My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Doing it the hard way

People have asked me how I get some of the wildlife shots that I get, and that isn’t an easy question to answer. I do everything the hard way, often times, the wrong way. It isn’t that I don’t know how to take wildlife photos the easy way, I do. The easy way is to go to a spot where wildlife is likely to make an appearance, find a place to hide, then sit and wait for the critters to show up. That’s not my style. Almost all my wildlife photos are taken while I am on the move.

My problem is that I don’t like to just sit while I am in the woods, I prefer to be moving, and I prefer the challenge of hunting and stalking animals. Part of that is because I see so many other natural wonders while moving compared to what I would see if I just sat somewhere. I could take an empty five gallon bucket, one of the seat cushions they sell for hunters, and one of those cheap fabric blinds that they sell, go out in the woods, sit with my camera mounted on a tripod, and come back with some excellent photos of whitetail deer for example. However, then I would miss most of the wildflowers, insects, birds, trees, and scenic views that I see and photograph the way I do things now.

I say most of those things, because you can’t just sit anywhere in the woods and expect to see wildlife, you have to find spots where wildlife is likely to be to make sitting pay off. And, I say spots, plural, because where wildlife is likely to be changes with the weather and the seasons. So before you go out and sit in the woods, you have to scout an area to find the places wildlife is likely to be during the differing weather conditions that may occur while you are there. For some people, that would be just nice, sunny days, but I am outdoors nearly every day, no matter what the weather is, so I need lots of spots. One way or another, the only way to make sitting worthwhile is to be familiar with both an area, and the wildlife you would like to photograph, just as hunters should be.

When you cut through the chaff, wildlife photography is exactly like hunting, but using a camera rather than a gun. The difference is that the photographer needs a clearer view of his prey than a hunter does, otherwise it is exactly the same. There are hundreds of books available on both subjects, hunting and wildlife photography, I have even read a few of each. The one I like the most is “Hunting Big Game in North America” by Jack O’Conner. I was going to recommend it, but I have begun to read it again for the first time in years. It isn’t as good as I remembered it.

As the title states, it is about big game, such as elk, mountain sheep, and bear as examples, but the principles of hunting apply to all wildlife. I’ll get to more on that later. When I was a young lad who didn’t know a lot about hunting and wildlife, it seemed like a great book. Now, it seems dated, not surprising, since it was written 50 years ago. But, it is still a sad day when you figure out that one of your childhood heroes wasn’t as great as your memories of them are.

Still, it is the book that taught me how to hunt, and hunting ethics, along with my dad and his family. I would still recommend it to young hunters just getting started, but the book probably isn’t for the wildlife photographer, unless they are also hunters.

Just as there are hunters who are less than ethical, there have been a few wildlife photographers who have had questionable ethics as well. Such as shooting their photographs at a zoo, then passing them off as having been taken in the wild. Or, posing mounted animals in the wild, and passing them off as living animals.

Over time, what is considered to be ethical changes. It used to be accepted practice to bait animals in close enough to take good photographs. This was especially true when photographing large predators, particularly the big cats such as lions, tigers, and leopards. The photographer would tie up a lamb, goat kid, or other small prey animal in an area where the big cats were known to frequent. Then the photographer would set up a mini photo studio around the helpless victim, and wait for the big cats to show up and do their thing. It may have been gruesome, but it made for great photos.

I know baiting still goes on, I recently saw a spectacular photo of a spotted owl and the caption read that it was coming to a lure, in otherwords, bait. I wish I could find it again in order to see if I could find out what the photographer used as a lure, but I haven’t been able to find it.

Baiting isn’t all bad, as long as you don’t use live animals as the bait. Photographing birds at a bird feeder is baiting, there’s nothing wrong with that, at least in my opinion. But it isn’t my preferred style, I prefer the challenge of the hunt.

With today’s technology, it is quite possible to set up an number of remote flash units, complete with diffusers and reflectors as desired, set the camera up on a tripod, then walk to a blind a distance away, monitor the scene with closed circuit TV, and fire everything by remote control. I am sure that what I described is being done, and I am sure that the photographers doing so get some exceptional photos. That’s not for me, at least not until my legs give out.

There are different styles of hunting, some people like to sit, some like to still hunt, and some prefer stalking. My style is to combine still hunting and stalking.

Still hunting isn’t quite what it sounds like, you aren’t sitting still while still hunting, you are moving slowly and stopping often. You take a few steps, stop, look around you, then take several more steps. How many steps I take and how often I stop depends on my surroundings at the time. In thick cover, I will only take three or four steps between pauses to look around, in an open field, I may only stop a couple of times as I cross the field. As I noted in an earlier post, this stop and go method of moving through the woods also helps to mask the human sound that most people make while traveling in the woods. If you observe most wildlife, they move in a stop and go manner, that is, they take a few steps, stop, look around, then take a few more steps. Not only will stopping often make it easier for you to see wildlife, you’re less likely to frighten the wildlife away.

