Wildlife Photography Tips: Go to the Park

Many people enjoy photographing wildlife but sometimes don’t seem to know where to go to find the opportunities. It doesn’t need to involve going to exotic locations or spending big money for a guided trip. Oftentimes, some of the most accessible wildlife is found if not literally in your backyard, then close by. In this quick tip for the beginner wildlife photographer, we advise you to get out and go to the park.

Common House Finch in Crabapple Blossoms

Living in an urban setting doesn’t mean you don’t have access to wildlife. In fact, much of the wildlife found in urban settings, give photographers an advantage over their more rural counterparts – they are more approachable. Any animal that is more acclimated to humans, tends to be less skittish and will allow closer interaction. In local parks, there are people walking, riding bikes, jogging, fishing, boating, playing, etc. and due to this increased human activity, the animals tend to recognize our behavior as less threatening. They recognize things that are out of the norm and will heighten their alert mechanisms only when something is different.

Let me give you a couple of examples. The next time you see a hawk on a wire or fence post, if you drive by it, there is a good chance that it will not fly off. However, if you slow your car down or if you stop completely, it won’t take long for it to fly off. A couple years ago, I came across a northern harrier that tends to repeatedly hunt in the same area of a local park. I found that if I was walking, I could walk very close to this particular bird, but if I stopped, slowed the pace of my walking or if I turned to face it, it flew off immediately. Still, this bird was so used to people, it let you get far closer to it than the average northern harrier will. Here is a photo of a jogger giving the harrier a look as the harrier watches him run by with no more than 8 to 10 feet between them!

Jogger runs by harrier

The bird never flew off since the runner never varied his pace or his course. This bird has learned to recognize human behavior just as we come to recognize animal behavior as we spend time watching wildlife.

Local and national parks become sanctuaries for wildlife, a safe place for them to roam. Spend some time at your local parks and you will find birds of various kinds, foxes, coyotes, deer and critters that are unique to your “neck of the woods” so to speak. Some of those subjects can be found as you drive through the park, so be sure to take a bean bag as we recommended in an earlier tip. Other times, photographing in a park might require you to take a short hike. I always need the exercise anyway and even if I don’t find any great photo opportunities (hey, it happens often), then at least I have enjoyed the time away from the television and electronic chains, er, devices. I have a small, light folding stool that I sometimes take with me and will set up in an area, say with flowers, that I will focus my attention and lens on. The flowers, might bring in butterflies, finches or hummingbirds. The longer you sit still, the closer they will approach you.

Female Broadtailed Hummingbird in blossom

Sometimes a local park gives you the unexpected, in fact, our local photographers have had a surprise visitor that has hung around for the past few years.

Mandarin Drake Profile

This mandarin duck belongs in Asia, not in Colorado, and is most likely an escapee from a private collection. However, since it is an exotic, it should have a band or wing clip but this duck has neither so no one is completely sure where he came from. We are just glad he is here, has taken up residence with a group of mallards and seems to be holding up fine. Keep in mind that every spring and winter, migration will bring temporary visitors and you never know what you might find, so visit your local park soon and see what surprise it has in store for you. However, don’t be disappointed if there is no big surprise, but instead, you might find an average, plain subject that catches your eye like this common mallard hen in some nice spring blooms.

Mallard Hen in Flowers

Don’t forget that another good place is nearby National Parks, for me, Rocky Mountain National Park provides coyotes, elk, deer, big horn sheep, moose and an occasional bobcat or bear.

Bull Elk in Fall Meadow

Bobcat Profile Photo

Stellars Jay Rocky Mountain National Park

Each national park has its own resident wildlife, for instance, Yellowstone is known for bison, wolves, elk, bear, big horn sheep and eagles to name a few commonly seen residents. Glacier National Park is known for mountain goats and bears. You get the idea.

Take a drive to the closest park, stop by the visitor center if there is one, and ask around about what can be found in the area. If there is no visitor center, talk to the people walking or hiking, it is not uncommon for them to stop and ask me what I am photographing and then they often proceed to tell me what they saw on their walk as well as where they saw it. Spend some time in the early mornings and late afternoons and if you do it frequently, you will find like all of us, many of nature’s animals are creatures of habit. Learn their habits and it makes it easier to find and photograph them. Enjoy the beauty that nature offers, get outside and go to the park!

