Wildlife Photography – How To Get Close

Posted on by Steve

“Don’t Do Scary Stuff”

People often wonder how I get so close to the wildlife I photograph and my #1 response is simply:

“I don’t do scary stuff!”

I know, you were probably hoping for some covert, “super secret” stalking technique or perhaps a revolutionary piece of gear that masks your approach, but really, just don’t do scary stuff.

So, what’s scary stuff? Here’s a list that should help. Note that this works best with animals that are used to seeing people, such as in local and national parks.

# 1. Don’t approach the animal too quickly.

People tend to get as excited as a sugared-up 5-year-old when they spot a new animal – and they all but sprint to get into photographic range. That makes critters do this:

Egret-Takeoff

Know what else likes to run towards that animal? Yeah, predators. Just approach slowly and…

# 2. Don’t make a direct approach.

Again, predators tend to do that kind of thing, so take your time and approach indirectly. I often end up trying stay wide and parallel to the animal, then I work my way back, never going straight at it. The second you head directly in, you risk the animal saying “sayonara!” (Although if it REALLY did say that it would be something eh? And why is it speaking Japanese?)

fawn-peeking-through-brush

# 3. Don’t make eye contact.

In fact, act like you don’t even know the animal is there as you make your way towards her. When you make eye contact, they KNOW you are interested in them. Guess who else is interested in them? Yup, predators. (Getting repetitive isn’t it?) Most of the time when I’m shooting I avoid eye contact with the animal outside of the viewfinder.

Here’s a little story for the 3 points above:

It’s funny – I get down to Florida from time to time and I remember my early attempts at shooting little birds along a busy beach. It was SOOOOOO frustrating to watch as people strolled by the birds – close enough to kick ‘em – but each time I’d approach they’d take off before they were even close to being in range.

I was scratching my head. Was I dressed funny? Did I forget a shower that day?

It didn’t take too long to figure out the three points above. The birds were JUST FINE when they didn’t think people were interested in them, but the second – the SECOND – they decide your  attention is directed their way they scoot off. Use the three tricks above, I’ve been much more successful with all kinds of birds and mammals.

shorebird and shells

Ahh, but that’s not all!

#4 – Don’t stumble around.

Crashing through brush, breaking sticks, scattering the rocks under your feet - those are ALL signals that a predator is approaching. I don’t know how many times I’ve been slowly making my way towards an animal just to have an unnoticed stick torpedo entire thing. A good approach really can pay off…

Black bear stare down

Also, if you’re shooting from a tripod like I do, be VERY away of where your tripod legs are as you move. It’s incredibly easy to snag a leg on a brittle branch and send an animal racing off.

#5 – Read the animal.

Never ever ever ever ever push an animal. I know, when you’re first starting out we all do it, but as you gain more experience you quickly realize that the hundreds of “hind-end” photos your capturing doesn’t make for a very compelling portfolio.

Each species is a little different, so learning the behaviors of the species you’re photographing goes a LONG way towards getting a successful image, however, there is one overall guideline to follow:

If the animal changes its behavior when you’re moving, it’s probably because of you. Stop right where you are and let him adjust to your presence. It may take awhile, but once he’s used to you, try again. I’ve literally spent hours at a stretch with an animal or group of animals to let them become accustomed to my presence – and I promise you, once you’re “accepted”, the REAL good stuff starts.

burowing- owl owlets

Sure, they may never get used to you and let you approach, but the truth is once the critters scatter the show’s over anyway. Why stress ‘em out in the process?

6. Get in front of the critter.

Chasing an animal never works out. Not only do you get a bad view, you’re not getting the photos you were hoping for.

Instead, I remember that great quote by Wayne Gretzky:

I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

My most successful wildlife photos happen when I get to where the animal is GOING to be. I let them come towards me instead of chasing them like an idiot though the woods. Not only is the view better, but since your stationary and not makin’ a ruckus, the animal is more comfortable with it as well.

coyote in snow

I hope that helps you grab some stellar wildlife photos!

Happy Shootin’

~Steve



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8 Responses to Wildlife Photography – How To Get Close

  1. Mildred says:

    Thanks for sharing——BEAUTIFUL photos,

  2. Judith Jackson says:

    Steve, thank you for these wonderful tips for shooting wildlife. You had me in stitches when you talked about how we get excited and scare the animals away. Last spring a pair of cardinals kept appearing, literally, at my bedroom window. Luckily they were enamored with their reflections and hung around for about 3 weeks, and I finally managed to calm down and get a few nice shots.

    Again, thank you so very much for being so generous with your experience.

    Judith

  3. Larry Cleveland says:

    Steve

    Great article and pictures.

    I get good pictures when I see them first. If the wind is in my face, I freeze and wait for them to come to me. They can not smell, hear and if I’m not moving they will often come real close.

    When you are trying to approach them it is alot harder. I try to approach them with the wind in my face. Go slow and watch where I step.

    Larry

  4. Ralph c Blackburn says:

    Very good I like it very much,Ralph

  5. Ralph c Blackburn says:

    Good sharp pictures seems alive.

  6. Reb says:

    Great Pics Steve. I wish I could do half as good with my new Canon Rebel EOS. I also wish I could afford a telephoto lens. I have lots of wildlife in my yard, Deer, Bear, Lion, Coyote, Racoons, Snakes including Rattlers, and various types of Bird Life. I frequently can take pics thru my windows.

    Reb

  7. Patricia says:

    Thanks, Steve. I love your pictures, your enthusiasm, and your generosity in sharing so much with us. I’ll keep trying!
    Patricia.

  8. Bill says:

    Thanks for the great tips on how to get close. As usual, your pics are great.

    Thanks again.

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