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.
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.
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.
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.