Comments

  1. 1
    ) wfp
    May 28, 2013 at 11:36 pm

    What are your preferred lenses for these images? Can be frustrating for someone to go out with their spanking new kit lens and realize they cant get anything like these photos.

    • May 28, 2013 at 11:47 pm

      WFP, a kit lens would have a hard time capturing shots like this. If you want to get images that will be close in quality at a low budget, check out the Nikon 300mm f/4D – I use it all the time and love it, especially with the TC-14E II. Here is my review from a while ago: http://photographylife.com/reviews/nikon-300mm-f4d

      Anything longer/bigger will be at least 3 times the cost…

    • May 29, 2013 at 1:38 pm

      WFP, Nasim makes a great suggestion. You have to start somewhere and so you start with what you have. I had a Sigma 150-500 and while not a kit lens, it gave me a longer reach at an affordable price – about $1000 USD. Nasim actually used that in one of his lens reviews and found it to be fairly sharp up to about 400mm but IQ degrades between 400 and 500mm. I loved the lens until I upgraded and didn’t need it. It was a good bang for the buck and about 1/8th the cost of a Nikkor 500mm. The Nikkor 70-300 4.5-5.6 VR is under $600 and performs well for the price.

    • May 29, 2013 at 3:27 pm

      wfp, you got me thinking, so I went back to check the photos in the post and it turns out that the elk photo was taken with the Sigma 150-500 f/5-6.3 (an “affordable” 500mm zoom) shot at 300mm at f/6.3. The hummingbird shot was using the same lens at 450mm and again at f/6.3. Just for what it is worth.

    • 28
      ) Wfp
      May 29, 2013 at 4:29 pm

      Hi it’s me again. Before anyone clicks in my link and discovers I am a pro I thought I should come clean. I have ready access to both Nikon and Canons 200-400 zooms, 300 and 400 2.8s. I added the comment as I was thinking of amateurs reading this good post and wondering what lenses were used :) Just thought this info was needed to flesh out the article. Btw the Nikon AF tips that were given were spot on.

      • May 29, 2013 at 7:59 pm

        haha, now I had to definitely check your website! Very nice, by the way. We thank you for the clarification for our readers and your comment is understood. Now, can I borrow your 400/2.8? :)
        Thanks again!

        • 31
          ) Wfp
          May 29, 2013 at 11:18 pm

          Hahah you would have to visit me in Malaysia. I focus predominantly on weddings but today we are shooting a local banks board of directors. Would need to prise it out of one of my team members hands as he usually uses it for golf and football. I borrow the 200-400 F4 from Nikon as an Nps loaner when needed. The canon 200-400 is currently the only one in the country so far and we will be using for a wedding this weekend – at least that’s the plan. What we have seen is that it is sharper than the Nikkor, but the price is 150% more. Heat, humidity,snakes, leeches and airconditioning are what keep me firmly in the city. Any way as mentioned thanks for posting and including details of the lenses used. I have found newbies to dslrs often leave disappointed due to the high cost of lenses or not knowing what to use. My 14yo daughter is using a 650d with canons 55-250 quite successfully for birds in the garden, thanks in part to the 1.6 magnification. So stratospherically priced glass is not essential. Btw my friend says the 400 is now for sale!

          • May 30, 2013 at 6:15 am

            Malaysia sounds like a very fun trip! We would be interested in hearing about your canon 200-400 experience after you use it more.

            • 44
              ) wfp
              June 18, 2013 at 9:01 pm

              Here you go: http://wp.me/p2aLV3-1NM

              The first Canon 200-400 F4L in Malaysia used on its first outing at a wedding. My friend is a sports shooter but helps me out ocassionally. Gives a nice look.

    • June 18, 2013 at 9:39 pm

      The 200-400 from Canon looks nice, good thing for me I shoot the other brand, that makes it easier for me to not want one :) Thanks for sharing your thoughts and the pics.

      • September 7, 2014 at 11:21 pm

        I just stumbled over this more than a year old but very interesting article of yours. Really nice photos!
        I hope you don’t mind my comments so late.

