Observing Animals in the Wild: How to Take Nature Photos

Learn a master tracker’s tips for blending into natural settings to see animals in their own habitats.

| March 28, 2013

  • The Complete Tracker
    “The Complete Tracker: Tracks, Signs, and Habits of North American Wildlife” is a detailed guide to observing animals through self-camouflage and learning wildlife tracks by sight. 
    Cover Courtesy Lyons Press
  • Observing animals
    Just wearing contrasting garments is often enough to break up the distinctly human form, but tracking clothes should not be brightly colored, and never laundered with brightening detergents.
    Photo Courtesy Lyons Press
  • Blind
    The author’s most used portable blind, this Mega Sola from Integral Designs is watertight, bugproof, low-profile, camouflaged, and opens from the front or from either side. It’s one of numerous ultralight bivouac shelters that serve the camera or gun hunter well as a portable blind.
    Photo Courtesy Lyons Press

  • The Complete Tracker
  • Observing animals
  • Blind

The Complete Tracker: Tracks, Signs, and Habits of North American Wildlife (Lyons Press, 2012) is a concise, thorough guide to the tracks, signs and habits of North America’s most popular species of wildlife. Learn techniques for getting close to animals — from bobcats to beavers, marmots to moose — by knowing the details of their habits and learning a master-tracker’s tips for avoiding detection. The following excerpt is a guide to observing animals and how to take nature photos by blending into natural settings. 

You can buy this book in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Complete Tracker.

Stalking is a great exercise for becoming attuned to the sights, sounds, and smells of a natural environment, and frequently nets you a great photo. But it’s sometimes necessary to get an animal to come to you. This can be accomplished with bait, scents, calls that imitate animal voices, or by staking out a well-used trail. Shooting from a blind, or “hide,” is the preferred method of most hunters and photographers, however, because ambushing an animal is simpler than stalking it.

The first step to observing animals, of course, is to use the strategies covered in the preceding chapters to determine where the animals you’re looking for are most likely to be. Use a topographic trail map to identify types of terrain that are most likely to be frequented by them, to determine where the best feeding and bedding places are located, and to locate any mapped trails that are the most likely to get into and out of those areas. Once you’ve established an animal’s route and destination, it’s fairly simple to lie in wait for its return.

Remember that animals living near humans usually become nocturnal, because there are rarely humans afoot in the woods after dark. The advantage that this offers is one of surprise, because even the most alert animal is not on the lookout for a person hiding in a darkened forest. Many times I’ve taken an animal completely by surprise by hiding along a darkened trail where it wasn’t expecting a human to be.

Be especially aware of how much better animals see in the dark. At twilight, when the world is balanced on the edge of day and night and features are getting fuzzy to the human eye, most animals can see close-up images (because most species are nearsighted) as well as we do at noon. Never think that just because you can’t see your hand in front of your face, an animal can’t see you move it there. We see well into the infrared end of visible light spectrum, while animals generally perceive more of the ultraviolet end of the spectrum. And because ultraviolet light is most prevalent in what we consider darkness, animals have much better night vision than we do. In daylight, we can discriminate between subtle colors to the point of nonsense, but most animals can run full speed through darkness that would have us colliding with trees. If animals do move about during the day, most confine their travels to within a secluded bedding or denning area where human activity is infrequent, typically in terrain we find difficult to negotiate.


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