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I recently gave a presentation on wildlife photography to the Coastal Carolina Camera Club, of which I am a member. I hesitated at first because I am no expert, but finally agreed to discuss wildlife photography on a “what-I-know-for-now” basis.
Since the ranks of amateur wildlife photographers are growing by leaps and bounds due to the digital camera revolution, I decided to share part of the presentation with you.
So what am I about? First, I am about halfway to where I want to be, especially in technique and technical knowledge. Second, I try to capture the shot and not take a perfect photo. I am like a hunter—one with the ultimate catch-and-release program. Finally, my photography is also about wildlife identification.
My photo collection currently consists of more than 400 North American bird species, 100 plus mammals, more than 100 butterflies and dragonflies, and about 50 reptiles and amphibians.
Four areas are keys to becoming a good wildlife photographer: time devoted to photography, knowledge of subject, good equipment, and technique and technical knowledge. These areas are important for all types of photography; however, knowledge of subject is most important for wildlife photography.
Knowledge of wildlife behavior will allow you in many cases to anticipate actions that you want to capture. It will allow you to capture the attitude and personality of wildlife to give your photos life instead of being just two-dimensional portraits. For me, knowledge of subject is a continuum, from birds and mammals at the top end and butterflies and dragonflies at bottom, with many subjects in between.
The technique/technical knowledge arena is where I need the most improvement. I am, however, closer to where I want to be in the other three areas which compensates for my deficit in the technique and technical knowledge and enables me to take many acceptable photos.
Digital cameras with advanced features and zoom or telephoto lenses, once the realm of professionals, are now found in the price range of many aspiring wildlife photographers who cannot resist the appeal.
My best advice is to buy a digital SLR camera with changeable lenses and then start out with the best lenses possibly. The camera body is less important that the lenses and due to future increases in features and functionality, you may want to upgrade your camera body every few years anyway.
For wildlife photography, image stabilization is highly recommended for sharp pictures, tracking moving subjects, and portability. Most of my photos of the little guys are taken while handholding my camera in dense brush.
Much about technique involves getting close enough to observe behavior and to get a good image. Suppose you are hooked but cannot afford a stronger lens. How can you get closer to wildlife without flushing them? Two rules: do not wear white and do not make sudden moves. You will be surprised how close you can get to wildlife if you honor these two cautions.
Many times I have bounded out the front door to go birding looking like a 235-pound bluebird. Not recommended! I do recommend wearing muted earth tones or camouflage in the field. If you really want to learn about camouflage, ask a turkey hunter as I did.
Camo and blinds are sometimes necessary. The objectives of using camouflage and blinds are to break up the lines of the human shape and hide the face.
Sometimes I use photo blinds at wildlife refuges if they are available. Some of my friends use portable blinds; however, I use camouflaged netting instead. It is see-through and breathable so I pull it over me as I sit and wait for the shot with the lens protruding through a slit in the net. Note that the Camo Boy’s wrap in the photo is the netting.
A great, readily available blind is your vehicle—provided you stay in your car. On back roads, when I flush my target sparrows, I turn my SUV to the side and turn the engine off so I can get the shot out of the open window like the one of the Vesper Sparrow above.
Even if birds dive into the grass as I approach, there is a good chance they may pop back up once the sound is gone, seeming oblivious to the parked SUV. I have found it almost impossible to walk the same dirt road, with its scrub and fence line, and get the close-up sparrow pictures. So I stay in the SUV and fire away.
I asked those at the meeting if anything was wrong in the Camo Boy photo. They quickly replied that I needed to do something about the moustache! So I am leaving in a few minutes to buy a bottle of Grecian Formula . Wonder if it comes in green?
In closing, I salute those of you who have started taking wildlife photos, sharing them with others, and having them printed in newspapers. And to those of you who just enjoy the beauty and challenge. After all, this is not about us. It is about environmental awareness and wildlife conservation. Our photos are promoting these noble causes.