Be A Wildlife Biographer

Telling the stories of the animal kingdom

A Spirit Bear (or Kermode bear) cub finishes the remnants of the salmon his mother has just caught for him in a nearby stream, Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada.

All my life I’ve been drawn to animals, particularly wild ones. Though I grew up in the concrete jungle of New York City, in my adult years I’ve gravitated to wild, natural places and to the large charismatic creatures that live there, from forest elephants in central Africa to humpback whales in the Caribbean. Sometimes my work has coincided with that affinity for animals, but that’s not how it started.

A decade ago, looking for a hobby, I took a course in basic digital photography at a community college. I bought a digital SLR camera with a 100mm ƒ/2.8 macro lens and a good tripod, and I focused on plants. I was fascinated by the camera’s ability to capture the most minute detail and the most intense color. To be able to reveal the hidden world of a wild orchid or pitcher plant excited me. I spent a lot of time exploring bogs and forest floors. Thanks to the instant feedback that digital technology provides, my skills advanced quickly.

A few years later, I discovered the world of bird photography, and I outfitted myself with the best possible camera gear for small, fast-moving subjects—a pro-level Canon camera body, a 500mm telephoto lens, a carbon-fiber tripod and a gimbal head. It didn’t take long until I expanded my focus to all wildlife.

My discovery of wildlife photography felt like a fulfillment of that lifelong affinity and fascination for animals. It also felt like a natural progression from the work I had been doing in upstate New York at Cornell University, as a research assistant to an elephant scientist. For two field seasons we lived in the Central African Republic to study elephants in the wild. There, I learned that what we know about wild animals is only the tip of the iceberg, that theirs is a world as complex as our own, though in a myriad of different ways. I also learned that they share much with us—that they feel joy, affection and grief. I’ve seen elephant family members reunite with great emotion, try to rescue unrelated dying infants, and young and old frolicking joyfully in mud pits. During this time, I also learned that patient, long-term observation can yield treasures, something that serves me well as a wildlife photographer.

Wildlife photography allows me to be out in nature and among wild animals, to have an excuse to watch those animals for long periods of time, and then to press a shutter and visually preserve a fascinating moment in natural history or a moment of great beauty. A fast shutter speed and many frames per second allow me to freeze a bird’s extravagant pose with fully fanned tail feathers or perfectly outspread wings, to capture moments that reveal wild animals’ relationships with one another, as well as what I see as their individual characters, and to do it in a way that’s in line with my aesthetic vision, which is constantly developing. These are the things that drive me in what has become my profession.

A pod of American white pelicans settles into its roosting spot, Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Utah.

I consider myself a wildlife biographer almost as much as a photographer, because I aim to visually tell the stories of wild animals’ lives. I’m deeply interested in the natural history of my subjects, and I’m always on the alert for interesting behaviors and gestures. To know what’s unique, what’s truly revealing, I have to know the basics of my subjects’ lives—what and when they eat, the risks to their survival, their family structures, how they move through their environment and what motivates these movements. Such knowledge helps me in a number of ways: to know where to look for my subjects, to be near them without disturbing them and to be ready on the shutter when I predict certain behaviors. The photographers I admire most have an innate curiosity about their subjects’ behaviors and life cycles, because they intuitively realize that knowledge will help them achieve the most interesting and unique photos. Deeper knowledge of the subject will shine through that work, distinguishing it from the run-of-the-mill nature photos out there.

Knowing your subject’s behavior is also critical for us wildlife photographers as we consider how to find and approach them while minimizing our disturbance of them. How can we get close enough to get the intimate shots we want while minimizing the disturbance our presence inevitably causes? I’ve found blinds and camo of various kinds to be essential tools. My most essential blind is my car (my mobile blind), as birds and other animals seem to have much more tolerance for humans in vehicles than humans on foot. I’ve even sat in my car in my driveway and photographed birds in my yard that way! Beanbags are a handy tool, but there are also sophisticated window mounts available that can support cameras and telephoto lenses.

I own several inexpensive fabric pop-up blinds often sold as hunting blinds and a top-of-the-line photography blind, made by Tragopan. Whenever I can, I try to erect my blind at least a few days before I inhabit it so that animals can get used to it as part of the landscape. Spontaneous use also can work well, though—I have one friend who uses a pop-up blind at a New Jersey beach (setting it up outside the roped-off areas) to get incredible shots of nesting beach birds. They forget entirely that he’s there.

In addition, when I travel, I often look for blinds in wildlife refuges that have been set aside for photographers. I was able to get some great photographs of sharp-tailed grouse from a blind in northeastern Montana one spring. One trick to keep in mind with blinds is to have someone go in with you and then have that person leave. Apparently, birds are smart enough to notice the departure, but not necessarily to count how many went in!

Other tools in my arsenal include a Kwik Camo blind, a ghillie suit and, of course, camouflage clothing.

A burrowing owl parent grooms its chick outside their ground burrow, Cape Coral, Florida.

Making wildlife come to us holds a lot of attraction. It’s so much easier than sitting and just waiting for something to happen or driving around for hours. Sometimes I photograph the songbirds that perch near my feeder, and I’ve used bird call playback from time to time on common songbirds. More and more, I’ve realized that if we’re using some kind of lure, it’s critical to think about the consequences of our actions. If we’re feeding birds to draw them in, are we keeping our feeders clean? Stocking them regularly? Putting them at the prescribed distance from the window? Keeping cats inside? Building consciousness about the safety of our subjects into our regular practice is the best we can do. Mistakes made can inform decisions in the future. What more can we aim for than to always keep the welfare of our subjects foremost in mind?

