Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Openly Sneaky: Photographing Animals

 

Though I am by no means an expert photographer, years of stalking animals has given me reason to consider how critters are best approached without spooking them. Perhaps you have some tips of your own.

Some advantages in approaching animals are natural. It helps to have a quiet and patient disposition. Many animals have a keener sense of smell than humans do, so they can smell tension or excitement. If you are calm, that too can be smelled. Sometimes it might be worth going through the trouble of staying downwind of your subject. But simply remaining calm is often enough to relax animals accustomed to eating and resting near other species.

Note that even non-predatory emotions, like bubbly joy at sighting something extraordinary, can be enough to put wild animals on alert. Silent meditation or prayer can help maintain calmness if it doesn’t come naturally.

With patience, the subject might come to you. It might not even be a subject on your radar. Simply because I remained still and calm, this mockingbird (puffed up against a cold breeze) perched within a few feet of me and remained for nearly 20 minutes.

Animals are often curious about people, but afraid to approach. Here is a flying ray (mobula / devil ray) swimming directly to me for a closer look. Though the ray remains too skittish to linger for long, you can see that it actually turns around to approach after passing me by… because I was still.

Of course, a go-get’em personality pushes many photographers to explore rougher areas and witness things they could not see by staking a position. But I prefer the lazy lion to the one that’s trying to eat me.

Be quiet… but not too quiet. In the wild, a larger silent animal that is staring at you and easing toward you is probably a predator intent on eating you. Dr Dolittle was no fool — talk to the animals. A calm, soft voice can signal that you are not trying to hide and can reinforce your appearance as a casual observer. Talking to the great blue herons at my favorite beach might be one reason they so often accompany me on my walks.

Alternatively, hum a tune or cluck your tongue. In a garden, I will sometimes click my tongue in a particular pattern repeatedly, mimicking bird songs. Does it help put the birds at ease? Heck if I know.

I have noticed a curious pattern when photographing insects. Nearly all my pictures of bugs are taken with a smartphone, because I notice the subjects between photography outings. So it is necessary to get the camera closer in absence of a telescopic lens. I fail more often than I succeed to approach an insect without scaring it. Many bugs are constantly on the move, so the approach must sometimes be hurried. But it is not unusual for an insect to allow the camera to come within an inch or two of touching it. Even then, the bug might not move.

I am the sort of blowhard who has a theory about everything. Though it is impossible to know for certain why bugs allow a photographer such impolite invasion of space, it could be related to a bug’s perception of time. You might say it is just freezing to go unnoticed, as animals often do. But this butterfly, for example, was still fanning its wings as I gradually moved my phone almost close enough to touch it.

Bug lives are typically very brief. Many move more quickly than we do. Their brains almost certainly work differently than ours. So when a photographer can get right on top of an insect by easing closer inch-by-inch, it might not even fully realize it is being approached. If a bug’s short-term memory is designed for a different time-scale than a human’s, it might be more concerned with second-to-second differences than with minute-to-minute changes. Afterall, its natural predators also move quicker than we do.

But that’s just a theory. All you really need to know is that a gradual approach often works. Try to close the distance by stretching your arms when possible. Otherwise, take a slow step and gradually shift your weight forward with the camera extended. It’s not a natural movement to walk without moving the camera forward and back in sync with your body. Remain aware of your shadow, as insect eyes can be more attuned to light than to objects.

Last, let’s talk about bait. It does not always have to be deliberately procured. Rather, it can be discovered, like this ray that got caught on the concrete barrier of a cut-through as the tide went out. Likewise, you can be sure that an oak tree surrounded by acorns will attract squirrels and other critters.

Or you can set a trap with birdseed, sandwich meat, and whatnot. Some photographers almost script animal encounters with elaborate setups. I prefer to simply wait or wander and observe.

Oh, and don’t stare. You might get away with it. But wild animals tend not to stare at each other without licking their lips. If you are lucky, a bird or mammal will be more comfortable stared at by an unblinking camera lens than by a pair of human eyes. In that case, hiding your eyes behind a viewfinder or looking down at an LCD monitor could help relax the subject. “Why is he always looking down at that thing in his hands? Stupid humans.”

What are your experiences in photographing or otherwise approaching wild animals? What successes or failures have you experienced in photographing pets? Like children, they often hate to be still and pose.

