Getting Close to wildlife

It was always a mystery to me - how could someone get so close to wildlife when all I managed to do was to spook my subjects from half a mile away? It was as if I was stumbling around in a thick fog, struggling to find my way, while all around me could see in broad daylight.

Keeping in mind that whenever there is a conflict between man and animals it usually means bad news for the animals, it’s understandable that wildlife is particularly wary of people. Especially as in the UK we have long since hunted most of our mega-fauna to extinction, and often abuse what is left. As a result, getting close to wildlife for a decent photograph is usually hard – even with long lenses. But for me, that’s what makes a successful approach exciting and gives me a real buzz. I find it much more satisfying to get a photograph of a common wild animal in its natural environment, than a picture of an exotic captive creature that has nowhere to go.

Nature and Wildlife Photography - Getting Close To Wildlife
Deer are intelligent and alert animals that will require special effort in order to get close.
After spending many hours watching others approach a wide selection of wildlife, and picking the brains of some very experienced African guides, the fog began to clear. Taking the effort to practice what I’d learned I began to see that for a successful stalk there are many different things that need to come together as one. To some it will always be an art but the fact is that the most fundamental aspects of getting close to wildlife can be learnt. As a help to others travelling along the same path as myself, here are my thoughts on some of the basics.

General Notes
It is important to respect our subject. By that I mean we need to remember that we are entering their world on their terms. Photographers need to see the world through their eyes. We can only do this by understanding our subject; its behaviour, its life cycle, its daily needs and its fears. So the first step is to read about wildlife as much as you can, and spend plenty of time out in the field watching (we can never do too much of this). The American photographer John Shaw sums this up nicely when he says, “To become a better photographer, become a better naturalist”.

We need to be sensitive to our subject's needs. A photograph of an alert animal often looks better than one that's about to fall asleep. But an animal that is alert to the point of being stressed will usually result in a less than satisfactory photograph. Keep in mind that at times of difficulty (e.g. breeding season, drought or winter) it is very easy to severely stress an already stressed animal. At such times be prepared to walk away and leave it in peace – this is a real test of a photographer’s character.

The best observation is accomplished with eyes and ears. I often find that the first contact I make when seeking out a subject is with my ears. A call or a grunt alerts me to the presence of wildlife nearby and will point me in the general direction. It actually takes concentration to listen properly. The moment I relax, I begin to ignore background noises and become desensitised to what is going on around me.

In the same way it’s easy to look without actually seeing much. Most of what we see is contained within a small field of view, but by concentrating we can expand our viewing horizon significantly. While you are looking at this page keep your eyes still and concentrate on what is at the edge of your vision. I bet you didn’t realise that you could see so much.

Similarly we tend to look at things. A bird behind a bush may not be spotted because our sight seems to stop at the bush itself. Again it takes practice but it is worth making the effort to look through things and explore the world beyond the obvious. Keep the eyeballs moving to avoid falling into the trap of looking at the same thing all the time and not really seeing anything.


Nature and Wildlife Photography - Getting Close To Wildlife
Natural behaviour such as preening is a sure sign of a relaxed bird.
Bright sunshine may help wildlife photographers by allowing faster shutter speeds but it does bring other problems with it. Every time we move there is a possibility of light reflecting off something bright (lens, camera, tripod, wristwatch, spectacles, etc.), and flashing a warning of our approach. Backlighting specialists will be at even more risk of this as the sun will be directly in your face. Keeping the sun behind you will reduce these problems to a minimum, but present you with the greatest chance of flat lighting on your subject.

Wild mammals generally rely more heavily on their sense of smell than you or I do and we need to keep this in mind. Even a seemingly gentle breeze can cause problems. Worse still are gusts of wind as they can blow in just about any direction and give the game away. On the other hand – strong wind will mask a lot of noise (particularly if it’s raining as well), and could help with a closer approach. To have the best chance of getting close approaches should, wherever possible, be made from downwind.

There is no way of avoiding getting personal here. You don’t just smell - you stink! We all do. Everywhere we go we leave behind us an odious scent trail that is no less distinct than the slimy path left by slugs. Dousing ourselves in strongly fragranced deodorants doesn’t help our case either. To operate effectively in the great outdoors we need to take some steps towards de-scenting ourselves.

Ideally non-scented toiletries should be used to prevent a build-up of odours. The smells carried on our breath can also go a long way, so again strong aromas are best avoided. Keep away from eating red meat, onions, garlic and curry before going out on a wildlife photography foray.