Here are some things not to do if you want to try this style. Don’t go charging over the top of a hill or ridge without stopping often. As you get towards the top of a hill, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb to any wildlife on the other side. The same applies to a field, stop before you get into the clearing, if you walk out of the woods into the field without stopping, any wildlife that was there will be gone before you see it. Most wildlife stays towards the edges of fields, close to cover. As soon as they know you are around, they slip into the cover of the woods. The same applies to bodies of water, whether they are lakes, ponds, rivers or streams. When you know you are getting close to water, slow down!

In order to photograph wildlife, you have to see it, and hopefully, before it sees you. There are several things you can do to help you see wildlife before it does see you, and they require that you train your eyes and mind to do certain things. I am not a doctor, but I believe that I read that our eyes see everything that there is to see, but that our minds filter out much of the information that the eyes send to the brain. So in order to see more wildlife, you have to train your brain to stop filtering out the visual clues that your eyes see that will help you to spot wildlife.

The first is to catch all motion, focus on it, and discern what caused the motion. It will probably turn out to be a leaf fluttering in the wind, but it could be the twitch of a deer’s ear. Unless you focus in on the motion, you’ll never know. That motion may come in different forms. Some of the bird photos I have taken have come because I noticed the shadows from the birds moving across the ground, alerting me to the birds’ presence overhead. Or, I have noticed a tree branch moving differently than it would be moving from the wind, and find that it is a bird, squirrel, or other animal causing the branch to move.

The next is patches of color, no matter how small. I seldom see an entire animal at first, most often I see a patch of color first, then see the animal. I use this trick a lot, since I like photographing birds and wildflowers as well as animals. Is that patch of red a scarlet tanager, a cardinal flower, or a party balloon that landed in a tree? Is that patch of blue a bluebird, Virginia bluebells, or a food wrapper some slob discarded in the woods? Is that patch of white a deer’s tail, trilliums blooming, or a piece of paper? I find a lot of trash by following colors. 😦 I suppose that’s a small price to pay considering everything else that investigating a small patch of color has led me to find.

I read this next trick many years ago in an unlikely source, I don’t even remember where I read it, it may have been the Reader’s Digest of all places. But, it goes like this. Most plant life grows vertically, most animals present a horizontal shape to our eyes. When you’re walking through the woods, the trunks of trees create vertical lines, if you see something horizontal between the tree trunks, it could be part of an animal, like the back of a deer. Of course it could be a fallen tree, but it pays to notice any horizontal lines when you are in the woods.

I’ve saved the most important trick for last, because it ties in with the other three, and that is to see through the trees. I’m not saying that you need to develop X-ray vision, what I mean by see through the trees is that you have to train your brain to see through the small openings in the brush to see what is in the distance. I don’t want to make this too technical, I’ll try to keep it as short as possible.

Over generations of living inside structures we have built to protect us from the elements, the human brain has become accustomed to being surrounded by walls that our eyes can’t see through, except for an occasional window. When we go outdoors, our brains are so used to being surrounded by walls, that we “create” walls where the brush begins to block a certain percentage of our view, and that percentage is surprisingly small. If there is a large enough opening in the brush, our brains will process that information as if it is a window to the outside.

Take the average person out into the woods and ask them how far they can see, and the answer will be something like twenty to thirty feet, depending on how thickly the trees and brush are growing. The reality is that they can see much farther than that by looking through the openings between the trees and brush, and that’s the trick.

In order to see more animals, we need to see through all the “windows” through the brush, not just the large ones. I’ll admit, this is the one that I still need to remind myself of constantly. I know all this, I have read studies about it, yet I still find myself creating walls where none exist. I use the other tips I have given you, like looking for motion, colors, and shapes, to force my brain to process the information my eyes are seeing, to look through all the windows, not just the large ones.

It doesn’t take a very large opening in the brush to be able to see the twitch of a squirrel’s tail, a splash of color from a brightly colored songbird, or the horizontal line formed by a deer’s back, if we allow that information our eyes have gathered to make it through into our perception.

That’s how I spot wildlife while I am out in the woods. The problem with doing it this way is that it doesn’t give me the luxury of “setting up” to take great photos. Since I am moving, most of the time I have to shoot quickly before the wildlife spots me and disappears into the brush. That means dealing with bad lighting situations, and not being able to choose the backgrounds for my shots.

