During the first lecture I presented on Arctic Wildlife Photography at the AIPP Event in Perth Western Australia earlier this month I caught a number of people off guard in the audience when I explained my process for going out to photograph a particular species. It is an approach that will cost you much less than a new camera or lens and is guaranteed to help you get better photographs during your next wildlife outing. It is also an approach that requires a little investment in time, but its time well spent that will ensure you capture better images than you otherwise might have.
When I leave for a photographic expedition to photograph wildlife (it doesn’t matter what sort of wildlife) I don’t just pack my bags and head off into the wilderness to photograph a given animal with the latest and greatest gear. I do an extensive amount of research into the animal’s ecology so that I not only know where to find them, but also so that I am fully armed with knowledge of their behaviour. This knowledge is critical to capturing intimate images that would otherwise be impossible to realise. It enables me to read the many subtle signs an animal often displays and even predict their behaviour. Most of us know that a house cat is usually agitated or afraid when it flattens its ears. And we use this knowledge to deal with the cat accordingly. This same knowledge is a critical component to effective and successful wildlife imagery. It is far more important than a faster focusing lens or a camera with one stop more dynamic range. Those technical aspects of equipment are irrelivent if you have not equipped yourself with the right knowledge of your subject.
To cite an actual recent example of this in practice – When I set out on my Arctic Fox project (now coming into its third year) I went out and purchased every book I could on the ecology of Arctic Foxes so that I could learn as much as possible about their behaviour long before I ever pressed the shutter on my camera (I own not less than half a dozen different books on Arctic foxes). I wanted to arm myself with knowledge of the foxes behaviour so that I could recognise subtle signs and cues in their behaviour as I worked with the animals in the field. Wildlife give a great many clues about what they are going to do next through their behaviour and if you know and can recognise these clues you can predict the animals behaviour and greatly increase your ratio of quality keepers.The other thing you can do in addition to researching and reading about your subject is to enlist the help of someone studying the animal you want to photograph. A scientist or even a PHD student working with a particular species is likely to posses a lot more knowledge on your subject than you can probably otherwise acquire in a short period of time. Their assistance can be invaluable in the field in locating hard to find wildlife and in understanding wildlife behaviour.
Now I grant you, spending time purchasing books, researching and reading about your photographic subject is not nearly as glamorous as a purchasing a shiny new lens or camera and running straight out into the field, but it does cost a lot less money and provides a far great return on investment in photographic terms. The next time you plan to go out and photograph wildlife it is well worth taking some time out and doing some research and reading on your chosen subject. You will almost certainly learn something about your subject and you will capture better photographs as a result. I will be leaving for the Arctic in a couple of days to lead two photographic expeditions for Polar Bears and I will certainly be brushing up on my reading with a couple of new Polar Bear books on the long flights from Australia. Happy Reading…