Wildlife Photography Tips: Ask Questions First, Shoot Later

You have heard it said, “Shoot first, ask questions later” but when it comes to wildlife photography, if you will ask questions first, you will get to shoot more later.  This quick tip for the beginning wildlife photographer encourages you to ask questions. While you might go to a park to find wildlife, some photo ops might be in your own backyard, literally, and if not your own backyard, maybe in your friend’s or neighbor’s backyard.

Grackle in Crabapple Blossoms

Some time ago, I was busy frequenting a local park looking for a bobcat that was being seen.  I made at least 20 visits and spent considerable time there looking for that bobcat.  I found tracks and evidence of its kills but I never found the cat.  On one particular day I had been out to the park for about 4 hours hiking and looking, all to no avail.  I got home and my wife asked, “Did you see the pictures of the mountain lion that so and so posted on their Facebook page?”  I asked where she had seen the mountain lion and it turned out that it was in her back yard.  When I heard this, I was a bit frustrated, as I had been within a few minutes of their home when I was looking for the bobcat and had I known that there was a lion there, I would have made a trip over there to try and see it.   By this time however, I knew that realistically, it was long gone.

There had been a recent snowstorm that left us with 2 feet of snow and out at the park a deer had died of what appeared to be natural causes.  The deer was buried in the snow except for one leg that was exposed and revealing its presence.   Another photographer had told me about it and so we were snowshoeing back into the area hoping to be there when animals such as coyotes or mountain lions found it.  He had already been watching the area for a few days before I joined him in the search.  The next day we went back out to the park and hiked in again, this time the deer was gone.  There was evidence it had found by critters and disposed of in nature’s own way.  We looked around for an hour or so and finding nothing, we snowshoed back disappointed and empty-handed.  I got home that night and again, my wife asked if I saw the photos our friend posted on Facebook of the mountain lion.  Incredulously, I asked if they were from the day before or from today.  She informed me that they were new photos from today.  I couldn’t believe it, lightning had struck twice and I missed out again.

The next day I had a meeting in the morning that prevented me heading back out to look again.  I wondered what the chances could be of lightning striking three times.  I couldn’t take it anymore and eventually I decided to call the family that had the mountain lion visiting them.  I asked if by any lucky stretch, was the lion still hanging around their home.  Their response was, “Let me go see.  Yes, they’re still here.”   I explained that I was a photographer and asked if I could come out and take a look.

When I got there, I found out the reason they were hanging around and yes, I said, “they”.  It turns out that it wasn’t just one mountain lion, but two, a mom and a yearling. The momma cougar had killed a deer in their backyard.  Their home sits backing up to the foothills of the mountains and the lions were enjoying a bed and breakfast, or so to speak. Unfortunately, I had not called earlier to ask questions, I just assumed that the visitors had come and gone.  Also, unfortunately, the family didn’t realize that I would even be interested in seeing them.  By the time I got there, only the momma cougar was there and she left almost immediately.  I quickly took this photo through a window that had icicles in the way, coupled with double paned glass which made it difficult to focus at the angle I had to shoot.   Quickly she was gone.  I waited for some time, but they didn’t return.

Mountain Lion

I got a call later at about dusk, they had returned.  I jumped in the car and left as fast as I could.  I got there after sunset and when I drove up both cats ran up the mountainside.   I was bummed out.  Then after a few minutes, the cub (or kitten, either is supposedly correct) returned for a venison snack. After convincing the family to let me outside the back of the house (and promising not to bring the felines inside with me), I got a few photos in very low light of the cub.  Yes, I used a long lens.  It goes without saying, be very careful when photographing wildlife, they are wild and can be dangerous to both you and themselves.

Mountain Lion Cub on Kill

The point of this story is to not be afraid to ask people if they ever see things where they live.  You would be surprised how often you ask this and people start to tell you what they see.  If you have friends that live in or near the mountains or in any rural area, they may see things that the rest of us don’t see very often and can be a big help in finding subjects to photograph.  Tell them to call you when they see something they think might interest you.  The family with the cougars later called to tell me about a great horned owl and its nest – complete with owlets.

Along these lines, if you are out taking photos, be a good neighbor and tell people that you are there.  Introduce yourself and ask if it is okay to take photos in their neighborhood and then be sure to honor their wishes.   The last thing you want to do is be a nuisance.  Take a second to think of how it looks to have stranger with a camera and big lens hanging out the window of a car or wandering around the area.  You will find that most of the people will respond kindly and then if you get a photo that you are proud of, print it and give a copy to them.  They will appreciate the gesture.

Always respect property owners along with their rights and desires and likewise, always respect the wildlife.  Try not to stress them such that they may do harm to themselves or you.  I am referring to both the property owners and the wildlife.  Be aware of your surroundings, a busy street with a deer on the side of the road isn’t a good place to stop and photograph.  You could cause an accident involving you or the animal.  A stressed deer may run away and in doing so, might try to cross the street at the wrong time.