If you desire, join the Ricochet photography group to talk technique, learn, or share your shots.

You can find the rest of my shared photography at my 500px page. Don’t let these pictures fool you — I fail to adequately capture what I see most of the time. This last trip to the beach, the ospreys wouldn’t play fair.

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  1. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I should add that a telescopic lens is, in regard to animal reactions, essentially another human appendage. If you would not extend your arm quickly, don’t zoom in too quickly.

    You might not have fine control of the electronic zoom extension speed, but you can at least zoom a bit at a time. This seems to help settle birds.

    Likewise, don’t swing an extended lens quickly, if you can avoid it. If the subject moves quickly and you are not prioritizing action shots or afraid of losing the animal, watch it off-camera as you slowly move the subject back into frame.

    • #1
    • December 1, 2017, at 12:54 PM PST
    • 8 likes
  2. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Haven’t done much animal photography (save for my cats). Well done!

    • #2
    • December 1, 2017, at 1:03 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  3. I. M. Fine Coolidge

    I think your theories are all pretty spot on. I was in Kenya this September and I wish I had some of your tricks up my sleeve. All I did was choose one critter out of each group and hang around a really long time until I was able to make eye contact. Then zoom, click, and get outta there!

    • #3
    • December 1, 2017, at 1:18 PM PST
    • 8 likes
  4. Trink Coolidge
    Trink Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Aaron Miller: . . . accompany me on my walks . .

    Wow. Aaron! I sure wish I could accompany you on your walks :)

    What a lovely essay about engaging the critters and creatures you encounter in the natural world.

    I’m going to read and dwell here for a while. It’s a lovely place to escape from all the political noise.

    • #4
    • December 1, 2017, at 1:18 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  5. I. M. Fine Coolidge

    “But I prefer the lazy lion to the one that’s trying to eat me.”

    (I should have heeded that advice…)

    • #5
    • December 1, 2017, at 1:31 PM PST
    • 8 likes
  6. RightAngles Member

    Nice! I love to photograph birds and animals. The most important tool, as you said, is a zoom lens. And fast shutter speed for hummingbirds.

    • #6
    • December 1, 2017, at 1:32 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  7. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    Nice! I love to photograph birds and animals. The most important tool, as you said, is a zoom lens. And fast shutter speed for hummingbirds.

    Hummingbirds are a pain. Though I have a few in focus while the bird is sitting on a limb, this is the best I’ve gotten of one in motion.

    Before that moment, I wouldn’t have expected hummingbirds, bees, and wasps to get along so well at a feeder.

    • #7
    • December 1, 2017, at 3:11 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  8. DocJay Inactive

    Fun stuff Aaron.

    • #8
    • December 1, 2017, at 6:29 PM PST
    • 1 like
  9. RightAngles Member

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    Nice! I love to photograph birds and animals. The most important tool, as you said, is a zoom lens. And fast shutter speed for hummingbirds.

    Hummingbirds are a pain. Though I have a few in focus while the bird is sitting on a limb, this is the best I’ve gotten of one in motion.

    Before that moment, I wouldn’t have expected hummingbirds, bees, and wasps to get along so well at a feeder.

    Here’s one I took from my kitchen window:

    • #9
    • December 1, 2017, at 6:52 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  10. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    Here’s one I took from my kitchen window:

    It’s like a deer blind, but with food. Great shot.

    • #10
    • December 1, 2017, at 8:12 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  11. RightAngles Member

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    Here’s one I took from my kitchen window:

    It’s like a deer blind, but with food. Great shot.

    The secret is plantation shutters!

    • #11
    • December 1, 2017, at 8:22 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  12. Nanda Panjandrum Inactive

    Marvelous, Aaron!

    • #12
    • December 1, 2017, at 9:55 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  13. Ray Inactive
    Ray

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    Well done!

    Yes, very well done.

    • #13
    • December 2, 2017, at 12:56 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  14. derek Member
    derek Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I have learned from others that you stand very still for as long as it takes. I was 30 feet from a pair of mule deer as they went by. They looked directly at me but didn’t see movement. Another is to make sure your form isn’t contrasted by what is behind you.

