A Professional Wildlife Photographer Shares Photo Secrets

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Wildlife photography demands all of the skills of an expert hunter, plus good camera technique.
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Photograph of an eagle.
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Photograph of prairie dogs.
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Photograph of bears.
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The photographer with his photo blind to capture wildlife photos.
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Simple home-made blinds can put you in range of "trophies" like this fine elk.
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Alan Carey with photo equipment.

A top professional wildlife photographer shares some of the secrets of his artful trade. 

A Professional Wildlife Photographer Shares His Nature Photo Secrets

A common misconception among the uninitiated is that
professional wildlife photographers spend most of their
time stalking through the woods decked out in camouflage
like so many photo-Rambos, clicking away at whatever
species of animals or birds happen into their view finders.
I stalk occasionally, but it’s usually futile—wild
animals have such keen senses that attempting to approach
them generally nets nothing better than blurred shots of
the south ends of northbound critters.

A far more productive technique—and one used
extensively by professionals—is to concentrate on
just one species at a time, learning all you can about both
the animal and its home turf, then putting yourself in the
right place at the right time and letting your quarry
come to you.

 

Hide and Peek

One of the most effective (and comfortable) ways to
photograph wildlife at close range is to hide yourself in a
blind. The trick to successful blind shooting is to set up
in a location where your quarry is almost certain to
appear—such as near a den, nest, water hole or
feeding area.

Although some excellent commercial blinds are available
(and an inexpensive camouflaged dome tent can be pressed
into service), I prefer to roll my own. With a lot of help
from my wife and her sewing machine, I’ve accumulated a
closetful of homespun blinds over the years, each one
unique and suited to a specific photographic need.

There are a number of important variables to consider in
deciding where to place your blind. Foremost among them is
the welfare of the animals you’re working with. As a rule
of thumb, if your presence seems to be altering the normal
behavior of your subjects, you’re too close. If, for
example, you erect a blind near a nest of hatchling birds
and the parents fail to return to care for their chicks,
then you should move the blind farther back; if that
doesn’t ease the parents’ worries, disassemble the blind
and abandon the area. To avoid problems like this when
photographing nesting birds or denning mammals, locate your
blind quite a distance away. Then, over a period of several
days, gradually move it closer, thus allowing your subjects
time to become accustomed to its presence.

You’ll quickly learn that the willingness of wildlife to
tolerate the intrusion of a blind varies considerably from
one species to another, and even among individuals of the
same species. I’m reminded of the time several summers ago
when I was shooting on a wildlife refuge in north central
Montana. With the assistance of the refuge manager, I had
erected a blind on an island right at the edge of a colony
of nesting white pelicans. Even though the blind was out in
the open, the adult birds returned to their chicks as soon
as I ducked inside. The pelicans generally ignored
me—at times wandering as near as 10 feet—for
the seven hours I remained there photographing them.

Now contrast that experience with the time I erected the
same blind, again in the open, 80 feet from a deer carcass
on which a pair of bald eagles had been feeding. I waited
there for eight hours, but the circling eagles kept their
distance, refusing to come in. Of course, as soon as I took
the blind down and left, the big raptors returned to their
feast.

When positioning a blind, keep in mind not only the angle
of the sun, but wind direction as well. For instance, if I
wanted to photograph a den of coyotes with direct front
lighting, I would set up a blind east of the den to
capitalize on the morning sun. And since the prevailing
morning winds in this part of the country blow from the
west, my scent would be carried away from the coyotes.
(You’ll come to appreciate the predatory nose the first
time the breeze shifts and you watch a previously relaxed
bear, wolf, coyote, fox or cat lift its head, glance around
nervously, then beat a fleet retreat.)

Another important consideration when siting a blind is
assuring an unobstructed view. Few things are more
frustrating to a wildlife photographer than waiting long
hours in a blind for a particular animal to show itself,
then—just as it steps out in the open, bathed in soft
afternoon light—finding that your camera’s view of
its head is blocked by a patch of tall grass you’d failed
to notice when you set up.

Blind Mobility

An alternative to sitting for hours in a blind is to sit
for hours in a vehicle. An automobile serves as a blind
that—though generally restricted to
roadways—provides comfort, mobility, wraparound
visibility and the means to approach many species of wild
animals and birds without alarming them.

