Photographing animals is both very interesting and very difficult at the same time. Today we’ll talk about how to conduct such a survey, what equipment a photographer needs and how to prepare.
I started my first steps in this area by meeting Igor Bartashov, from whom I learned a lot of useful information. I also studied on the Internet the works of other photographers and various shooting techniques, advice on who uses what equipment and why, not only photographers, but also hunters. I learned to understand how to approach animals so as not to frighten them away and I gradually gathered a store of knowledge.
A big bonus was the baggage of knowledge gained thanks to my passion for biology and ornithology in childhood and adolescence. At one time, I even dreamed of working as an ecologist, but it did not work out. Now I am a public inspector for environmental protection of the southern interregional Rosprirodnadzor department.
My favorite subjects for shooting are owls. I fell in love with them because they are very emotional. It all started with the fact that several owls settled near my place of work and at home namely сычи and splyushki. And I started experimenting with shooting them. I used a selfie stick, GoPro, upgraded my phone to an iPhone 12 model and I was learning to slowly approach the birds so as not to frighten them away.
When shooting birds, it is first important to understand how safe the distance will be. It depends on many factors. For example, during the nesting period, birds are very restless, respectively, they are easier to scare even from a long distance. Here it is important to understand the characteristics of a particular species of birds, and observations are also very important. For example, if I shoot owls, then I already have an understanding of the places where they nest from year to year. I watch them, study when they start hatching, how many eggs they lay, I write it down in my observation diary. This gives me information about when it is easier to get close to the birds.
Naturally, in order not to frighten the bird, camouflage is needed. I have special ambush, which I will talk about later. You can also take it out of the car. However, everywhere there are nuances. For example, birds easily track glare in human eyes. Even if the photographer is perfectly camouflaged, the bird will still catch the sparkle in his pupils and will be on the alert, perhaps even flying away. Therefore, it is necessary to camouflage all the windows in the car. It’s the same with lenses, i.e. you need to use lens hoods.
As for where to find the birds, it’s quite simple. Habitat, feathers, excrement, old nests provide all the necessary information.
Sometimes I use a drone for reconnaissance. This is useful for exploring unfamiliar territory. However, not every animal lets them close enough. But here, too, there is an important nuance: even if the object is not afraid of the drone, this does not mean that you can fly up close. Shooting nests with a drone is strictly prohibited, as the sound of the drone is very disturbing for the birds. The Wildlife Photographers Union (WPU) codex says that shooting birds from a drone during the nesting period is prohibited. And many leading wildlife photography contests are categorically against drone shots of mammals and birds.
Most often, I use a selfie stick for reconnaissance, with a go-pro or phone attached to it. This is very convenient, since most animals are very difficult to get close to. This is especially useful if you need to look out from behind a shelter. It also allows the object to be less disturbed by its presence. I use a selfie stick as long as possible, because it is the longer the better.
For shooting, I have a special camouflage robe. If I’m shooting from a car, then the color is important. I have two cars the grayish and black. According to my observations, birds like black color less than gray. Therefore, the car also needs to be camouflaged.
The more you disguise yourself, the more chances you have to watch the birds, shoot them from some interesting angles so that they do not get nervous and behave naturally. I have a lot of camouflage nets of different shades, for different seasons, and also ambush and I always take all this with me when I go to shoot.
To mask the lens you can use a special camouflage cover. If not, then a piece of camouflage fabric will do. Cases are good because among them there are waterproof ones that allow you to shoot even in heavy rain (if your equipment is afraid of moisture).
As for the ambush, it is quite expensive to make them to order, but you can choose a more budget option. There are such small tents without a bottom, but with windows (for example, a tourist toilet-tent) which they show themselves perfectly as an ambush. It is convenient to put a chair there, set up a tripod with a camera and wait for the animal to appear.
Quite often I use improvised means if the object is found by chance and everything happens spontaneously. The main thing is to always have a camouflage net or suit at hand, suitable for the landscape.
I always choose a place in advance. I study the area, look through the options so that I have a picture in my head of how the finished shot will look like. Depending on this, I determine the place for an ambush so that the shooting is carried out from the desired angle. Also, understanding the place gives me the knowledge of which ambush from my arsenal to use.
You can spend a lot of time in an ambush. At the same time, you cannot make loud sounds such as sneezing, coughing, rustling with something. The bird must think that there is no one inside and that this is generally part of the landscape. It’s still good to additionally camouflage the ambush with grass, twigs, in a word, everything that grows nearby. Birds eventually begin to use such an ambush as an object on which you can even sit, and excellent shots are obtained.
In the ambush, by the way, you can safely eat and drink, because the birds do not smell. The main thing is not to rustle loudly and not make any sounds at all.
