I have seen quite a few talented photographers try to photograph wildlife with great gear, only to be a bit disappointed at their first shots. The biggest reason for their lack of success was neither the gear nor their talent, but their choice of location! The importance of location may be obvious in something like landscape photography, where the location often is your subject, but it’s immensely important to wildlife photography, too.
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The Importance of Location for Wildlife Photography
Why does the location matter so much for wildlife photography? Much of it is down to animal behavior. In some locations, animals may be more timid, may have different behaviors, or simply may not hang out in the most photogenic spots. The way the light falls on the location also plays a role, such as a dark forest versus an open field.
Another important consideration is the background. Some urban parks may have interesting wildlife, but you’ll need to get creative with your camera position if you don’t want people, buildings, or park benches in the background.
Most of all, there’s the basic fact that many animal species live in a slim range of habitats, and often behave differently from place to place. The photo you want may only be possible to capture in some very particular locations. For example, overwintering Mallards are very fond of warmer water sources that result from human activity, so if you want a shot of a Mallard walking in the snow, your best chance is to visit such a body of water.
That’s why I believe that choosing the right location is just as important for wildlife photography as for landscape photography and other genres. But it may not be obvious what locations are good and what locations are bad, especially if you have a particular species in mind to photograph. I hope this article sheds some light on the process of finding good locations for wildlife photography.
How to Find Good Places to Photograph Wildlife
1. Start Identifying Animals
Different animals have different behaviors and preferred habitats. It’s the type of information you’ll eventually memorize, but to start, it helps to get a field guide and get good at identifying different species. This will allow your brain to keep track of what you see over time and recognize when you see a rare species or behavior.
Don’t be discouraged if you can’t remember the names of different species at first. Keep taking pictures, and spend an hour or two when you get home to research the species you photographed. The ability to identify them will come eventually.
2. Use eBird if You Photograph Birds
eBird is a handy website where millions of birders submit their observations. Bird photographers often use it too, and often the most popular spots for birding will also be good for bird photography.
A maps application like Google Maps or Apple Maps is another great tool because they display national parks, which are great places to look for animals. I also use an app called OsmAnd on my phone because it provides offline access to maps, which has been very handy, because I frequently get lost in small towns without cell coverage.
3. Visit Multiple Places
Quite a few photographers develop a routine to visit the same places again and again. While this can have its advantages because you can get to know a place really well, sometimes I’ve been quite surprised when I go to someplace new.
Moreover, most species only live in a certain area. If you want to take pictures of new species, you will need to travel a little. Typically, whether I am on a dedicated photography trip or not, I always check out the local wildlife areas just in case I find something really good. (Wait, is there such a thing as a trip not dedicated to photography?)
4. Keep the Edge Effect In Mind
The “edge effect” in biology refers to the phenomenon that some species are easier to see at the merging of multiple different landscape elements. For example, this could be at the border of a forest and a meadow, or a forest and a river and a road. Although the edge effect varies and may not apply to all species, I’ve definitely found that it seems to work in practice. (It’s also something that applies to landscape photography, as Spencer has written about before.)
Maybe it’s just about spotting different species more easily, but it still applies. For example, a huge and undisturbed forest that extends uniformly for kilometers in every direction will probably have many animals, but they will be very hard to find. But if you find the only body of water in that forest, or you go to the border of that forest with a meadow, you will likely find more animals in plain sight.
The same kind of thing happens with large bodies of water. Look for small side streams that go into the forest rather than focusing on the main body of water. The more you learn about the ecology of the areas you visit, the better you will get at photographing its unique elements!
5. Ask Other Photographers
Sometimes, if I run into photographers or birders who show me their shots, I ask them where they got them. Often it’s a spot that I never would have found on my own. That happened to me in Arizona with the Elegant Trogon, which is the only species of Trogon to visit the United States. I just casually mentioned that I was a bird photographer, and off I went with my new friends.
In fact, I’ve probably photographed at least thirty species because I just asked for information. Such opportunities don’t always result in a five-star shot, but even so, I still learn some valuable information for when I next visit the area. I also have really enjoyed the connections I’ve made with other photographers in the field.
What to Do When You Find the Best Location
The right location will only be right at a certain time of day. So, if you hear about an amazing place for photography, make sure you go early in the morning or later in the day when the sun is not more than about 45 degrees in the sky. Strong overhead light will ruin a lot of wildlife photos. If you visit a river or body of water, make sure you get to the right side so the sun isn’t in your face, unless you’re after silhouetted wildlife photos.
You should also visit a place at least a dozen times. I’ve found locations that were amazing one day and then terrible the next, either because of the light or because of some other conditions. In the spring of 2021, for example, when looking for migratory warblers, I had to visit a location at least three times before an explosion of insects caused the warblers to come out in plain sight.
When you visit a location more than once, you can also think of what you want to achieve in between visits. For example, there is a small pond near my house that I know has many frogs at a certain time of year. One day I walked to it with a very specific shot in mind: an overhead macro shot of a frog’s eye, which was only possible since the slope leading into the pond is just steep enough to get the right angle. Once this idea was in my head, executing it was so much easier.
Sometimes, when you are actually in the field, you have to be really patient. It might take an hour or more before you find an animal in just the right pose or in just the right light. If nothing much is happening, I sometimes do something else like take videos or even eat and just enjoy being in nature.
I would also recommend being very deliberate with your photography. If you see an animal, don’t necessarily take a photo unless you feel like the composition and lighting are right. This approach might not work for everyone, but I’ve found it really clarifies what I want from my photography, and it also helps me find hidden gems. I am constantly asking myself, “can I get a good composition out of this situation?” and “what’s the best way to take this shot?” – and if my answer is that there isn’t a good way, I try not to take something.
Finally, if you find a good location for wildlife photography, be conscious of what may happen if you post about it online or spread the location too widely. We have all seen horror stories of secluded wildlife locations becoming overrun with photographers and driving out the animal species that lived there, or worse. It’s not a problem for all locations, so use your best judgment.
Camera gear often gets the most attention in photography, but for photographing wildlife, you should not forget about the importance of the location. I would rather go to an excellent location with average gear, instead of an average location with excellent gear. Going to new and interesting places will not only help you find new animals to photograph, but it will also challenge you to become a better photographer. Do you have any favorite places to photograph wildlife? Let me know in the comments!