Remember to ask questions first, if you do, you just might get to shoot more later.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Peter
    July 13, 2013 at 10:13 am

    Must have drove you nutty stalking those cats! Glad you finally got them!

    • July 13, 2013 at 12:52 pm

      Peter, thank you. I never did find the bobcat, although I did find one later that year about 2 hours north when I wasn’t even looking for it. Wildlife is unpredictable.

  2. July 13, 2013 at 11:05 am

    WOW, I love the first photo of the black bird among the pink blossoms. Great tips and so happy you finally were able to photograph the cat family.

  3. July 13, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    Ahhhh … the ones that get away … so glad to read you had a happy ending .. well done!! And excellent advice, too!!

  4. 6
    ) Tom Crossan
    July 13, 2013 at 4:48 pm

    Great article and images.

  5. July 15, 2013 at 7:15 am

    Excellent article and truly a great information available here, i found this day before yesterday and been through most the articles and still going on.

    Can you please post something on “Still Life Photography” also.

    Thanks for this valuable information again.

  6. 9
    ) Paul
    July 15, 2013 at 11:41 am

    I am curious how you and others set a camera for a wild life such as cougar that may disappear at any second. I usually preset high ISO, fast shutter speed for the first shots and then change settings for better IQ, if they are still there.

    • July 15, 2013 at 5:46 pm

      Paul, I usually shoot in manual mode so that I can control the shutter speed and DOF. I set the ISO to “Auto” with a maximum ISO set to the highest that I am comfortable with depending on the situation. That is assuming your camera body will allow you to shoot in Auto ISO and also if it will allow you to set a Max ISO. Then, like you said, if the animal stays around long enough, I will adjust the settings as I see fit. For the 3rd shot – the cougar on the kill, the sun had already set, it was dark and I had to crank up the ISO. My older camera body didn’t handle the high ISO as well as the newer ones do and so it isn’t the best shot, for that matter the momma thru the window isn’t high IQ, either. However, I at least got to see a couple of the most elusive cats in North America.

  7. 11
    ) alok
    July 15, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    Very useful article Tom. I too use the auto ISO with manual for wildlife which gives me control over both DOF and shutter speed. I have one question though. What is the best technique to focus a wildlife if you want to position it off center in the frame ? Since we use AF-C for wild life, it wont let focus recompose while still using the center focus points. One can try using off center focus points but since they are not usually cross type theoretically you don’t get that sharpness and fastness as with the center focus points especially working in relatively low light condition. Other option is cropping the image after shooting the subject in the center but that is wastage of megapixels.

    • July 16, 2013 at 7:30 am

      Alok, you bring up a really good question for which there is no one right answer and the points you make are all valid. You have some choices: 1. if you use the rear button focus method (program a button on the back of the camera such as the AF-On button to focus) then you can focus with the center point in AF-C mode and recompose. This works best on stationary objects since once they move they are out of focus, obviously.
      2. You can select a different focus point or area to focus but you are right, it is less accurate than the center button
      3. You can use 3D tracking on your AF (if you have it) and recompose as the subject moves. Downside – 3D is slower to lock on but once it does, it tracks well. I usually only use 3D when the subject is or likely to be moving straight at me. Nikon’s 3D system although slower to acquire focus, once it locks on, it does a very nice job of tracking something coming straight at you – which is typically a big challenge for AF systems.
      Personally, I don’t use only one method, but switch between them based on the situation at the time.

      • 13
        ) alok
        July 17, 2013 at 2:45 am

        Thanks Tom.

  8. 14
    ) lee
    November 23, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    hi tom I was looking at that photo of the cougar and was wondering how long a lense did you use? I think thisis a younger bull elk by looking at the horn in the photo not a deer. Love this site though thanks. Lee

    • November 24, 2013 at 11:32 pm

      Thanks, Lee. I used a Nikkor 300mm f/2.8 lens.

      As for elk or deer, I didn’t uncover the kill and look closely, but if you look at deer antlers, they fork and then fork again – common for deer, whereas elk tend to come off the main antler beam. However, you could be right and it could be an elk. This area has a lot of deer but there are some elk so either is a possibility. I would still say it is buck.

      For my benefit, what makes you think elk in this case? The homeowner did say it was a large buck, they could be wrong, however.

      • 16
        ) Lee
        November 25, 2013 at 8:03 am

        Thanks tom,,i believe its elk because deer antlers have a main beam that the tines come off and point up and forward of the ears. Elk antlers have a heavy beam that forks and go back away from ears,, the give away for me is the last fork that turns down. I would think about a four yr old,, anyway very cool to get that in a backyard since cougars are very hard to spot in the wild.

  9. 17
    ) Ravi R
    January 5, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    Nasim,

    As much as the story about the mountain lion was amazing, i am memorized by the picture of the crow surround by those rose colored buds in a tree! The color contrast between the subjects is fantastic not to mention other aspect of that picture!

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