Understanding and Respecting Your Subject is More Important Than Your Camera

Understanding and Respecting Your Subject is More Important Than Your Camera

Travelling to exotic locales? Searching for rare megafauna in spectacularly remote landscapes? Here are some tips from experts on how to get the best photographs while respecting your subjects and their environment. Spoiler, it's not all about your camera.

HOWL - A Wildlife Photo Convention has lined up several wildlife photographers and wildlife experts to talk about how to approach and photograph wildlife. I talked to each of the speakers about how photographers and wildlife lovers can get the most out of their experiences in the field while also doing right by the wildlife.

Have Patience, You'll Be Rewarded

Across the board, each photographer and wildlife expert talked about how patience is the key to taking home a great photograph or leaving the wild with a great memory.  

John E. Marriott.

John E. Marriott explained you can't just expect to go out and find wildlife right away. Describing his own personal experience, some of his most successful shoots have come after months and months of field work. We're not talking about just a few hours, but a commitment.  

A great example would be tracking wolves for my Kootenay Wolves: Five Years Following a Wild Wolf Pack. If I had given up in the first winter or two when I couldn't find any sign of the wolves, I would have never discovered all of the rendezvous sites and the den site and had an amazing five year project. You've got to keep at it and tell the story, so perseverance and patience are the traits you want to foster in yourself.

In a similar vein, Melissa Groo told me that perseverance is the most important discipline to learn if you want to be a great wildlife photographer.

Be prepared to return to a story or a species over and over again... It’s really only by investing long periods of time studying a species that you begin to really observe and capture interesting or unique behaviors and poses. 

Connor Thompson, a grad student at Trent University, who has been studying the eastern wolf for the past five years, emphasized that patience is critical to finding and then learning about wildlife. While live-trapping wolves to radio collar them, Thompson explained he was only finding three to four wolves a month. The rest of the time, he was checking and rechecking traplines. Putting in his time, learning about the wolves, in order to increase the odds of a beneficial encounter. 

Connor Thompson in the field, by Sam Stephens.

Wildlife photographers need to get accustomed to the idea that their keeper ratio will not be high. Wildlife isn't controllable; you need to wait and learn. 

Learn About the Wildlife

As photographers, we often focus on our equipment. Knowing how your cameras work and what the limitations are is important. Let's keep in mind, though, that these technical elements are relatively straightforward. Learning about the behavior of the animals themselves requires a more significant investment. Developing this knowledge will pay off when you can place yourself in the right spot, at the right time, to witness the right behavior. 

Sandy Sharkey.

For example, Sandy Sharkey told me that in her case, it's imperative that she understand and respect wild horse body language. Wild horses' body language can be both very subtle and very dramatic. It can be especially dramatic when a wild stallion challenges another stallion for the right to lead a band of mares. A wild stallion contemplating a takeover can be half a kilometer away, but the bandleader will respond, pounding the ground, snorting, calling out. Once you see the subtle signs and know what's about to take place, you can be prepared to catch the more dramatic action. If you don't understand the body language, you're likely to miss the key shot.

Chris Gilmore, an outdoor educator and guide, believes that the natural world is complex and interlinked through countless relationships. For Gilmore, experience is key. You need to get into the field to see and feel, to develop your curiosity.

Why did it just do that? When does it come down this trail and why? Limitless curiosity and questions lead to lifelong learning.

Chris Gilmore.

Getting into the field to gain experience can be expensive. So, in preparation, we need to grow empathy for the wildlife we want to see to maximize our photography chances. For Groo, this means studying an animal before going out to photograph it, reading up on the species before heading out to the field. To be prepared, we should be aware of our subject's natural history, what the challenges to their survival are, what their signs of alarm look like or sound like.

There is no excuse for us to not be prepared to be respectful and at least somewhat knowledgeable. And it’s in our own best interest! The more careful and considerate we are, the more likely that animal will continue going about its business. 

Melissa Groo.

Gilmore put it well:

Understanding how wildlife will behave in certain circumstances is the difference between experiencing wildlife in their natural state and seeing them run away from you.  

Thompson suggested that understanding the wildlife will help better understand where they might pass by or how the might behave. If you take time to learn about an animal's behavior, you're more likely to find it. Thinking like a wolf to find a wolf isn't a cliché.

Putting it all together, as wildlife photographers, we want an image of the wildlife doing what they do, not hiding or running from us. The more you know, the more likely that is.

Gear

Wildlife photography usually requires some pretty serious equipment. If our goal is to keep wildlife wild, we need to stay as far away as possible. This usually means long lenses. Sharkey, Marriott, and Groo all counted long telephotos as necessary equipment. Sharkey prefers something in the 200-500mm range, whereas Marriott's and Groo's preferences reached to 800mm, plus teleconverters. 

Interestingly, a good pair of binoculars also ranked as a favorite choice. It's hard to hold an 800mm lens for longer than a few moments. Even with a tripod, rough terrain may mean that you're shooting in a precarious position. Having binoculars will allow you to follow the wildlife from a distance until you're ready to shoot. 