Sometimes it happens that the fabric of the ambush itself sways and scares the animal away. If you sit in it for a long time, and the animals do not appear, then this is a signal to move the hide a little to a greater distance or change the hide itself (does not fit the landscape, stands out strongly), strengthen it, tighten it. But again, it depends on the animal. In different regions they behave differently, somewhere wary, somewhere friendly. For example, once we filmed носух in the Pantanal (Brazil), and they were very frightened there, they did not come close, although it is not clear why this is so since no one offends them there, носухи calmly run through forests and steppes. And in another region, the same носухи, on the contrary, come almost close and are not afraid of anything; you can even take a portrait of the eye.
I often use to lure birds their voices. But here, too, there are nuances since you need to understand when and what voice can be used. According to the WPU codex, the use of audio recordings to scare birds and stimulate their territorial or disturbing behavior should not be carried out in the nesting areas of birds during their breeding season!
When shooting, I often use additional “baits”, for example, some kind of sticks so that the birds sit on them and get a beautiful shot against the right background.
A very important issue that needs to be raised when photographing animals is complementary foods. Here it is important to know that according to the WPU codex:
– it is not allowed to independently feed animals for the purpose of photographing them in protected areas, as well as in other territories where economic (hunting, etc.) activities are carried out, without the consent of those who carry out it;
– where the feeding of wild animals is specially organized, the photographer is obliged to follow the rules established by those who organize and control it;
– feeding of large predatory animals, which may pose a potential danger to humans, should be carried out with the involvement of experienced biologists and under their control.
Remember that you are responsible for the animal you feed. If it is often fed, it gets used to both people and feeding, which entails inevitable consequences for its life. Therefore, you need to carefully consider all *for* and *against* your actions.
Photographing birds during the nesting season
This is a very special topic, so before starting to implement the idea, you need to familiarize yourself with all the rules for shooting and behavior in nesting areas. But the main thing is shooting with the longest lens (500 or 600 mm or more), that is, you need to be as far away from the nest as possible.
It is very important to know about shooting birds on nests that according to the WPU codex:
– photography of birds on nests can be carried out only by photographers who are well acquainted with the nesting behavior of birds or who use the help of qualified specialists;
– the number of visits to the filming site should be kept to a minimum to avoid trampling vegetation and creating unnecessary footprints and paths that could reveal the nest to predators and strangers;
– it is not recommended to climb into bird nests located on trees and rocks with grown-up but not yet flying chicks due to the high probability that non-flying chicks will leave the nest when a person approaches;
– the use of audio recordings or stuffed predators to startle birds and stimulate their territorial or disturbing behavior should not be carried out in the nesting areas of birds during their breeding season;
– it is recommended to install a shelter for photographing birds in the nesting area in advance, bringing it closer to the shooting site in several stages and allowing the birds to get used to it;
– anxiety of the birds caused by the preparation for the survey should be kept to a minimum. It is not recommended to set up a shelter or start preparing for a survey in the evening, when the activity of diurnal birds is reduced. Adaptation of birds to shooting is recommended to be carried out during the period of their greatest daily activity;
– if the birds do not return to the nests for a long time, especially in rainy, hot or cold weather, it is necessary to remove the shelter and leave the nesting area to prevent the probable death of the clutch or chicks;
– it is not allowed to publish indications of the exact places (including coordinates) of valuable and rare bird species nesting for the area, especially those listed in the Red Book of the Russian Federation;
– any disturbance on the nests is not allowed, including photography (including using unmanned aerial vehicles) of rare bird species listed in the Red Book of the Russian Federation **, during the period of incubation or heating of small chicks that do not have their own thermoregulation. In exceptional cases, such photography is allowed with the permission of the regional offices for supervision in the field of nature management (Rosprirodnadzor).
If we talk about the distance from the nest to the ambush, everything is very subtle here. If the nest is too close, the bird may become frightened, fly away and be afraid to return to the nest. According to my observations, 10-20 meters should remain before the nest, but, again, everything depends on the particular bird. There are birds that let you get close, there are vice versa. Before setting up an ambush, it is important to study in advance the habits of the birds you are going to shoot. How shy birds are, how close they allow you to come.
If the ambush is set, but the birds are not visible, you have incorrectly determined the distance, and you need to move back. Perhaps the camouflage needs to be improved. This is important because if the bird does not return to the nest for a long time, then this creates a threat of hypothermia of eggs or chicks. If the bird does not arrive for 15 minutes, it is better to just leave. If the bird does not see the danger, then it seeks to return to incubating eggs or heating the chicks as soon as possible.
