Late one summer evening in 2007, I took a drive out to the local Wildlife Management Area (Middle Creek) in South-Eastern Pennsylvania, something that I had done plenty of times before. On this trip, however, I wascarrying a small point and shoot camera with something like a 5x optical zoom – not enough to get NatGeo worthy wildlife shots, but just enough to spark an inspiration deep inside of me. I remember taking a few distant deer photos here and there, but I also remember thinking about how I would love to get closer. I wanted to see some detail. So that evening, I went home and built this monstrosity. Using my dad’s 40-power spotting scope/tripod and some scrap wood, I built my first “telephoto lens”. The next time I trekked out to Middle Creek, I was stunned to find that my little creation actually worked! I could get close-up shots of those same deer I had watched a few days prior. Little did I know that this would be the humble beginnings of a hobby that would re-introduce me to the wonders of the great outdoors, drag me out of a depression, and yes, turn me into a BIRDER. These days I’m shooting with a bit more advanced setup, but that’s not really the point. Wildlife photography is all about getting outside, exploring the areas around you (or maybe some that are more far afield) and learning to be one with the great outdoors.
Growing up hunting and fishing with my dad, the lessons of patience and outdoor stewardship were constantly instilled in me. Both ideals, along with a heavy dose of luck, play a huge part in being a wildlife photographer. If you’re going to pursue this hobby (or realistically any hobby), it’s important to know that you’re probably going to suck at first and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I think that it’s particularly easy to get discouraged as a wildlife photographer at first because you can easily snap hundreds if not thousands of frames and maybe not end up with a shot that you’re happy with. In the beginning, what matters is that you’re getting outside and you’re learning. You’re learning how to use the camera, you’re learning where the animals in your area live and how to respectfully and responsibly interact with them and you’re probably learning a little more about patience. Eventually with some luck, you’re going to get that shot that wows you, and you’ll be hooked.
For me, that shot came about 10 months after buying my first real telephoto lens, the Canon 100-400 MKI, which was affixed to my first DSLR, the Canon 60D. Late in the fall of 2012, I was taking an early morning walk around Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Woodbridge, Virginia. I had been to the refuge only a few times prior to that morning and on those trips, I had not been overly impressed. While I was enjoying being outside and taking some walks in the woods, I wasn’t seeing much to justify carrying my heavy camera and lens. However, that morning, as I turned the corner on the trail, I spotted a little 6-point buck standing about 150 yards away, staring right at me. As I crouched down to snap a few shots, I noticed some movement to his right. Out of the woods, this small fox appeared. The fox, without a care, walked right up to the buck and sat down next to him, both now looking right at me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. After months of looking around trying to find ANY wildlife, I now had two awesome animals literally gazing right into my lens. As I sat there taking shot after shot, the fox, curious as they often are, started down the trail towards me. He cautiously crept closer eventually allowing me to snap the shot below, which to this day is still one of my favorites. It’s not technically a great shot and in hindsight there’s a lot I could have done differently to make it better, but that didn’t matter to me then. What mattered was that after working hard and putting in the time to try and find some wildlife to photograph, I had finally done it. This sense of achievement gave me the energy to really move forward with this hobby. Five years, countless hours in the field, and tens of thousands of photos in my Lightroom catalogs later, here I am.
With that long-winded introduction aside, let’s talk about some of the basics: the first steps for finding and photographing wildlife, and starting on your own personal journey as a wildlife photographer. I think the best tip I can give is to get outside while the animals you want to photograph are active. This was one of the first mistakes I made, but one that is easily correctable. If you’re taking your time getting out of bed in the morning, you’re not going to be out while many animals (birds included) are most active. For the most part, wildlife is active early in the morning (an hour before sunrise until 9 or 10am) and late in the afternoon (an hour and a half before sunset). Not only are these times best for animal activity, but they’re also the times during which you’ll most likely have the best sunlight. On sunny days, once the sun gets high in the sky, you’re left with harsh highlights and unflattering shadows. You may have heard the term “Golden Hour” – this refers to those same sets of hours. Use the sun to your advantage whenever possible.
Getting outside during the right hours goes hand in hand with simply getting out as often as you reasonably can. As with any hobby, wildlife photography requires a lot of practice. The more frequently you’re in the field, using your camera, the better. Don’t be afraid to take hundreds of photos in one session, especially when you’re first starting out. Sure, it’s going to be a lot to edit later, but that’s part of the fun (sometimes, anyway)! It is only by taking and editing a lot of different shots that you learn what works and what doesn’t with regard to how you’re setting up your camera. It’ll also help you develop your own style and learn the ins and outs of your post-processing software.
While we’re on the topic of settings, you may be wondering just what mode to use – after all, there seems to be an infinite number of things you can change on a DSLR. These days I shoot full manual with only auto-ISO, but if I were starting over now, I’d probably stick with shutter priority. Many birds and animals are moving quickly and with a telephoto lens you want a shutter speed that can keep up with them AND your swinging of the lens. Shutter priority mode will let you set a shutter speed that the camera will then automatically adjust to meet. The general rule of thumb is to set a shutter speed of 1/focal length. This would mean, for example, if you’re shooting at 400mm, you should be using a minimum shutter speed of 1/400. Keep in mind that if you’re using a crop-sensor camera body, the crop factor also plays a part in the realized focal length (1/(focal length*crop factor)). Once you’re more comfortable with your camera, you will likely find that you can manage lower shutter speeds, especially with image-stabilized lenses. Eventually, you’ll be able to start working towards full manual mode, which will give you the ultimate in control over how your photos turn out.