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“The best way out is always through.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Get Close to Wild Animals (in the Wild, Naturally)

Getting a great close-up shot of a wild animal is one of the most exciting (and often frightening) moments that you'll have as a photographer. Few subjects (three-year-old kids aside) are as difficult, unpredictable and potentially dangerous (this part doesn't necessarily apply to the kids) as an animal in its own environment--and few animals (and this does apply to the kids) could care less about you getting a good photograph. Animals in the wild are living their own lives and whenever you are close to one, you're the intruder and it takes a great deal of patience and skill to get near--or even see--them, let alone come home with some good photos. And though I don't photograph animals as often as I'd like, there are some things I've learned over the years (well, not that many years) that will help you:

  • Go to a wildlife sanctuary.  I've known photographers that grew up in rural areas and spent much of their childhoods tramping through wild places and they can get you within 20 feet of a wild fox almost at will, but for most of us the odds of seeing animals are greatly increased in a sanctuary. I photographed this bison at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, located in Jasper County, near Prairie City, Iowa and each time I've been there I've managed to get good close-up shots. While the bison are confined (for their safety) to the sanctuary, they are free to roam over an 800-acre drive-through sanctuary. That doesn't make it easy to get near them, but it helps. Look, in particular, for sanctuaries that have a driving loop since most animals are far less afraid of you when you're shooting from inside a car. And don't forget your local state parks and Audubon sanctuaries; I live near two Audubon sanctuaries and both provide great access to animals.
  • Take a wildlife tour.  Organizations like the National Audubon Society offer wonderful group tours that provide unprecedented opportunities to get close to birds and other wild animals. Some of these tours are simple afternoon hikes while others offer extended trips to visit particular types of animals. The longer trips are not inexpensive, but if you're a retired doctor or lawyer and have the time and means to take trips like these, they are often life-changing experiences (and if you need a personal Sherpa, let me know).
  • Hire a local guide.  It's funny that this never occurred to me as an option until I was on a camping trip in northern Maine and I started seeing "moose guide" signs along remote stretches of roadside. For a fairly reasonable fee these guides will take you one-on-one into prime wilderness areas and their ability to deliver the goods is extremely high. A lot of these guides work as guides for hunters much of the time (so you'll have to examine your own feelings about that), but they know more about the indigenous wildlife than anyone else on the planet. They can't guarantee you'll get close to a moose or a bear, for example, but they'll multiply your odds astronomically. The North Country Rivers outfitters in Maine, for example, offer outings ranging from three hours (about $54) to overnight trips.
  •  Study State Park Sites Online.  Every state and Canadian province has a state bureau devoted to wildlife protection and observation and they maintain online sites with great information and maps. Bureaucracies being what they are, the sites may or may not be current, but the will provide some basic information about a particular animal or region.
  • Take a wildlife photo workshop. Again, these are usually not particularly cheap, but they're a terrific way to get close to animals, hang out with other serious photographers and get into one of those fun "Canon vs. Nikon" debates over an expensive dinner. The best wildlife workshops are run by master photographers like Arthur Morris who is perhaps the best bird photographer and one of the best photography teachers on the planet. Again, a good workshop is a potentially life-changing experience.
  • Read, read, read.  You've heard this (from me, probably) many times, but the more you know about any animal the better your odds of getting great photos. It's an absolute publishing crime, but Leonard Lee Rue's How I Photograph Wildlife and Nature is out of print, but it's the best book ever written on the subject and you can get used copies on Amazon for under a buck. Buy it. 
However you get close to animals, it's an enthralling experience and no matter what the effort, coming home with one great shot makes it all worthwhile. Life is short (and animals are disappearing fast), if you dream about photographing wildlife, start making plans to do it today!


    Slimeface said...

    Nice shot and interesting write up as well!

    Jeff Wignall said...

    Thanks Slime ;) LOL.

    Frank said...

    Hi Jeff,

    Your comments about remembering where you are remind me of an incident many years ago at Yellowstone Park. I was there with my grandparents about 30 years ago and we watched this guy trying to get a picture of an elk. He would line up the shot, adjust the focus, take two steps forward, and do it all again. Well, eventually he was within two or so feet of the elk. Now, the elk was watching him this whole time and just kept giving him a slightly quizzical animal look and then going back to eating. Well, the elk looks up, sees this guy so close and snorts right in his face. The guy, without actually looking at the elk, pulls down his camera and wipes off the lens with a white handkerchief. The elk, still standing there 2 or so feet away from him is giving him another quizzical look. The guy looks up, sees the elk, drops his camera, and runs the 100 plus yards back behind the fence.

    He left his camera lay there in front of the elk, who sniffed it and then just wandered away. While the guy was walking back to get the camera, a bear and her two cubs came out. He missed some really good pictures of the bear cubs batting around his camera. :)

    Remember where you are, it can be very important.


    P.S. Kids can be dangerous too. Last week one of my nephews knocked over the lighting stand at Sears in Harrisburg, PA while the photographer was taking pictures of my other nephews. The photographer needed stitches.

    Jeff Wignall said...

    Hi Frank,

    That Yellowstone story is a riot because I am planning a trip there this spring, I think, and while researching it, I saw a video of elk attacking cars that got too close. Driver after driver ignored the signs and got their cars wrecked!