Wildlife photography offers no seasons, no limits and no restrictions on what to hunt.
Hunting and fishing have been a big part of my life since I was a little kid. As I advanced through both disciplines I sought out greater challenges. With fishing I moved from using bait to throwing lures and eventually into fly fishing. When hunting with a rifle lost its luster I moved into bowhunting. Fly fishing and bowhunting require you to pay attention to detail, slow down and immerse yourself into nature.
As I did these things I began to become more observant. Sitting in a bow blind for hours observing how deer and other animals interact with each other taught me far more than I ever learned sitting in a box. I came to know the subtle cues and body language to predict what a deer was about to do. While fly fishing for redfish in the marsh, I began to watch how the various shore birds relied on the fish to push bait to them. I have also observed redfish feeding behind wading birds as they shuffled across a mud flat stirring shrimp from the bottom. Understanding animals is key to anticipating the opportunity for a good photograph. Most every outdoorsman is a wildlife photographer on some level. We all have the need to share what we see and experience while out in the field or on the water and most everyone has a camera in their pocket. Photographs help tell the story of our adventure. They provide a lasting memory of our experiences.
While I still very much enjoy hunting and fishing, I now challenge myself to capture images of all types of wildlife as they go about their daily lives. Taking a picture of a deer is easy. Taking a photograph that makes people stop and look is much more difficult. Those special photos that draw the viewer in are my trophies. The photographs you see in print rarely just “happen.” I seldom go out for a stroll with my camera and capture something special.
The best photos involve scouting, blind preparation and then hours of sitting, much like successful bow hunting. The bobcat photograph accompanying this article is a good example. I spent several days sitting on various senderos (a sendaro for you non-Texans is a cleared shooting lane cut through the thick brush country of South Texas, similar to a pipeline right-of-way) with a spotting scope looking for a cat that showed any kind of a pattern. I once spotted a cat that made several evening appearances within a fairly small area. I moved in to see what I was working with. It was the intersection of two senderos, one running east-west and the other north-south. I set my portable blind on the northwest corner of the north-south sendero that backed up into the brush and evening shadows. This position provided me with a good view of the open area of the intersection. The setting sun would shine down the sendero and provide that golden light we photographers love.
I had to wait through several days of heavy overcast before catching a nice clear evening behind a cold front. I set up my Primos Sit & Spin predator decoy in the middle of the opening a battery-operated device with a furry critter on the end of a long spring. It spins and bounces off and on, giving a predator something to focus on hopefully other than me. Hidden in the grass next to the decoy sat the speaker for my FoxPro remote control game caller.
As the sun set on the third day, I was starting to think this was a bust. Suddenly, I caught some movement to my right as a gorgeous bobcat crept within ten feet of my chair. Her attention was focused on the decoy, but she was way too close. I was using my longest lens, a 600mm, that can’t focus inside of six meters. The lighting was perfect and she was easing into the decoy, almost to six meters from the front of my lens. Then at the last second she veered to the left walking into the shadows of the north-south sendero right in front of me. She was no longer in that perfect light, but at least she was now far enough away for me to focus my long lens. I quickly adjusted my exposure and started shooting. Just as she was about to disappear into the brush I gave a little mouse squeak with my lips. She froze and looked back over her shoulder. That squeak gave me my photo.
I spent several more evenings in that blind hoping to capture her in that coveted evening light, but never saw her again. This is what drives me. I love this photo, but no matter how good the capture, I feel like I can do better. I doubt there will ever be a “perfect” photo in my collection. And I’m okay with that.
If you’re reading this magazine you may already be an outdoors enthusiast. This gives you a leg up getting started on wildlife photography. You likely possess good camo, blinds and at least a basic understanding of hunting techniques. If not, no need to worry, these skills can be learned and the equipment is one trip to Bass Pro Shops away. To get good photos you want to get close to your subject in order to fill the frame. A deer at 100 yards is not your goal. For smaller animals and birds you need to be even closer. Use your camouflage, control your scent and be as still as possible.
