Photographing Wildlife, Part I

The deer is cleaning up spilled birdseed from the ground beneath some feeders.

I’ve been photographing wildlife for more than 40 years. Occasionally, someone will ask how I’m able to photograph such a wide variety of animals and birds and take intimate portraits of creatures that some folks never see.
I always have to stop and think about my answer because I’ve been doing this for so long that I just do it. It has simply become second nature.

But that answer seldom satisfies anyone serious about getting started in wildlife photography. So, this is the first of three articles for Life in the Finger Lakes that will help you develop that same mindset. You can begin by spending as much time outdoors as possible to familiarize yourself with your subjects, their behaviors and their habitats.

If you’re wondering what’s needed to get started in wildlife photography, in addition to photo equipment, let me ask you some questions. Are you patient? Do you have the perseverance to sit in a photo blind for several hours at a time? Few wildlife images are taken on a stroll through the woods. Are you perceptive? Can you spot the flicker of a deer’s ear at a distance? Can you see wildlife before it sees you? Can you sit still and be quiet? Can you tolerate insects? Do you mind being a little cold? Or warm? Or wet?

Wildlife photography is as much about temperament as it is about equipment. You can have the best quality photo gear but if you can’t sit still you won’t see much. You’ll also need some hunting skills, like being mindful of wind direction so you know where your scent is going. You won’t see any wild animals downwind from your position. We’ll learn more about those and other skills later on, but as for your own individual traits, they are something you’ll have to focus on yourself.

This article has little to do with f-stops and shutter speeds. Instead, it is intended to help you understand wildlife behavior as it relates to photography. There are plenty of sources where you can study the science and technology of photography, and you should. But there are fewer resources available that explain the behavioral patterns of wild birds and animals, and the techniques you can use to photograph them. This article assumes that you are familiar with your equipment and know how to use it. Its purpose is to open the door to the exciting world of wildlife photography. Once you step through, there is no limit to how far you can go.

Then and Now

I was bitten by the wildlife photography bug in the 1970s when I lived in the central Adirondack Mountains. Working in the woods every day afforded me plenty of opportunities to photograph wild animals, birds and stunning scenery. I started out with a manual 35mm single-lens-reflex camera (SLR), and for years, I ratcheted what seems like miles of slide film through that outfit. But the change to digital photography a dozen years ago proved to be my best move. Having immediate access to a digital image rather than waiting a week or two for film processing opened up a whole new range of opportunities. And if an image didn’t turn out well, which happened a lot, it could simply be deleted without costing any money.

Today those same opportunities are available to anyone with the desire to photograph wildlife. Technology has advanced more in the last 10 years than it did in the previous hundred. You can take a good-quality digital photo with anything from a cell phone to a digital single-lens-reflex camera (DSLR). But if you’re just getting started, comprehending the various choices available can be overwhelming.

I recommend using a DSLR because you can change lenses and control exposure. Auto-focus and other preset camera functions are essential when you’re scrambling to compose an unexpected wildlife shot. Look for an auto-focus telephoto zoom lens with a focal range up to at least 200mm. 300mm is better and a super-zoom lens up to 500mm is best for photographing big game. It all depends on what you can afford. If you already own a collection of lenses, let that be your guide in selecting a compatible camera. If not, you can always add to your lens inventory as you progress.

With most DSLRs, there is a 1.5X multiplication factor, which means that your 200mm lens is actually recording an image equivalent to one taken with a 300mm lens. 500mm will be recorded at 750mm, and so forth. This can be an advantage in wildlife photography but remember that you will also need a tripod or other means of support when shooting at higher magnifications. When photographing big game animals, distance is a given and a tripod is essential, even if your outfit has some form of image stabilizing compensation.

Start Small

Don’t expect to buy a camera today and be photographing big game animals tomorrow unless you live near Yellowstone National Park or someplace similar. In order to practice with your new equipment, I recommend that you start small. Feeding wild birds is a good beginning and something you can do at home on a minimal budget.

A couple of bird feeders filled with black-oil sunflower seeds will have your yard teeming with a variety of wild birds within a few days. Feeding birds will condition them to accept your presence and they’ll soon allow you to photograph them to your heart’s content. You can start by shooting through a window for a few days and then move outdoors. Buy a field guide to help you identify the different birds that you see or find one online. You’ll have a growing portfolio of wild bird images before you know it.

If a photo of birds perched on a feeder isn’t your idea of wildlife photography, there are a few tricks that you can use to change the illusion. Locate it within a few feet of a tree or shrub so that the birds have a place to land while taking turns at the feeder. This staging area will give you a natural background, free from manmade objects. I sometimes bungee cord a dead sapling to my deck railing and set it up so that it’s at eye-level with my camera and tripod. Remember that birds are not inclined to pose for long, so patience is a must.

Other Critters

Depending on where you live, your bird feeders will attract a variety of other critters as well. Squirrels are a given but I have also photographed deer, red foxes and raccoons cleaning up spilled birdseed on the ground beneath the feeders. Black bears usually den for the winter near the end of November and emerge in early April. One of their favorite springtime treats is black-oil sunflower seed so make sure to schedule your bird feeding program accordingly.

Migrating Waterfowl

As winter melts into spring, flocks of migrating waterfowl will be winging northward. There are hundreds of places around the Finger Lakes to photograph ducks, geese, swans, and other web-footed visitors both on the wing and on the water, not the least of which is the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge at the north end of Cayuga Lake. You’ll also find bald eagles, ospreys, and wading birds like herons and shorebirds there. And look for enormous flocks of snow geese on the open waters of Canandaigua, Cayuga, Seneca, and Skaneateles Lakes as well.

Next Time Around

In the next installment in the May/June 2016 issue, we’ll take a look at how to find and photograph wild animals, how to attract them to your location, and how to blend in with your surroundings. We’ll also study the dos-and-don’ts of wildlife photography and explain ethical practices that ensure safe photo experiences for both you and your subjects.


story and photos by John Adamski

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