you some wildlife photography tips for how to get close to your subjects using a variety of tactics. In this first episode, we’ll be taking a look at the most important issue of all though, and that is how and why to always be respectful of the animals you’re attempting to photograph and the places they call home.
Over the years I’ve gotten many rather extreme close-up shots of wild animals…including potentially very dangerous wild animals…all with a 300 mm lens or less. My reason for using a smaller, more manageable lens has primarily been because most of my wildlife photography work has been done in rugged areas of Alaska, waaaaaaay off the beaten path and in areas that get hammered with horrible weather for days and even weeks on end. As a result, I’ve never been comfortable bringing a huge, unwieldy, outrageously expensive camera lens into those kinds of places where there was a good chance of it getting damaged or destroyed. Places like the remote Alaskan wilderness simply chew up and devour outdoor gear…especially rather delicate camera gear. So, as the old saying goes, I’ve learned to do more with less. And, most importantly, I’ve learned to get close to wildlife in a safe, non-intrusive, respectful manner…which is critical for your own safety, as well as the safety and well-being of the animals you’re photographing.
Wildlife Photography Etiquette
Getting too close to wild animals, whether they’re potentially dangerous animals or not, can have fatal consequences. For many photographers, capturing beautiful, memorable images of wildlife in truly wild places, can indeed be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Such a coveted opportunity can create a well-prepared, disciplined approach to making the most of such an experience, or, in many cases, unfortunately, it can tempt one to engage in some very harmful, disrespectful, and even dangerous actions…dangerous for one’s self, and ultimately for the animals.
Wild animals and the places they call home demand the utmost respect and care. In many ways, most wild creatures are like people: they don’t appreciate it much if you mess with their home, their food, their family, their personal space, and they don’t like to be woken up from a nap. Not to mention, larger, potentially dangerous animals can also get very angry and aggressive when such disrespect is shown. A grim reminder of this took place in 2012, when a man was killed by a grizzly bear in Denali Park while apparently trying to photograph the animal at too close of a range. Along with the photographer tragically losing his life, the bear also ended up being killed as a part of the investigation, which is usually the case in such circumstances. Since then, even more fatal encounters have happened in other states.
A very important point to remember is that how you interact with a wild animal not only dictates the outcome of the encounter for yourself, but it also dictates and influences how that animal will react to future encounters with other humans. Thus, an improper wildlife encounter puts you, future people, and the animals themselves in potential danger.
Preparing for and carrying out a serious wildlife photography shoot is not something to take lightly. Every step of such an undertaking should be planned with great care and attention to detail. Long before you ever step foot into the natural world in hopes of capturing images of the creatures who live there, you should thoroughly research and learn everything you can about the wildlife that inhabit the area, especially your target animal’s defining characteristics. Equally as important, you should also learn all you can about the animal’s particular habitat.
Along with thoroughly educating yourself about your subject, you should obviously be equipped with the right camera gear, such as a substantial zoom/telephoto lens which enables you to stay a safe, respectful distance away from your subject animal and well out of its comfort zone. Most importantly of all, you should also learn, develop, and practice wilderness etiquette. That is, leaving as little an impact of your presence as possible in the animal’s habitat, and practicing the leave no trace policy at all times.
Another important point to remember is that the same degree of preparation and care that precedes your wildlife photography shoot, should also be applied afterward. So far example, if you’ve remained undetected by the animal you’ve been photographing throughout your photoshoot, you should likewise make every effort to continue to remain undetected until the animal leaves the area on its own, undisturbed. While this may take a while and you may need to be very patient, doing so helps to ensure that the animal will not alter its behavior due to human presence. Wild animals that are pressured too much or greatly disturbed in their primary habitat will often move out of the area, which could result in them not getting the proper food they need or put them in danger by forcing them to leave an area that has otherwise been a safe sanctuary.
Even if you’re photographing animals in an area in which they are well aware and somewhat tolerant of your presence, it is still of the utmost importance to exit the area in a safe, respectful manner. Nobody likes to have their home invaded and be rudely harassed and disturbed. Being respectful of both the animals you’re photographing and their habitat before, during, and after your photoshoot will ensure the safety and well-being of the animals themselves, the places they call home, and the future humans who may enjoy the treasured opportunity to be a guest in their domain.
Tactics and Gear for Getting Close
In the next serval blog articles and videos to come in this series, we’ll be taking a look at the gear and tactics you can use to get closer to your wildlife photography subjects in a safe, respectful manner. But as a prerequisite, you will need at least a 300 mm zoom/telephoto lens. Please keep in mind, while I hope to teach you some methods
for getting closer to wildlife with skill rather than relying exclusively on technology, I’m by no means advocating not using the proper tools. If you can afford a larger, much more powerful lens than a 300 mm, then by all means, go for it! However, if using a huge, super-expensive lens is not an option for one reason or another, there are still many ways to safely close the distance, of which we’ll start looking at in the next installment in this series. Check out the video below to see more…