Viewing animals in their wild, natural habitat is one of the most thrilling aspects of hiking and outdoor adventure travel. Coming away with photos that expertly capture these moments, whether using a smartphone or expensive digital camera, can be difficult, and it’s frustrating to giddily flip through freshly taken wildlife photos only to discover that the trophy shots are blurry or not properly exposed. The following tips and tricks will help you come away from your next outdoor adventure with stunning wildlife photos, with special attention given to the extra-challenging conditions present during the winter season. Remember, always give birds and animals a wide berth and never approach wildlife. No photo is worth endangering yourself or an animal.
Study the Subject and Anticipate the Action
While wild animals are of course unpredictable, being patient and taking the time necessary to study their behavior can aid in coming away with stellar action shots, particularly birds in flight. The generally playful nature of animals, such as puffins, can make for interesting, even funny photos of animals interacting with each other or goofing around solo. Traveling with a friend or family member can also be helpful, as they can alert you to opportunities outside your immediate field of view.
Pay Close Attention to Shutter Speed and Shoot in Bursts
One of the most common wildlife photography pitfalls is not using a fast enough shutter speed and coming away with blurry, out-of-focus photos. For bird photography with a digital safe-lens reflex camera (DSLR) or a mirrorless camera that provides greater manual control of settings, a good rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed of 1/1000s or faster for birds in flight or on the move. If the light level is low and precludes the use of such a fast shutter speed, bump up the ISO, or sensitivity of the camera’s sensor to light, a bit and use a wider aperture in the f/4 to f/8 range to allow in enough light while still maintaining the depth of field to keep the subject sharp. When using a smart phone that doesn’t allow as much fine control of shutter speed settings, shooting in “burst mode” is a great way to ensure that you crisply capture the action of an animal in motion.
Think Small and Large in Terms of Subjects and Lenses
AMC’s region is blessed with a wide variety of wildlife, ranging in size from mighty to miniscule. Moose, black bears, deer, coyotes, puffins, owls, starfish, salamanders, and insects are just some of the many potential wildlife photography subjects that can be found in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. The two types of lenses that come in most handy when shooting a large or small animal subject are a telephoto and macro lens, respectively. A telephoto lens in the 300 to 600 mm focal length is perfect for capturing large animals from a distance without spooking them and for capturing frame-filling shots of birds such as puffins in flight. On the other end of the spectrum, a macro lens is tailor-made for capturing small subjects such as insects in astounding detail. If you’re shooting with a smart phone, a variety of telephoto and macro adaptors are available that can be attached to the camera and can yield surprisingly stunning results.
One of the most challenging aspects of winter wildlife photography is keeping yourself and your photography gear safe in the sometimes hostile conditions of winter. Wildlife photography is often a waiting game, and while it’s relatively easy to stay warm while on the move, having the right layers and gear are critical to staying comfortable and safe while waiting for just the right moment. In addition to snowshoes , skis, and microspikes or crampons for traction, items such as a warm and lightweight jacket and pants, balaclava, and even ski goggles will help keep you warm and protect your skin from the biting cold and wind while you’re taking photos. Perhaps the most critical piece of clothing for the winter photographer is hand protection , and finding the perfect balance between keeping hands warm while maintaining enough dexterity to change lenses and adjust camera settings can be a tricky task. Pairing a thin and windproof glove with a warm pair of mittens can provide the best of both worlds, where the mittens can be put on when hands get cold, and the base layer glove provides just enough protection and supple dexterity to handle the camera. Carrying extra pairs of gloves is always wise, as gloves that have become sweaty on a hike can become hazardous if a prolonged photo session is planned. If the conditions are truly arctic, throwing a hand warmer inside each glove is an easy way to ensure that hands stay toasty while maintaining dexterity.
Protect Your Camera
Protecting the camera from harsh winter conditions not only increases your chances of taking the best possible photos, it also prevents your often expensive photo gear from ruin. A waterproof camera cover comes in handy when photographing in snowstorms or freezing rain and costs much less than replacing a camera body that’s been ruined by water damage. Condensation can also be a problem in winter, especially when taking the camera from the cold, dry outdoor air to a warm and relatively humid house, cabin, or car. Allowing the camera to gradually adjust to temperature differences limits the chances of condensation forming on the camera and lens and potentially making its way inside the camera. Leaving the camera in a camera bag inside a backpack or camera bag overnight will help it adjust.
While these tips will help to avoid damaging your gear after you’ve finished your outing, a challenge you may face while out in the field is moisture from snow or rain accumulating and freezing on the front of the lens. Periodically checking the lens glass for snow and ice will prevent the frustration of having an excellent photo rendered useless. While snowflakes can typically be brushed off the lens using a microfiber cloth or an air blower such as the Giottos Rocket Air , take special care if ice has accumulated on the lens. Trying to scrape off ice can lead to scratches which could permanently mar an expensive lens or filter. This is another situation where the ever-useful hand warmer can save the day. Gently holding one against the ice helps it melt, allowing you to easily wipe or blow away the remaining water with a microfiber cloth or rocket blower.
Pack Extra Batteries
Cold temperatures drain battery life, and there’s nothing more frustrating than getting part-way through a photo outing and having your camera battery die. Packing a couple extra batteries for your camera, or an external battery pack for a smart phone, can be a trip-saver when they’re needed. Extra batteries will be rendered useless, though, if they’re left unprotected at the top of your pack and subjected to the cold as you hike. Stashing batteries toward the center of the pack, where they’ll be insulated by the surrounding contents, can help maintain the batteries’ life. Double-bagging batteries in a plastic bag and placing a hand warmer in between the two bags can also provide extra insurance in truly frigid winter conditions.
Utilize Animal Tracks
One of the advantages of winter wildlife photography is that the snow-blanketed landscape makes a perfect canvas to capture the tracks of animals on the move. While tracks or paw prints from animals such as deer, wolves, and rabbits can be useful aids when pursuing an animal to photograph, the tracks themselves can make for interesting photo subjects and can add intrigue and mystery to a landscape photo. Remember, do not approach wildlife anytime, but especially not in winter, as causing animals to expend energy unnecessarily threatens their ability to survive until spring.
Exploring nature with the intention of capturing wildlife photos is one of the best ways to feel connected to the natural world. Utilizing these tips will help you not only come away from your next photo outing with better photos, but will aid in keeping you and your gear safe while getting out during the winter months.
Respect wildlife as you take their photo by following Leave No Trace principles.
Browse the 2020 AMC Photo Contest winners.
Improve your wildlife photos with smartphone HDR.
“Two-step” A beautiful Atlantic Puffin walks along the rocks of Machias Seal Island, which possesses the densest population of puffins on the Maine coast. Prints available.
A version of this article can be found at AMC Outdoors.