Respect

Most importantly, we should not be disturbing the wildlife for the sake of a photograph. Wildlife photography (and sure, I'll blame IG a little for this) is not trophy hunting. The point is to experience the awe of wildlife, not to harm it. Sharkey and Groo talked about striving to ensure that their presence does not impact their wildlife subjects. For Sharkey and Groo, keeping a respectable distance is mandatory. Regardless of distance, however, they also work to make sure that they are not negatively affecting behavior. Here, it's critical to know the signs of stress to ensure that their presence is accepted, and if it's not, both Sharkey and Groo will leave the wildlife in peace. By backing off if they sense discomfort, they might forgo a photo, but they are certainly protecting the wildlife.

Sandy Sharkey.

For Marriott, there aren't hard and fast rules about how far to stay from wildlife when photographing them, but there are guidelines that he likes to stick to. Marriott defines a perfect encounter as one where the animal is still doing the same activity when he leaves as when he arrived. For Marriott, a great encounter means he hasn't disturbed or impacted an animal's behavior. Similarly, Thompson laid strict rules for his wildlife approaches: if the animal appears stressed, leave it alone and always make sure that an animal has at least two exits if it's uncomfortable and needs to protect itself. After all, you're going to go back home. The wildlife will still be in the woods looking for its next meal, stressing an animal compromises its survival.

Feeding or Baiting

I want to believe that this goes without saying, but I'm concerned with the rise of feeding or baiting so that photographers can take home the shot. Every expert I talked with noted that feeding or baiting animals teaches animals to associate people with food. Any kind of luring with food or visual or auditory signalling will ultimately draw animals closer to people, which will lead to conflict. This is a death sentence. You aren't entitled to a show.

As Groo explained:

The most important and kindest thing we can do for any wild animal—is keep it wild. Revere and respect that wildness with all our hearts.

To quote Thompson:

Let wild animals be wild. My personal rule when observing wildlife is, if the animal reacts to your presence, then you are too close. Back away quietly. 

HOWL has an in-person and virtual component this year. Even if you can't make it to the edge of Algonquin Provincial Park, you can still learn from these experts.

All images used with the permission of and attributed to their photographers. Lead image provided by Sandy Sharkey.

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6 Comments
Lee Morris's picture

We've considered doing a tutorial on wildlife photography but I am so nervous that it requires too much/patients to easily film. Maybe one day.

Tom Reichner's picture

It would be really cool to see an Fstoppers Wildlife Tutorial!

But, in the meantime, we have an enormous amount of wildlife photography how-to resources available on the internet. Particularly, YouTube and Instagram ..... especially if you use those websites for research and educational purposes, and simply ignore the commercial aspects of those platforms.

The information that most serious wildlife photographers crave, and would pay dearly for, is not information about HOW to photograph wildlife, but rather WHERE to photograph wildlife.

There are tens of thousands of us who have figured out how to research and shoot many various species of wild animals. That is the easy part of the endeavor. The difficult part, that even lifelong experts struggle with routinely, is knowing where we can find wild animals that are cooperative enough to provide quality image-making opportunities within a reasonable and efficient timeframe.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Tom - You're wildlife portfolio is beautiful!!
What are you looking to photograph that you're having trouble finding? Perhaps I can help?

Tom Reichner's picture

Thank you, Mark!

I shoot a wide variety of mammals, birds, and herps, so there are many species that I would love to find:

Flat-tailed Horned Lizard. I know they live in the Sonoran Desert, particularly in extreme southwest Arizona, but where can they be found on land that is open to public access? REALLY want to photograph this species before they go extinct.

Whitetail Deer in Minnesota ... habituated or semi-habituated, fully mature bucks (5 1/2 years old or older) during the November rut. I have places for this in VA, MT, TN, and CO, but would love to photograph them in Minnesota as well. Only interested in non-captive Deer ... no interest in photographing Deer that live in privately owned fenced-in "preserves".

Gunnison Sage-grouse - anywhere I could legally shoot them on a lek, from a blind, at frame-filling range, during their April dancing season, would be fabulous! I have done this numerous times at various locations with Greater Sage-grouse, but never had an opportunity with the Gunnison's species.

Pygmy Rabbits. I have been in their habitat, but never found one that presented a photo opportunity. Have spent several days in pursuit of this species and come away empty. They used to live right here in my area, but, sadly, have been extirpated due to human development.

Shovel-nosed Snake (any of the subspeies).

Snowshoe Hares in their white winter pelage. Cooperative ones that don't mind a human hanging around nearby. I have this species here in my area, but where they live is not accessible in the winter when they are white, because they live in high elevation areas where winter travel is not possible.

Panther-spotted Grasshopper, Poecilotettix pantherinus. I know they are in Arizona, but where? And do they live in other states, as well? And what time of year are they active and photographable? Have spent time trying to learn about this species, but information is not as readily available as one might think.

Woodcock! I know they cover a very broad range, all up and down the eastern United States. But where is a specific location at which they may be reliably found? Have spent a fair amount of time searching for them in good habitat, but come up empty. I know there must be specific little spots that they return to each year, where they can be readily found, but thus far I failed to find such a location.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. Would love to know of a place where they winter, in large numbers. Flock shots of masses of these ducks lifting off in unison would be awesome to capture!

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

That is a VERY serious list full of awesome little niches. Let me ask my birding friends. I know that places like Churchill, Manitoba get huge fluctuations of bird life in the short summer season. I think they’re at about 280 different species for a few months. No lizards ❄️.

Bonus, you’ll get snowshoe hare!

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I'm sure you know where to find me ;)