That fresh smell from washing clothes in your favourite detergent may bring a smile to your face and make you feel that all is right with the world, but it also acts as a billboard advertising your presence. Minimise the washing of outer clothing where you can, particularly in soaps with “added whitener”. Some serious stalkers will store their working clothes in bags full of dried old leaves, so that they take on the smell of the woods.

Not only are we smelly, but generally speaking we are clumsy too. Especially when walking anywhere other than on pavement. And everybody has their own idea of what keeping quiet means – I’ve met some folk who whisper louder than I can shout.

Loud unnatural noises will spook animals of all types. It is imperative that when approaching a subject all unnecessary noises are contained. The clanking of tripods or rattle of camera gear is a dead giveaway. When are approaching with a camera mounted on a tripod make sure that the legs don’t snag on anything - the sudden whip of a branch can draw unwanted attention to yourself.

I pay particular attention to where I place my feet as the cracking of twigs and dry leaves can make a surprising racket in the stillness of a wood. Get used to looking ahead and carefully placing your feet, and slowly brushing debris aside before putting your weight onto the ball of your foot. A little bit of concentration here can reap a huge reward.


Nature and wildlife photography - getting close
When you can see your reflection in a wolf's eyes it could be too late to realise that you can actually get too close.
How we move during our approach is critical. A fast walk-in with arms flailing will only guarantee failure. Moving slowly and steadily without unexpected movement will usually yield the best results. Remember, we are entering the animals’ world on their terms. If they see us and we look threatening or too much like a predator, our subject will be up and away. Having said that, watching a predator in action is probably the best thing that we can do.

Try to move like a cat. From the big cats of the African plains to the humble domesticated tabby these animals are supreme hunters, and experts at getting close. Using all of the natural cover available they approach slowly, one step at a time. Placing their feet carefully and silently in such a way that they can freeze in position at any moment. These are all excellent points to keep in mind when making an approach.

Trees, shrubs, rocks and mounds are all natural features we can use to break up our outline. Keeping something between us and our subject or directly behind us will definitely help when closing in. Usually the closer we get the slower we need to move. One step per minute is not uncommon. And when you moving we need to flow rather than jerk from one position to another.

Should your subject become alert for any reason - freeze instantly. You will need to hold your position until natural behaviour is resumed. Eating or grooming is a sure sign of a relaxed animal and this is when you can begin to move again.

There are a lot of urban myths about camouflage clothing and how necessary it is. Hunters may find it useful to look like a tree but it is dubious at best how advantageous it is for a photographer. After all, once close to your subject you are going to point a big piece of glass in its direction, something that no amount of camouflage will hide. Your main objective is for your subject to accept you into its neighbourhood. Having said that, it does have its place in the photographer’s armoury, but it’s just not as important as you may at first think – and certainly not as important as manufacturers and sellers of camouflage clothing suggest.

Nature and wildlife photography - getting close
How close do you want to get? This agama lizard was photographed with a macro lens.
If you are going to wear camouflage remember that to be fully effective it needs to be suited to the terrain in which you are photographing. I have an ex-army jacket covered in blotches of different colours. It is ideal for my local moorland, not bad for woodland but probably useless as camouflage for anywhere else. A camouflaged top and trousers of a plain but subdued colour is probably the best all-round mix for the wildlife photographer. Without any camouflage component the colour of our clothing should be in sympathy with our surroundings.

The most important aspect of any clothing is that it doesn’t make any noise, which rules out most of the modern waterproof outer layers. Once I was photographing a foraging grizzly bear when someone nearby picked up his nylon jacket from the floor. The rustling noise put the bear instantly into alert mode; he raised his head and looked inquisitively around. I didn’t even blink until he was relaxed again. My heart missed more than a few beats that day I can tell you. Studs are better than Velcro for fastenings over pockets etc. as they don’t freeze in icy weather or make a ripping sound when opened.

My jacket has a large spacious hood that I can drop over my head. This is excellent, as it helps to cover my pale face and bright spectacles, and blocks out unwanted side lighting when I’m looking through a viewfinder. Another part of the body that I always cover up is my hands. A flash of a moving hand can do a tremendous amount of harm when trying to be unobtrusive in the presence of nervous wild animals. In warm weather I use an ultra-lightweight pair of gloves to avoid getting too hot and sweaty.

Having read all of the above it is essential to keep in mind that unfortunately there is no such thing as a formula to success. How much of this you will need to apply depends upon the animal you are trying to photograph. Just like people, individual animals differ in temperament, tolerance of humans, and habits. Ideally you will find a sedentary and co-operative subject to photograph. The chances of this will increase with time in the field and a better understanding of your subject. Remember, “To become a better photographer, become a better naturalist”.