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Approaching Wildlife

Two ways to quietly earn the trust of your animal subjects
© Melissa Groo wildlife photography

A gray fox kit pauses after emerging from his den under a pile of rocks. Upstate New York.

I’m a firm believer that the most interesting and moving wildlife photos depict animals going about their daily business, undisturbed by the photographer. If I could have one wish, it would be to be among wild animals and photograph to my heart’s content without them ever being aware of me. However, as anyone who has spent any time around wild animals knows, their senses are, for the most part, much keener than ours. They have to be, in order to detect all sorts of predators that stalk, slither, and fly. We as wildlife photographers look no different from any other predators—and long lenses can look like rifles or bows, for animals with long memories!

So how can we get near wild animals, either without them knowing we are there—at least until we get a shot or two—or, much more likely, with them aware, yet relatively comfortable with our presence? Over time, my experience in the field, as well as advice from friends who are expert trackers and hunters, have helped me to come up with some “blending in” strategies that may prove useful to other wildlife photographers. I’ll lay them out while covering two very different modes of being in the field.

Seeking Out Wildlife

One way many of us find subjects to photograph is by heading out with camera in hand and walking in an area that offers opportunities for wildlife sightings. Other times, we’re going on a tip we’ve been given about the probable presence of a species we’re eager to photograph. Whether you’re wandering or making a beeline, in order to get relatively close on foot to a wild subject, you need to take on the qualities of a skillful predator yourself.

First off, a few words about clothing. Think about both sound and appearance. How noisy is your clothing? Some fabrics are much noisier than others. I prefer wool when it’s cold for this reason. What colors are you wearing? Muted, earthy, patterned tones are best. Solid or bright colors make it easier for animals to spot you. Don’t forget about hands—wear lightweight camo gloves even in summer. Avoid wearing perfume, clothing washed in scented detergent, and jewelry that catches the light.

Once you’re in the field, the most important thing you can do is remain quiet. This is critical. As my friend Dave Hall, professional outdoorsman and author, writes, “Be quiet and invisible for all of the wildlife around you; the impact of disturbing an animal or bird that is close to you can influence animals farther away.” Most of us have heard the warning calls of chipmunks, robins, and crows; all animals take heed of these warnings.

Use cover to break up your outline. Study the contours of the land ahead and plan an approach that keeps you below or behind ground, rock or foliage. Stay in shade rather than sun when possible. Approach your subject from downwind if you know it has a strong sense of smell. Move slowly and avoid sudden movements. In fact, think like a predator, but move like an animal used to being prey. Imagine how a deer moves through the woods, walking slowly yet purposefully, stopping often to listen.

Once your subject is in view, pause—particularly if it has seen you. In fact, at this point you actually want the animal to be aware of you at some distance. If it were to see you only once you’ve popped up very close to it, you could give it a real fright, causing it to flee immediately. The objective at this point is more to avoid disturbing it with your approach than to remain unnoticed. Drop to your knees or sit down as that can be much less intimidating. Let the animal get used to your presence. Get some shots so you have them, even if you’re not as close as you’d like to be.

If the animal continues with its activity, such as foraging or grooming, and you feel it’s appropriate to get closer, time your movements to those of the animal. Move when its head is down; freeze when its head lifts. Avoid eye contact, and use an angled approach so that you are not moving directly towards the animal. Sometimes at this point I will crawl forward, particularly if I’m on a shoreline or in tall grass. Some people find this more comfortable to do while wearing knee pads or elbow pads.

Make sure you’re not blocking its only escape route. Be aware that animals have space needs. These will vary from species to species, and even across individuals. As you approach, try to be alert for behavior that suggests you’ve breached its comfort zone. If you sense alarm, retreat or stay still.

© Melissa Groo wildlife photography

Whitetail fawn twins share a tender moment at the edge of a forest. Upstate New York.

