My Learning Curve - Part 1

6. Getting Close to Wildlife

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Identifying a Location

Your first task will be to identify a suitable location for your intended subject. At its extreme this may well involve a ‘funnel research’ approach. Firstly, broadly researching where in the world the subject can be found and its habits via the internet, books etc. Then where they are most likely and easily to be found (particularly seasonality or likely hot spots for food or water sources) and perhaps were they are least spooked by humans e.g. park animals, or and at the other extreme animals that have never seen a human can be very tolerant.Or times when they may be preoccupied e.g during the mating season. Ideally you should initially reconnoitre the area to get the lie of the land and weigh up possible hide or stalking options given likely light conditions, image backgrounds, sensitivity or ferocity of subject, best time to see them and wind direction. You should understand what tracks and calling cards your subject makes in order to identify their recent movements. If you can speak to locals who know the movements and habits of your subject or other photographers who have had success with the subject then all the better.

For myself, I find most of my local locations when out and about walking and exploring generally. I make a note in a book of what species there are to photograph and exactly where and when I think the best chance will be and then return with the necessary gear. In the UK there are many UK specific wildlife programmes, I will often add ideas for species and locations from these programmes and their associated websites into my little book.

Understanding Animal Senses

Although the following is obvious its probably worth stating because it will dictate much of your tactics for getting close to your subject. Animals sense your presence and so make the decision to flea or act nervously through sight, smell, hearing, taste, vibrations, the actions of other members of their species or the actions of other animals.

Each species has varying abilities in this range of senses. Deer have a very good sense of smell and call to each other, birds have excellent sight but generally poor sense of smell and also communicate warning calls to each other and between species, snakes have an excellent sense for vibrations, apparently rhino and elephants don’t have exceptional long range sight but have an excellent sense of smell.

All sighted animals rely heavily on movement to pick up threats. If you are sat still leaning against a natural object e.g. a tree trunk or boulder and don’t move its surprising what will wander or perch close to you no matter what loud colours you are wearing. But as soon as you move the game's up.

I believe its true to say that many animals don’t see colour as well as humans. Therefore its not worth getting excessively hung-up on the colour of camouflage gear or even camouflage gear. Dark green or drab colours work well for most species.

It goes without saying that you should avoid perfume, strong smelling deodorants and shampoos and man-made chemicals e.g. petrol.


How Close

Once you have identified a likely good general location you will need to decide your maximum photographic range and how you are going to get within that range of your subject.


The maximum photographic range will be determined by the type of image you wish to produce (close up or subject in its natural location), what focal length lenses you will employ and what practical opportunities will actually present themselves.

For close up images, without cropping, of all but the biggest mammals this will mean getting much closer than most people initially think.

I would say with a 500mm lens and 1.4x converter/extender giving effective 700mm focal length and 1.6x crop body giving in effect around 1,100mm focal length in 35mm terms. The following maximum subject distances to really fill the frame with the whole subject body is a very rough guide. But gives some indication of how close you need to be for this type of shot:

Small bird (sparrow, robin size) – 6m
Large Bird (Heron) – 25m
Medium sized Deer (Fallow Deer) – 45m

If you had a 500mm focal length lens in 35mm terms the above distances would need to be roughly halved meaning:

Small bird (sparrow, robin size) – 3m
Large Bird (Heron) – 13m
Medium sized Deer (Fallow Deer) – 23m

For a 300mm lens in 35mm terms your probably looking at:

Small bird (sparrow, robin size) – 2m
Large Bird (Heron) – 8m
Medium sized Deer (Fallow Deer) – 14m

To get more interesting and artistic body part shots you will obviously have to get even closer!

The ability to crop your image will help in getting a little closer, but excessive cropping will loose you precious original image pixels and so reduce image quality.

Obviously for shots where more of the natural environment is important distances between photographer and subject can be much greater.

The actual task of getting close is the tricky bit. Having identified a good location and the right time of year and time of day to maximise your best chances of catching up with the subject and making an interesting image. You will need to consider stalking or hide options.

The more skilled you become and so the closer you can get to your subject the better your images will be and the less money you will need to spend on long lenses! You will also have many more interesting framing and depth of field options.

Broadly speaking the closer you need to get to a subject and the more wary of humans it is or the more likely it is going to appear in a predictable spot then the more likely you are going to have to employ the hide option coupled with patience.

If the subject is wide ranging and not too wary. Or you just happen to come across an interesting subject in the distance that hasn’t already spotted you and exited loudly alerting all the other species around to your presence, then stalking will be your option.

Hides (Blinds)

Firstly you will need to consider the welfare of your subject. Avoid stressing them at all cost and particularly in the case of birds avoid the likely hood of them avoiding a critical food or water source, or abandoning a nest. You will also need permission from the landowner. There are national and local laws regarding the use of hides and photographing wildlife - make yourself aware of them.