Pheasants, for example, are extremely nervous birds that
never hesitate to fly the proverbial coop at the first sign
of human approach. But they will frequently allow a vehicle
to pull right up alongside them. Consequently, I’ve
photographed nearly every pheasant in my files from the
comfort of my pickup. Some animals, such as mule deer,
occasionally will even allow you to climb out of your
vehicle to film them—as long as you don’t move too
far in their direction or make any sudden movements.

Obviously, tripods aren’t designed to be used in vehicles,
but I’ve found two alternative camera-support systems that
are. One is a commercial unit that clamps to the top edge
of a side window. This lightweight, compact device performs
surprisingly well, allowing me to pan smoothly on moving
subjects. I also use a large beanbag of my wife’s
manufacture. With the window rolled all the way down, I
drape the bag over the sill, then nestle my camera and lens
into this portable pillow.

Lens Logic

Many novices are surprised to learn that professional
wildlife photographers don’t generally run around the
boonies with footlong 800 mm lenses, filming their subjects
at incredible ranges. Fact is, the largest lens most pros
own is a 600 mm. My largest is a 400 mm (eight
power)—on which I occasionally use a 1.4
teleconverter to increase the focal length to 560 mm
(roughly 11 power). But my bread-and-butter lens is the 400
mm.

One good reason that pros rarely use lenses over 600 mm is
the size of the monsters: Not only is a long lens
cumbersome to handle, but it magnifies even the slightest
movement, producing “soft,” or blurred, photos. Of course,
you could compensate for movement with a fast shutter speed
. . . except that monster lenses also have excessive
appetites for light. And since the best wildlife photo
opportunities often present themselves in weak light,
you’re obliged to compensate for a fast shutter speed by
using high-speed film—which produces grainy pictures.
As you can see, there’s no easy way out of this big-lens
pickle . . . except to opt for a 400 mm or smaller lens and
depend on skill rather than technology to bag the shots
you’re after.

Support Your Local Lens

The rule of thumb for hand-holding a camera is to attempt
it only when composition and light conditions permit using
a shutter speed that’s approximately equal to the focal
length of the lens. In other words, you should chance
hand-holding a 400 mm lens only when you can use a shutter
speed of at least 1/400 second. Likewise, a 135 mm lens
would require a shutter speed of at least 1/125, and so on.

Film

I shoot nothing but slides. For one thing, slide film costs
less to use than print film—especially if you
purchase it in quantity from discount mail-order houses,
complete with prepaid, mail-in processing. Another
advantage of slides is that they can be projected onto a
screen, making for a much more dramatic and enjoyable
presentation of your photographic trophies than skimpy
little prints. And if you want prints, they can be made
from slides almost as easily as from color negs, giving you
the best of both worlds. But the single most important
reason I shoot slides is that few magazines—the
professional photographer’s primary customers—will
accept anything else.

I must confess that I’ve been somewhat narrow-minded in my
selection of film in the past, having shot almost
exclusively with Kodachrome 64 for several years now.
Kodachrome 25 is also an excellent film, but its extremely
slow speed renders it too inflexible for wildlife
photography. I prefer Kodachrome over other films for its
rich color and exceptionally fine grain. I have, on rare
occasion, shot Ektachrome 200—and have always been
disappointed. Ektachrome is grainy and produces a bluish
cast; its advantage is that it can be processed overnight
by most local photo labs, while Kodachrome must be sent to
a Kodak lab, requiring at least a week for processing and
return.

Another film that can be processed locally is Fujichrome,
available in ASAs of 50, 100, and 400. Fujichrome is a
fine-grained film with excellent color, especially the
yellows. A relative newcomer, Fuji holds its own with
Kodachrome in every way, and I’ll undoubtedly use it more
in the future.

Wildlife Is Where You Find It

I’m often asked by prospective wildlife photographers where
they should go to find photogenic subjects. The most
popular place—in the lower 48, at least—is
Yellowstone National Park, but its extreme popularity is
precisely its problem. (That dramatic elk shot loses some
of its drama if there’s another photographer in the
background.) The best place to start is in your own back
yard, or perhaps at a local park.

It’s a lot cheaper and less frustrating to discover that a
new piece of equipment isn’t working properly in your own
back yard than in a national park half a continent away.
Only after you’ve built confidence in your gear and
yourself should you consider tripping off to some faraway
wildlife sanctuary.

