Wildlife 101

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All photographers, regardless of their skill level, seem to be drawn to one area of photography over others. My passion is wildlife photography especially birds. Still life photography bores me stiff and I’d rather face down a charging moose then try to take a candid of the bridal party with the mother-of-the-bride looming over my tripod.

I have been known to go out in minus 40 degree temperatures to get that perfect winter shot. I’ve waded through bloodsucker infested ponds to take photos of beavers at sunset. I’ve donated enough blood to mosquitoes over the seasons to stock an entire blood bank, and yes, I have faced down a charging moose with camera in hand and loved ever itchy, bug infested, wet sneaker filled moment of it.

Now I appreciate that not everyone is willing to shed blood (via mosquitoes, or leeches, or other means) to further develop their wildlife photography skills so I’ve complied a few of the lessons I’ve learned through trial and error, amongst field and stream, snow and sun to share with you.


Lesson Number One: The Early Bird Gets the Worm – The Really Early Photographer Gets the Shot.

It is an unfortunate reality that wild critters, just like preschoolers, simply are incapable of sleeping in. I would love to sleep in until just before noon, and then grab a Quarter Pounder – the breakfast of choice when you sleep past the breakfast menu hours – before heading out to the local wilderness. However, to have the best opportunity to view, and photography wildlife, one must rise and shine with the critters. Wildlife tend to be most active at dawn and dusk. Which means not only do you have the extra challenge of difficult lighting but it also means sleeping in is just not an option if you want your best chance of getting that great shot. On the other hand, during the heat of the day, many animals find a nice place to bed down and have a nap. A good idea for wildlife photographers too.


Lesson Number Two: Go Where the Wild Things Are or Just Stay Home

Wildlife is all around us, regardless of were you live. I’ve gotten some great bird shots in my backyard. Wildlife was in great abundance near the dorms where I went to college. It really wasn’t uncommon to step out the front door, and over the slumbering sophomore, and see coyotes and badgers or the occasional goat that escaped from the local auction mart. A few blocks from my house we have a golf course that every spring and fall becomes the temporary home to swans, geese, pelicans and ducks of every breed during their migration. Bald and golden eagles seem to enjoy sitting in the trees near the baseball diamonds. The local park is great for songbirds, frogs, bugs and other creepy crawlers. Pheasants seem to take great pleasure tormenting the neighborhood dogs and the jack rabbits continue to poop on my yard. It all comes down to being aware of whom you share your neighborhood with. Take a walk, early in the morning and see what’s out there. Leave rover at home and head for the park.

Remember not all wildlife is as large as a Volkswagen. However if you are planning a trip to find the big guys, talk to the locals first. The best place to view elk and white tailed deer in Banff National Park is on the golf course. Seems strange but the grass is always green and plentiful and the predators keep away. Apart from the occasional wayward golf ball it is paradise for the local ungulates.

I also spend a great deal of time at the zoo. With two sons, aged 3 and 5, it isn’t always easy to pack them up for a predawn drive in the country. The zoo is a great place to practice your photography skills and lets face it, the odds of me getting a chance to take a photo of a lion sunbathing on the Serengeti is zero to none. The odds of me getting a great shot of the lion pride at the Calgary Zoo – excellent.


Lesson Number Three: Apply Direct Pressure to Bleeding Wounds

Wildlife photographers take photos of wild animals. Animals that may not always appreciate the fact that if you could just get a few feet closer you could frame the photo just right. They don’t seem to appreciate the fact that their bear cub is just the cutest little thing that you must have a photo of. Male deer, elk and moose seem to suffer from a form of intense pms during rutting season when their hormones get a bit out of control… you do not want to be mistaken for another male, or even worse, a lady moose. It isn’t just the large animals that deserve caution and respect. I’ve been chased by a goose that was guarding a nest. I had no idea the nest and goose where even there. I was thinking about where I wanted to be to catch the sunset and just about got goosed for not paying attention to the world around me Then there are skunks, let just say zoom lenses can save you from a really stinky situation.

Lesson Number Four: Leave only footprints, take only photos.

Imagine a meadow full of wildflowers, deer are nibbling on the grass and as you take a look through the viewfinder you notice a chip bag blowing in the breeze and the wrapper from the quarter pounder stuck in the flowers. So much for the perfect moment. Don’t ruin it for the rest of us. Pack out your garbage. Respect the environment and follow the rules. Some National Parks in Canada don’t allow you to photography animals from your vehicle…. It’s not that they want you to get out and get up close to the bears…. It’s that the bears are becoming habituated to people and vehicles. Playing in the road isn’t safe for bears, or tourists, and we all have heard about what becomes of animals that loose their fear of humans – some end up loosing their lives.

Wildlife photography is an opportunity to not only enjoy the glory of nature, but an opportunity to help the environment. Share your passion, share your photos, share stories of your photography adventures and get others hooked on the value wildlife and the great outdoors.

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