Outdoors Sustainability

Sustainability: Professional Tips Help with Photographing Animals in the Wild

Photographing Wildlife

Autumn mist rises above the elk in Cataloochee Valley

By Paula Musto

One of the joys of living in Western North Carolina is the wildlife that surrounds us. A walk through your neighborhood, along a mountain trail or even in an urban setting often includes spotting a wild animal, a creature so appealing that you may think: Quick, grab a camera.

But how does a novice get a decent shot of that deer with her fawn, a feisty squirrel foraging for nuts or a serene owl in a tree overhead?

Wildlife photography is tricky, but even a beginner can take commendable shots without an array of fancy lenses.

The first rule is many a photo enthusiast’s credo: The best camera is the one you have on hand.

“I like my camera, but find it’s stashed away in my closet most of the time,” says Keith Mastin, the former director of education at the Western North Carolina Nature Center. “My phone does an adequate job of conveying a storyline, so that works for me.”

Easily carried in a pocket, some of the newer smart phones have multiple lenses, including telephoto, along with zoom features for a closer shot. On the iPhone, a simple way of zooming is to tap the 1x with a circle around it displayed just above (vertically) or to the left (horizontally) of the word “photo”. Another way is simply to use your fingers, pinching out the outer part of the screen.

Not all wildlife photography needs to be a tight, close-up frame. While a close-up of an animal can be visually appealing, a landscape shot of the creature making its way through the forest or silhouetted with a sunset background can be an equally winning picture.

Elk posing for cell phone photos in Cataloochee. Photo by Bob Ware

Asheville photographer Bob Ware of Slow Glass Pictures advises that even novice photographers should consider taking photos that examine an animal’s place, function and habits within their environment. “Too often, even the most well-equipped photographers come back with a tight shot that just shows the animal,” Ware says. “It’s not really doing anything, and you don’t learn much about its relationship to its environment or its way of life—you might as well find a photo of it on Wikipedia.”

Rather, Ware suggests opening the frame a bit and thoughtfully composing a shot in which the animal is clearly the subject, yet its character is informed and enhanced by its surroundings. “Even with a not-so-gigantic lens,” he says, “you can capture a photograph along with a corresponding memory that is unique to your experience at the moment.”

Ware notes the newer models of smart phones have sensors with higher pixel count, or resolution enough to allow for significant cropping for later editing in your software. “These capabilities can be helpful, enabling fairly good wildlife photography, especially of large animals,” he says.

Wildlife rehabilitator and educator Carlton Burke, who operates Carolina Mountain Naturalists and enjoys taking photographs of the critters he frequently encounters, suggests that a photo enthusiast might want to invest in enhanced telephoto capability, though it does not need to be one of the longer, more expensive types of lens.

“For many pictures, a shorter, less expensive telephoto/zoom lens may be adequate, particularly if you take the time to be still and to move slowly, or even sit quietly, in order to get yourself close to wildlife,” Burke says. “In a good computer picture program, you can zoom in and crop images to make them look closer as long as your picture is very clear, and you don’t exceed the limits of your lens.”

Burke offers a few tips. Try to hold your breath and stay steady, as even slight movement can easily blur your shots. Take multitudes of photos and, later, discard the ones you don’t like. Pay attention to lighting to illuminate your subject. Be patient, very patient, as animals do not pose and are on their own schedule.

Perhaps most importantly, keep your camera ready and with you as much as possible—you never know when a great wildlife photo opportunity might present itself. “I’ve gotten animal shots in parking lots, along the roadside as I’m driving, in the drive-through of a fast-food restaurant or even waiting in traffic,” Burke says.

Finally, it’s important to remember to put the well-being of animals first. National Geographic photographers have a rule: Do no harm. Let the critters go about their business without seeking their attention or interaction. Do not alter or destroy a habitat for a better scene. Do not feed wild animals in hopes of luring them closer. Take special care during breeding season and know signs of stress on various species.

For tips on wildlife photography and how to shoot ethically, visit NationalGeographic.com/animals/article/ethical-wildlife-photography. Paula Musto is a writer and volunteer for Appalachian Wildlife Rescue whose mission is to save injured and orphaned wildlife. To learn more about native wildlife and animal rescue, visit AppalachianWild.org.

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