When you do go, national parks are always good
bets—if you can arrange your trip for a season when
the wildlife is out in force but the tourists aren’t.
Better than national parks, in most cases, are wildlife
refuges. There are over 400 national refuges in the lower
48 and Alaska, many of them located within weekend striking
distance of major metropolitan areas. Waterfowl is the main
attraction on most of these refuges, but there’s always a
host of other interesting critters in such places as well.
Depending on the refuge, you may see anything from elk and
black bear to bald eagles and whooping cranes. Less
dramatic but just as challenging to photograph are
songbirds and small mammals such as raccoons, muskrats,
porcupines and beavers.

A Potpourri of Professional Tips

Wildlife photography is a form of hunting; to get good
photos you must become a skilled predator. When circumstance
requires you to make an open approach to a wild animal or
bird, don’t charge straight toward it or make direct eye
contact. Instead, employ a trick known to wolves and other
large predators for millennia: Amble casually toward the
subject in a zigzag fashion, appearing to look in another
direction while using your peripheral vision to keep track of
your quarry. This way, the animal may assume that you’re just
passing by and present no threat. (This technique works
especially well in national parks and on refuges where
animals have become somewhat inured to the presence of
humans.) You’re not likely to get good pictures if you can’t
drag yourself out of bed before daylight in order to be where
you need to be, when you need to be there. The primary reason
for doing the early-bird act is that wild animals are most
visible during the earliest hours of morning, simply because
they’re still on the move—feeding, hunting and drifting
from feeding to bedding areas. A second reason for getting
out early is light. The warm tones of low-angle light are
always superior to the harsh glare and deep shadows of
midday; photos of wildlife taken at the edges of day seem to
glow and almost leap out at the viewer.

Late afternoon is also a good bet—but I’ve found that
on warm days animals rarely start moving until right at
sunset when the air begins to cool, leaving you with little
light and minimal shooting time.

Don’t forgo getting out just because the weather is lousy.
Some of the most dramatic pictures in my files were taken
on stormy days when I would much rather have been sitting
at home with a cup of something hot and a good magazine.
When the weather is bleak, wild animals seem to stay active
through more of the day. Also, on cloudy days the light is
softer, with less contrast. I love to shoot in the fog or
during snowstorms because of the variety of moods that can
be created. Stormy weather lends pictures more feeling and
expression. Sometimes, as when shooting wildlife that’s
running or flying, it’s all you can do just to keep your
quarry in the view finder and in focus. But when an animal
is standing patiently in one of those gorgeous settings
that all wildlife photographers dream about, you certainly
don’t want to blow the opportunity because your exposure is
off: The answer is bracketing.

To bracket, simply shoot a frame at whatever f-stop your
light meter indicates, then rotate the aperture a half stop
at a time, shooting as you go, until you’ve bracketed a
full stop to either side of the meter setting, for a total
of five shots. This procedure gobbles film, but it also
assures at least one properly exposed photo from each
series.

A motor drive is a gadget that mounts to a 35 mm camera
body and automatically advances the film at a machine-gun
rate of five frames per second. This allows the
photographer to concentrate on fast moving subjects and
focus without having to reach up and advance the film by
hand. Motor drives also greatly facilitate rapid
bracketing. As you might expect, though, they don’t come
cheap. A less expensive alternative is the autowinder, a
device that performs the same chores as a motor drive, but
not quite as fast (usually around two frames per second).

(Caution: It’s easy to become addicted to these rapid-fire
gadgets, but try to keep in mind that even the handiest of
accessories are just that—accessories; in no
way are they requisite for bagging award-winning photos.)

The Rewards

Wildlife photography is, to borrow an expression from an
old song, a many-splendored thing. In addition to the
obvious lure of capturing fleeting images on film for the
enjoyment of yourself and others—and maybe even
picking up a few bucks and some public recognition of your
work in the process—there’s the excitement and challenge of getting close enough to various wild creatures to
make telling shots. Then there’s the healthy enjoyment of
vigorous days spent afield—and, perhaps best of all,
the rare privilege of observing firsthand something of the
secretive lives of our fellow earthlings.

Editor’s Note: Alan D. Carey’s wildlife photographs
have appeared on the covers and in the pages of

American Photographer, Field & Stream, International
Wildlife, National Wildlife, National Geographic World,
Outdoor Life, Smithsonian and a great many others.
Alan’s books include
In the Path of the Grizzly
and (with Gary Turbak) America’s Great
Cats—available for $11.95 each from your local
bookstore, or $13.70 postpaid from Northland Press, Flagstaff, AZ. (See the Access review of

America’s Great Cats on page 126 of this issue.)