Get the picture
Tips to improve your wildlife photos or get started in a new hobby.
Herbert J. Lange
Saw-whet owl. Lange chooses his lens depending on the weather, the light conditions and the distance from his subject.
© Herbert J. Lange
I waited patiently for close to two hours in my camouflaged minivan for the red fox pups to appear, but there was no sign of them. I began to think the vixen had moved them. That's how it often happens. You spend a lot of time waiting, watching, judging the light conditions and being prepared for those brief moments when the animals are nearby, the light is right, your camera equipment is at the right settings and you are ready to shoot photos.
I was about to leave when three pups appeared with an adult male (a "dog"). The pups tried to nurse from him, but he kept pushing them away. A minute later the female ("vixen") appeared with nine more pups. Of the thousands of litters that I have observed, this was the largest! They played for an hour about 60 feet from my van. This was a perfect range for me.
Get comfortable with camera equipment before
any field shoots
Over the years I've experimented with a variety of camera body and lens combinations in taking wildlife photos. For this kind of field shoot, I use a camera equipped with a 600 mm lens and a 114 teleconverter, the foxes were magnified 17 times.
Lens choice depends on the weather, the light conditions and the distance from my subject. Most people think that with a large telephoto lens, one can take quality photos miles away from your subject. Not so. Long lenses in low-light conditions can yield real junk. You have to capture enough light and get subjects close to get quality. I've learned over many years that some of my best shots came when I could achieve 17 or 24 times normal magnification so my subject remained in sharp focus. Even at these magnifications, I need to be within 70 feet of my subjects on a nice clear day to get crisp images. If I am photographing flying eagles, I use a 400 mm lens and I need to maneuver to get those birds within 30 feet. If I can set up blinds and get closer to my subjects or if the light conditions are changing, I also pack 200 mm and 300 mm lenses so I can adjust to the situation.
Just like during my hunting days, seeing animals up close is no accident. You have to put in your field time, learn animals' habits throughout the year, learn to read the natural signs that animals leave, and figure out how to place and conceal yourself at the right time in the right place. For instance, I've learned to use several kinds of blinds to conceal myself in the field. When photographing some animals that live pretty near the roadside, a car or truck can make a really good blind. You can cover the vehicle with camouflage material and equip your camera with a window mount that will hold your camera and lens nice and steady. That window mount is one of my most valuable pieces of equipment.
To minimize camera movement, you also want to get out of the wind, protect your camera equipment from the elements and conceal yourself from your wild subjects. That means you will probably need to make or buy some camera blinds that you can set up quietly and quickly. When I am photographing eagles in winter, I often place myself near the ice's edge so I can see the eagles feeding and searching the open water for an easy meal of carrion. For those situations, ice fishing tents make dandy camera blinds. On the other hand, if I am photographing upland species on farmland, I have a blind that resembles a large hay bale. It's great for concealing me and I can move inside it a bit without being noticed by my subject. In open farm country, I place that blind several yards from the subject and gradually move it closer. My biggest problem in leaving blinds for several days near the subject species is not animals, it's the possibility that the blind may be stolen.
A tripod is also extremely important when using long telephoto lenses. I use one 95 percent of the time because I have learned that no one is steady enough to hand hold long lenses at most shutter speeds. This is especially true when you need to open up f-stops and use slightly slower shutter speeds to capture animal photographs at dawn and dusk. You need to prepare for those shots and you need steady support from a tripod even if you have very steady hands. Some shots also require cable releases because your finger can move a long lens ever so slightly and ruin the sharp focus on a subject. This is especially important when taking photos early in the morning, in late afternoon or evening when low light conditions require much longer exposures.
As for film stock, I recommend experimenting with several to see which ones produce consistent results for the conditions when you like to shoot. I am currently shooting Fujichrome slide films, particularly the Velvia 100, Provia 100 and Sensia 100. I like the rich tones in these slower speed films. Several of the Kodak films are also very good. Personally, I do not use print film or electronic digital images. Many outdoor magazines still prefer slides because they are sharper, easy to use and they can reproduce those colors faithfully at any size. Print films and digital images often cannot be enlarged as much as slides without losing color quality or definition. Learn the preference of the markets you are shooting for. If you are taking images for card or print sales, experiment to find which film stocks or electronic settings produce consistent, crisp results for you.
Know your subjects
I don't choose to photograph animals in game farms, zoos or park settings. Therefore, it is extremely important for me to learn the daily and seasonal habits of the mammals and birds that I am trying to photograph. Reading about animals can certainly help you get started, but there is no substitute for spending time outdoors seeing where animals congregate and watching them closely. For instance, I believe that adult red foxes are best photographed from November through January when their coats are lush, bright and they stand out from the background. Pictures of vixens with pups should be taken from April through May. On the other hand, gray foxes can be photographed in a longer season from October through March and their pups are born around April 15th. A litter of gray foxes is harder to locate. Over the years I have found only five litters and obtained a few good images each time. I learned that the gray fox is relatively territorial, easy to call in and tape recordings of other gray foxes drive them crazy! Just don't overuse this technique.
Other animals are difficult to photograph because they are mostly nocturnal, like owls, flying squirrels and the like. I have enjoyed the challenge of photographing great horned, barred and saw-whet owls, none of which build their own nests or add leaves and branches to existing nests or cavities. I've noticed that the great horned owls like to use abandoned eagle, owl, squirrel or crow's nests as well as tree cavities. I especially like searching about in March and April when the owlets are just old enough to come out and perch in areas where I can get close enough for some wonderful pictures.
Don't put your camera away in winter. Stark lighting conditions can create dramatic photos. Some bird species only come this far south during winter and many come in a lot closer to feeding and watering stations as natural foods get more scarce.
Winter is also a great time to photograph bald eagles as they fish the open waters below locks and dams where dead or injured fish are easy pickings. Similarly, you can often find eagles in farm country feeding on carrion.
Also meet some of the folks at local Department of Natural Resources stations, US Fish and Wildlife offices, foresters, farmers and staff from nearby US Army Corps of Engineers offices. People who work outdoors in rural settings regularly are usually more than willing to discuss what animals they have recently seen, and where and when they have seen them. They can often suggest times of year and locations to see animals close up in large numbers as they naturally congregate on mating and migration runs. And don't overlook the opportunity to talk with other avid wildlife watchers. Birding groups in particular hold trips year-round and maintain hotlines that describe exactly when and where members are seeing different species. Many of these wildlife watchers are also photographers you can learn from as you become more skilled and more experienced.
I took up photography about 40 years ago, and I am still learning new ways and new approaches for photographing wild species. I find photography much more difficult than hunting because I have to get much closer to my subjects as I want to have my animal subjects fill up the frame. In my 40 years with a camera, many people have asked me to teach them aspects of wildlife photography, and I've helped a few get started. Whether you approach it as a hobby, side business or possible livelihood, wildlife photography is an exacting, competitive field. It's worth the effort and brings pleasure in many ways through capturing and sharing the unique visions you can see outdoors, like the remarkable sight of a fox tending to a dozen pups at once.
Herbert J. Lange's mammal and bird photos have appeared in Wisconsin Natural Resources for more than 25 years. He lives in Hazel Green, in southwestern Wisconsin but travels throughout the state and Midwest taking images.