    I watched these birds for the better part of an hour.

    https://photos.app.goo.gl/uffZjCIJWavri9gC3

    Pikas are great fun. They are very cute, and the key to getting a shot is finding a spot that you can sit for an hour without moving. They hide when you approach, then come out at the same time as your hind end is going to sleep and you must move.

    https://photos.app.goo.gl/NRkH4TmB2ghmQgu43

    • #14
    • December 2, 2017, at 5:15 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  15. RightAngles Member

    derek (View Comment):
    I have learned from others that you stand very still for as long as it takes. I was 30 feet from a pair of mule deer as they went by. They looked directly at me but didn’t see movement. Another is to make sure your form isn’t contrasted by what is behind you.

    I watched these birds for the better part of an hour.

    https://photos.app.goo.gl/uffZjCIJWavri9gC3

    Pikas are great fun. They are very cute, and the key to getting a shot is finding a spot that you can sit for an hour without moving. They hide when you approach, then come out at the same time as your hind end is going to sleep and you must move.

    https://photos.app.goo.gl/NRkH4TmB2ghmQgu43

    OMG So cute hahaha! Great shots.

    • #15
    • December 2, 2017, at 5:27 PM PST
    • 1 like
  16. TempTime Member

    Aaron, as an “expert” audience may I say, I think your photographs are beautiful! Thank you for posting them, and for sharing your tips.

    • #16
    • December 3, 2017, at 5:45 PM PST
    • 1 like
  17. The Reticulator Member

    Aaron Miller: Oh, and don’t stare. You might get away with it.

    I will consider your advice, as you’ve had more experience with this than I have.

    My idea was that when bicycling toward a whitetail deer, I should keep a steady cadence and maintain eye-contact but don’t blink. I’ve gotten quite close that way, and once realized almost too late that all deer have sharp, pointy parts and I maybe shouldn’t get too close. (They can be really clumsy and do crazy, clumsy things at the last nanno-second.)

    But that wasn’t for photography, and I’ll bet your ideas are right for that purpose.

    I don’t do much of your sort of photography. I’m thinking of getting a new camera next year and for my purposes (taking photos of buildings such as township halls) it’s better to have a wide-angle lens. One of the two cameras I carry has a (Nikon) APS-C sensor with a 17-50mm f/2.8 lens, which covers most of my needs when I need to go wide. But I’m thinking of going even wider. Most of the full-frame cameras are too big for my bicycle handlebar bag, so I’m mostly looking at what kind of lens I can get for an APS-C camera.

    There are times when I’ve wished I had a telephoto lens along for a distant animal shot, but I don’t want to carry an extra lens. On a hot day when I’m dripping with sweat and there might be a breeze blowing up dust, and me being the clumsy person I am, it’s just not the time to be changing lenses. So I think I’ll just stick with landscapes (and the occasional closeup in an attempt to get the texture of a building) and will enjoy your photos when I want to get close to the animals. Yours are very nice.

    Well, there are times when I’ve wanted to get a sharp photo of an insect on a roadside weed, with the building or landscape of interest somewhat out of focus in the background, and can’t say I have much success to show for it. Maybe I should study your techniques more closely and try to learn something.

    • #17
    • December 3, 2017, at 8:34 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  18. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    Maybe I should study your techniques more closely and try to learn something.

    Like I said, I’m not a pro. My knowledge of camera tech and technique is limited because I mostly wing it. The camera I use today is a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70… which is essentially a high-quality point-and-shoot with good magnification. The Lumix I used before had a much shorter zoom but was conveniently pocket-sized.

    Magnification opens a lot of opportunities. But it can also distract you from scenes larger than the subject. A lesson I have to repeatedly learn is that the background and accompanying objects can make a shot’s subject more compelling. Framing is the greater part of photography.

    Magnification also means you occasionally waste moments for good half-zoom shots by trying to get the perfect full-zoom shot. I probably made that mistake with the ospreys and pelicans I tried to capture recently.

    I’ve never gotten a good shot of the dolphins that frequent my beach. But my brother had an experience similar to yours while kayaking near them. The temptation is to get as close as possible. But then you fully comprehend their size, their teeth, and how easily they could knock you around without even meaning to harm you.

    If only life had a Pause button.

    • #18
    • December 3, 2017, at 9:54 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  19. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Thanks, all. I’m always happy to share what I see. Photography is perfect for bums like me. God sets the scene and I just frame it.

    • #19
    • December 3, 2017, at 9:58 PM PST
    • 3 likes

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