Wildlife photography ... some basic considerations

What do you think about before doing any wildlife photography

Know your subject
Most of us can't speak the same language as animals.  To most humans, animals are a less able species than humans that don't have 'superior human intelligence'.  Try explaining that to a cougar that's stalking you or a wolf pack out hunting an elk to feed their cubs.

Just because we don't understand their language, it doesn't mean animals are dumb.  If you go back far enough and study human development - we learned a lot from animals in the early years.  If you go out into the wild for the purposes of photography with an attitude of arrogance, you may not return from the trip - depending on the species that you're trying to photograph and the terrain that you're in.  You must have a healthy respect for the natural world in order to become a good wildlife photographer.  A compatible attitude and energy are crucial.

You have to know the subject's terrain and how to walk upon it.  You have to recognise scents (always get the locals to help you with this if you're going after something dangerous away from home). 

Find out if they have any trails going through where you are, what they like to hunt and eat and where they like to rest.  Remember that the diet may vary with the seasons (Eg grizzly bears go after salmon in Autumn when the fish go back to their spawning territories (where available) but at other times they'll snuffle berries, kill other animals - including unwitting humans - and graze on carcasses).

Grizzly Bear eating Salmon at Hyder Alaska

Look for watering holes.  Examine the tracks and see what's around ... and always be conscious of the wind direction and your scent.

Different animals may behave differently to different issues - Eg eye contact, posture, movement.  If you find yourself in a dangerous situation, NEVER turn your back on the predator and run.  Walk backwards, slowly and keep the predator in your line of sight.  A monopod can double up as a defensive weapon that has some range to it.  Do not panic.

Certain scents carry further than others (Eg soap, aftershave, perfume, deodorants etc) - don't use them if you want to see your subject in the wild.  Other scents may spark off a reaction (Eg a woman on or near her period smells similar to a doe on heat - this can bring her to the attention of stags with dangerous antlers or perhaps to animals that eat deer).

If you're taking food supplies with you, don't leave anything open in the wilderness, especially overnight (eg anything that's has had meat wrapped in it must be sealed up into a plastic bag and be properly disposed of in a bin.  Do not leave any opened foods or meat wrappers in your car as some species will try to gain access to the vehicle because of the scent.  Make sure that you're using air-tight containers for all foods.  This video shows you what can happen to a car that has food left in it.  This may have been a female grizzly bear taking food to cubs or just a savvy bear knowing that cars can be a good source of provisions; either way, the bear was making off with food, stashing it and coming back.  The people around the car could have been at risk if the bear had a different temperament and if the actions of the humans had triggered a defensive/violent response.  If you head off towards colder climates in search of polar bears, you can't afford mistakes like this.

Remember that you're leaving a scent trail every time you urinate, so keep monitoring your back-trail.  You don't want something creeping up behind you.

Observation Posts (OPs)
Some areas in the different countries have OPs built in for various species that afford the photographer a unique opportunity to photograph certain species while they hunt, nest or feed their young.  There are numerous osprey projects in the Scottish Highlands.  Between Hyder Alaska and Stewart BC (Canada) there is a platform that allows you to photograph black bears and grizzly bears hunting salmon as they spawn.  Just 'Google' the location and the species and see what you can find.

Osprey hovering before the dive - Highlands, Scotland

Camouflaged Clothing
Pros and cons.  Pros - if you can find a good, sheltered spot and sit still, you'll see more.  Camouflage is essential.  A lot of people forget the obvious - your eyes and hands.  Make sure you use a face veil and gloves if you're hiding out and observing.  I've been in Scotland photographing ospreys hunting and have seen all sorts of creatures walk right past my boots because I've blended in to a bush and been very still and quiet.  Silence is essential.  No mobile phone alerts at all - including vibrate - they'll hear it and disappear.  When you move, do it slowly and quietly.  Cons - it can get really hot!  You also risk surprising a predator if it happens upon you in places like Canada and Alaska ... which could result in serious harm for yourself or you could lose your life through startling a predator.

If you're not using camouflage, take a monopod with you and periodically hit the ground with it - the noise will alert predators and avoid a violent reaction ... but you might not see as much wildlife.

Path of the Sun
As a photographer, you should always be monitoring the position of the Sun and altering your camera settings accordingly.  Try to keep the Sun behind you and find OPs that keep it that way for you.

Make sure someone knows what you're doing and where you're going  (Eg your motel receptionist) ... and roughly what time you're due back.  If you're going to be late - let them know!  If you're deviating from your plans and having a beer with another photographer on the way home - let the motel know.  The last thing you want is to start off an incident abroad.  Be responsible toward the people that may be monitoring your safety.

Take a quad-band mobile phone abroad, it should be able to work in any country.  If you know you're going right out into the wild - get a satellite phone.  If you're lucky enough to get a signal, it may be trackable depending on your phone model.  Also take a mobile walky-talky ... you might get lucky and find someone on your frequency if you need help.  The range may only be 3-12km ... but that could be enough.

If there's more than one of you on the outing - use hand signals - even whispers carry in the wilderness.

First Aid Kit
Make sure you have a good kit - including suturing needles.  If something bad happens and you're by yourself - you have to patch yourself up to be able to get out of there.  Take a good knife as part of your kit - you may need to cut/hack something to make a splint ... or to make kindling for a fire if you're stranded in the wilderness.

Food & Drink
Take only sealed foods that you can comfortably finish as part of one small meal, then seal the empty wrapper(s) in an air tight container.  Fluids are more important.  Water is heavy and you won't be able to carry much if you're carrying a full photography kit - so drink sparingly - you need to make it last.  Make sure you have a few pouches of powders to put minerals/electrolytes etc back into your system - particularly if you're going to areas of high humidity.  If you start to get severe cramps in your legs etc - make sure you drink some quickly.  Always take some water purification tablets with you as well, if you get desperate, you can treat that water and use it.

Your Limitations
Be aware of your own limitations.  How far can you walk with a 22kg pack?  How long would it take you to walk from your vehicle to the OP?  How much daylight time do you have?  Is the route easy to find?  Don't get caught out on unfamiliar terrain in the dark.  Make sure the route back to your vehicle is an easy one.  Tie bits of string or cloth to trees as route markers.

Survival Equipment
You don't need much  in the way of equipment if you're not going far out from populated areas, just do some research online about your needs and the terrain your visiting and take some basic stuff with you.  If you're going further afield, you'll need to balance your photography equipment needs with your survival equipment needs - don't make your pack too heavy!

If you smoke - leave them at base and use gum or patches.  An animal will smell your fumes.  There's also the risk of forest fires in hotter countries.  Don't risk starting one by being careless.

Use all of your senses
You have five of them - use them!  You must constantly observe with them all.  You don't just see with your eyes ... you feel the wind on your skin ... you smell your surroundings ... you taste the air at times ... you constantly listen (don't continually walk - walk a few steps and stop etc) ... feel the ground you're walking on - particularly when you know you're in an area where you expect to see the subject. 

I guess that's about it as a basic run down on wildlife photography.  I hope you found it useful.

Villayat 'Wolf' Sunkmanitu

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