Understanding and Respecting Your Subject is More Important Than Your Camera

Do you travel to exotic places? On the hunt for rare megafauna in spectacularly isolated landscapes? Here are some expert tips for getting the best photos while respecting your subjects and their surroundings. Spoiler, it’s not just about your camera.

HOWL – A Wildlife Photo Convention brought together several wildlife photographers and wildlife experts to talk about how to approach and photograph wildlife. I spoke to each of the speakers about how photographers and wildlife lovers can get the most out of their experiences in the field while respecting wildlife.

Have patience, you will be rewarded

Overall, every photographer and wildlife expert talked about how patience is the key to bringing home a great photo or leaving the wilderness with a great memory.

John E. Marriott explained that you can’t expect to go out and find wildlife right away. Describing his own personal experience, some of his most successful shoots came after months and months of field work. We are not talking just a few hours, but a commitment.

A good example would be the wolf tracking for my Kootenay Wolves: Five Years Follow a Wild Wolf Pack. If I had given up on the first or second winter when I found no sign of the wolves, I would never have discovered all the rendezvous sites and the den site and would have had an amazing plan to five years. You have to persevere and tell the story, so perseverance and patience are the traits you want to develop in yourself.

Along the same lines, Melissa Groo told me that perseverance is the most important discipline to learn if you want to be a great wildlife photographer.

Be prepared to revisit a story or a species again and again… It’s really only by investing long periods of time studying a species that you begin to really observe and capture interesting or unique behaviors and poses .

Connor Thompson, a graduate student from Trent University who has been studying the Eastern Wolf for five years, stressed that patience is key to finding and then learning about wildlife. While trapping wolves alive to tether them by radio, Thompson said he only finds three to four wolves a month. The rest of the time he was checking and rechecking the traplines. Devote your time, learn about wolves, to increase the chances of a beneficial encounter.

Wildlife photographers have to get used to the idea that their keeper ratio won’t be high. Wildlife is not controllable; you have to wait and learn.

Learn more about wildlife

As photographers, we often focus on our equipment. It’s important to know how your cameras work and what the limitations are. Keep in mind, however, that these technical elements are relatively simple. Knowing the behavior of the animals themselves requires a greater investment. Developing this knowledge will pay off when you can put yourself in the right place, at the right time, to witness the right behavior.

For example, Sandy Sharkey told me that in her case, it is imperative that she understands and respects the body language of wild horses. Wild horse body language can be both very subtle and very dramatic. It can be especially dramatic when a wild stallion challenges another stallion for the right to lead a pack of mares. A wild stallion contemplating a takeover may be half a mile away, but the conductor will respond, pounding the ground, snorting, screaming. Once you see the subtle signs and know what’s about to happen, you can be ready to seize the most dramatic action. If you don’t understand the body language, you might miss the key shot.

Chris Gilmore, outdoor educator and guide, believes the natural world is complex and linked by countless relationships. For Gilmore, experience is key. You have to go out into the field to see and feel, to develop your curiosity.

Why did he just do that? When does he arrive on this track and why? Boundless curiosity and questioning leads to lifelong learning.

Entering the field to gain experience can be expensive. So in preparation we need to develop empathy for the wildlife we ​​want to see in order to maximize our chances of photographing. For Groo, this means studying an animal before going to photograph it, learning about the species before going into the field. To be prepared, we need to be aware of our subject’s natural history, what the challenges to its survival are, what its warning signs look like or sound.

We have no excuse for not being prepared to be respectful and at least somewhat informed. And it is in our interest! The more careful and considerate we are, the more likely this animal will continue to go about its business.

Gilmore said it well:

Understanding how wildlife will behave under certain circumstances is the difference between experiencing wildlife in its natural state and seeing it flee.

Thompson suggested that understanding wildlife will help better understand where they might pass or how they might behave. If you take the time to learn about an animal’s behavior, you’re more likely to find it. Thinking like a wolf to find a wolf is not a cliché.

In summary, as wildlife photographers, we want a picture of wildlife doing what they do, not hiding or running away from us. The more you know, the more likely this is.

Equipment

Wildlife photography usually requires fairly serious equipment. If our goal is to keep wildlife, we must stay as far away as possible. This usually means long lenses. Sharkey, Marriott, and Groo all considered long telephoto lenses to be necessary equipment. Sharkey prefers something in the 200-500mm range, while Marriott and Groo’s preferences are up to 800mm, plus teleconverters.

Interestingly, a good pair of binoculars is also ranked as a preferred choice. It’s hard to hold an 800mm lens for longer than a few moments. Even with a tripod, uneven terrain can mean you’re shooting in a precarious position. Having binoculars will allow you to track wildlife from a distance until you are ready to shoot.

Respect

More importantly, we shouldn’t disturb wildlife for the sake of a photo. Wildlife photography (and of course I’ll blame IG a bit for that) is not trophy hunting. The goal is to experience the fear of wildlife, not to harm it. Sharkey and Groo talked about trying to make sure their presence doesn’t affect their wildlife stories. For Sharkey and Groo, keeping a respectable distance is mandatory. Regardless of distance, however, they also work to ensure they don’t negatively affect behavior. Here, knowing the signs of stress is essential to ensure their presence is accepted, and if not, Sharkey and Groo will leave the wildlife alone. Backing up if they feel discomfort may give up a shot, but they’re certainly protecting wildlife.

For Marriott, there are no hard and fast rules about how far away from wildlife he should be when photographing them, but there are guidelines he likes to stick to. Marriott defines a perfect encounter as one where the animal always does the same activity when it leaves as when it arrives. For Marriott, a nice encounter means he hasn’t disturbed or impacted an animal’s behavior. Likewise, Thompson has set strict rules for his approaches to wildlife: if the animal seems stressed, leave it alone, and always make sure an animal has at least two exits if it is uncomfortable and in need of to protect yourself. After all, you are going home. Wildlife will always be in the woods looking for their next meal, stressing that one animal will compromise their survival.

Feed or bait

I want to believe it goes without saying, but I’m concerned about increasing feeding or baiting so photographers can take the shot home. Every expert I spoke with noted that feeding or baiting animals teaches animals to associate people with food. Any kind of luring with food or visual or auditory cues will eventually bring animals closer to people, leading to conflict. It is a death sentence. You are not entitled to a show.

As Groo explained:

The most important and kindest thing we can do for a wild animal is to keep it wild. Revere and respect this savagery with all our hearts.

To quote Thompson:

Let wild animals be wild. My personal rule when watching wildlife is that if the animal reacts to your presence then you are too close. Slowly step back.

HOWL has an in-person and virtual component this year. Even if you can’t get to the edge of Algonquin Provincial Park, you can still learn from these experts.

All images are used with permission and attributed to their photographers. Main image courtesy of Sandy Sharkey.

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