Non-permanent hides do not necessarily need to be expensive custom made things. Though there are many on the market with widely ranging prices that are easy to put up and take down with all the points below included.

You can quite easily make your own out of an assortment of materials – poles, ropes, guy ropes, canvas, fabric, camouflage netting, camouflage scrim etc. The important points are:

It should be just big enough to conceals you and your gear (probably 1.5m high and 1.5m x 1.5m)

It must not flap about in the wind nor move when you move inside. It will therefore probably be based on some sort of frame arrangement and taught material.

It’s dull, drab coloured with a dark inside and ideally offers some protection from the wind and rain for its occupier. It can get really cold waiting in a hide and also really hot in sunny weather.

It does not smell of man made chemicals

It is not made of fabric that rustles

It has a way in and out!!

It has a number of viewing ports for you and your camera lens that can be used while you are seated and low down for low level shots. There should also be some way of filling the gap between the lens and the hole for it but consideration should be given as to the way this is done because on a windy day vibration from the hide can be transferred to the lens. A loose flap of mesh fabric of dark coloured gauze attached to the hide and draped around the lens is best.

You will obviously want to site the hide with consideration for the predicated location of your subject and within your maximum photographic range (this can be verified by understanding the size of your subject and testing your maximum photographic distance through actual visualization and testing using your lens/camera combination and objects of a similar size). Other factors should also be considered such as the background of your images, lighting, and wind direction when your scent may deter the subject. Consider terrain, the hide will be less obtrusive if it can blend with its natural surroundings e.g. blend into a large tree trunk or bush rather than being a square box in an open field. Though a hide in an open field can still be effective. Blending into the natural landscape can be enhanced by draping excess material over and round the hide to soften its edges. You should avoid clear cutting the local vegetation to provide hide blending material! You may also wish to consider the likely hood and consequences of others finding it. Obviously the above is quite a complex wish list and all these ideals will never all be attainable but are worth considering.

Next you will want to be COMFORTABLE. Its one thing sitting awkwardly in the cold for a few minutes and quite another to be doing it for hours. Get a comfortable lightweight collapsible seat that’s close to the ground and ideally with a back rest. Chairs with legs can be a pain when they disappear into the soft ground so ones with rails or other type of wide surface area bases are best. You will also want to make sure you don’t get cold so wrap up warm and take extra layers just in case. You will need food and drink to keep you going too.

Don’t go hopping in and out of the hide…...stay put. People usually advise that with very wary animals you will need to arrive before light and/or arrive with another person, you both go to the hide and then one plainly leaves the area, leaving you in the hide for as long as is needed.

If your hide has been up for a while be careful something nasty has not made a home in it when you first enter e.g. snakes, scorpions, spiders. I have also heard about nasties making a beeline for the shade provided by your hide during the day.

For many less wary species a simple mobile hide consisting of a camouflage net draped over yourself, a small chair and your camera gear works OK. You can also simply lie on the ground and lay it over you and your gear like a blanket, though lying on the ground ready to take a photograph for hours is not too comfortable. Ideally you should take maximum advantage of the natural vegetation so that you may be half in a bush for example. You will need to be wearing a full camouflage or dull coloured outfit (including face mask and gloves) and you will have to be very aware of your movement. Its useful to double up the netting over your body but only have a single layer around your head so you can see out.

A car can make a good mobile hide, meaning you can explore a great area in a day, but you will need to be using a long lens for this type of situation. Animals are very tolerant on the whole of cars. If you approach animals smoothly in the vehicle, keep your mouth shut, move slowly yourself while slowly opening a window and position your lens (ideally supported by a bean bag or similar) and be mindful of not extending the lens to far out of the window animals are surprisingly tolerant. If you are able to park up and wait then you can hang mesh fabric from the door to cover the window and leaving the lens exposed and perhaps even rig up some sort of dark screen behind you. It can be really uncomfortable though for long periods as you have to twist your body to get the right angles. Your obviously hampered by only being able to go where a car can go, possibly your images will be of animals on or near manmade structures and there are safety/traffic consideration to think about but it’s a useful option.

Along with some camouflage or dull couloured jacket and trousers it's a good idea to use some sort of face camouflage - head net or dull ski mask - a bright white face moving around is a dead give away. Its also a good idea to use some camouflage or dull coloured gloves. I use fingerless shooting gloves that have a detachable mit part for when it gets really cold. I have also cut a hole in the right hand thumb part so my thumb flesh can feel the camera buttons. You may also wish to consider camouflaging your camera equipment. This can be done with camouflage tape , scrim mesh, or just dull fabric. But always remember camouflage does not make you invisible, movement will still give you away.

