By Gary Gray
I’ve been hosting wildlife photography workshops in Colorado for over 13 years. I’ll share some of the things I’ve learned over the years. Pointers on how to have a better wildlife photography experience while shooting from a vehicle.
Your personal behavior is going to have a direct effect on your results. Someone else being stupid isn’t a license to be stupid. Always show respect to other photographers and tourists who may be in the same location you are working.
Respect the animals you are going to photograph. Don’t harass or chum or try to personally interact with them. Most animals are going to be aware of your presence. If the animals you are photographing change their behavior to compensate for your actions, you’ve gone to far. Animals have body language that is fairly easy to read. The most immediate clue large animals will give you is they turn their butts towards you. If you see a herd of deer or a small group of elk and all their butts are pointed at you, guess what their next action is? They are going to move away from you. Animal butts are a good sign you need to move on. Never approach a wild animal, even if they are friendly and habituated to human activity.
Working from a vehicle
Be quiet. Don’t have conversations with those around you. Don’t stomp around through the woods or along paths, snapping sticks and twigs or crunching gravel. Take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints. If you are working from a vehicle, turn the stereo/radio off. Turn the ringer off on your mobile phone.
Be still. Once you’ve positioned yourself, don’t move around. Don’t pick up your gear and head out into a field to get closer. No sudden movements. Try to avoid direct or prolonged eye contact with the animals. If you are innocuous, there’s a good possibility that the wildlife will lose interest in you and meander closer.
Never try to chum wildlife with food. Wild animals don’t eat potato chips or ham sandwiches. Moldy bread can be fatal to ducks. Be smart and let them feed themselves. Your food is only going to create a greater risk to their survival. Don’t use artificial sounds to lure wildlife to you.
Every photographer I know has iBird on their smart phone. Don’t play bird sounds in hopes of attracting birds. Leave the elk calls at home.
Remember that you are not in charge of what others do. It’s not your responsibility to make sure everyone you see around wildlife is behaving properly. I’ve seen many obnoxious tourists and photographers ignoring everything and everyone in a quest to get a photo. They have the right to be there. Keep your temper in check and don’t let things escalate into a conflict with others. I normally just move somewhere else so I don’t have to interact with obnoxious people.
Most of my wildlife photography is done from a vehicle. There’s a lot of wilderness and many forest roads to explore in Colorado and the vehicle offers me the best opportunity to get closer to animals because moose, elk, deer, bighorn, and mountain goats don’t consider automobiles to be a threat. At least not until they see a person.
When exploring an area, always make a second pass. I have routes I travel all the time and I always do a couple of laps at least. Animals move frequently and you may not have seen anything on one trip through, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t something there.
Always check your six. I can’t count the number of times I’ve driven through an area only to look in the rear view mirror and see something crossing the road 50 yards behind me. It’s like they were waiting for me to pass before crossing.
Have your camera ready and with you before you see the animals. When entering a wildlife search area, having that camera ready to go can make the difference between getting a shot and watching a critter disappear into the woods. Often times you’ll only have a couple of seconds to get a quick shot out the window. Speaking of windows, keep the window down when on patrol. Even if it’s cold. Otherwise you could easily be too late as the animal is gone before the window is down. Don’t smoke in the vehicle. That smoke can waif through the windows directly in front of your lens.
When you are on patrol and spot animals, don’t slam on your brakes and jump out of the car. That’s a sure fire way to scare an animal off. If you can’t shoot from the window and must exit the vehicle. Creep to a halt before the animal is reacting to you. When you exit, get out of the vehicle on the blind side using the car as a visual obstacle. Don’t walk out from behind the car into the open. Peek around the car and try to get shots from a covered position. If you are on the side of the vehicle that faces the animals, stay in the vehicle and shoot from the window.
Don’t shoot from a moving vehicle, your shots will be blurry. Don’t shoot through the window glass, your shots will be blurry. When stopped, turn the engine off in your vehicle. Exhaust can waif in front of your lens and create convection distortion and you’ll also eliminate the vibration caused by the engine running. Never rest your lens on the top of the window with the engine running. Be still. don’t wiggle around in the vehicle. Ask others in the vehicle to be still as well.
You’ll often be alerted to the presence of animals by a group of cars pulled off the road ahead of you. Don’t drive directly into the group, and jump out. Try to get shots through the window only after you’ve made a silent and unobtrusive approach to the scene. You don’t need to aggravate those who got there first by scaring off their subjects. Never slam the door. Slowly close it without making noise. Also, don’t leave your car door hanging wide open when you walk away from the vehicle. Push it closed gently. If the driver needs to move the vehicle that closed door is going to help them move quickly and silently. Take the keys out of the ignition before you exit the vehicle. There’s nothing more annoying than your car beeping away like a garbage truck in reverse while you’re trying to get a photograph without being noticed.
If you are traveling with three people in a vehicle, pick the back seat. You can shoot from both windows. The driver and other front seat passenger are going to be stuck with only one direction to shoot.
Never put your camera on the dashboard. If you forget it’s there and move the vehicle, it will roll off onto the floorboard and, well, that could be disastrous for a lens or the camera.
Your safety and the safety of the wildlife should always be a prime consideration. Don’t put your passengers or yourself at risk by trying to shoot from the side of a busy highway. Don’t put your vehicle in a situation that it can’t handle. Muddy roads with deep puddles can often be much more hazardous than they appear to be. When I know I’m going to be on some rough terrain, I always take my 4×4 pickup truck with off road tires. The last thing you want is to break down in the middle of nowhere with ten thousand dollars worth of camera gear left in your car while you hike 10 miles to get help.
Drive slowly when on the back roads. You’ll see more action that way and it keeps the dust down. If traffic begins stacking up behind you, be polite, pull over and let them pass. If you’re behind someone driving slow, keep some distance until you can pass without being obnoxious about it. It’s not rush hour in the city. Don’t be a road hazard and always assume somebody behind you is going to be impatient with your slow driving. Driving slowly also reduces the risk to wildlife which can run in front of you without notice. You don’t want to run into a moose going 40 miles per hour. It will kill the moose, it could kill you or your passengers and it would definitely do damage to your vehicle.
Never follow behind animals moving along the road. If you get behind them and move with them, they’ll panic and could hurt themselves trying to flee. Just pull over and wait a couple of minutes. They’ll probably be off the road by the time you see them again and if not, pull over and wait some more.
That’s my advice and I’m sticking to it.