Over the past 5 years my main focus in photography has been wildlife. When I first started I would grab my camera on the weekend and head out to a number of locations through out a morning looking for subjects to photograph. Most of the time I would return home with barely a shot worth keeping or at least not to the quality I was looking for. I soon realized that more planning needed to be made in order to capture the images I wanted.
Sure once in a while a wildlife photographer will head out and randomly spot a subject and nail that amazing shot but most of the time there is a lot of planning behind their images.
Starting off as a wildlife photographer the first thing I would recommend is observing and documenting everything you see or hear in a journal. From the Belted Kingfisher you heard calling from the river side or the Eagle you saw perched in a tree to the fox you saw crossing the road one day. I personally break down my journal into months so the following year when I go back to it for reference I can see what I observed or photographed month by month.
One great thing about wildlife is that seeing them isn't as random as we might all think at first. Animals for the most part are pretty consistent in their actions or behaviors. Lets take the Belted Kingfisher for example. Not far from my house is a small stream that runs into a pond and one day I heard the call of a kingfisher. There he was perched on the branch of a near by tree. I slowly pulled up in my car and of course off he went. I spent days trying to get images of him when I finally decided to just sit back and observe his behaviors look for a pattern. I soon realized that each morning at about 7:00 am he would perch on the same little branch close to shore. So with this knowledge I woke early the following morning and headed out with my camo blind at 6:00 am. I was setup and ready for him to show and sure enough almost 7 am on the dot I could hear his call as he headed straight for me. He sat up on his perch and I was able to capture this beautiful image
Knowing your subject is key and spending time around that subject to learn its behaviors or patterns is a must. Getting to knowing which subjects are common/uncommon, seasonal or year round to your area. For example shorebirds here on the island are best viewed from August to October. So during those months my focus shifts to them since I know I have a short period of time to photograph them.
So how do we find this out? Well having a good field guide is a must and one specific to your area is even better. There are a number of books out there and also apps for your iphone like the iBird app. You can also search online for groups that might be created for people that share sightings in your area. For example here on the island we have a Google group called nf.birds which I check constantly for sightings or to learn about common locations to find certain species.
Now that we have begun to gather information on our subjects what other factors will help us get that perfect image. What about its environment or surroundings?
We all know lighting is the key to photography so knowing where the sun rises and sets is very important. Knowing this will allow you to position yourself so that the sun is right where you want it when your subject enters the frame. Recently I came across one of the best tools I have ever seen and its meant for photographers... it's called The Photographers Ephemeris. In this tool you pick the location you will be heading to and it will tell you when and where the sun/moon rises and sets. Here is a screen grab from the software:
This tool is a must have and I think it comes as an app for your iPhone which is great for when you are out in the field.
Other tools or sites I use especially during shorebird season are Tidal Predictions. Shorebirds mainly feed along shorelines when the tides are low so knowing when that is will be important. I discovered that a Greater Yellowlegs loved to rest on a rock at a near by pond that flows out into the ocean. So one afternoon when the tide was low I headed out and sure enough there he was.
A more obvious site is the Weather Network but don't always look for those beautiful sunny days. The more dull and overcast days make for better exposures and even those rainy/snowy days can make for dramatic images.
So get out there and start to gather info. Put together a journal so you can quickly review your sightings each year to help you plan for the next...
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