        Beeing a Canon user I can’t use Nikon lenses but July 2013 I invested “heavily” in Canon EF 200-400 mm/4 with a built in 1.4X extender, and I just love it!
        Due to a spinal disease I’m not so “mobile” any more, so framing with my feet is not always an option. Although most of the time using it as a prime lens (usually 400 mm) it’s good to have a fast way to change from 200-560 mm. I don’t have to zoom with my feet and the advantages for framing the object is very valuable.
        Zoom lens = not as good optical compared to prime lens? NOT IN THIS CASE!
        The optical performance of this lens equals Canons long tele lenses (400mm/2.8 or 4). Of course except for the one stop 2.8-4. I don’t think many people can see a difference between this zoom and the 400/2.8.
        PROS: it’s not at all so heavy as the 400mm/2.8
        CONS: the price!
        For me it has taken me a big step further in my shooting. No wonder that a lot of the best wildlife photographer using Canon consider this lens being their favorite,

        I have also started to use this lens for video on a EOS 1DC filming in 4K from which you can get surprisingly good stills ( 8.2 Mpx). Filming is completely silent so there is no sound scaring the animal away. BUT –
        You should set the shutter speed as if you were shooting stills, which results in a very stuttering worthless video. But 24-25 frames/s isn’t bad!

        Looking forward to more articles from you!

        • September 8, 2014 at 7:12 am

          Thank you Rolf. Sorry to hear about the spine but I am glad that you still get out to shoot. Your 200-400 with 1.4x TC is a nice lens for sure! Happy trails!

  2. 2
    ) S GURURAJ
    May 28, 2013 at 11:38 pm

    Hello sir, Good Morning, superb photographs which will touch the heart by its own,I love photography and even I have got some photos to be reviewed by persons like you, the plus points and minus points to come out from you, i have put some of my photographs in the flickr.com, you can go through that, as we belong to a middle class family i have to buy some articles one after the other.
    Thank you so much for sharing such a wonderful photographs.
    With regards
    Gururaj.S

    • May 29, 2013 at 6:23 am

      Thank you Gururaj and happy shooting!

      • 42
        ) S GURURAJ
        June 4, 2013 at 4:56 am

        Dear sir, One small doubt which I hope you will clear for me, with a lot of branded SLR models in the present market like NIKON, CANON (DSLR) and SONY (DSLT) which is suitable for me to buy, any how what i am using right now is canon 600d which is owned by my uncle itself, I want to buy one for me please suggest me the right one because it will be huge investment of around 33k.
        Waiting for your reply.

        With regards
        Gururaj.S

  3. May 29, 2013 at 1:18 am

    HI Tom, I have an Alaska visit planned for September and have been thinking about another lens for my D800 that has a 24-120 lens. Your images are stunning and I have for some time been considering the kit you used. What speed did you shoot at?

    • May 29, 2013 at 6:21 am

      Michael, you will love Alaska! As for shutter speed, that is obviously variable based on the light, motion and the subject. If the subject is stationary, it can be slower. The hummingbird was shot at 1/2000 of a second to slow the motion of the wings.

      Nasim makes a good reference for the 300mm f/4 lens in his comment above. Great lens for the price and light compared to some of the faster lenses making it easier for travel as well as on the pocketbook. If weight and money are less of an issue, then the 300/2.8 is a great lens as is the 200-400/4.

      Have a great time in Alaska!

      • May 29, 2013 at 3:27 pm

        Thanks again and thanks to all the other response especially the ones about focussing.

        Have booked the Alaska cruise excursions; Bears, Whales, Steam Trains and a photo safari of Sitka.

        Michael

        • May 29, 2013 at 3:39 pm

          Michael, I am jealous! you will have a great trip and the D800 will serve you well.

  4. May 29, 2013 at 1:27 am

    So true about the birds and our movements. Great pictures, thanks. I shoot eagles and other birds from my rooftop terrace with the 500 and tripod in the Provence backcountry. Rare birds but its a very pleasant wait surrounded by a lovely garden that we created. In the winter I shoot passerines through the Windows, around the feeding stands . Great fun.