Speaking about shooting birds on nests, it is worth starting from afar, as far as optics allows and watch the bird’s responses. If it is nervous and even flies away, then you have violated the boundary beyond which this bird allows you to go. The border is different for everyone and is determined by observations. Observations are the most important!
There are situations when it is possible to film the nest safely, for example, during its reconstruction. I had a case when a nest of barn owls with a brood of 9 chicks was discovered. Usually there are about 4 chicks in a brood, but the presence of 9 indicates a large amount of food for owls in this area. They settled in a pigeon box on a private property. The box was not intended for such large birds, and even more so in such numbers. The chicks were growing and the box began to collapse. Plus a very rainy period was not in their favor. It was decided to repair the nest and protect it. Since the chicks were already disturbed, I took advantage of the situation and quickly took a few pictures. After a while, the chicks grew up and mastered the territory. From time to time I come and watch these beauties.
Or here’s another example. For the past 4 years I have been watching one nest of Long-legged Buzzard. There was a case when the weather was extremely dry in summer, there was no rain at all and hurricane winds were blowing. During one hurricane, the nest was destroyed and already adult chicks fell to the ground. Due to severe drought, a large number of ticks appeared. The chicks were all hung with them like garlands. After conferring with 2 ornithologists and veterinarians, it was decided to help the chicks: water them and treat them for ticks. After all the operations, I photographed the chicks. Later I came to visit them and everyone survived and climbed onto the wing.
To film a nest or chicks, the most correct thing is with a specialist.
I use a Canon Mark IV with a Sigma 60\600 lens. In many respects, the Sigma 60\600 is even better than the Sigma 150\600 Sports, but here, again, you need to try what suits you. Your best bet is to go to a store and test shoot with multiple lenses to see what operates best.
When choosing a camera and lenses for shooting animals, it is important to pay attention to autofocus. Basically, it goes on most lenses, and this, of course, is more convenient than manual focusing, since when shooting animals, the responses speed of the equipment is important since animals are very mobile. Personally, it is important for me that there are a large number of focus points on the camera. This is useful. For example, if a photographer is shooting a single, still animal, then a small number of focus points is usually required. If the animal is moving, or if there are several objects, then, of course, it is better to use more points. Which mode to choose depends on the animal behavior: if the animal is moving, then it is better to choose the tracking focus mode.
It is also important how many frames per second the camera can do, because, as a rule, animals move, and you have to shoot them in motion, that is, the faster the camera shoots, the better.
Many people ask if the clicks of the shutter scare animals away. It depends on the animal, i.e. there are those who are alarmed by clicks, there are those who do not pay attention to them at all. I don’t use quiet shooting, only regular shooting and I’ve noticed that often animals get used to and stop paying attention to shutter sounds. The main thing is not to make sudden movements and not to make sharp loud noises. Well, of course, the right disguise solves many issues.
As for the focal length, a lot also depends on what finances allow. For me, the ideal focal length is 600 mm. But very often there is no way to change the optics and a focal length of 60 or 200 mm helps a lot. Much depends on the animal, on how close it lets the photographer. For example, I shot cranes at a focal length of 300 mm and they let me in even in a car with a running engine and without camouflage.
It also happens that the object allows you to get very close. Then you can safely use a wide-angle lens or even a smartphone.
To search for an object, sometimes I use binoculars or a thermal imager. This is especially useful if the terrain is unfamiliar, tall grass or a lot of trees obstructing the view.
People often ask me why shooting animals, because I also shoot landscapes. But here everything is very harmonious. It happens that I come to a site for the sake of the landscape and suddenly I see a fox coming out of the forest or an eagle flying in. Of course, I will film them if they will let me to approach at a sufficient distance. If not, I can always go back to the original idea.
As for the camera settings, it all depends on what kind of frame you want to get. If this is an animal against a landscape, then landscape settings are needed, if the animal is in motion, then it is already important here that the camera operates as quickly as possible, that is, that the shutter speed is shorter. I had to shoot with a shutter speed of 1/4000. If, on the contrary, you want to get an artistic blur in the frame, then you can shoot in M mode, select shutter speed or aperture priority. It all depends on the situation, because the animal can sit still, and then suddenly jump up abruptly and run or fly.
I try to cover the aperture when I want to get a greater depth of field. But the specific settings depend on the illumination.
It is some words regard outbreaks. Yes, I use a flash when shooting animals, but less often than a flashlight, plus I have an on-camera (constant) light. If it is possible to use the on-camera light, on top of the camera or separately on a tripod, then this is ideal. And animals are less afraid.
How does the weather affect animal photography?
