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Hunting Wildlife With A Camera – The Woodland Ninja™ Way
I know you’ve seen them. Maybe you’re one of them. And maybe you don’t enjoy it, but figure that’s just how it’s done.
What I’m talking about are wildlife photographers that gather at the same location like gulls at a garbage dump. Usually these are places where large numbers of a particular species gather at a certain time of year. You’ll see such gatherings of people and critters at Rocky Mountain National Park or Yellowstone, with the photographers all standing on the roadside with their big lenses on tripods, all photographing elk in the valley. Or along the Mississippi River, below a lock and damn, photographing winter gatherings of bald eagles.
While this is one manner of photographing wildlife, it is by no means the best. Why? Think about it for a second. The bull elk tilts his head back and bugles, and every one of the fifty cameras there records essentially the same image. Now if you’re just shooting for fun, I guess that doesn’t make much difference. But if you ever hope to sell your images, why in the world would you want to have the exact same image as fifty of your competitors? I think you see where I’m going here….
And even if you are shooting for fun, don’t you want to capture something unique? Don’t you want to have an image, even if it is solely for your own viewing and that of your family, that reflects a special moment in time? Something that no one else witnessed that day?
Hunting For Images
My birder friends call me “Woodland Ninja” because invariably I’m wearing some item of camouflage clothing, and sneaking around in the woods. That’s fine. I kind of like the title because I find the experience of standing in a group photographing the same scene as everyone else very unsatisfying. It’s not that the critters weren’t beautiful or fascinating. It’s just that I longed go be in the woods or marsh away from the crowds, and have the experience to myself. I also know that any images I capture will be special – no one else would have them in their files. Since I do this for a living, having unique images is a real plus.
Perhaps because I’ve been a hunter all my life, I found it easy to adapt those skills to my photography. For those of you who would like to break free from the crowds, here are some tips.
Scout, Scout, Scout!
Just as in hunting, scouting out locations for photography is critical. First, you must find places where the birds or animals are relatively plentiful. They don’t need to be super-abundant like they are in some parks, but numerous enough that you stand a good chance of getting the photos you want.
These places don’t have to be far from home. Many of my best wildlife images were taken in and around my hometown. In fact, urban wildlife is often more tolerant of people because they are used to us. You do need to find them in attractive locations, though, and pay attention to where the sun rises and sets, so you have an idea of what time of day these places will have the best light.
Subscribing to online birder’s hotlines is one good way to hear about gatherings of birds, or unique sightings. Visiting state parks and talking to the rangers is a good way of gathering knowledge of the wildlife to be found there. I do a lot of my photography on state Wildlife Management Areas. Though they may be called something else in your home state, these are places that are managed by your state natural resource agency, usually for hunting. But hunting only takes place during a narrow window of time in the autumn and early winter. The rest of the time, these wildlife oases are great places to wander around and hunt for wildlife with your camera.
The important point is: find locations that are attractive, and have lots of critters!
Study The Critter
Any hunter worth his or her salt knows the habits of the game they are pursuing. What time of day they feed, and where they do it. Corridors through which they move, or flight paths through which they migrate. What kind of habitat each species prefers.
Photo hunters need to know the same. Not only will learning the life history of your intended subject lead to more and better photos, you will enrich yourself in the process. Books, online resources, local experts – all are good ways of learning about the habits of the wildlife you want to photograph. Remember, you aren’t going to be standing on a roadside photographing semi-tame critters. You’re going to be trying to get up close and personal with wild animals, and that requires knowledge.
When checking out a location, I often spend some time just sitting and watching. Where are the ducks landing and why? Is there a food source over there? If so, they’ll come back again and again. What time of day do they show up? If they hang out in a certain place during the middle of the day, that’s of no advantage because the light is too harsh. But if they hang out in a certain place at sunrise, I want to know that. And I want to know how I can get to that place without disturbing them so as to be in a position where the light is behind or quartering me.
There are no shortcuts here. It takes a bit of time to learn about wildlife and their habits. If it sounds daunting, you can always join the throngs on the side of the road!
Walk Softly, Slowly, and Learn To See
When I take my photography students into the field, I invariably find that they walk too fast, too loudly, and don’t really see what’s going on around them.
Slow down. Look around. Yes, you may be interested in photographing deer, and have that “picture” in your mind, but pay attention to everything else. See that warbler on the branch? You may never get that shot again. Take it. Same with the wildflower.
