In the first part of this series, I covered some basic techniques to steady your lens, and in the second part we reviewed basic in-camera settings and techniques. Now that you’re technical approach is improving, the third and final post in this series will help you to start getting closer to the action.
There are really two things you can do to get frame-filling wildlife shots 1) buy expensive lenses (they do produce sharper results, and also allow for more aggressive cropping) and 2) get closer. I do both, but the following tips specifically deal with the getting closer part, because even 500mm can come up short, sometimes…
Don’t stick out: Don’t use anything scented (I use scent-blocking clothes). No smoking. No stinky snack foods (just nuts, trail mix, dried berries, or similar, that is more natural to the area I am staying). Wear muted, natural colored clothing (deer, for example, see the world in monotone shades of orange, except that they CAN see blue – your jeans will send them running, long before you get close enough to photograph them).
Be slow and quiet: Stop, look for several minutes, find a comfortable spot and sit for a while. Be mindful of your steps, and keep the noise down.
Listen: Many animals are heard before they are seen. Use the quiet time to listen to the surroundings. Follow the sounds you hear and use both ears, to find the direction of a source.
Stop: If you see an animal – stop. Staying absolutely still is the way most animals try to keep from being detected. It can work for you, too.
Back up before getting closer: If the animal sees you and stops what it was doing, back up slowly; give it time to get use to you. If the animal runs away, you have come too close, to quickly.
Graze: Grazing animals don’t move in straight lines; only predators move straight towards other animals (their prey!). Move in slow zig zag patterns, to get closer to the animal, stopping frequently to allow them to get comfortable with your presence. I can spend almost an hour closing in 50ft on a perched bird, to get the shot.
Eye contact: Virtually every predator in the world has both eyes faced forward, to better assess distance and chase prey easier. Humans have both eyes facing forward, too. Guess what most animals think, when something with two eyes looks at them? Try not to make eye contact, and don’t look directly at the animal for long period of time… Don’t forget to look away, too.
Watch for signs of stress: Watch for warning signs such as displays, calls, freezing, raising the head or interrupting of actions of any kind. If the animal is doing something different in your presence than it was when you first arrived, you are probably making them uncomfortable. Back up slowly.
No surprises: Don’t try to sneak up to an animal to get a close look; a startled animal is stressed and can be dangerous.
Give them an escape: If an animal feels cornered with no easy escape path, they are far more likely to charge / attack. Always give them a way to get away from you.
It will take time, practice and lots of patience, but these tips should help you to improve your stalking technique.