As I’m preparing to search for black bears to photograph, my personal safety has certainly come to mind a few times. When photographing wildlife, the combined safety of both ourselves and the species we are seeking out should be the top priority. In this article, I go over a few things to keep in mind when you head out into the great outdoors with your camera.
First of all, it goes without saying that you should let someone know where you are planning to shoot, and when you’ll be returning. It’s pretty common sense stuff, but many photographers forget to do this, or only do so sometimes. So many things could go wrong out there. Knowing someone is keeping tabs on your return could end up being very important. While going with a buddy can be a bit safer, please try not to forget to let someone else know your itinerary.
When you are shooting in a new area, it's a good idea to be mindful of all the species you might encounter — not just the ones you are seeking out. Knowing what other species you could come across is super important. Whether it’s venomous snakes or bears, do you know what to do if you come across either? Being prepared is essential to staying safe. Don’t ever underestimate any environment, regardless of how safe it seems.
Providing your subjects with a bit of personal space is simply the right thing to do. Not only will it translate into more natural images, but it will also prevent animals from feeling threatened, and potentially becoming dangerous. While it might seem obvious which animals are the most dangerous, smaller animals can also attack when provoked or feeling threatened. Consider making or purchasing a hide and using a long lens to get closer to your subjects.
Try to opt for clothing that doesn't make too much noise. For one, it will allow you to get closer to wildlife (but, remember, not too close!). In some cases, you may actually want a subject to be aware of your presence so as not to startle the animal, while on the other hand, often you might not want a particular animal to know you are there at all. Walking into the wind will keep your arrival a surprise, but this can sometimes backfire if you surprise an animal.
Being mindful of what fabrics you wear can also be helpful for keeping your body temperature regulated. I think most of us understand that some materials, such as cotton, can retain moisture. And, of course, soaking in cold wetness can lead to hypothermia. Stick to fabrics that wick away moisture like wool or synthetics. While temperatures might be nice during the day, it can’t hurt to dress in layers in case things change unexpectedly. As we lose most of our heat through our heads, throw a beanie in your camera bag — it’ll add more protection to a lens or two when it’s not in use.
If you are shooting in warmer climates, there are plenty of clothing manufacturers that have built-in UV and insect protection to protect you from bites and sunburn. When shooting in colder climates, I can’t step outside without a pair of microspikes. Ideal for icy terrain, microspikes make me feel like I have superpowers. Not only do they protect you from falls, but they also safeguard your equipment. If you are shooting in a colder climate, keeping some canned food in your car in case you return to a dead battery will help hold you over until help can arrive.
It is foolhardy to think because you know an area well that you cannot end up in a difficult predicament. Again, complacency can prove tragic. Having a few items with you just in case really doesn’t hurt. Carrying basic survival tools and a first aid kit can be vital if you get lost and end up having to spend a night outdoors. Going a little lighter on your photography gear will enable you to pack a few survival items such as a water straw/tablets, fire starter, a flashlight, knife, compass, and waterproof map.
Finally, remembering to pack the right protection for your gear can save your equipment from the elements. UV filters, waterproof cases, etc., are all good ideas when shooting outdoors. Keep in mind condensation can form when leaving your air conditioned car or when you go into a warm car/house from a cold day outdoors. Moisture and electronics do not mix well. Either keep your gear inside your pack for fifteen minutes or put the camera inside a plastic camera bag to let the condensation form on that.
While there are a few more risks associated with wildlife and outdoor photography than other genres, there are many ways to mitigate those risks. Being prepared and respecting wildlife are truly important to your personal safety. Have you had an unexpected turn of events while shooting outdoors? How did you handle it? We would love to hear about it in the comments below.