10 Ways To Improve Your Wildlife Photography

(Editor's Note: Thanks to Rick Andrews for this great blog article! If you've been following the OWC on Social Media, you'll know that the west is burning. People are in danger, but so are the animals. I read recently that many of those wildfires we are currently struggling to combat have been started by cigarette butts. I don't think you would treat your home the same way. So why are we so careless with our camping in their habitats? After all, we love our wild spaces, too. Here's how to get closer to the creatures who live and raise their families in the watershed.)

Over the past several years I've photographed wildlife in many locations throughout the Canadian and US Rockies, as well as remote locations such as Nome Alaska and Hokkaido Japan. Along the way I've met many wildlife photographers from those just starting out to seasoned veterans. In fact since the introduction of digital cameras, wildlife photography has never been as popular as it is today, so if you are one of those people who share my passion, here are a few tips to help improve your wildlife photography and keep you safe while doing it. 

1. Anticipate the shot. Being ready for a photographic opportunity when it presents itself is half the battle. You don't want to be frantically searching for your camera or fumbling to try and figure out how to turn it on after spotting a roadside animal. It's always better to travel with your camera beside you or at least within easy reach, that way you're likely to end up with something more memorable than a "butt shot" of your subject as it heads back into the forest. 

Brown-phase Black bear - Waterton Lakes NP

2. Be patient. Patience is probably the greatest asset a wildlife photographer can possess, and being patient and allowing animals to become accustomed to your presence often leads to far more natural shots. 

3. Maintain a safe distance. Maintain a safe distance of 100 meters for bears and wolves, and 25 meters for other species. Mammals such as bison, moose, elk and bear can be very unpredictable, and can move surprisingly fast. This is especially true if they feel their young are being threatened, or during the fall when rutting males fiercely protect their harems.

4. Use your vehicle as a blind. Quite often a vehicle makes an excellent blind from which to photograph wildlife. In southern Alberta, birds of prey such as Swainson's hawks and Great Horned owls are often seen sitting atop roadside fence posts. Your chances of getting a close-up shot will be greatly enhanced if you photograph them from your vehicle.

reat Horned Owl south of Lethbridge

5. Use a tripod. Although using tripods and monopods is sometimes a little clumsy, it will usually lead to better results than simply hand-holding your camera. Alternately you can also use any hard surface such as your vehicle or perhaps even a fallen tree trunk. This is especially true when using your camera's zoom lens which is very sensitive to even the slightest movement. Also practicing to gently squeeze the shutter button instead of deliberately pressing it, will further reduce unwanted camera shake. Be aware too that some cameras may have a slight lag between the time the shutter is depressed and when the photo is actually taken. Keeping the camera absolutely still is therefore essential to get the sharpest image possible.

6. Include habitat. A close-up shot of an animal may make for a great portrait, but it tells us very little else about it. So after you've got your close ups, try a few shots that also include some of its habitat. That way your viewers can see not only what the animal looks like, but where it lives and feeds too. 

7. Rule of thirds. The "rule of thirds" divides the image frame into thirds both horizontally and vertically, and positioning the animal at the intersection of two of those lines will create visual interest by strengthening your image. (Some cameras even include this feature in the viewfinder or LCD screen).  Just remember to give your subject room to breathe by framing it so that the animal is looking into the frame, rather than having its face pushed up against the edge.  To create further interest, try composing some of your shots in a portrait orientation.  

Rule of thirds Composition

8. Action shots - While its relatively easy to take shots of stationary animals and birds, try further developing your skills by capturing images of them in motion. Birds in flight are a great place to begin, and while it may take a little practice, it can soon lead to some great results. 

American White Pelican - Oldman River, Lethbridge

9. Look for the unusual. While in Waterton Lakes NP earlier this year, I found a Bighorn ram being pestered by a couple of magpies. As I watched, one of the magpies landed on the horns of the ram, and as it lifted its head I was able to take this somewhat unusual and amusing shot. Again it pays to anticipate this kind of shot so that you're ready if the opportunity arises. 

Bighorn and Magpies, Waterton Lakes NP

10. Look for wildlife where you live. We often think that in order to take good wildlife shots we need to go "somewhere." But in reality wildlife is all around us here in southern Alberta, and finding wildlife close to where you live, will provide you with many opportunities to photograph them at different times of day, and in different light. For some of us, that opportunity is already available - literally - in our own backyards. 

Black-capped Chickadee, Lethbridge

Lastly, a word about ethics. As wildlife photographers we should understand that wildlife photography is really all about the wildlife and not the photograph. Needlessly stressing animals or baiting them with food simply to get a shot, is in my opinion, not only unethical, but can also put wildlife, as well as ourselves, in very real danger. 

Being attacked by a charging animal because we are too close can lead to serious injury or worse, and regardless of how the attack happened, it usually ends badly for the animal. Likewise animals that become habituated to people, often become a nuisance. The lucky ones are sometimes relocated, the unlucky ones are sometimes destroyed. Surely the life of an animal is worth much more than a photograph.

Rick Andrews is wildlife photographer based in Lethbridge, Alberta, and all of his images featured in this blogpost were taken in the Oldman Watershed. 

More of Rick's wildlife imagery can be found at www.rickandrewsphotography.com