If your subject shows significant or sustained alarm, and especially if it has young nearby, it may be best to simply leave. Every time we are out photographing wildlife, we have to make judgement calls; every situation will be different. But what can be common across all situations is placing a priority above all else—even a killer shot—on the welfare of the animal and its young.

Waiting for Wildlife

There’s another way to get close to wildlife but it takes a very different tack, one that can ultimately be more productive than actively pursuing wildlife. It entails finding a spot and simply sitting and waiting for animals to show up. A century ago, Ernest Thompson Seton, wildlife artist, writer, and Boy Scouts founder, came up with the idea of the “Seton Spot,” now called the “Sit Spot” and still used by nature programs. It’s based on the principle that when you first enter wildlife habitat, animals flee, to hide or distance themselves from your perceived threat. However, if you remain quiet and still, in one spot, things return to normal in roughly 20-30 minutes. The longer you sit, the more you are likely to see. This can be a really powerful and fruitful strategy for wildlife photography, and it’s something I often recommend to nature photographers who seek an authentic, immersive experience in nature. It does require patience, time, and a few key practices, outlined below.

Where. A good place for a sit spot is a place where animals want to be, because it provides something essential: food, water or passage. Waterholes or forest streams can be hubs of activity, especially if they are at some distance from other sources of water; a great perch on a pond where kingfishers and other birds come to fish or to hunt insects; a well-worn animal path from a forest into a meadow. Tracker Hall says, “Where a forest meets a field, you’ll generally find a melding of two habitats; such proximity enables animals to access myriad resources without expending a wealth of energy.”

You may need to visit several spots before you decide on the one you want to invest time in. Try to choose a place not far from home, even if it’s in a quiet section of an urban park. You’ll be likely to spend more time there than if you have to drive a distance. Visit it during different seasons and track the changes in the landscape as well as in the habits and appearance of its wild residents.

When. Many animals are most active during the crepuscular (dawn and dusk) parts of the day. At dawn for example, nocturnal animals are wrapping up their hunting or roaming, and may still be visible for a bit before they retire for the day. All other animals are beginning to stir, and birds in particular are at their most active, busy singing and foraging in these cooler hours. The low-angle light is also softer and warmer at the edges of the day.

How. It’s essential to break up your outline so that you don’t have a distinctly human form. Wear camouflage clothing or a ghillie suit (a camo suit designed to resemble foliage, typically made of netting with loose strips of cloth that look like leaves and twigs), and sit in a spot partly concealed by brush. If you’re using a long lens, a tripod can help you minimize your movement. Consider throwing camo mesh over the tripod.

Another option is to use a small hunting blind or a photography body blind, like Kwik Camo. Try to erect a hunting blind at least several days before occupying it, so that animals can get used to it being a part of the landscape.

Does your camera shutter have a quiet or silent mode? Employ this even if it means your shutter speed will be slowed. I can’t tell you how many times the sound of my shutter click has spooked an animal.

Note that I’m not suggesting you will go undetected—but rather that through your silence, stillness and means of blending in, you will become a non-intimidating, even trusted, part of the landscape. Again, animals’ senses are much sharper than ours, from smell to vision to hearing. Sitting in one place and letting nature come to you, is akin to earning a wild animal’s trust that you intend it no harm.

Tread lightly, and shoot from the heart.

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling and education, and considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. Passionate about ethics in nature photography, Groo is represented by Nat Geo Creative, a contributing editor to Audubon magazine and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. She advises the National Audubon Society on ethical photography, and has also counseled National Wildlife magazine and NANPA (North American Nature Photography) on guidelines for ethical wildlife photography. She also serves as a member of NANPA’s Ethics Committee. In 2017, Melissa received the Katie O'Brien Lifetime Achievement Award from Audubon Connecticut, for demonstrating exceptional leadership and commitment to the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats. She also received the NANPA 2017 Vision Award, given to a photographer every two years in recognition of early career excellence, vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation and education.