Everything again depends on the particular animal or bird. In my opinion, the best time to shoot is in soft light, no shadows, relatively overcast weather with light clouds. However, in the downpour, you can also get very interesting shots. For example, at a short shutter speed you will get raindrops in the form of strokes or splashes on the lens, this is very unusual. Even fog and slight fogging of the lens can be used as an artistic component.
Windy weather is very convenient to use when filming. Firstly, you must always choose a position against the wind, and then the object will not hear you and will not smell you. Secondly, if the object is motionless and the shooting is carried out in a flooded area, then it is possible to use slow shutter speeds for artistic blurring of water or vegetation.
Well, fog will always add some mystery to any frame.
It all depends on the shooting season. If it is winter, then I use the warmest clothes that allow me to stay motionless in the ambush for a long time. If it is supposed to shoot without a sit-in, then a suitable camouflage is selected from above. The same goes for the rest of the seasons. In the summer it is very important to get special means from ticks and mosquitoes. As a rule, I purchase a special tick spray for dogs and pre-treat the place of the upcoming sitting around the perimeter (you can buy it at any pet store or veterinary pharmacy). Thus, no insect will disturb you during filming or observation. There are also special anti-tick pants and shirts. But, as a rule, they are quite expensive, and tick sprays are many times cheaper and 100% guarantee you safety. I also use a special mosquito spray. This all operates when shooting birds, because they do not response to smells. If you are going to photograph animals, then I recommend refraining from smelling products.
For filming in flooded areas, I use swamps or waders. Thanks to them, it is possible to get closer to the object of interest.
The main criterion for choosing clothes is maximum noiselessness. Since animals have very acute hearing, even the very gait when sneaking up is decisive. Also, clothes should not flutter and be quite tight-fitting. It is always necessary to remember about the eyes since they can give you away in any disguise, so I recommend covering them with a camouflage net or a translucent fabric (which does not impair visibility).
Filming and job
Shooting takes a very long time. Not everyone can combine this with job, although I personally was lucky since work allows me to travel and shoot. I never planned to make photography my main income, because when a hobby becomes a job, it ceases to be interesting. You stop putting your soul into it and start thinking about it as some kind of commercial project. You know that you are obliged to shoot something or to meet the set limits.
As long as shooting remains a hobby, I can creatively approach each frame, choose what I want to shoot, what my soul requires. At one time, I refused to shoot weddings, various events and people, just so as not to turn shooting into job. I have many friends who shot weddings and almost abandoned photography altogether, but then they realized and moved away from this, felt free and happy, returned to creativity.
Now I realize myself as a photographer, participating in various competitions and projects. There are plans to print photobooks and non-commercial projects about the nature of the Crimea. I really want to develop, to establish cooperation with galleries. I have already been offered this option, but so far everything rests on time. You need to combine work, travel and photo processing, which takes a lot of time. I edit my photos in Lightroom and Photoshop.
It is interesting for me to shoot unpopular places, not tourist ones, because there you can take unique shots, shoot something that no one has filmed yet. I study in advance the area that interests me, the animals that live there, their habits. I have friends who like to ride with me and shoot unprofessionally, for themselves. This, of course, is often not a matter of five minutes or even one day. However, when everyone is on the same wavelength, it turns into a real exciting adventure. For example, once we were looking for marsh owls in the Crimea. One shepherd told us that he saw owls over there. We came to that area, everyone went around there, but we didn’t find anything. We thought he deceived us or made a mistake. But we drove a little further and saw two owls sitting. It also happens. You need to travel, search, but it takes a lot of time.
I organize creative photo tours in nature, with master classes in shooting and processing material. Travel costs are made up of many components. Firstly, you need a specially prepared car, most often a jeep, which will drive to the right, most often hard-to-reach, place so that guests do not have to carry all the heavy equipment and personal belongings to the shooting points, and such a car consumes a lot of gasoline, plus depreciation. In addition, in order for me to form a tour and take guests to the place where they will definitely take a beautiful landscape shot, this or that bird or animal, I need to travel hundreds of kilometers, find interesting points for landscapes or animal habitats, explore everything relative to the terrain and the movement of the sun or moon, and these are fuel, car depreciation, food, and plus time. Rarely do I get by with one day on such reconnaissance trips. Usually they take from 3-4 days to a week. The same is true for photo travel outside of Crimea, but there are also added costs for flights, hotels and local guides.
Do people interfere with each other in photo-hunting for animals? Still, this is a group where someone will definitely stumble, start making noise. In fact, no, they do not interfere, since usually there are no more than three people in the car. This allows you to distribute people in separate windows of the car, if you shoot from the car. I also always provide professional ambushs for rent, where everyone gets the frames he needs. Everything always depends on the trip plan and the planned tasks.