Award-winning wildlife photographer Dale Morris shares nine great tips to help you capture stunning images of wild animals in their natural habitat.
I am a firm believer that wildlife photography is not just about capturing great images. It’s equally about taking time to observe, and more importantly, really enjoy the experience of being in the company of wild animals. Wildlife photography awakens a primal hunting instinct in us. We get to stalk our quarry, preferably unnoticed, and then as a substitute to making a killing shot, we take a killer photo instead.
Land-based wild animal photography, by its very nature, requires you to be patient; a virtue which will not only reward you with satisfying images, but with wonderful experiences too. But how do you observe and photograph wild animals behaving naturally without disturbing them?
First of all, I find it helps to imagine that every animal is at the centre of its own set of invisible concentric circles. If something unusual (say a photographer, for example) steps across the outermost boundary, the animal will react (usually by becoming more alert to your presence). Move across the next circle too soon and an imaginary alarm is triggered.
You are now running the risk of eliciting a flight or fight response. An animal’s rear end vanishing over the horizon rarely makes for a good photo, nor does a trampled and smashed camera. How can you take photos of relaxed animals without evoking a negative response? Here are some tips I’ve picked up over my years of photographing animals throughout Africa and around the world.
01 GET A BIG LENS A long lens has some obvious advantages in wildlife photography. Best of all it allows you to work from a comfortable distance, and that reduces the chance of disturbing the animal. The goal in wildlife photography is to capture animals behaving as they would in nature and that’s more likely if they don’t know you’re there. Keep in mind that your camera will probably require some form of stabilisation at the long end of the zoom range. In-camera and lens stabilisation is great, but you can’t beat a sturdy tripod.
These zebras were very alert to my presence. I had the feeling that if I
took one step closer they were going to run. Using a long lens - in
this case a 200-400mm zoom - I was able to get ‘closer’ to the action,
without getting any closer to the flighty animals! Nikon D700, 200-400mm
lens @ 360mm, f/4 @ 1/500s, ISO 100.
02 CAMOUFLAGE AND DISGUISE It sounds a little crazy but you’ll almost certainly get better shots if you use some form of camouflage. Many animals in national parks are habituated to having vehicles near them, so a car can make for great camouflage. Wind the windows down where possible so you’re not shooting through glass. When you’re out and about look for areas which offer good cover – find a tree to hide behind or duck down behind a rock. If you’re serious about photography, invest in a hide and set it up early. They are particularly useful in bird photography.
Lazing around is what lions do best. As such, it’s quite easy to
photograph them doing just that. However, without a vehicle from which
to shoot, the lion would have taken one look at me and ran. Because many
animals in national parks are used to vehicles, I was able to do a
complete photo shoot without being noticed. Nikon D200, 400mmm f/4 lens,
f/4 @ 1/750s, ISO 400.
03 TREAD CAREFULLY It’s often possible to infiltrate an animal’s ‘circle of comfort’ using slow slow incremental movements. At first, the animal will be wary of you, so each time it focuses on you avoid eye contact and keep as still as possible. If you act in a non-threatening manner, the animal’s circle may eventually shrink to accommodate you at an acceptable shooting distance.
The stance says it all – these two Kalahari jackals were very interested
in what I was doing. They were nervous and ready to bolt, but by
keeping my distance and sidling up to them slowly over the course of
half an hour I was able to get close enough to take this photo. Nikon
D700, 200-400mm f/4 lens @ 400mm, f/10 @ 1/80s, ISO 640.
04 BE A HUNTER Look at the landscape to see if there’s any way to get closer without being detected. Take note of which way the wind is blowing. Keep a low profile. Be silent and move slowly!
I spent seven days tracking black rhinos, but I got very few photos due
to their aggressive nature (they would chase me up trees!) .
Eventually, on the last day of my shoot, just before sundown, my expert
guide tracked this rhino and got me safely up into a tree from which I
was able to make my shots. Within moments of the shutter going off the
rhino caught our scent and bolted. Nikon D200, 200-400mm f/4 lens, f/5.6
@ 1/100s, ISO 100.
05 OBSERVE The more time you spend observing an animal, the greater your chance of predicting its movements and behaviours and getting the shot you want. A pair of binoculars can be useful for those times when you’re out in the bush, but not when you’re shooting. Is there a pattern to what the animal is doing and, if so, can you use that knowledge to predict where you should set up your camera for the best chance of success?
I photographed this Sifika monkey in Madagascar. A tree-dwelling
creature, Sifikas only come to ground to cross open space. By studying
the movements of sifikas in advance I was able to predict where and more
or less when this animal would come down to the ground and perform.
Nikon D700, 200-400mm f/4 lens @ 400mm, f/5.6 @ 1/640s, ISO 100.
06 TAKE PLENTY OF SHOTS Sometimes an animal is so preoccupied with what it’s doing, such as fighting for territory, mating, building a nest or feeding, that it will either not notice your presence or it will be reluctant to stop. Take advantage of these moments and shoot plenty of images. They don’t come around very often, but they’re usually the moments which produce the best shots.
Gibbons are agile primates which live in the tallest trees of Southeast
Asia, making them very difficult to photograph. This animal was part of a
rehabilitation program in the south of Thailand, in which injured and
illegal pets were reintroduced to the forest. Because these animals
were used to people it was possible to get close to them. Close enough
to take this portrait photo. Nikon D200, 110mm lens, f/5.6 @ 1/50s, ISO
07 BE PATIENT A patient wildlife photographer who has empathy with, and a fascination for, the animals in front of the camera will always have a much more enjoyable time in the field than somebody who gets frustrated because they aren’t getting the exact photo they envisioned. So next time you pack your camera for a wildlife shoot make sure you pack plenty of patience along with your lenses! You’re sure to have a richer and more rewarding experience. Chances are, you’ll take better photos too.
I visited a meerkat research project in South Africa which gave me the
chance to photograph these animals up close. Animals which are
habituated to human presence are obviously great photographic models as
they usually have no fear. Nikon D200 with 200-400mm f/4 lens @ 310mm,
f/4 @ 1/350s, ISO 125.
08 DON’T FEED THE WILDLIFE On occasions you’ll encounter ‘friendly’ animals loitering around campgrounds, and other places where people gather. They make great photographic models, but do be aware they may have become accustomed to handouts from humans and as such may become aggressive. Never feed a wild animal in order to coax it closer for a photo. This is irresponsible and could lead to the animal or a person getting hurt.
This photo was taken in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Most animals
in safari and national parks are generally acclimatised to the presence
of vehicles. An open-sided safari vehicle, or just any old car with the
window open, can make for a fantastic mobile hide from which to take
photographs. Nikon D300, 200-400mm lens, f/4 @ 1/500s, ISO 160.
09 JOIN A WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY TOUR Finally, why not think about joining a professional wildlife photography tour? You will be with like-minded people (who won’t be in a hurry to rush from one animal to the next) and your tour operator, if they’re experienced in their location, should be able to lead you to the best spots to get great wildlife shots. What’s more, you’ll most likely have the benefit of a photographic tutor who can help you get the best results from your particular camera.
This photo was taken while working as part of a research project.
Thanks to the researchers’ knowledge and the fact the animals were
accustomed to seeing humans, I was able to set up my camera near their
den to get this candid image. Nikon D200, 200-400mm f/4 lens @ 360mm,
f/5.6 @ 1/100s, ISO 500.