Shoot Pro-Quality Animal Photos
Study your subject and perfect your position to capture memorable shots.
>> Learn about Species Behavior
Research your target online or using field guides like The Complete Tracker, 2nd Edition, by Len McDougall ($20; lyonspress.com) to anticipate peak activity, likely habitats, and top photo ops. You’ll get the best plumage shots of birds in spring, while ungulates are best photographed in the fall, when their antlers are fully developed and their coats are in prime condition. In summer, herds of elk and flocks of birds might crowd a meadow or lake, but the same location may be abandoned in winter. Wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen suggests asking locals (or hiring a guide) to locate likely hot spots.
>> Know Your Equipment
Practice making quick camera adjustments to account for multiple subjects at different distances, fast-changing light, or animals on the move. Keep your camera set to a versatile setting so you can snap unexpected activity or wildlife. Mangelsen recommends toting a standard zoom, a telephoto, and a wide-angle or low-light lens for optimal versatility, and using a tripod when shooting with long lenses or in low light. You may shoot sharp images of large animals with shutter speeds as slow as 1/125, but to freeze birds in flight, use shutter speeds faster than 1/500 (for large birds) or 1/1000 (for hummingbirds).
>> Compose Artfully
Find your desired setting, like a peak or a lakeshore, and position yourself so that animals will travel between you and your planned backdrop. For the most interesting composition, employ the “rule of thirds” by dividing your frame into three horizontal and vertical parts and positioning your target along one of the intersecting imaginary lines (as in the photograph above). Or shoot so that the animal fills the frame, or is small against a dynamic landscape.
See More Wildlife
Maximize sightings by looking at the right times and blending in.
>> Target High-Activity Times
Most forest animals (bears, deer, moose, etc.) are crepuscular—active at dawn and dusk—but some (like caribou and squirrels) are on the move during the day, and others (like mountain lions, owls, and badgers) are nocturnal. Study your subject’s behavior, and be cautious if you see an animal active during “off” hours; unusual activity may be a sign of an illness, which can make animals more aggressive.
>> Hide Out
Wait near game trails or along the edges of territory frequented by your target species, and arrive earlier than you expect to see them—squirrel, bird, or even insect alarm calls as you approach your hiding spot could scare away your quarry. Layer up to stay warm as you wait, and consider using a poncho or bivy sack as a weatherproof (and camouflaging) blind.
>> Blend In
Wear a hat and color-blocked camo to break up your body’s rounded shape. Mask your smell and the odor of your gear by applying Scent Killer, which is available as soap, deodorant, and spray ($8-$20; wildlife.com). Go at least 100 yards away from your hideout if nature calls, and bury waste (even urine) in a hole at least six inches deep (or pee into a resealable bottle).
>> Be Patient
“Serious observers may have to wait for weeks,” says Mangelsen.