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Page 3 Ashley Hockenberry

Written By onci on Monday, February 22, 2010 | 9:42 AM

Wildlife Photography – Getting Closer by Ashley Hockenberry

One of the foremost challenges we face in photographing wild birds or animals is getting close enough to capture a clear shot, which is in focus and reveals sufficient detail. Since most wildlife are notoriously skittish and difficult to approach, it can be an exercise in frustration trying to get worthwhile images. The quick and “easy” solution to this problem is simply to purchase a long zoom lens of 500mm or longer or decent quality. This most certainly helps but it is hard on the pocketbook and somewhat difficult to justify the expense if you are not a professional.

1.) Closing the gap
So what are the alternatives? One of the best tips I ever received from a fellow photographer was a very simple one and it should have been very obvious to me but sometimes the most obvious things are what we overlook. I asked someone who was getting excellent bird photographs what his secret was and he told me to go to the places where birds are at least habituated to people so that the site of human being does not send them into an extreme panic as you approach from 100 yards away. Instead of chasing wildlife and birds, you take the approach of going to a place they naturally frequent and letting them come to you.
I have had great experiences in Yellowstone and Jasper, Alberta using this approach. While these animals are not tame by any stretch of the imagination, they are much more approachable than animals which are completely in wilderness and perhaps have never seen a human before. Some areas to consider are places where birds and animals feed or where they are fed, where they roost or Provincial or State Parks. These can be great places to photograph deer, raccoon, hawks, songbirds and other wild visitors.

2.) What about focal length?
There are a couple of aspects to this which should be considered. One aspect is what can lens can you afford and another is investing in the right lens which will provide the best functionality for the type of shooting you do. Having a 500, 600 or 800mm lens is great but oftentimes you become anchored to a tripod and your mobility is hindered. It is difficult to shoot handheld with big, heavy lenses, which makes it very challenging for birds in flight or a quickly moving deer which only allows a narrow window of opportunity for a shot.
It is possible to use a 400mm lens and get decent shots. There are also relatively inexpensive zooms which are in the 100-400mm, 200-500mm or 50-500mm range, which is all substantially cheaper than the longer, earlier mentioned prime lenses. I also use a 1.4x Tele-converter with my 400mm zoom for extra distance. What I have found is this – yes, there are some situations where I would have benefitted from having a longer lens but perhaps not as much as I thought. Focal length solves part of the problem but not all problems. There is a trade off to everything. I like mobility and ease of use.

3.) The Stealthy Approach
Seeing any kind of wildlife gets me excited and the temptation is to chase after whatever you happen to spot in the field to get a closer look and a great shot. But as I have learned over the years, birds, animals and even fish can see you coming from a long way away – especially birds of prey. Going slow is a good first step and creeping up on your subject while keeping a low profile can pay big dividends. I often try to take a step or two, then a few more and then a few more. I have been amazed at times how close I have been able to get using this approach as opposed to charging in like a bull.
The other thing to be careful about is to also watch your distance. For instance, photographing moose or bears can be dangerous if you approach too closely and each animal has a distance (comfort zone) which it likes to keep from people and other animals. When this space is invaded they can become defensive and charge which can result in a nasty encounter and injury. Many a wildlife photographer has been mauled or attacked and even killed trying to get the ultimate shot. . Also, avoid direct eye contact. Walk in a zig-zag direction rather than a straight line. Going down to one knee when photographing bears can be dangerous because you suddenly appear smaller to them which could trigger an instinctive charge.

4.) The Use of a Blind
I am not sure why more people don’t do this – but it is really a great way to get closer and hide yourself from view of nervous and skittish wildlife. If they cannot see you then you are virtually invisible! One way to do this is to shoot from your vehicle. You can shoot out of rolled-down window and obscure yourself with a camouflaged sheet. But be careful where you pull over to do this – highways can be dangerous places to pull over- better to do it on a country road than a busy highway. There are a number of blinds which can yield fantastic results – from tent-like structures to portable blinds which you can drape over yourself and allow for movement and walking.

5.) Change the Game
For the more adventurous among us, there are other things we can do to change the game. I have photographed difficult to approach species from a boat. For some reason, birds in particular are not as concerned about being approached from the water and your profile is lower when you are in a boat. Of course it is always recommended to have someone who can do the navigation and steering while you have all hands free to manage your shooting and camera gear. I have been successful with both loons and Osprey using this method.

6.) The Best Alternative – employ a guide, workshop coordinator or wildlife professional.
One of the absolute best ways to photograph wildlife up close and in safety is to employ the services of an experienced and licensed guide, workshop coordinator or wildlife professional, who works in conjunction with a Raptor Center, Zoo, wildlife park or nature sanctuary. Structured workshops are a great way to get close to a number of species which would be nearly impossible to photograph in the wild such as a Mountain Lion, Grizzly Bear, Bald Eagle or Great Horned Owl.

by Ashley Hockenberry
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