Ever decreasing circles -getting close to wildlife

Wildlife photography is often considered the domain of extreme long lenses. These great bazooka-like lumps of glass, metal and engineering plastic that cost a fortune and weigh a proverbial ton are seen as an easy solution when your subjects are shy, skittish and difficult or dangerous to approach.

While there are times long lenses are unavoidable, anyone who has ever worked with super telephotos will tell you that far from being an easy solution they are especially challenging to use well. The high levels of magnification they achieve means that every tiny movement and the gentlest of vibrations are wildly exaggerated to a point where getting a pin-sharp image, even with the lens securely mounted on a sturdy tripod, is close to unobtainable. Add to that their cumbersome nature and the difficulties encountered carrying them on any airline and they quickly cease to be so appealing.

Close encounters.

Moreover, I have another issue with long lenses. For much of my wildlife work, my aim is to capture the spirit and character of my subjects.

I am looking to reveal the personality of an individual animal and I don’t believe you can do that standing half a mile away with a 600mm lens. For my work, I need to make a connection;

I need to be closer.

I once received an email from a colleague questioning the ethics behind my approach to wildlife photography. He felt that by getting close to wildlife I was causing a disturbance beyond a necessary and acceptable level. There is merit in his concern and I in no way condone reckless photographic behaviour. But his comment revealed a misunderstanding of what I do. After many years working in the field, much of that time spent in the company of biologists, I have learned that with practiced fieldcraft and a sound knowledge of animal behaviour, wildlife — even so-called dangerous wildlife — can be approached without impairment to either party.

The circle of fear.

All animals have around them a circle of fear; something we refer to in human terms as a ‘comfort zone’. The extent of this circle or zone isn’t marked, nor is it fixed. It differs between species and changes constantly depending on many variables — the mood of the subject, its health, the season, weather conditions, habitat, time of day, to name a few. But once you know the circle exists it is easy to recognise.

A prime UK example is the grey heron. If you have ever tried approaching a heron along a riverbank, you will have noticed how, when you reach a certain distance, the bird flies off, landing a little further away along the bank.

Keep going and it does the same over and again. You are encroaching on its circle of fear and it is taking evasive action. Keep approaching the same way and a heron will fly away altogether.

The skill in close-up wildlife photography isn’t in knowing how to invade an animal’s circle of fear, it’s knowing how to make the circle smaller. When the circle diminishes, not only will you be able to use shorter focal length lenses to gain a different perspective, but you will also ensure that your actions never harm the wildlife you’re approaching and photographing.

The 80/20 rule.

I often say that 80% of my job is biology and only 20% is photography. Researching when and where to go to find my subjects, knowing how to anticipate an animal’s actions, knowing how to approach wildlife — when it’s safe to move closer and when it’s wise to back away — and how to make wildlife feel comfortable with my presence is what I spend most of my time doing. Much of that knowledge I have learned in the field, either through firsthand observation or by listening to and watching biologists and researchers.

Over the years, I have built up a network of contacts around the world, but when I first started, I simply approached my local Wildlife Trust and worked with their biologists, swapping photographs for a guiding hand.

I have also learnt a lot from field guides and books. I remember early on in my career reading about photographing badgers. The written advice was sound and perfectly illustrates my point. Badgers have an exceptional sense of smell. Try approaching a badger sett unannounced and it won’t matter how well camouflaged your clothing, you’ll be lucky even to catch a glimpse of a fast-retreating badger’s butt. Instead, leave your cameras behind and for a fortnight or so, approach the sett overtly with a small amount of food (not so much that they become dependant on it). Lay the food in the area you’d like to photograph the badgers and then leave.

Keep doing this for several nights and eventually the badgers will associate your scent with a meal. They will become less wary of you and soon will allow you to sit and photograph them while they eat. For me it was an early lesson, and it shows how knowledge of animal behaviour can be used to moderate an animal’s instinctive fear so that its circle of fear recedes.