One last option probably worth considering is the Ghillie suit. This is a sniper style camouflage suit with lots of loose camouflage material to break up your outline. I haven’t tried this but it may have its uses for stalking or as a mobile hide but you will have to be acutely aware of movement. It won’t make you invisible of stop animals from a flea reflex to unidentified movement near them.


Stalking

You may have consciously decided that you best opportunity for finding your subject is through stalking or most likely you are just out and about and you spot an interesting wildlife subject to photograph but need to get closer.

You will first need to consider the species ability to sense you. If they have an acute sense of smell then wind direction will be your primary thought and you will want to walk into the wind (with the wind in your face) so your scent is not being blown towards your subject. If they have excellent sight then moving slowly and making maximum use of the terrain to hide you from their sight will be paramount.

On the subject of wind, I think the worst wind is a steady gentle changeable wind that simply blows a good concentration of scent over a big area. I think perhaps a really strong wind even in the direction of your subject, if they are not hyper sensitive to smell, is no big deal it somehow dilutes your scent and drowns out sounds you may make.

In almost all cases the key elements to stalking are use of terrain - making good use of natural vegetation and land forms to hide or obstruct your view from the subject - moving slowly and ideally when the animal is occupied or looking the other way. And most importantly being patient, if there is no reason for the animal to flea, what’s your hurry? Also keep low and be aware of what’s around you, there may be another subject you haven’t noticed or another animal that will let out an alarm call. Be careful where you tread and avoid making excessive noise, crinkle leaves and crack twigs slowly if you have too, then wait a while before moving on or needing to make the same noise again.

When stalking in ‘open country’ you really can’t get too low to the ground and make use of absolutely any low cover or depressions in the terrain.

When approaching an animal that has spotted you, but has not fled, it pays to adopt a very non threatening attitude while getting closer. Be calm, low and slow, don't look straight at the subject provoking an eye to eye confontation, avoid walking directly towards it in a head on manner. Then when you are close enough move very slowly again avoiding direct confrontational eye contact or a menacing posture, take your images and retire in the same calm fashion so as to minimise disturbance and not give your subject a shock.

If an animal fleas, then particularly in dense vegetation habitats it way well not have gone far. Particularly with deer its worth waiting motionless and keeping you eyes peeled for a while then proceeding carefully in the direction it fled, you may get lucky and it has just moved a couple of hundred metres.

When out and about looking for wildlife generally I also adopt a semi stalking approach. I avoid walking along ridges thereby showing my silhouette for all to see for miles. I consider wind direction if I think there is a chance of a mammal subject to photograph. I walk slowly and softly stopping frequently (ideally against a tree or some other natural object) to stop and REALLY look and listen to what’s around me. When approaching a gateway, a gap in a hedge or track rise I move very slowly and always assume there will be something of interest just waiting to be photographed as the vista opens up. The amount of noise you make should be kept to a minimum but it’s not worth getting paranoid about it, nature makes noises all the time. Just make sure your noises are below the background noise level, not repetitive e.g. marching along, not human e.g. chatter or manmade e.g. jangling coins.

When looking for flying insects it’s important to take it slowly, stop regularly, look what you’ve disturbed behind you and REALLY, REALLY look at what’s around you. Dragonflies and butterflies have their favourite resting/lookout spots or flowers producing the most nectar. Spend a while and watch them from a distance to identify these spots. Then slowly approach, make yourself comfortable and wait for the insects to return. This works particularly well for butterflies. The slower you approach insects the less likely they are to fly away, particularly if they are busy feeding or basking in the sun.

Your means of stabilizing a camera will also hamper your stalking abilities. In order of most to least aggravation I would say it goes – Tripods, monopods, bean bags, use of terrain (e.g. leaning on rocks, against trees), cradling your camera in a seated position and free hand. The inverse of this order obviously means increasing stability and image quality, particularly when shutter speeds are limited. You will have to decide what is appropriate. However, the bean bag option is particularly useful (especially for low angle shots). If there is the opportunity for a monopod option, I tend to go the whole hog and use my tripod with one leg extended and then use 3 when time and situation permits.


In many countries you may need to be extra careful when walking quietly of stalking subjects, particularly in woodlands or dense vegetation. You may unwittingly surprise a dangerous species or perhaps suffer at the hands of an enthusiastic human hunter who believes in ‘sound shots’.

For further advice on hides and stalking I hope you find the following sites useful:

Link To - Great equipment site

Link To - Wildlife photogarphic advice site

Link To - One of Nigel Deniis's very useful web advice pages, be sure to explore his others

Link To - Wildlife photography advice site

Link To - Bird photography advice site

Link To - Deer stalking advice

Link To - Deer stalking advice

Link To - Deer stalking advice

Link To - Deer stalking advice