Guide to Capturing Wildlife Up Close & Personal
Capturing wildlife up close and personal can prove challenging for nature photographers—and also worthwhile. Shortening the distance between camera and subject allows the photographer to experience different points of view, and wide-angle lenses can throw a subject into a strikingly larger-than-life perspective. While successfully capturing such pictures requires more than a little skill, the fundamentals are simple. Every close encounter has three main parts: location, approach, and exit.
Location is critical to capturing close-up images. You can easily locate most any animal or bird if you familiarize yourself with what they eat, the availability of water, and terrain where they nest. Animals need to drink water, so if there is limited availability in an area, spend time at the water source waiting for wildlife to come to drink. Many animals follow a regular routine depending on the local weather or season. Some mammals might frequent the same water source during the same window of time. Be on the lookout for flattened grass, dirt trails, or a large number of footprints indicating what path they normally take. As an example, after locating an area with a dense fox population, I walked the woods looking for a path to a source of water. After locating a dirt trail, I had the opportunity to capture many unique images.
While there are numerous techniques for approaching wildlife, two are universal regardless of the photographer’s location. Before your approach, think first about what angle of the sun will work best and then which background you prefer. The best strategy for approaching wildlife is to not approach them at all. Instead, let them approach you. When you let animals approach you, they will appear relaxed in your images, which allows you to capture their natural behavior. You should identify the paths they take and set up in an area that leads to you. When traveling to a location, approach slowly and stay as close to the ground as possible. As you walk or crawl, pause every time an animal looks at you. Only resume your approach once it continues with its normal behavior. When I was photographing harlequin ducks on a jetty, I noticed that they had a routine of starting at one end and slowly making their way to the other looking for food. I set up in the middle of the jetty, which allowed me to get within five feet of them.
However, if you are photographing nesting birds, you won’t have the ability to intercept their path. The best way to approach nests without stressing the animal is gradually—very gradually. With some shorebird nests, I can crawl a couple of inches every minute without stressing them. Also, getting as low to the ground as possible helps the animal perceive you as less of a threat.
Knowing when to exit a situation is as equally important as the other two elements. You should leave your subjects if they show signs of stress. For nesting shorebirds, photographers should leave well before 11:00 a.m. Your presence could put stress on the bird, and it could fly away from the nest, allowing eggs to spoil or babies to die from predators or heat exhaustion. Your exit should be similar to your approach: low and slow.