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As photographers, we want to get closer to wild animals more than just about anyone else. And we want to spend more time with them than anyone else does. So it follows that we have an impact on their lives in both minor and major ways.
A female snowy owl returns to her nest in Utqiagvik, Alaska.
The truth is, before we’ve even settled in to begin photographing, by our mere presence, we are disturbing creatures, often unwittingly. Maybe we didn’t notice that flock of small birds flying away from a fruiting tree, that mole that interrupted his foraging to run into his tunnel, or the snake that had been happily sunning himself, slithering away under a rock. Understandably, we are viewed by non-human animals as predators. We are larger than many other animals—and we have many means that can destroy life in mere seconds, even if it’s just our foot.
In the quest to do no harm, we can, of course, avoid unethical practices like feeding coyotes, wolves and owls, walking up to nests, or continually playing the sounds of predators or rivals to get birds to perform. The information on why certain methods of luring or approaching wild animals causes harm is out there, and thankfully, photographers are increasingly realizing the impacts of their choices. But what are the actual ways we can reduce the level of threat our presence presents? What are the best strategies and tools we can employ to encourage wild animals to continue going about their business, to continue to engage in natural behavior while we’re pointing a camera at them?
Over the decade or so that I’ve been a wildlife photographer, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to minimize my influence on wild animals. I’m certainly not always successful at it, but it’s continually at the forefront of my mind. And honestly, I feel that it’s more than ever a moral imperative to do no harm, given that wildlife is threatened by so many forces and factors at this time in history. A recent UN report found that more than 1 million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction.
I want to share with you the tools and techniques that I have learned are the best for making animals comfortable around us—or even oblivious of us. The marvelous outcome of all this? It’s not just best for the animals; it’s best for our photos. Minimizing our presence can result in more photographic opportunities—because the animal isn’t fleeing from us—and truly natural behavior. Both aspects will greatly impact our photographic success.
There’s no question that telephoto lenses are crucial for wildlife photography. They allow us to maintain essential distance that both keeps us safe and lessens stress on our wild subjects. Teleconverters are an invaluable way to extend lens reach. Additionally, cameras with high-resolution sensors allow substantial cropping, and that can be very useful by enabling us to maintain more space between us and our subjects.
Unless you live in Florida, where birds are silly tame, a pop-up blind is an essential part of your toolkit. Whether you go with a high-end photography blind like one of Tragopan’s or a cheap hunting blind, this simple structure, though it may not conceal your sounds, hides your outline and your movements. Blinds like this are particularly helpful when photographing sensitive situations such as fox dens and raptor nests. Keep in mind, blinds really call for the use of a tripod to reduce any movement of your lens.
Portrait of a Kermode, or “spirit bear,” cub of the year in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest.
By “mobile blind,” I mean the automobile. I’ve written extensively about how birds and other animals are often more comfortable with us in our vehicles than they are with us on foot. I do a lot of shooting from my car for this reason. I use a beanbag when I know I’m going to be immobile for a while, but mostly I handhold or simply rest the lens directly on the windowsill. If you want to go high-end, consider a window mount like the ones made by Kirk Enterprises.
Take it up a notch and hang a camouflage curtain or screen draped over your window such that your face is not visible. Use a beanbag and just have the barrel of the lens peeking out from under the camo. This concealment can add an extra layer of comfort for your subject.
Get Low To Reduce Your Profile
We physically loom in size over lots of creatures, and our sheer height must be absolutely terrifying at times. In terms of making animals comfortable with us, getting down low can be a critical strategy to employ when you are not concealed in a blind or car—if it’s safe to do so given your wild subject. It also pays big dividends for your images, as shooting on the same level as our subjects really brings us into their world in a more engaging way. This low perspective also throws the background more out of focus, really putting the emphasis on the animal.
I use a ground pod so I can lie flat as needed, especially when I’m shooting at the shore or along a lake or pond. The articulating screens that now come with many cameras can be very helpful if you want to have your camera low but don’t want to lie on the ground to look through the viewfinder. Right-angle viewfinders are useful for this purpose, too.
Turn On Silent Shutter
I cannot overstate the significance of being as quiet as possible around any wild animal. My DSLRs over the years, as much as I loved them, were a constant source of frustration for me because of their noisy mechanical shutters. If I had a dollar for every time an animal fled in terror the moment they heard my shutter go off, I would be wealthy indeed. I’ll never forget the time I hunkered down for many hours in a blind in view of a fox den, waiting for the father to return from a hunting trip. He finally appeared, and I cautiously fired off one frame with a loud click. He looked in my direction, turned and fled.
Silent shutters are key. I recently switched to a mirrorless camera in large part for this feature. I chose the Sony a1 because of its stacked CMOS sensor, which allows for a much faster readout than a traditional CMOS sensor, eliminating the distortion during silent shooting and also allowing the a1 to shoot 30 fps with no black-out.
Consider Camera Traps
A camera trap that is operating autonomously when you are not around can be an incredibly valuable tool for a wildlife photographer. Think of it as a trail cam on steroids. A camera trap setup typically consists of a camera, sensor and flashes, all in a waterproof housing, left out over a long period of time in a spot that is potentially wildlife-rich. There are many camera trap manufacturers in the business now, with Cognisys and Camtraptions being two of the most popular. I recently started deploying a Cognisys Scout system, and it’s been a fantastic way to get a look into the lives of creatures that I have rarely even ever laid eyes on in person—in particular, the elusive fishers.
The pop of the flashes can be a disturbance, though, and we must carefully weigh the impact. It’s a good idea to place a trail cam at the site so you can observe the behavior that occurs at the moment of the trigger and flash. Does this cause the animal to retreat or otherwise alter its path? If it had to alter its path, might the choice of an alternate path introduce new risks for the animal? Many questions have to be considered. Ethics in camera trapping is not much discussed yet, but in time, it should come to the forefront, as this practice is rapidly growing in popularity.
Two red fox kits explore the area around their den, Lansing, New York.
Use A Remote-Controlled Shutter
Another idea is to use a remotely controlled shutter on a camera that is placed closer to an animal than you are positioned. This can be particularly good when you are working on a spot where you know an animal is sure to show up, such as birds visiting a feeder in your backyard. You can actually operate the shutter from the comfort of indoors!
Shortened Time Windows
Limit the amount of time you spend with wild animals in the most critical and perilous parts of their lives, especially during nesting and denning season, in extreme weather conditions, and along migration routes. Don’t crowd them or interrupt their resting, hunting or feeding young. And even if you think a wild animal appears comfortable with you in sight, realize there’s a lot we don’t understand yet about how that species—any species—would truly behave differently, and perhaps more productively, if we weren’t there. These crucial times in their lives, and their families’ lives, will determine their survival. Every animal counts.