Photography is art. Photographing is to be in love with your art. We will be talking about the light side of photographing wildlife in just a minute. First, may I ask. What impresses you about photography? One of the best landscape photographers I ever knew was Ansel Adams. He was a master at what he did but in addition to this, he photographed areas that after his photo changed dramatically. He photographed the exact location of the San Francisco bridge, without the bridge. He was an artist in control of his light. Another photographer's name escapes me but he did city landscapes. His photos had just the right light at just the right moment. Although he never saw what he was photographing, he saved the moment for us. You see, he photographed from the feel of the sun on his face to determine just the right moment as it were since he was totally blind.
I know a photographer that was flown 1500 miles to photograph a horse. Although he was impatient to photograph the horse, he waited for 3 days hanging around a pool and swimming while relaxing in the sun. He had deadlines to make so when he did photograph the horse, he was then flown several hundred miles to develop the photos then several hundred more miles to deliver them. Although impatient, his patience paid off with superb photos that were the making of his reputation. He waited the 3 days because the sun was not just right on any of those days. The person who hired him was impatient because he had a close deadline to make and the photographer had already arrived a few days late. The photographer was impatient because he wanted to get back home to see his newborn baby. The newborn baby was the reason he was late in the first place, and it was the lack of sun that detained him after he arrived.
Photographing wildlife is no different. You still have to be patient. The wildlife you seek may come to you if you are in the right place. In the process of going to them, you must follow some rules. The rules are to use common sense but most people do not have common sense around animals. This is because they do not live around them and do not know how to behave around them. Let me give you an example. When visiting a National Park, I read about a gentleman that thought it would be cute to take a picture of a bear behind his steering wheel. He baited the bear with a trail of food, which the bear followed, right into his car. He then slammed the bear in his car, which, you guessed it; scared the bear and the bear trashed the inside of his car. When the Ranger arrived, he had to climb on top of the car, reach down and opened the door (putting the Ranger in danger). The door opened and the bear flew for cover. He had met more than his match. The visitor asked the Ranger why they kept such dangerous animals in the Park? Lesson 1. Do not bait animals.
I remember Christmas morning several year ago (try 21 years), I was feeling sorry for myself because that was the first year I could not go home for Christmas because I lived in the mountains and could not leave for more than a day since I heated with wood. I decided to grab my camera and lens and set out for this peak to photograph elk. I knew where they would hang out so I headed back through 24-28 inches of fresh snow (uphill). I found the elk but I was too low and they were in the clearing. I sneaked back into the woods and popped out slowly where they had been, trying not to scare them. They were not there! I looked further up the mountain and there they were (Looking At ME). I tried to act like I was not heading their way and back into the woods so I could come out where they were now. Out I came about 45 minutes later and they were NOT THERE! Up the hill I looked and there they were LOOKING AT ME! They had my number and I thought I heard them laughing that time. Lesson 2. Wait for them to give you the opportunity to be photographed.
Lesson 3. Never come between momma and her offspring. While hiking in a National Park on the trail, we came across some elk standing in the edge of the forest. The trail would be going right by them so I figured they would move on. They did not. They stood their ground and stomped their front feet and "barked" at us. Yes I said they barked at us! I never heard of this behavior before and no one that I knew confirmed hearing of it. We just left the trail and went around them. It was springtime and I would give odds they had calves hidden in the brush.
Lesson 4. Never get within the wildlife's personal space. While out looking for an opportunity to photograph some Mule Deer, I was not quite paying attention but just walking along. You know how you feel when you think someone is staring at you? All of a sudden, I looked down over this ridge I was passing by and there were about a dozen sets of eyes staring at me. They were watching me to see if I would be a threat. I was just out of their personal space so they did not take flight. I stopped, pulled out my camera with my long lens and took pictures for 45 minutes. They did not feel threatened and I got close with my lens instead of my body.
Lesson 5. Keep your pets under control around wildlife. I was riding horseback through some backcountry trails in the spring. I had a dog that found me so I always kept him on a leash even on horseback (be sure of your horse and do not get in trouble with this one). We came up over this ridge at a good trot and down into a little sheltered opening. Before I noticed, I was in the middle of a calving area for elk. There were about 30 cow elk and their calves in that sheltered area and I just kept going as if we belonged there. If that dog would have not been on a leash, something terrible would have happened. Just a note also, the elk did not panic because of the horse. Chew on that a while.
Although there are a lot more lessons, I want to leave you with this. Enjoying wildlife is like enjoying children. You want them to have fun. You want them to feel safe. And you want them to have positive interactions. Horses have been domesticated for 2000-3000 years and yet if frightened, they will revert to the thinking of a wild animal. Wildlife are wild animals and they need to be respected as such. Think before you photograph and photograph when it feels just right like the sun warming your face.