Every amateur shutterbug longs for his or her wildlife photos to look just like the masterpieces in National Geographic. Capturing great images in the wild takes preparation, patience and practice. Here are some tips to help keep you safe while photographing in the great outdoors:
Use common sense
No picture is worth endangering the animals, other subjects, or the photographer. People are killed every year when they get too close to large animals, such as bear, moose or bison. Smaller animals become stressed when we get too close.
Watch your step
Be careful not to step on critters who may be lurking nearby (e.g., snakes catching some sun in the open path), or into a hole or mud puddle.
Know your subject
If you have a specific animal you wish to photograph, study its habits, such as if they are nocturnal, what behaviors they exhibit or whether they stay on the ground, underground or in trees. For example, sandhill cranes often adopt a “pre-flight” posture, leaning forward and being very still before running and taking off. If you want takeoff shots, watch for that pose and be ready.
Know that certain owls will defend their nest area very aggressively, even against much larger humans. If you get too close, they will make sudden silent swoops at your head or face with stiletto talons. Before you try to photograph owls around a nest, know enough about their behavior to wear a hard hat and safety glasses and maintain an adequate distance.
You increase your photo opportunities when you synchronize your shooting to the timetable of your subject. For example, the best time of day to shoot butterflies is often early- to mid-morning when they emerge from their night roosts and warm themselves in the sun. They’ll often sit very still, perfectly displayed, until they’re warm enough to fly. Shooting during this window spares you the hazard of running all over the landscape, camera in hand, to catch up with constantly moving subjects.
Plan your photo shoot
Consider scouting locations before your shoot. Look for the best angles, where the sun will be, what the background will be like, etc. Sandhill cranes need to roost in shallow lakes. If you see cranes in a shallow lake, most likely they will return at dusk to roost for the night. You can come back in the late afternoon, set up and photograph them as they land for the night.
The first few hours after sunrise often provides more dramatic and appealing light, and often, animals are more active during the earlier hours than in the afternoon heat.
Be patient and observant
Oftentimes, animals will come into view if you just stay still in one location. The best wildlife photos are not likely to come by sneaking up on an animal to get as close as possible. Almost always, they’re aware of your approach.
The most effective way to get good shots is to recognize how the animal is behaving and where it is going. Get well out in front, be very still and let the animal come toward you. People who can keep still sometimes find that butterflies will land on their shoulder or birds will perch on their head. This approach is inherently safer because the animal remains in charge. It sets its own comfort zone and is not infringed upon or threatened by you.
Know the capabilities of your equipment
Trying to get a photo that is beyond the capability of your equipment often leads to taking excessive risks. Most of those spectacular photographs that you see in National Geographic or in wildlife calendars were taken under rather unusual, well-controlled circumstances. They were shot from blinds built and maintained by professional guides. Or they were taken from secure vehicles on game preserves. And they were taken with exceptional equipment—the kinds of cameras and lens used by sports photographers who sit next to a baseball dugout and capture great shots of the game-saving catch against the center-field wall. They were not taken by lucky amateurs on day hikes with point-and-shoots or cell-phone cameras.
Remember: You are responsible for your own safety and for the safety of those around you.