One big difference in hunting with a camera is the forethought involved in setting up. Photography is all about light. In most situations you want the sun low in the sky behind you. This means shooting during the first and last few hours of the day. Harsh midday sun creates shadows and leads to flat, uninteresting photos. Be mindful of how tall the trees are behind you and whether they’ll block your light as the sun rises or sets. I use an app titled TPE, The Photographer’s Ephemeris. It shows you exactly where and when the sun will rise and set. I’ve also found this app to be pretty handy when setting up hunting blinds as well as game cameras.
Even the best camera gear can’t give you a great photo if you don’t know how to use it. Most people just put the camera on auto mode and start shooting. If you really want to step your game up, spend some time learning about apertures, shutter speed and ISO. There is far too much involved to go into here, but there are plenty of online courses and articles. Once you have a basic understanding of these principles you can start “driving” your camera instead of just going along for the ride.
“On a good morning I’ll shoot hundreds of good photographs looking for that single great one.”
One last tip: shoot a lot. Back in the days of film I was much more selective about pressing the shutter. Shooting a bunch of bad photos was expensive. With today’s digital cameras it’s just a simple matter of hitting the delete button. On a good morning I’ll shoot hundreds of good photographs looking for that single great one.
The best thing about wildlife photography is that there are no seasons, no limits and no restrictions on the species you are hunting. I can “shoot” an endangered Whooping Crane with no repercussions. It’s a great way to extend your season while spending more time in the woods. And more time outdoors is never a bad thing.
If this sport of catch and release hunting appeals to you, the first thing you’ll need is a good DSLR camera. You can spend as little as $400 for a kit or as much as $7000 for a professional camera body. The cool thing is they all depend on the same basic rules of photography regarding light and exposure. What you learn with that beginner kit also applies to the professional rig.
The most popular brands are Nikon and Canon. If you don’t have a personal preference, then check around with your friends to see what they’re shooting. When I first got serious I had a couple of good friends shooting Nikon and they were willing to let me borrow some of their better lenses. This allowed me to get a feel for what these more expensive lenses offered before I started buying anything.
While the camera body is an important piece, the lenses are more critical to your success. There are plenty of kits out there with various zoom lenses. If you are just starting out and not sure if this will become a passion, go this route. It is common for a DSLR kit to contain two zoom lenses in 18-55mm and a 70-300mm. With proper composition, technique and exposure you can get some very good photos with these kits.
If you’ve already got the basics and are looking at getting a little more serious I’d suggest upgrading your lens selection. A good place to start is with a 70-200 f/2.8 zoom. Both Nikon and Canon offer this lens. This was my first high quality lens. While it put a dent in the bank account, this lens opened up a whole new world for me and greatly improved my photography. If you want a little more reach, Nikon now has a 200-500mm f/5.6 that will get you there. As for camera bodies, look to what is commonly referred to as “pro-sumer”. They’re just a step or two be-low the current professional models and have a lot of technology from previous generations of pro models.
Several years ago I invested in my first professional body. While these cameras still work on the basic principles of photography as the kit camera, they excel in speed and technology. My current model can fire off up to 100 full quality shots at 11 frames per second. These bodies are also quite rugged and built for the abuse a professional will put them through. Lenses in this class will be what is referred to as prime, meaning they have a fixed focal length and there is no zoom. These will also have more light gathering ability which allows you to shoot in lower light. For wildlife photography you are looking at focal lengths from 300mm to 800mm.
Photography can be a gear junky’s nirvana. I’m constantly finding some new piece of equipment to make my life easier or produce better photographs. A good tripod is essential to get sharp photos at anything above 300mm. Once you dive off into it you’ll find yourself looking at filters, flashes, gimbal mounts, monopods and all the rest of the toys.
Contact Scott Null: www.captainscottnull.com