Nature photography gives us the chance to be still, be silent, be patient and ultimately to become engrossed in the challenge of capturing rare glimpses of nature's mysteries. Through our lenses, we see the natural world much differently. We are keenly aware of light and its magical reflections. The full spectrum of color suddenly appears more vibrant. We become conscious of shapes and angles as we carefully construct our compositions, taking nothing for granted. We are humbled by the wariness of our subjects, gaining a renewed reverence for the instincts that ensure their survival.

 

Great Refuges for Wildlife Photography

It’s All in the Eyes

 

What are the real secrets to taking winning wildlife photos? Here’s some insider advice from two experts. Pat Leeson, whose photos have graced National Geographic magazine, several wildlife books and many other publications, and Matt Poole, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service training specialist who teaches wildlife photography at the National Conservation Training Center.

  • Aim for feeling. “Any image that captures a feeling you want to save as a memory is a good photo for you,” says Leeson. “If you can get a photo that elicits the same feeling in other people, then you have a classic.”
  • Look ‘em in the eyes. “Photos are most effective taken at an animal’s eye level,” says Poole, even if that means you have to crouch. “A lot of people just kind of stand up and point their camera.” You won’t connect that way.
Greater sandhill crane, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, OR HH
Greater sandhill crane, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon
Credit: Roger Baker, USFWS
  • Focus on what matters. That means the eyes again, even if the antlers were what wowed you. “If nothing else in the frame is sharp, make sure the eyes are sharp,” says Poole. “It may look a bit artsy, but it’ll look good.”
  • Reduce background noise. Some examples? “Out-of-focus birds right behind the one you’re shooting,” offers Leeson, “or a telephone pole or tree growing out of the head of whatever it is you’re photographing. People don’t see those things when they’re shooting. One mark between a pro and an amateur is watching out for the background and trying to get an angle where you can eliminate things that distract your eye.”

 

 

Great blue heron, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, MD
Great blue heron, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland
Credit: Matt Poole, USFWS
  • Go early. Return late. Light is all-important, and pros know it’s best early in the day and late in the day. “When the sun is low, the color of light tends to be a lot warmer,” says Poole. “It’s often called the golden light or the magic light.” Mid-day is often not a great time for photos because the overhead sun creates harsh shadows.
  • Go early…and not just for the light. Leeson offers an almost spiritual reason: Being first on the scene “increases the feeling of intimacy with the place and the moment.” Poole has a practical one. “If shooting insects like butterflies is something you’re excited about, you’ll be a whole lot more effective if you get out there early in morning when it’s still relatively cool and when insects, because they’re cold-blooded of course, are still relatively sluggish,” he says.

 

 

Dragonfly  at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, WA HH
Dragonfly at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Washington
Credit: Rick Hartmann
  • Know your camera’s limits. Leave the full-frame bird images to the folks with killer optics and giant telephoto lenses. Less expensive cameras work better for landscapes and “overall scenes that incorporate the animal in some way,” suggests Leeson. “Or try close-ups of more approachable things like butterflies and flowers,” says Poole.
  • Steady the camera. “Having a stable camera is everything,” says Poole, “which is why we always suggest that people use tripods.” Resting the camera lens on your car’s door frame and shooting from inside the car also works well. Plus, animals are more likely to tolerate the presence of a car than a human, both experts agree. One caveat: Have someone else drive.
  • Be patient with yourself. Even the pros fumble sometimes. The difference is they build in time for making mistakes. Pat and Tom Leeson may spend two months on an eagle shoot to anticipate the speed of a bird’s dive. “The first time it comes and flies right over your head and hits the fish, we were both standing there saying, “Oh my,” says Pat Leeson. “I mean your breath is taken away. Neither one of us could focus even. But after you’ve seen it 100 times, you’re finally able to focus and be in sync,” says Poole, “The more you do it, the better you get, just like anything else.”

 

 

Bald eagle
Bald eagle
Credit: USFWS
  • Respect your subjects. Baiting wildlife on a national wildlife refuge is illegal; as is altering wildlife habitat on a refuge. Additionally, keep a safe and respectful distance from animals.
Relish your time in nature. The perfect image may escape you. Don’t let the whole experience do the same. “I often worry that people are out there just looking at nature through the camera lens and not enjoying being out there,” says Poole.