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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.