Five Rules for Wildlife Photography

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Forget the great fame and fortune. One of the top perks that comes from writing, photographing, and publishing a coffee table book such as The Sarcastic Lens: An Ordinary Couple's Photographic Journey through the Animal Kingdom is that you instantly become an "expert" on wildlife photography. This is different than becoming a professional wildlife photographer. For that you need to wrap yourself in camouflage gear and carry a tripod.

You also have to know camera terminology, words like "histogram" and "jpeg". We do not meet any of those criteria. However, we do qualify as wildlife photography "experts" because we do know how to take quality photographs of animals that any amateur photographer would be proud to exhibit as their own. So, with that clarified, here are our five tips on how to go about taking quality wildlife photographs.

Bring your camera

Ha ha you say. No wonder they call it "The Sarcastic Lens." But, no this is the first rule. Yes, it is easy to remember to bring your camera on your trip to Africa or Australia. If you are not going to do that, we can offer little help. But many wildlife encounters come about unexpectedly and often in mundane situations. We try and have a camera handy everywhere. For example, I always bring a camera on the golf course when I play golf. It fits very nicely on the golf cart. And no, it is not to shoot birdies, although often times it does shoot birds. Once, a golf pro in Amelia Island, Florida spotted a great horned owl in a tree. Wow, and I just happen to have my camera with me. A bobcat wandered across a fairway in Naples, Florida and I just happened to have my camera. A bald eagle sitting close by on a tree and, gee, I have my camera. Well, you get the point.

Similarly, we generally keep a camera in our car. You never know when wildlife may appear. Amy drove home one night from work to find a possum wandering around our yard. With a camera already in the car, the animal was easy prey. He would have been long gone if Amy had to first go inside the house and get the camera. The northern flicker is a fairly common bird where we live in New Jersey. However, the only time we have ever managed to find one in a photographable place was when we happened upon one while we were stopped at local park. He was begging to have his picture taken and we were happy to oblige because we happened to have a camera ready to go in the car.

So there you have it. Rule Number One. Bring your camera.

Be Prepared

We can't stress this one enough. Keep those batteries charged. Bring extra cameras. Bring extra gear. We can't tell you how many times we have been on exotic vacations in remote locations and someone nearby says "Oh no, my battery is dead." Really, you have spent thousands upon thousands of dollars to travel to Antarctica or Madagascar and you cannot afford an extra camera battery? The first thing we do every night when we return to our lodge is charge those batteries, no matter how full they might be. And bring an extra one. They are not that heavy. They do not take up much room. We bring extra cameras. Cameras break. They are more likely to break while you are taking thousands of pictures in the dust and dirt of national parks in India, then they are while sitting quietly on their shelf at home.

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Recently, we broke a filter while in the Philippines. It was so stuck on the lens that we could not get it off. To make matters worse, the island of Palawan had decided to turn off the power on the island that day so that the one camera store they had on the island was closed. Not too panic, we had extra cameras and extra lenses. We could wait it out until we got help the following day.

Maybe our favorite story in this regard took place in Glacier National Park in Montana. We and the folks in several other cars stopped to photograph a black bear who was posing on the side of a road. This was back in the days of film. One of the other drivers tiptoed over to our car and asked if we had an extra roll of film. He had no film. Really, you are driving in a national park with no film? We handed him an extra roll we had, to which he then said, do you have a different ASA? Excuse me? Are we a camera store? The man with no film is now particular about the film he is willing to use. Talk about chutzpah.

Anyway, rule number 2. Be prepared.

Get outside

Yes, it can be hot outside. Or, it can be cold outside. There can be mosquitoes, mud, or annoying tourists. However, very few animals are going to be found inside your house. So, unless you are content photographing your dog or cat lying on the sofa in your nicely air-conditioned living room, you need to go outside. Wildlife is everywhere. The more you go out and wander around, the more animals you are likely to encounter. And if you follow rules 1 and 2, you will be able to photograph these animals when you encounter them.

When we were on our first trip to the Pantanal in Brazil our guides offered a last minute excursion for our group. It was a very early morning boat ride. Most people did not go. It was hot. It was early. It was near the end of the trip. People were tired. The few of us who went were rewarded with a sighting of a jaguar on the riverbank. At the time, jaguar sightings were so rare, that our group became famous all along the river as the "group that saw the jaguar." Like they say about the lottery, "Hey, you never know." But one thing is certain.

If you do not go outside you will not find anything.

Shoot a lot

The digital revolution has made this rule an easy one to follow. When you find something to photograph do not be shy. Shoot early and often. You cannot take too many pictures. The worst that happens is that you have a lot of editing to do. No one really ever has the perfect picture. Keep shooting. Take the photograph on different settings. Take it at different focal lengths. But, keep shooting. Things happen. In India, one of our camera cards mysteriously erased itself. In Tanzania, a camera card got corrupted. Disaster was averted because we "shoot a lot."
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In India, both Amy and I had shot the photographs in question on different cameras, so we had back-up. In Tanzania, there were so many duplicates on the corrupted card that most of the photos had similar images on that card that were not corrupted. We had followed both this rule and rule 2 above.

Be prepared to be bored

Wildlife photography is not always as glamorous and exciting as it appears. One of our guides once said that tourists should not be allowed to visit places like the Galapagos Islands, East Africa, and Antarctica until they had paid their wildlife dues visiting other more difficult locations. In the aforementioned locales, the wildlife is plentiful, relatively tame and habituated to tourists. Most of the time, you do not have long down periods between significant sightings. This is the exception, not the rule.

We visited the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State expecting to see and photograph orcas. The first day we saw none. The second day we saw a small pod very far off in the distance. Ironically, if we had just stayed in the marina, we would have seen them perfectly that day. The local paper gleefully printed pictures of them frolicking right by the shore line the same day we were out for hours on the open sea seeing none.

In Botswana, we had three jeeps escorting us for hours in the dark of night searching for aardvarks. Again, none. That is a lot of time seeing and photographing nothing. It is times like these when a sense of humor and some sarcasm come in very handy.

Even when you do find something special, it often takes many hours to do so. I have sat many hours by myself in a local birding spot quietly waiting in the heat of the day for small, colorful birds to hopefully come for a drink. You need to do this for many hours so that you kind of blend into the surroundings so that these birds get comfortable enough to come close by. Even then you need to get lucky that the right bird comes by while you are there. It was this strategy that got me my one and only photograph of a scarlet tanager. But, it requires a big investment of time for one potential photograph. This, of course, also combines with rule 3 to "get outside."

There you have it. Our fives rules for wildlife photography. Go forth and conquer. We hope to see you out there. We welcome the competition. Richard and Amy Lynn The Sarcastic Lens: An Ordinary Couple's Photographic Journey through the Animal Kingdom

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Richard and Amy Lynn met at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. They were married in 1975. Richard is a retired corporate attorney. Amy is a medical technologist and also teaches phlebotomy. They have lived in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey since 1986, where they revel in trying to be as ordinary as possible. When they are not circling the globe searching for subjects for The Sarcastic Lens, Amy and Richard can usually be found trying to photograph their two children and their two grandsons. This often proves more challenging than any wildlife they encounter.

Published: July 23rd, 2015

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