Photographing Wildlife, Easy Right?

We can see you Ricky Raccoon, stop trying to hide

I had a Twitter friend ask me about photographing wildlife. She is a Portrait photographer and she is incredible. I am not into, nor ever have been into Portrait photography, but I admire people who do that form of photography. It’s just not for me. Give me an uncooperative moose or bird anytime!

During Covid, we didn’t get to our usual spots due to lockdowns. However, we were fortunate to know the location of 3 fox dens in the area where we live. We also paddled our canoe quite a bit; we have a lot of water around our area, lakes, rivers, bays. We also went to Prince Edward Point National Wildlife area for birding and hiked at different parks. So all in all, we did okay.

So photographing wildlife – First things first:

You have to find the little critters, it’s not as easy, or as hard, as you might think. And by that I mean, sometimes you turn a corner and there is a moose or bear standing there as if its waiting for you. There are other times we will drive up and down Highway 60 in Algonquin Park all day and maybe see a squirrel. Or drive around the area we live all day and maybe see a squirrel. Not that squirrels aren’t cute but I have a ton on my property. Sometimes animals will inhabit the same area and sometimes they will surprise you where they might show up.

They are quite often in the middle of a town/city or even in your own backyard. We have a lot of squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, birds and a raccoon hanging around our neighbourhood. One morning driving through the town of Brighton to go to a park, a beautiful coyote ran across the road in front of us.

We try to go out almost every day and usually early in the morning. I prefer the mornings. And you have to keep your eyes open, even when you know the areas where wildlife might be, you have to be somewhat quiet and really look. Some animals/birds aren’t bothered by noise. Other times if a branch moves, they are gone so fast it’s like they weren’t there. If we know of an area that is quite popular for wildlife, we may plop our chairs down or sit in our canoe or our truck and just wait. Eventually something comes along.

They very often blend in to their environment. It may be hard to notice, but there is a heron sitting on this tree branch below. I deliberately did not zoom in or crop to show how easy it is for them to blend in.

One paddle we took on the Moira River this year, Clint spotted a 5 foot Northern Water snake sunning on a tree branch. I was in the front of the canoe and I didn’t see him! He did blend in to the tree colour. It is surprising how wildlife blends in with their surroundings.

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Northern Watersnake

In below photo is another heron who was at the Belleville Waterfront and you really have to be looking to notice him in the trees.

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And here he is visible, zoomed in and cropped, same heron

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Belleville Heron

Lighting is something else to think about. I prefer mornings or early evenings but sometimes the wildlife is out and about smack dab in the middle of the day when the lighting could still be good, be just okay or be really bad. But I’m always happy with whatever wildlife shots I can get, I don’t always show those shots to people but it’s a great memory for me. I have had people ask me about the best time of day to see wildlife. They are often told dawn/dusk which is the best lighting from a photography perspective, but animals don’t always subscribe to these rules and theories. We have taken a great deal of our wildlife shots probably in the middle of the day. And yes the lighting is not the best but it’s not like you can ask them to come back later, so you do the best you can.

Another issue with photographing wildlife is movement. I have photographed moose that stand in one place and don’t move and I have tried to photograph something else that takes off immediately or is always in motion. Like bird photography. Sometimes when Clint and I go to the beach and just sit by Lake Ontario, I will practice tracking birds with my camera. A tip that Clint gave me years ago is if you are having trouble finding the bird in your viewfinder, especially with big lenses, zoom out, find the bird and THEN zoom in. It makes it a lot easier and then just follow the bird with your camera as it flies around. Easier said than done, which is why I practice. Below is a photo I took of a hawk, didn’t turn out too badly considering he was flying away.

Hawk at Amherst Island

I love photographing terns, we will sit by Lake Ontario and watch them for hours. It gets easier to track them when you do it a lot.

Tern at Lake Ontario

I usually have my camera on my lap when we are driving or hanging on a harness when we are walking. Biking is more difficult, I have to keep it in a basket or bag and it’s difficult to reach in a hurry. For when we canoe, my husband made tables for us a few years ago. I sit in the front so he made a table that fits in front of me and I can place my camera on the table and reach it in a second. He also made a table for himself. I did a video on that last year which is on my TrumsTravels Facebook page. I feel like some of our best shots come from when we are sitting in our canoe. We have sat watching a heron for an hour or two, or longer, waiting for a unique shot. I can remember my hands being so cold or my arms being so tired from holding my camera but it’s worth it. From our canoe, we get wonderful photos of beavers, moose, all types of ducks, snakes, insects, flowers. Canoeing is my favourite way to do photography.