I know that, and I know that most of the photos I take of wildlife are going to be less than great, but I enjoy the challenge of the hunt. I enjoy getting close to wildlife, and I also get to see many other beautiful things nature has to offer that I wouldn’t see if I set up a blind someplace and just sat, waiting for wildlife to show up. It may be the hard way, but it is my way.

Every once in a while, I’ll spot wildlife long before it sees me, then I get the chance to stalk it. I’ve stalked everything from insects to elk. That may sound funny, but the principles of stalking are the same no matter what you are trying to get close to, staying out of sight until the subject is close enough to photograph.

I learned how to stalk from reading the book I mentioned before, “Hunting Big Game in North America” by Jack O’Conner. Once you learn the basics, it is easy to apply them to any type of wildlife you want to photograph. It sounds easy, spot the critter before it spots you. Determine what the critter is doing, then work your way to a spot where you and the critter will be close enough together for you to get a good photograph. One of the advantages to stalking is that you have somewhat more control over the lighting and background, if you plan your stalk correctly, and things go as planned.

I’ll give you an example of stalking a whitetail deer, since there may be a few hunters who read this. As I am working my way through the woods, I spot a flicker of white from a deer’s ear through one of the windows in the brush as the deer is listening for danger that may be approaching it. The ears are most often what part of a deer I see first, deer are always moving their ears, much like a radar antennae. I stop dead in my tracks, and begin watching the deer to see what it is doing. Is it laying down or feeding? If it is laying there, it will probably be there for a while, unless something scares it away. If it is feeding, which direction is it moving? Deer are generally browsers, they eat a little of this, a little of that, as they travel slowly through the woods. They don’t travel in a straight line, you have to watch them for a while to get an idea of the general direction they are moving.

Once I know what the deer is doing, I look over the lay of the land, looking for objects that will hide me from the deer’s view as I work my way closer. If the deer is moving, I pick a spot to get to before the deer gets there, so I can wait motionless for it to arrive to the chosen spot. If the deer is lying down, I plot a course where I can stay hidden until I am close enough to get a photo.

Moving deer are easier to stalk in one way, as they give me more options as far as how I plan my route to get ahead of them. The problem is that the stalk doesn’t always go as planned. Sitting deer make choosing a route more difficult, but they are more likely to still be there if the stalk goes well. Either way, I have to stay downwind of them, or my scent would alert them to my presence. I look for a route that is open enough so I can move without making noise, yet shields me from the deer’s vision. I use hills, mounds, trees, and clumps of grass to block the deer from seeing me.

Being out of sight of what you are trying to stalk takes some getting used to, the urge is to keep what you are stalking in sight, but then your quarry is more likely to see you as well. If everything goes as planned, I arrive at the tree I had chosen before as my hiding spot in time to watch the deer approach me, as I snap their picture. Or, I slowly raise my head and camera over the small hill I had picked as the spot where I would photograph the deer lying down from, and it is still lying there for me to photograph.

Once you learn how to make a successful stalk, you can use it on nearly all types of wildlife, except for butterflies. They are so unpredictable, that I have never found a way to stalk them. 🙂 Stalking is a great way to get close to the wading birds, such as herons, egrets, or cranes. You can read one of my of earlier posts, “Stalking the stalker” which was about one of my stalks of a little green heron, including a photo of it catching a fish.

It doesn’t always go as planned, sometimes I mess up and spook what I am stalking, other times it is other people who do it for me, but I enjoy the challenge. I guess I am like a kid that never grew up and that still likes to play hide and seek, or the hunter who still likes to hunt, even though the “thrill of the kill” no longer holds any thrill for me.

It isn’t the easiest way to get wildlife photos, but it is my way, even if it is more difficult.


6 responses

  1. i kind of love this.

    October 13, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    • Thank you

      October 13, 2011 at 2:09 pm

  2. Some good tips you’ve shared here. I’ll second your observation about butterflies- they’re the most skittish things I’ve ever walked up on!

    October 13, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    • Not only are they skittish, there seems to be no logic as far as what flower they are going to visit next. Just when you think that one is going to hit all the same types of flowers in a group, the butterfly takes off for some unseen flowers over the next hill.

      October 15, 2011 at 11:11 am

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  4. Very well written article. Sounds familiar as this is similar to how I approach nature photography. Read the same book probably 40 years ago. Only a couple points I could add to this. When looking for game I often look for movement in the brush, shrubs, or trees. Then focus in those windows as you stated in the woods but in smaller areas. Finding the bird, rabbit, etc that is causing the motion. Also to use what is occurring seasonally such as in a drought year search out wet spots. In a wet year seek out dry spots. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and techniques..

    September 25, 2012 at 7:49 am