Reflecting On Wildlife Photography

By Irene Hinke-Sacilotto
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I inherited my love of animals from my father who took me for walks in the woods when I was young.  We turned over logs looking for salamanders and checked treetops for colorful birds.

For me, the pursuit of wildlife photography has a calming influence over my life. When photographing, I am so focused on my subject, that I forget everyday problems and concerns.  Even if I never take a shot, each situation provides me with a mental database that helps me to capture better images in the future and provides me with wonderful memories and interesting stories to share.  

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Although I frequently see rabbits in my neighborhood, I was amazed that this one could climb onto a fence rail in order reach a preferred piece of grass on Assateague Island.


I am curious by nature and love the challenges that wildlife photography presents. I enjoy trying to understand and predict behavior. When intently observing an animal, I often instinctively sense what is going to happen next as my subconscious recalls past encounters and visual cues. This ability helps me capture action and unique behavior.

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Sanderlings and other shorebirds followed retreating waves in order to feed on organisms exposed in the wet sand. So, I am ready with my camera to record them running towards the shore to avoid being drowned by incoming waves.

 Patience & Perseverance

Patience and perseverance are critical if you want great wildlife photographs. I sometimes wait for hours or return day after day to capture the shot I am looking for.

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For at least a half-hour, I watched this kingfisher sitting stationary on a dead snag before it finally plunged into the water emerging with a crab.

Identify the Attraction

When photographing a subject, it is important to identify what initially attracted you to it.  Is it the lighting, reflections, surprising behavior, unique appearance, etc.?  Once you realize what caught your eye, you can select the lens, camera position, settings, and lighting, that best captures your thoughts at that time.  

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By shooting with a fast shutter speed, I was able to freeze movement and show that this Dowitcher’s bill is not rigid. Amazingly the tip, equipped with tactile sensors, can be manipulated when the bird is feeding, making it possible for it to detect and retrieve organisms beneath the sand’s surface.

Refining Images

In the field, I continuously try to refine my images as I spend time with my subject, attempting to make each photo better than the last.  I adjust distance and angles of view as needed.  I often hold down the shutter, firing a continuous series of shots in order to capture the perfect pose.

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I took about six photos of this fox in quick succession. In this case, it paid to do a burst of shots since this image was the only one with the look in the eye fitting the description “sly as a fox.”

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Although I had taken images of several ribbon snakes around a pond, I kept searching for a unique point of view. Finally, I found it when I laid down on my belly in front of this one and took the photo with the camera at ground-level.

Avoiding Background Distractions

I always check the background behind my subjects for distractions–bright colors, hot spots, strong forms, etc.  I often will opt for a long focal length lens because its narrow angle of view allows me to dramatically change the background with just minor shifts in camera position.  By shooting my subject at eye-level, I can better isolate it because the background is often distant and outside of my depth of field.

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This photo of a Yellow-Crowned Night Heron with a soft crab is an example of spot-lighting. By shooting with a long lens, I was able adjust my camera angle so shadows fell behind my sun-lit subject.

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With the camera resting on a beanbag placed on the ground, I was able to isolate the Black-tailed Prairie Dogs against the distant grasses.

Capturing the Unusual and Unexpected

I love capturing the unique aspects of an animal’s morphology and behavior.  

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I found it peculiar that this Atlantic Puffin appeared to be eating flowers. 

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Although Atlantic Puffins use their wings to efficiently propel themselves through the water, I never guessed that one would use its wing for balance while scratching.

Imaginary Gallery

To judge the impact of a photograph, I sometimes imagine it hanging on the wall in a gallery.  I close my eyes for a second and then open them, examining the photo as if seeing it for the first time.  Then I ask myself, is it a striking image that holds my attention?  Does it evoke an emotion? Have I seen this scene a million times before or is it unusual? If these and other answers are yes, then I am satisfied.

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I could not help being attracted to this image of a young bear, feet up in the air, struggling to hold onto a slippery salmon.

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