But walking quietly and slowly has other rewards. When humans approach, most animals simply freeze, and fade into the background. They’ll let you walk right past them. But stop for a few minutes and wait quietly, and they may well begin to move again. And that’s when you will see them. There may not be a photo opportunity then, but knowing where your “prey” is, and which direction it is moving is essential in getting into a position where you can get your photo.
I don’t want to share too much here about my techniques – don’t want to give away the farm, so to speak – but I will say this much. Wildlife is much more comfortable if you don’t make eye contact, if you move in at an angle, rather than directly toward them, and if you dawdle and act nonchalant. Remember that predators move fast, and directly toward their prey, with eyes locked on them. That’s what triggers fear and a response in prey. Don’t mimic the predators!
A word here about disturbing wildlife: if you chase an animal or bird from the area (not just move it a few yards, but really alarm it), disrupt its nesting or brooding of young, or dissuade it from feeding (again, not a momentary glance at you, then resuming feeding, but actually abandoning its food source), you’ve gotten too near. Your priority should always be the welfare of the wildlife. I will admit, though, that you’re bound to screw up once in awhile unintentionally just by walking through the woods, but so does a hiker or mountain biker. The point is that your intention should be to avoid this, and if, in your quest to get a photo of wildlife you’ve already spotted, you disturb that wildlife, you need to back off and avoid that behavior in the future.
Individuals within a species are like individuals in your family. Some are nervous, some are laid back. I’ve found extremely tolerant individuals of many species. Owls so relaxed that they have fallen asleep while I’ve photographed them. Huge whitetail bucks that grew so used to me that they’d actually bed down and let me sit thirty feet from them while they chewed their cud. Finding such individuals, though, is a function of luck, and of time – the more time you spend in the field, the more likely you are to encounter individuals that seemingly like to have their photo taken. As the farmers say, this is when you “make hay while the sun shines.”
You could, I suppose, lug a tripod around during these Woodland Ninja forays, but it will make noise as it clatters through the brush, an because it takes time to set up, you’ll miss some great shots. Photos of opportunity – a goshawk perched on a branch plucking its prey – happen infrequently and quickly. If you are going to grab these shots, you must be able to take them in an instant.
I tend to hand hold my camera in these situations. A monopod is an acceptable substitute for a tripod, but if you’ve looked around my website, you’ll see I’m a big fan of the BushHawk camera mount. It is, unfortunately, not currently available.
The BushHawk is a shoulder mount camera stock that helps steady the camera, and is perfect for this type of wildlife photography. I like using my Canon 100-400mm IS lens for this type of photography, because I can zoom in an out to compose an image without having to move, which can be critical. Now 400mm, I realize, is about the absolute minimum focal length for serious wildlife photography, and having a 500mm lens would be nice at times. However, you need to balance weight against portability, and if you’re doing your job right, you’ll be nearer to the wildlife than those photographers with their big lenses standing on the roadside. They need 500 to 600mm lenses. You don’t.
A couple of extra flash cards, and a spare battery rounds out the camera gear. Maybe a shorter lens for some macro work. That’s about it.
I rarely use blinds, except when photographing waterfowl. But I do sometimes carry a piece of camo fabric (the kind sold for hunting) to drape over some bushes to create a temporary blind. And occasionally I will use decoys or other devices to attract wildlife. But the vast majority of my images are taken as I walk through the marsh or woods, “armed” with nothing more than the camera.
To do this, you need clothing made of silent fabrics, and in a camo pattern if possible. At the very least, you should wear earth tones. While it is true that most mammals DON’T see color, camo clothing will break up your outline and blend in better, and just because you’re out photographing deer, it doesn’t mean you want to frighten away those species that do see color – particularly birds. Camo is essential for bird photography.
Even if the bird or animal sees you, and knows you’re there, I’m convinced that clothing that blends in puts them more at ease. In some situations, I’ll even don a camo mesh face mask. The human face is one of the most frightening things to wildlife. Blending in often gives you that split second you need to grab a great image before the subject is aware of you.
A deer staring at you might be a good image. A deer polishing its antlers on a tree, or a bird feeding its young, are much better images because they capture behavior, and they will only do this in front of your camera if they aren’t aware of you, or you’ve put them at ease. And you don’t get them standing on the roadside!
“Ninja-ing” around in the field is a great way of capturing wildlife behavior shots. It also puts you in touch with their environment. You see their tracks, their droppings, their nests. You find photo subjects you’d never otherwise encounter.
Yes, it takes some effort, some knowledge. But then, most things in life that are worthwhile require both as well.
Get out there!
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