Tips on wildlife photography

By James T. Smith

I now look back over my life and think of all the opportunities I had for some fantastic, world-class pictures if I had just carried a camera along with me. Today I have a new digital outfit and am ready to retrace some of my favorite places. In addition, since I am relatively new to Arizona I am looking forward to shooting some wildlife here. Not all of my interests are limited to wildlife but included are all sorts of fauna, landscapes and just different photographic possibilities.
porcupine-smithI have been an outdoorsman, hunter and fisherman my entire adult life and I will share some things you may want to know about where, when and how to get good – no, great – wildlife photos.
First: The two best times of a day for shooting wildlife are the early morning hours at sunrise and beyond, followed by the last few hours of daylight prior to sunset. These two windows last around an hour or two – so don’t waste it. Get set up before and break down after. I’m not saying you won’t see wildlife during the day, I’m just saying you can improve your chances by looking for them at these times. Also, most animals are lying in the shade during clear days. Overcast and/or rainy days do bring the animals out and moving, so don’t pass up a cloudy dreary day; just pay attention to your light or lack thereof.
Second: Study animals and know their habits. Small game, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, hummingbirds, etc., are neighborhood species and can generally be lured to a feeder for shooting photos.


Big game and larger animals will need to be pursued. These include deer, elk, antelope, bighorn sheep, wild horses and burrows. First, go to your local game and fish department to talk with a biologist who specializes in your animal of choice. The biologist can provide specific locations and tips on locating your quarry. Next, plan your trip around the rut, or mating season, when the males of the species are “courting” the females by rounding up a harem to breed. For example, bull elk are not very wary and, in fact, are quite careless and unconcerned. This will put the odds in your favor, as you will be able to get much closer without spooking the animals.
Here is an additional tip: Stop by a sporting goods store and purchase an elk call, coyote call, goose or duck call. This will provide additional potential for bringing that animal or bird closer. (If you get really good at calling, you may need someone to sit behind you and watch in the other direction. You wouldn’t want some big bull elk that has something on his mind other than posing for a photo getting too close.)
Birds – waterfowl in particular – are migratory and are available in large numbers in the late fall from about Thanksgiving past New Year’s. Certain species, i.e. wood ducks and teal, migrate in September and early October. Doves fly south in early September. Look for water, potholes and cornfields for waterfowl and sunflower fields for doves. Turkeys are easily called up in the spring. The best way to locate a flock of turkeys is to go to your designated area after dark and clap your hands, honk your car horn or use a crow call. The roosting turkeys will gobble to your calling and you can get yourself set up under their roost tree before daylight.


Third: Now you’re in place, camera is on the tripod and you’re ready for the action. Most likely most of your photographing of wildlife will be “hand held” and not on a tripod. Whichever method you use, be aware of wildlife ethics, as described by the North American Nature Photography Association in its “Principles of Ethical Field Practices.”
There are many good books on the best places to find wildlife in your state. This topic is vast and I have only scratched the surface. Check out OWAA member Web sites on the Internet; many of our members have some great information to assist you. There is a big market out there for good wildlife photography. Good photos pay well and great ones pay exceptionally well. Cover shots pay the most, so be sure to shoot plenty of vertical shots.
One final thought: As you are sitting and waiting for that ideal shot (which you most likely will be doing a lot), look around you. There will be small animals, birds, clouds, fall colors or spring flowers to photograph. Being observant could quite possibly turn a day of a no-show for your primary subject into a day of numerous photos that wouldn’t have been possible had you not been out enjoying God’s little creatures. ◊
jimsmithJames T. Smith is a freelance writer and photographer, editor emeritus of MUSKIE Magazine and an OWAA board member. He makes his home in Surprise, Ariz. Contact him at

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