A different approach

Of course, such an approach takes time and commitment, two things that non-pros are likely to struggle balancing with daily life. There are other, less time-consuming strategies you can adopt. I once had a similar experience to the British heron when trying to photograph sandhill cranes in the USA. Like herons, these shy birds would never allow me within shooting distance on foot. Instead, I used a kayak. Because the birds didn’t associate people (and therefore danger) as being water borne, they were less wary of my presence and I was able to get the shots.

Using various types of boat and forms of nonhuman transport is a tactic I employ often. Many of my images of Bornean orangutan for Animals on the Edge were photographed from a wooden dinghy. Elsewhere, I have used elephants to get within wideangle range of tigers in India and endangered rhinos in Nepal. Similarly, in Africa, I have used horses to get close to plains game, such as zebra, wildebeest and even giraffe -animals that rarely allow humans close enough to enable jettisoning the heavy glass. In the UK I have used a floating hide to shoot wading birds.

Disassociating yourself from the normal human approach is the best way to ensure you get close to wildlife safely. Sometimes, however, it’s impossible to deviate from our human form.

I had an idea to photograph elephants from within a herd. What I visualised was not what we the observer sees, instead I wanted to show what elephants observed. That meant positioning myself in the midst of a herd.

Patience is a virtue

When there are no suitable shortcuts, time and patience is key. For my elephant shot, I spent days shadowing a herd. Throughout the day, I would follow them at a distance. Eventually, they began to ignore me and one or two might wander over to where I stood. Over time, I was accepted by the herd and would often sit or stand surrounded by elephants. So close did they venture, that when it came to making the image, the only way to get them all in the picture was to use my fisheye lens. The essential point is, in this case, it wasn’t me who forced the issue; it was the elephants’ decision to approach me.

Such experiences are life changing and worth the time and effort needed to make them happen. But when time or circumstance don’t allow, my last resort is to turn to technology and remote trigger photography. Remote photography takes two forms: either the photographer is present and fires the shutter using a wired or wireless remote control; or the photographer is absent and the subject inadvertently triggers a sound or motion detector that fires the shutter (i.e. a camera trap).

F/8 and not being there.

When it comes to camera traps, there is always debate about the legitimacy of the resulting photograph. In 2008, the talented photographer Steve Winter won the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year award with a night shot of a snow leopard. The image was captured using a camera trap that Winter had set up and left in position. When the winner was announced the online forums burst into life, some contributors approving of the image, others calling for its immediate disqualification based on the fact Winter wasn’t there at the moment the image was captured.

It’s an ongoing debate, so to understand my position, let me pose a question. I have a few friends who are commercial photographers, shooting high end products for glossy, expensive advertising campaigns. One of them described to me his typical day shooting. Summarising, he first decides on camera position and lens choice, taking into account foreground and background detail. Then he composes the image to convey the message the customer wants. He then determines the focus point and depth of field. Next, he arranges the lighting, balancing key lights with creative lights, and then he calculates and sets the exposure. Finally, when everything is in place, he nips off for a cup of tea and lets his assistant press the shutter.

In this scenario, who is the photographer — the guy who visualised the image and set the whole thing up or the person who, without changing a single setting, physically pressed the shutter? It’s a rhetorical question, but from it you might guess my position. The process was no different for Winter’s shot and, like him, I have no qualms about using remote cameras if necessary.

The art of communication.

In photography, it is lens choice that should determine camera position, not the other way around. For me, the purpose of photography is to communicate. I see it as part of my role to reveal the natural world in ways that most people will never experience and that often means finding new and interesting perspectives — going the extra mile. But going the extra mile doesn’t automatically mean going too far. I am often asked what life-threatening experiences I’ve had with wild animals and, although I could easily spin a yarn and sex up a story, I can honestly say that in over a decade of photographing wild and often dangerous animals I have never once felt that my life was in danger. And, hand on heart I can honestly say that, to the best of my knowledge, no animal has ever suffered for my art.

Animals live and survive on instinct. Their instinct is to fear man. But allay those fears, prove to an animal that you are not there to harm it, and you will find that there is little distance between us.

Like this post? Please share to your friends: