If you are a wildlife shooter, Moose Peterson’s recent book Captured has a lot of great insights and is worth picking up. Over the last year, I have really embraced one of Moose’s big ideas: developing relationships with the people in my community who work with and know the local wildlife. In doing so, one gains better access to wildlife subjects with less trial and error.

On the surface, this seems a no-brainer. But where does one find such folks? And, how does one build these relationships? Here is a formula that has worked for me.

  1. If Possible, Set Aside Your Biases. The love of animals is what often draws us to wildlife photography. As a result, some of us fail to see the value of the community of genuine sports and subsistence hunters. Few people know the woods and the creatures in it better than the folks that harvest them for food. In my experience, hunters love the forest and her inhabitants as much or more than the average person. If approached respectfully, most are willing to help educate an interested photographer.
  2. Find Amateur Naturalist Groups: The most prevalent example of this is the birding community. Most birders know their subjects, especially their favorites, like the back of their hands. The “herp” community specializes in reptiles and closely follow birders in popularity. While birders and herps are everywhere, every branch of the animal kingdom has a fan base. Find the one who loves your subject animal and you’ll develop resources while making friends.
  3. Volunteer to Help Your Local Wildlife Professionals: Fish & Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service are just a few of the myriad local, state and federal agencies tasked with managing wildlife populations in the United States. Almost every nation has similar agencies. Call your local agency and ask how you can volunteer. Be open to volunteering for projects which do not involve a camera. You want to be in the field with these folks and earn their respect and trust. Once you’ve done so, you’ll be surprised how often they pick up the phone and call you for photography advice, which leads to shooting opportunities.

Make no mistake. As a wildlife photographer, you are hunter. Your ammo is film or a CF card. Your rifle is your lens. The best hunters know the behavior of their quarry. If you want to be a successful wildlife shooter, you need to know animal behavior equally as well. It helps you get the shot and it helps keep you safe in the field.

By connecting with the wildlife community … both local and at photography destinations … you will learn animal behavior from the people that live and breathe it every day, which will prove invaluable in getting your shot.