Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Hunt wildlife with a camera

This is the first of a possible photo column series for The Beaumont Enterprise. It's written for everyone from point-and-shooters to serious amateurs. It was meant to accompany a story about efforts to draw eco-tourists to the area through wildlife photography.

When hunting with a rifle it's difficult to track, locate, site in and pull the trigger to get the desired results. When hunting with a camera, it exponentially more difficult to do the above while making sure to have proper focus, exposure, timing and composition.

In addition to the logistical, physical and visual challenges of wildlife photography, hunting with a camera affords additional benefits such as no hunting seasons and a possible cash reward for rare images.

Photographing wildlife can be an enjoyable pastime. It allows photographers to appreciate the world around them and keep a reminder from the experience. The following are some ways to make the experience more rewarding.

Safety first
Wild animals can be dangerous. It's important to be vigilant against dangerous animals and wear protective clothing whenever possible.

Although animals may allow humans to approach them in state and national parks, keep a safe distance and plan an escape route. No wildlife photo is more important than a photographer's life.

Also, understand the most desired animals for a wildlife photographer's collection are either dangerous themselves, cohabitate with or eat other dangerous animals.

Before trekking into the woods, put on some high-top boots to protect against bites from snakes and other poisonous creatures. Also spray on a thick coat of insect repellent to avoid West Nile virus or even malaria. A powdering of sulfur on pants legs keeps chiggers and some other pests away.

Threats aren't only from animals. Know which plants are poisonous or otherwise harmful to touch.

Let someone know exactly where you are going and the time you expect to return. Ask this person to call your cell phone at the return time.

Make sure your cell phone, pager and other electronic devices are on silent mode while stalking wildlife. The people calling don't know you're a few feet from a grizzly bear when they call for a casual chat.

As with most other time-consuming shoots, take plenty of water. For day-long photo hunts, consider taking some food for yourself. However, be certain the wildlife won't be able to smell it. As always, take responsibility for your trash. Leave the wild as it was found.

Study the desired animal
The most successful wildlife photographers know exactly what animals they seek. They study the animal's traits, habits as well as their feeding and mating preferences before they go on their photo hunt. This eliminates frustration and wasted time. It also allows photographers to capture subtle nuances within species and between males and females.

Professional photographers often study every image they can find of particular animals to see how they are best captured. This isn't to duplicate a successful image, rather it's to improve upon what has already been done. Knowing what's been done forces the pros to push the envelope harder to get better images. Additionally, sifting through many poor-quality images lets photographers know what to avoid.

If other wildlife happens into the viewfinder while searching for less common animals, consider it a bonus.

Have the right equipment
Before traveling to some exotic place on a photo safari, it's best to invest in the right equipment for the best images. Although a point-and-shoot camera will suffice for many casual photographers, serious amateurs need to invest in quality equipment.

An essential item for all outdoor photographers is a sturdy tripod. Additional items include long telephoto lenses, macro lenses (for small animals), flash units, rain covers and waterproof camera housings. More specialized equipment includes sound dampeners (called "blimps"), infrared or FM radio remote triggers, tower tripods and even miniature remote-controlled dirigibles.

Go to the animal
By studying the animals as previously mentioned, successful wildlife photographers know where an animal might live and knows how to identify its actual home, burrow or nest. This is where the animal is most likely to be seen and photographed. After breeding season, it's also where the animal's young play, learn and explore.

Most photographers find the best angles to shoot based on the background, common light angle when the animal is active and safety concerns.

Hide and wait
Most animals are acutely aware of their surroundings. They notice changes and avoid them. Concealment, stealth and patience are the true tools of a wildlife photographer.

Many professional wildlife photographers expect to spend weeks to get rare images of animals in their habitat. They construct shooting blinds while the animals sleep, reduce all shine from their equipment, conceal their scent, keep motion and sound to a minimum, position themselves where the sun is behind them while the wind is in their face and wait for animals during their feeding time.

As with hunting, stealth, patience and blending into the environment are essential.

Present a snack
Although serious professionals shun the idea of baiting wildlife, many photo tourists and amateurs are best served by baiting an area to attract specific animals. This ensures the photo tourist goes home with at least one image of a rare animal.

Although this practice could do long-term harm to wild animals by making them dependent on bait food, most eco-tourism locations regularly protect and feed the animals anyway. It's simply an expedient way to both feed the animal and allow photographers to observe and shoot.

Enough for now,


Marie said...

Great post, Mark. The only other safety tip I would add is that if you intend on going into the wild, let someone know when and where you plan to be and what time you hope to return. Take a cell phone and a bottle of water along. You may have mentioned this already, but I didn't see it.

Mark M. Hancock said...

Thanks Marie. :-)

I added your suggestions and added warnings about food and silencing electronics. These are second-nature to me, so I forgot other folks don't know this.