I think that as time goes on, you try to be more sensitive to when your presence simply isn’t going to be acceptable, when it’s clear you just have to walk away despite what looks like a great opportunity, especially for sensitive subjects like the young of any species. I remember my excitement a couple of years ago to find a kingfisher nest on a riverbank. Kingfishers are a challenging species for many of us due to their shyness. I came back the next day with my Kwik Camo blind and set it up quickly on the opposite bank, about 20 yards away. I could hear a kingfisher just out of sight down the stream, chattering at me. Half an hour went by and it still hadn’t returned to the nest. Finally, it flew in with a fish, but at the last moment, veered away from the nest and flew out of sight, its eye on me despite my blind. Realizing that my presence might be keeping its brooding mate or its growing nestlings from being fed, I left and never returned. The risk to the kingfisher was greater than the importance of any photo. I believe that weighing these things when we’re out in the field is a critical part of our development as nature photographers.

A red fox father takes a break from grooming his kit to look off toward the setting sun, Lansing, New York.

My biggest thrill comes from photographing a wild animal doing what it would be doing if I wasn’t there at all. Thus, I spend a lot of time trying to be unobtrusive, in both my appearance and my approach. Animals have much sharper senses than our own, and in almost all cases they know you’re there. The goal is to be so undisruptive, so still and nonthreatening, that they will forget all about, or at least tolerate, your presence. My wish not to disturb or interact with my subjects is partly selfish—my best work has resulted, without exception, from moments when my presence was accepted and natural behavior took place that had nothing to do with me. Sometimes it takes a while until an animal resumes its normal behavior after you first appear, but if you wait long enough, are careful and are situated with a low profile, at a respectable distance or in your blind, the animal will return to its business, in many cases. I tend to set up farther from the subject than I would like and then I creep closer, on belly, knees or feet, depending on the situation.

If I could give only one piece of advice to aspiring wildlife photographers, it would be to stay with your subject. You won’t be privy to special moments by lingering for a few minutes and then moving on to the next bird or moose or bear. You get those moments by sitting and waiting and sometimes being bored out of your mind. Often, nothing ever happens and you leave feeling frustrated and fed up. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken long before sunrise to travel to my spot only to return with no pictures, but if you keep trying, your hard work pays off. I encourage people to get what’s called a “sit spot,” a place in the woods or by a pond or lake near where they live (choosing a spot near a source of water is a good choice). Settle on a spot under a tree, or erect a blind that can outlast the winter, and get a comfortable seat for it. Visit that spot throughout the seasons. Become a part of that landscape so the wild inhabitants become relatively comfortable with you. All you need is one subject—a woodpecker that frequents a certain tree or a chipmunk stocking its winter store. I have this mantra I repeat to myself, as I live in upstate New York, where it can be tough to find and get near wildlife: “It only takes one.” It certainly fits with my ideas of staying with your subject.

An African lion cub rests at the head of his sleeping father, the Serengeti, Tanzania.

There are certain qualities I hope to capture in animals: their nobility, their grace, their elegance. I also try to capture certain emotions: their affection for one another, their playfulness, and, at times, what I see as simply their joy in being alive. I also look for “gesture.” You’ll hear wildlife photographers talk about this. What I take that to mean is a movement or pose that’s an indication of a state of mind, a response to something or a precursor to more dramatic behavior. Gesture might be as subtle as the inclination of a head or the lift of a tail, or it may be more obvious like a raised front paw or the revealed white of an eye. I’m interested in capturing gesture because I think it can convey a sense of the inner life and mental workings of the animal.

I’m certainly drawn to capturing moments and creating photographs that evoke an emotion in the viewer. I definitely have an agenda with my photos, there’s no question. I very much want people to realize how extraordinary wildlife is, how the urges and emotions of animals aren’t so very different from our own, and how there’s magic out there all around us, stories waiting to be captured by you and your camera. These stories can help raise awareness and spark appreciation and awe of nature in others who don’t have the privilege of accessing wild places. Photography, more than ever, has the power to affect positive change. It’s exciting to realize that any of us can get involved in that, if we wish.

At sunset, two snowy egrets fly up in an adversarial stance in a probable dispute over feeding territory, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia.

Understanding the technical aspects of photography is critical, from knowing your camera’s operations inside and out, to understanding composition and exposure. I shoot in Manual mode, because I like to be in complete control of the triumvirate—shutter speed, aperture and ISO. I put shutter speed first in that list, as it’s always what I think about first. Being keenly interested in behavior, I want to make sure I’m ready for fast movement. Nothing is more frustrating than seeing something exciting happen, but ending up with fuzzy shots. I’m also always thinking about light, and I like to experiment increasingly with the angle of the light to my subject. You’ll hear quite often that the sun should be behind you and pointing at the animal, and in many cases, that’s true, but I’ve also learned that sidelighting and backlighting can really highlight detail, texture or form in ways that front light simply can’t do.

More than anything, I think what motivates me is the idea that anything can happen. Anytime I head out the door with my camera, I know that I might capture something that’s rarely even observed, let alone photographed. I might see a story unfold that’s just waiting to be told and shared. One thing that’s so wonderful about photographing the natural world is that little stories are happening all the time, all around us. You don’t have to go to exotic locales. At the local urban park, you might find a mama squirrel moving her young from one tree cavity to another. In your own yard, you might find a yellow-bellied sapsucker dipping insects into sap wells on a tree for its young.

An aspiring wildlife photographer wrote me recently after he had spent some time looking at my work, something that I thought was exceptionally insightful: “I actually get it now. Whether it is me in Connecticut photographing eagles or you in the Serengeti photographing impalas, it is all the same. The only difference is location. It is all about that one moment. That moment when the photographer makes a connection with the subject. The moment you press the shutter button you are one. The moment another sees the photo and also makes a connection. I no longer envy those that get to shoot in other locations. The end result is one and the same. The connection is what I am after and the location is only a place.” Wise words.

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.