How to Photograph Wildlife

Animal Encounters — A Photoshoot

This story featured in the 2012 July issue.

Photograph Wildlife

Photo: Gary Luhm

Animal Encounters — A Photoshoot

By Gary Luhm

One of paddling’s great joys are wild animal encounters. We’ve all been there, watching in wonder as pelicans skim so close that we can hear the wind in their feathers, or returning a sea lion’s curious stare from the seat of our kayak. We’d never see such things from shore or a motorboat, which is why wildlife photos taken from a canoe or kayak are so engaging. One of paddling’s great joys are wild animal encounters. Better is capturing them—on camera. Here’s how photograph wildlife.

Don’t Break the Bank: You don’t need a pile of expensive lenses to make good photos. A medium-length zoom is sufficient for most animals. It is, however, essential to use a camera without any shutter lag. Most modern digital SLRs fit the bill.

Study: Learn the habits of birds and mammals. Try to get out often. Pick a target species, study it, and visit habitats where you’d expect to find it.

Shoot the Tame Ones: Animals in remote places are often skittish because they’re hunted or not used to people. The same species can be much more approachable in cities and our National Parks. Look to photograph birds at boat launches; seals or sea lions at marinas. Paddle city waterways at dawn for river otter, mink, muskrat and beaver.

Zigzag approach: Never paddle directly at an animal. Approach obliquely—don’t look directly at it, and feign disinterest. If the animal appears stressed, back off.

Get low: Nothing makes a shot more compelling than photographing an animal at eye level. This strategy also simplifies the image—it’s just the animal on the water, with a blurred background and foreground. We already shoot low from a canoe or kayak, but you can do even better by leaning forward and resting your camera on a deck bag.

Center focus point: Most DSLR’s have a choice of focus points, and often the center one is fastest and most accurate. To improve the composition, press the shutter button halfway to focus on the animal’s eye, and then reframe the shot to allow space on the side where the animal is moving or looking.
Be ready: Keep your camera in waterproof deck bag, keep it turned on, and have it set for the center focus point. I like to use aperture-priority set at the widest aperture (lowest F-stop number), which automatically gives a fast shutter speed. Forget about tripods or monopods in a boat. Today’s cameras have image stabilization and excellent quality at high ISO. You’ll get sharp images handheld.

Example: While sea kayaking in southeast Alaska, we passed a Stellar sea lion haul-out. I paddled back to the landing site in the evening, and approached to 100 yards with the sun directly over my shoulder (the Marine Mammals Act makes it illegal to approach mammals closer than 100 yards). I crouched low, leaning my telephoto lens on a deck bag. My small, backlit presence had no visible effect on the sea lions. I sat for 45 minutes, studying the animals and snapping a few pictures. A few juvenile males frolicked in the water, and eventually I attracted their interest. When one reared up to get a better look at me, I got this shot. The eye-level view enhances the sea lion’s curious gaze.

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