Have you ever wondered how wildlife photographers get that “lucky” shot? How they captured that animal against the perfect backdrop, showing that dramatic behavior? Most likely, they’ve learned to think like a naturalist, thus improving their odds. So what does it mean to “think like a naturalist”? Simply put, a naturalist (not to be confused with a naturist!) is a student of the natural world. You don’t need a fancy degree to be a naturalist, just a willingness to learn and observe. Here are some tips to help you come home with better wildlife images.
Do your research. It may sound obvious, but if an animal isn’t in the area at the same time you are, you aren’t going to get the shot! Knowing when to go is the first step. What time of year is the animal (or behavior) you want to see most likely? What conditions are necessary for it to be present? Some animals migrate thousands of miles, while others hibernate. A region may be used differently throughout the season, meaning that the bear you expected to see fishing at river’s edge is up in the hills eating berries right now.
Of course, the best way to learn about a particular destination—and its inhabitants—is to spend time observing throughout seasons, but often that’s not possible. For destinations outside your own backyard, look for guidebooks and outfitter websites, or talk with birding clubs and other photographers. Consider hiring a local guide—a good one will have put in the time to learn an area inside and out. If you are taking an organized tour, ask questions. Once you have a better sense of what wildlife you hope to see, you can take your questioning a step further—what signs indicate a particular animal is present, or that a behavior might be about to happen? Do your research so you can be in the right place at the right time!
Be Prepared. To make the most of your time, resources, and luggage allowances, you’ll need to carefully consider what gear you want to bring. Is your subject large or small, fast or slow? Is it active at dusk or midday? Will it be easy to see it relatively close or is it more likely to be at some distance? The answers to these questions will influence your choice of camera lenses and other equipment. For an animal that tends to be reclusive or wary, a pair of binoculars will be a great addition to your kit, and you might need to consider a blind. If your subject lives in a hard-to-reach area, you may need a specialized vehicle or even a boat. Avoid disappointment by having the tools required to get a good shot.
Beyond making sure you have the right gear, it pays to be prepared in other ways too. Understanding the animal’s behaviors will help you decide on the correct camera settings—before the action starts. If you can’t familiarize yourself with your particular subject before a shoot, look for local wildlife that you can spend some time with. For example, you can practice with common birds near your home, and you won’t be struggling with your camera settings when that rare opportunity flies by! And remember that you’ll get the best shots of a wild animal when you avoid disturbing it. Learning about its needs and habits will help you to remain out of the way, aiding in the capture of natural behaviors.
Go deeper. Being a naturalist photographer doesn’t just take learning, it takes time, patience, and observation. The payoff for understanding your subject will be more compelling images. Anyone can take a photo, but the challenge is to tell a story. What speaks to you about the scene? What impressions are you trying to make on the viewer? What emotions do you feel, or want the viewer to feel? In wildlife photography, look to capture the animal within its environment. How is it interacting with a place or with other animals? What stage of its life cycle is it in—migration, feeding activities, courtship and reproduction? What challenges is it facing?
Going deeper also means getting creative with composition. Once you’ve captured an image in a certain way, how can you do something different? Perhaps try changing your angle, switching lenses, or a different time of day when the light, or animal behaviors, might vary.
Make an effort to learn about your subject before you go out, and be sure to observe for a while when you get there. Know what behaviors to expect, how to be ready for them, and take your time! After all, much of the magic of nature photography is being in nature. Your images will improve, and the experience will be so much richer.