    • May 29, 2013 at 1:40 pm

      Thank you Peter, sounds like you have a special place there to enjoy.

  5. May 29, 2013 at 6:38 am

    Great article and fine pictures! Well done guys.

  6. 9
    ) geno
    May 29, 2013 at 6:49 am

    Great advice. It’s easy to overlook the obvious opportunities right in our own backyard!
    Thank you,
    -gene

  7. 10
    ) MartinG
    May 29, 2013 at 6:59 am

    I am not sure what Tom does but my suggestions Is that the best value for money for a D800 birding lens is the 300 F4 plus TC14E II. It is good wide open but stopping it down one stop is nicer.

    Recently I have been trying out an interesting set up for focus. I decouple the focus from the shutter so focus is only activated by the AF ON button (a4 AF activation> AF-ON only). I then configure the AF set up to AF-C 3d and the centre button of the multi-function switch (f2 to Shooting mode = reset > select centre focus point). All this combined with the firmware upgrade gives a good birding focus set up.

    I make sure the focus point is on the centre spot, get the bird or subject in the centre spot, press and hold the AF-ON button, the 3d system setting will then track the colour of the subject more reliably. I gather the AF-ON button interacts with the focus module slightly differently this way. With the d800 this is one option you should experiment with. I think it works better than having the AF connected to the half press of the shutter. On the shutter button you get less snappy focus, so it is not as good until the second shot. Using this mode, the first image is much more likely to have accurate focus. Check it out.

    • May 29, 2013 at 1:54 pm

      Martin, good advice. I do use the AF ON button as you describe. As for the AF-C 3D setting, I find that is awesome for something like a bird flying straight at you – where AF is often weakest. However, if the subject is tracking left to right or otherwise, the 9-point or 21-point AF setting seems to lock on faster. Just my experience.

      • 27
        ) MartinG
        May 29, 2013 at 4:21 pm

        I’m still exploring this approach. I will try your suggestion and see how that works. Birds flying towards the camera is the shot I prefer. There is seldom time to make a setting change when birds are on the move, however.

      • 32
        ) Jason
        May 30, 2013 at 12:44 am

        I also find I get more keepers with the AF-C set to the d21 setting. I don’t know if it is just me, but I find when I try to use the 3d setting I get a lot of back focusing issues. I noticed this first with my D7000, when I recently purchased a D800 I thought I could use the 3d setting more often. Alas I still find quite a few images that the focusing lagged behind the subject and gave me a background in focus and not the bird or animal or even child :)

        For what its worth, I’m not a professional or anything but I love my Nikon 300mm f/4 for wildlife. I find if focuses quickly and is very sharp even wide open.

  8. 11
    ) Andy Schmitt
    May 29, 2013 at 7:02 am

    Excellent Article… I’m reposting it on my Peters Valley Photography group on fb. Thanks

  9. May 29, 2013 at 8:33 am

    This may be controversial, but I’ve met pros at zoos and wildlife parks practising their craft before they go out on assignment in Africa or the polar regions. And I personally don’t mind if I capture the aesthetic beauty of an animal in the wild or in captivity. You can still capture and promote the beauty of wildlife even if it happens to be captive. If it’s just about getting a striking image, then the camera won’t mind either way ;)

    http://alphawhiskey.slickpic.com/photoblog/post/BrevardZoo

    Failing that, another good place to find wildlife is a wetland area. They are abundant with all kinds of wild animals and fauna.

    http://alphawhiskey.slickpic.com/photoblog/post/FloridaWildlife

    My 2 cents.

    • May 29, 2013 at 2:02 pm

      Alpha Whiskey, thank you and you are correct, they can be a place for practicing. In, fact, it can be a challenge to make the shot look like it wasn’t a zoo. By practicing there, it forces the photographer to be more aware of the background elements and ways to move to minimize distractions. You did a nice job of that in your photos at the Brevard Zoo. Good suggestions and thanks for sharing with our readers.

  10. 13
    ) Vikas.B.Chavan.
    May 29, 2013 at 8:34 am

    Short but great article & above all superb photographs.I simply loved the Humming Bird shot.
    I completely agree with you. In fact, I am honing my skills at one such park.