One morning, this was back in 2015, we woke up super early, like 5-530 and headed out to a spot where we knew a bull moose had been hanging out. We knew this because we had been there every morning for a few mornings taking photos. Anyways, this particular morning, he was not there but there was another bull moose and a cow and as it was rutting season, well you can imagine what we were seeing. It was too good of an opportunity to pass on, I bet we were there at least 3 1/2 – 4 hours watching them. They left before us. My arms were also tired that day. Which leads to another question, I have been asked if I use a tripod when shooting wildlife. I rarely use a tripod for anything. It has it’s uses but when photographing wildlife it can be a big hassle. I find it cumbersome when the animals are moving around and/or you have to move with them, it’s easier for me to do handheld. I am pretty good at keeping my camera steady and the anti vibration set to ON is also helpful! So that day I started with my camera on a tripod but because he was amorous and she was ambivalent, they were always on the move so I pitched my tripod by a tree and picked it up later. I don’t think I have used it since.

The Family Friendly version of the amorous moose

Background can also be problematic. I have seen some beautiful hawks or owls but almost always sitting on a hydro pole or a wire. They won’t move to a nice fence post or fence which can be a nice photo. And yes, with the editing software we have today, you can remove this item, add that item, do whatever. I don’t usually do that, mostly because I can’t be bothered. Or you have a great photo of a moose but there are 15 people in the background. It’s the same in landscape photography. We were in Banff, Alberta two years ago and we had a hard time getting great landscape shots because there were always people in the photos. Sometimes you have to make do or edit the crap out of a photo. However, leaving someone in the photo can be a good reference, for example, Look at the size of that moose compared to a human! Sometimes photos like that can be cool to show something different. Another example – Here is a photo of some idiots approaching that Bear! lol I like to have great photos to put up in our home or display but because I do a Blog, I write about stories and/or things that happen to us so I am okay with those different shots where there might be a person photo bombing the background or a photo of a moose standing by a road sign. It adds to the story. For example, this elk photobombed the other elk I was trying to take a photo of but it makes me laugh. I would not, however, hang it on my wall.

Photobomb!

I loved this photo of the hawk and he had caught a Prairie Dog to eat but I do not like anything else in this photo. Yes I could have removed stuff, changed the background but is it worth it in the end? I would have preferred that he move to a nicer spot. So there it is. But you know, for me, it’s real life not an artistic endeavour with editing software.

Hawk at Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan

Weather is another factor. We always keep raingear with us and I have a rain protector that I can put over my camera and it also has slots where I can put my hands in so that I can use my camera without getting my camera or hands wet. We were photographing moose one time in the pouring rain and I love the effect it had on the photos, it made their coats look richer and more pronounced.

Algonquin Park Moose

When I took the photo below of this Grey Jay, it was raining, you can sort of see the raindrops coming down behind and around him.

Grey Jay, Algonquin Park

Safety for both yourself and the wildlife is something that we all need to be aware of. Being familiar with the animals in the area that you are in and knowing their behaviours will help you to react safely if you are in a compromising position. For example, if you meet a black bear, don’t run! Moose can also be extremely aggressive which will require you to stay clear or be aware of your surroundings in case you need to make a quick escape. We have had a couple of encounters with moose that were a bit tense. I wrote one article on a moose that followed us on a trail, exciting to say the least! We are fairly experienced hikers and canoeists but we take all precautions and are always aware of what is around us. We have had so many bears in our campsites while car camping and back country, but we have never had any real issues. Now this has been our experiences in Ontario, if I were in British Columbia or Alberta, you would need to know how to react if you came across a Grizzly bear as they have different behaviours than Black bears. You also have to be aware of ticks, poison ivy and a multitude of things when you are hiking, canoeing, or camping. No one wants to have a bad experience when enjoying the outdoors. I also wrote a Blog post on Ethics in Wildlife Photography.

So to wrap it up…………..I have loved animals since I was a kid so focusing on wildlife photography, for me, is a no brainer. I will sit and look back on photos I have taken and remember all the great moments and shots. I am not an expert photographer, just a hobbyist, so this has been my personal take on Photographing Wildlife.

So in a nutshell – once you find an animal – you nail down the movement, lighting, background, camera settings, distractions, safety precautions, weather and it’s a piece of cake! Oh and don’t forget editing!

Hope you enjoyed my thoughts today. Stay safe…..