As well-known nature photographer John Shaw says, To become a better photographer, become a better naturalist.
Its just common sense. The more you learn about your subject, the better prepared you’ll be to capture compelling images. This applies to all forms of photography but in this post Ill specifically discuss wildlife as the subject.
There are complete college and university programs dedicated to the study of avian and wildlife biology. This blog post doesn’t claim to come close to that objective. But it is worth discussing even briefly, because its important to know your subject and to understand animal behavior to capture exciting and marketable images.
One way to learn about animal behavior is by reading as many books and articles about your subject as you can. For example, Kenn Kaufmans “Lives of North American Birds” is an excellent resource for learning about habitat, feeding, nesting, and migration for all bird species in North America. Its a must- read if youre a bird photo enthusiast.
Scott McMillions “Mark of the Grizzly” is full of real-life stories about grizzly bear attacks. Not only will you learn a few things about grizzly behavior, this book could even save your life.
There are numerous nature centers around the U.S. that offer classes and weekend seminars on almost every aspect of natural history, from plant identification to animal tracking and bird calls. Spend time attending these courses and studying the behavior of wildlife to enhance your wildlife photographic skills. Check with your local chapter of the Audubon Society to find classes in your area.
Wildlife and raptor rehabilitation centers also offer opportunities to learn about wildlife and get close enough to take good photographs. Each center has its own policies regarding visitors and photography, so the best thing to do before you show up with your camera is to call first or check their websites.
Don’t forget your local zoo either. Zookeepers and docents are there because they know about animals. These folks are usually very helpful and genuinely enjoy sharing their knowledge about animals and their behavior. Many facilities present educational programs and tours that will not only educate you about animal behavior but offer great photo opportunities.
For example, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Ariz., has daily raptor Free Flight programs. (Depending on the season.) In these programs, held in the open, a knowledgeable biologist provides an informative talk about a particular bird, like a barn owl or kestrel. All the while, that same bird is flying around, feeding from various locations where other handlers have placed food.
These are great programs for photographers, although they can be somewhat crowded due to their popularity.
While studying scientific journals, attending college classes, and reading books will help you understand animal behavior, your good old common sense will also help you take great shots. Tigers are mammals. They can’t breathe under water. So if a tiger goes into a pond for a swim, its a safe bet its going to come back up for air. Be ready. Most animals shake water off their fur as soon as they surface.
Many aspects of animal behavior can be predicted if you simply think ahead and pay close attention.
For instance, did you know that most raptors such as eagles, hawks, and other birds of prey–will often, lighten their load (poop) just before they take flight? They lift their tail feathers and defecate. This is a sign that they are about to fly.
Being familiar with your subjects common behavior will not only help you get better photos, it could save your life. When a grizzly bear yawns, its not naptime. Its actually a sign of irritation. Big cats (lions, tigers, cougars) are always observant of prey that is low to the ground.
But probably the best way to become familiar with your wild subject is to simply observe. Spend time in the field watching birds, elk, marmots, snakes, and frogs. Get out your binoculars and look. You’ll begin to make photographs in your mind
even before you unpack your camera.
One of the better ways to learn about an animals behavior and create good photo opportunities is to take a trip to the field with a wildlife biologist. Talk to the folks at animal rehab and nature centers. Spend some time with them and establish relationships. Offer the use of the pictures you take in exchange for access to their facilities. Biologists and nature centers are always in need of good photographs for teaching, research, and promotional activities.
This is a win-win situation. Not only will you gain great photo opportunities and knowledge, but the biologist or nature center will gain much needed photographs and may even publicize your photography.
The Internet is one of the most important tools for wildlife photographers. You can research places to photograph animals and animal behavior with the click of a mouse. The Internet also offers practical and logistical information. If youre planning
a shoot, you can check the weather, tides, sunrise and sunset times, migration patterns, permitting processes, suggestions for improved access, park rules, lodging, places to eat, emergency information, and more.
If you are planning on photographing California Brown Pelicans, for example, you can use the Web to find out when they will be in breeding plumage. You can find out about a local colony at La Jolla Cove near San Diego, Calif. You can find directions to the cove, as well as information about nearby places to photograph animals, such as Sea World, the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Wild Animal Park, Santee Lakes, and the Childrens Pool at La Jolla.
Use the Internet before every shoot to make sure you are making the best of your time and opportunities.
The last tip Ill give you is the simplest. Just study lots of wildlife photography. That simple act will give you insight into animal behavior that will help you get ready for your next wildlife expedition. Good hunting.