  11. 14
    ) Don B
    May 29, 2013 at 9:06 am

    A great article. If you would like to take pictures of free roaming lions, and tigers, and bears, (and wolves) consider visiting The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado. It is close to Denver. Here is the address, 1946 County Road 53, Keenesburg, CO 80643. This is a rescue facility for animals, and it is not a zoo. It is a great place to do a photography safari.

    • May 29, 2013 at 2:05 pm

      Don, I have thought about visiting the Sanctuary there, but have not done it. Thanks for the suggestion and it will motivate me to get over there and take a look! Thanks for sharing.

      • 23
        ) Don B
        May 29, 2013 at 2:59 pm

        The best time to see the animals out and about is later in the day, probably after 5 pm this time of year. I was there yesterday, and the Sanctuary closed at 8:10 pm. It closes later as the summer progresses. Admission was $15. Yesterday was the first time that I had ever visited it.

        It is a great place to practice with your telephoto lenses.

  12. 29
    ) d3xmeister
    May 29, 2013 at 7:17 pm

    That is a great, informative article, like a breath a fresh air. Good work !

  13. 33
    ) Jason
    May 30, 2013 at 12:50 am

    Tom thanks for the suggestion. Having been bitten by the wildlife photography bug I have been trying to find new areas to take photographs. Your article inspired me to instead visit the same great areas and look for new wildlife or different shots.

    Around my area in northern California we have a few wildlife refuges. I find these areas to be great places to capture photographs. Your article reminded me that a lot of these areas have transient inhabitants and depending on the time of year you will find different creatures.

    Thanks again!

  14. 35
    ) Garth K
    May 30, 2013 at 8:39 am

    Excellent article. Here’s a related tip: go to the zoo. Don’t laugh. I have noticed that a lot of wildlife – birds especially – seem to take on confidence from the caged residents living comfortably in the presence of humans. You will often find timid species that are difficult to approach out in the woods or marsh foraging beside pathways or in nearby trees where they can still be photographed in natural settings. A short tele or even a standard lens will often suffice.

    Best wishes,
    gk

  15. 37
    ) Debbie
    May 31, 2013 at 10:02 am

    What size of lense is recommended and what settings for these beautiful pictures?

    • May 31, 2013 at 11:33 am

      Debbie, these photos were taken with different lenses generally between 300mm and 500mm focal length and were shot with the aperture between 3.2 and 6.3, depending on the photo. You may wish to refer to WF’s comment thread #1 above. I hope that helps.

      • 39
        ) Debbie
        May 31, 2013 at 12:23 pm

        Thank you, I just scanned right past the previous threads to ask my question. Thank you again.

  16. June 2, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    For me the US State Parks or NFS-Campgrounds are a great opportunity to take pic’s of wildlife! Sometimes I only take my camping chair, make my camera ready. After a few minutes there they are…birds! ;-)

  17. 46
    ) Tanya
    June 24, 2013 at 8:42 am

    Great article and awesome shots. Please share your exit data: focal length, aperture, shutter speed, iso….thanks!

    • June 24, 2013 at 5:51 pm

      Thank you Tanya, which shot are you interested in? Let me know and I will post the exif data.

      • 48
        ) Tanya
        June 24, 2013 at 9:23 pm

        Hi Tom,

        The hummingbird, the mandarin duck, and the funky looking bird at the bottom (**smile** I don’t know the name).

        Thanks for sharing the exif data? It will help me tremendously as I learn how to photograph birds.

        • June 24, 2013 at 10:29 pm

          Here you go Tanya –

          Hummingbird- Sigma 150-500 at 450mm , 1/2000 sec, f6/3, O ev, ISO 500
          Mandarin Duck – Nikkor 500mm, 1/800 sec, f/5, ISO 900, ).33 ev
          Funky Looking Bird (Stellar’s Jay – :)) – Nikkor 300mm, 1/1000 sec, f/3.2, ISO 720, 0.33 ev

          I hope that helps, if you haven’t already, you may wish to check out Nasim’s post on photographing birds here: http://photographylife.com/how-to-photograph-birds

          I enjoyed your Canyonlands photos – my family is from that area and I always love the scenery there.

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