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The most dramatic wildlife images often involve getting close to the subject, but how exactly do you do that? In today’s world, wildlife survives by moving away from threats, and humans are generally considered threats. So what is a wildlife photographer to do? Simple, learn how to approach wildlife.
Imagine that you are relaxing on a park bench one morning while drinking a cup of coffee. Suddenly, across the park you see a big guy stare intently at you. Without a pause, he begins to move towards you. As you watch, he jumps behind a tree, only to continue moving forward as soon as you take your eyes off him. How would this make you feel? I think I would be up and running in the opposite direction before he came out from behind the first tree. This is not someone I want to meet!
The above situation sounds a little far fetched, but it is exactly how most photographers try to approach wildlife. I still remember one day (years ago) when my dad decided to “help” me get pictures of some birds. We were out fishing on his boat and I happened to have my camera with me. I noticed some Great Blue Herons wading in the water and made some comment about wanting to get a picture. Next thing I knew, my dad had revved the engines and was driving full speed directly towards the birds yelling,”Take the picture! Take the picture!”! If memory serves, I did. They showed two or three Great Blue Herons flying away from me with looks of terror on their faces. No exactly the images I was after.
When you approach wildlife, think about it from the animal’s perspective. Prey species live day to day with the knowledge that other animals want to eat them. They survive by being highly sensitive of their surroundings. Nothing is going to set off their alarm bells more then a direct stare. That is something predators do. So is moving directly towards them. If you want to get close, you do not want to look like a predator. The same concept applies when approaching predators. Most predators see a direct stare as a challenge. That challenge will be answered in one of two ways, fight (careful, they probably have bigger teeth) of flight (so much for getting close). Neither option is going to get you close enough to create good images.
So, how should you approach them? By far the best way is to sit down and wait for them to come to you. Watch them movement patterns and predict where they are going. Wouldn’t it be great if that always worked? There will be times, however, when you need to make the approach. In that situation, I like to use some techniques I learned many years ago from Joe McDonald, an outstanding wildlife photographer who was kind enough to share his knowledge. The idea is to make yourself look like just another animal out looking for food. This can be accomplished by doing four things.
- Avoid direct eye contact. As we already discussed, this puts animals on edge and makes getting close extremely difficult. Instead, watch the animal out of the corner of your eye.
- Don’t move directly towards them. Watch how prey species walk. They don’t move in a straight line. They don’t have a set destination because they don’t know where the food is. They move from bush to bush, often changing directions after each search. You need to appear to do the same thing. I know it can be agonizing to delay the approach, but moving sideways in a series of diagonal lines will get you much closer then the direct method.
- Take your time. Don’t walk with an obvious purpose. Every few steps, stop and pause before moving. If, at any time during your approach, your subject starts to get nervous (as in look directly at you in more then a passing manner), stop moving. Wait until he goes back to what he was doing and then wait at least 30 more seconds. Also, don’t forget to not stare while you are waiting. Again, you are mimicing the behavior of an herbivore, and wildlife is not scared of other herbivores.
- Get low if you can. Predator are often large animal and decreasing your apparent size helps to separate you from them.
While they don’t work every time, practicing these four tips will go a long way towards helping you get closer to wildlife.
The above image was created in Katmai National Park, Alaska using a Canon 1D mark 2, 500mm IS lens with a 1.4 teleconverter, at 800 ISO. The camera was mounted on a tripod with a Wimberly tripod head. I was able to get this close to the bear because I let him approach me. By quietly sitting along the edge of a river during the salmon run, I let the bear set the pace oft he approach and to adjust to my presence without appearing to be a threat (trust me, you do not want a 1000+ pound bear thinking you are a threat). Over the course of an hour, the bear moved to within 20 feet of my position, and continued fishing for salmon directly in front of me. When he was finished, we both walked away, him with a full belly and me with some great images.