Nature

Photographing wildlife

Written by Deb Tappan

Exploring wilderness areas and viewing wildlife in all its varied forms is a thrilling experience for many. Here’s why to take your digital camera along and how to get some memorable, well-composed shots.

Elk wetlandExploring wilderness areas and viewing wildlife in all its varied forms is a thrilling experience. You have the opportunity to witness the intricacies of our natural environment and the interplay of species and habitats.

To capture any of it photographically is a special treat. No need to ask why I personally do it; no need to wonder why I tote camera bodies, lenses, tripod, extra batteries, along with the other essentials (water, etc.) while hiking. It’s simply that I love it and you will too! So remember to pack along your camera the next time you’re out exploring.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

  1. Never harass wildlife: abide by the Code of Ethics for nature and wildlife photography and viewing.
  2. Always be alert. Know what’s around you and educate yourself on what safety precautions you may need to take.
  3. Know your camera. If you have to search and fiddle with the controls, you’ll miss the shot. If your camera has manual features, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the difference it makes using them instead of its automatic ones.
  4. Remember that many compact digital cameras have a lag time between the depressing of the shutter-release button and the actual release of the shutter. Work around this unique challenge by practicing on moving subjects and anticipating the action. Another approach, if you have burst mode, is to simply hold down the shutter-release button, taking a series of shots. With luck you’ll have captured the action you wanted.
  5. When you get to a location, really look at what’s around you. Though you may have stopped for that heron you saw earlier, there may be a magnificently colored centipede at your feet. Yes indeed, centipedes are wildlife too!
  6. Wait for natural action. Be very patient and you’ll be rewarded with stunning opportunities.
  7. Take advantage of the optical zoom capabilities of your compact digital camera but IGNORE the digital zoom feature which merely enlarges pixels turning them into unsightly “boulders.”
  8. Don’t use flash. If you’re far from your subject, the flash won’t be of any use. If you’re too close to your subject, you risk startling it and being injured yourself.
  9. Don’t feel compelled to have your subject fill your frame. Instead include components of the animal’s habitat thereby adding another layer of interest to the story your photograph will tell.
  10. Focus on the animal’s eyes when possible. If they are sharp, then the entire image is more pleasant to view.
  11. If possible, select your shutter speed manually rather than using automatic mode. You’ll want to be flexible. A running herd shot with a slower shutter speed made while panning produces breathtaking results. (Yep, you’ll want to use a tripod for this.)
  12. Experiment with depth-of-field. An equally powerful statement can be made using a deep depth-of-focus as with a short depth-of-focus. It’s entirely dependent on what elements you’ve framed in your foreground, midground and background.
  13. Animals are not unlike high-energy toddlers…neither stay in one place for very long so be prepared. Never chase them but move cautiously, slowly and smoothly. ALWAYS stay the recommended distance from any wildlife (as specified by the National Park Service or other expert).
  14. Become familiar with the habits of different species. Enrich your understanding of what they are doing and where you might look for them.
  15. Shoot when the sun’s angle isn’t straight overhead and harsh. Morning and early evening light are much more pleasant and reveal more of the subject’s texture.
  16. Try to be level with the critter. This may require a bit more athleticism than you expected, particularly if you’re photographing that centipede. Remember, dirt is your pal!
  17. Finally, go out on “bad” weather days. Some of the most interesting images are captured during inclement weather.

Happy exploring and have a memorable time!

About the author

Deb Tappan

Natural history photographer Deb Tappan, a native of Indiana, received concurrent degrees from Indiana University in both Telecommunications and Environmental Studies before eventually calling Tennessee home with husband Paul and dog Utah.
Involved with newspaper production for many years, she "retired" from the University of Tennessee where she had served for 15 years. Deb now is dynamically engaged in her other life's passions.

For more than a decade, Deb has hiked in and
explored many of our national parklands. Through her photography, she has attempted to "transport" the magnificent topography, life forms, and natural history from wherever she finds them.

"Invariably the uniqueness and beauty of wild lands
always manage to move me. I'm awestruck by their diversity of texture and essence. It brings me great joy to be able to share those sights in this way and to, hopefully, nurture the same sense of awe and devotion to their protection and
preservation."

Deb's interest in photography was kindled when she was quite young. "It is a gift from my Dad. He was the one who introduced me to photography and black and white printing. Using the furnace room of our house as the darkroom and
an old movie projector as an enlarger he showed me the magic of print making and capturing those moments of time."

Deb's photographic skills have continued to evolve. She maintained a wet darkroom (in a closet) initially and now has moved into
the digital age. A digital SLR rounds out her equipment. Not foregoing film, she uses a high end film/slide scanner.

In the spring of 2003, Deb launched her site and store which showcase her photographic work. Currently, her photographs hang
in residences and offices across the country.

In addition to her photography, Deb is involved with the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and other academic pursuits and environmental causes.

"Life
isn't static."

Thumbnails are of photos by Deb Tappan - used with permission. Copyright Deborah Siminski Tappan. All rights reserved

2 Comments

  • paul, that’s a good suggestion but certainly caution is needed if you’re photographing animals that may attack. They many not see you but could recognize your presence by the human scent.

  • Another good tip: waiting in a hide conceals you from the animal, allowing you to get in among them – all that is needed is patience.. however hides are very expensive & a recent trip to a military surplus store found me buying a camouflage net for just £17. This can be thrown over a small tent or a makeshift frame, using nearby branches.