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How to Photograph Wildlife

Learn the best practices for successful wildlife photography. If you hike prepared, practice patience and exercise proper wildlife ethics, you’re bound to find the animal you’re looking for and get a shot you'll be happy with.

 by Paul Raymaker

Photographing wildlife can be one of the most exciting and rewarding types of photography. And while Washington may not boast the sheer density of megafauna found in places like Yellowstone or Glacier national parks, there are plenty of great opportunities to photograph wild animals on trails and in parks all over the state.

Most people think that the key to getting good wildlife photos is having a giant, heavy telephoto lens that can zoom in so close you can see the fleas on the animal’s back, but expensive, specialized lenses aren’t a necessity.

Perfection Lake by Lance Dawkins.jpgA mountain goat crosses some rocks across Perfection Lake. Photo by Lance Dawkins. 

TIP: A zoomed-out image of an animal in its natural habitat, depicting its natural behaviors, is often more powerful and pleasing than a headshot.

The golden rule of wildlife photography

Before you run out, camera in hand with a twitchy shutter finger, consider a few of the best practices of wildlife photography, and always follow the golden rule of wildlife photography: never compromise the safety and well-being of yourself or the animal in order to get a photograph.

Capturing your shots the right way

The key to successful wildlife photography is being prepared, knowing your subject and having patience. Wildlife photography is fun because you never know what is going to happen. If you’re lucky enough to stumble upon a wild animal at a safe distance, such as an elk, mountain goat or black bear, it probably won’t stick around long to pose for you.

  • DO: Be Prepared. Have your camera in hand or quickly accessible by using a quick-access backpack or shoulder bag. Make sure your camera is set for potentially fast-moving wildlife; tweak your presets to track focus on your subject quickly and shoot rapidly.
  • DO: Know Your Subject. If you’re looking for specific types of wildlife, research the habits of the animal before setting out on the trail. Try to find out when and where the animal is most active, what they eat and where and when that food is available.
  • DO: Have Patience. You might have the best luck finding a spot the animal frequents near the trail and hunkering down for a good ol’ fashioned stake out. Wait patiently—and quietly—until the animal feels safe enough to move through the area.

      Practices to avoid in your wildlife photography

      Of course, sitting in one spot waiting—hoping—for an animal to come strolling by can be time-consuming and tedious. But you should never be influenced to encourage an encounter.

      • DON’T: Approach or Antagonize. Animals are often easily stressed by disturbances in their environment—this means people. Maintain a quiet, respectable distance from animals, indicating that you are not a threat. If the animal appears agitated back off slowly.
      • DON’T: Bait or Feed Animals. You should never, ever, try to bait an animal (including chipmunks and birds) with food in hopes of attracting it or getting it to come closer for you to photograph. The animal may become habituated to bait or human food and become aggressive in its attempts to get more.
      • DON’T: Approach Babies. While baby animals are some of the most adorable things in the world, there are often overprotective parents nearby who may become stressed or aggressive if they feel their young are being threatened by an intruder. Keep your distance.

      Where to practice your wildlife photography

      When you’re ready to give it a shot, try the 3.5-mile Mount Finlayson hike on San Juan Island where foxes, birds, deer, and even orcas abound; find the resident Roosevelt elk on the 10.6-mile Hoh River–Five-Mile Island trail; or try the 9-mile hike to Lake Ingalls where you’re likely to encounter mountain goats. If you just come prepared, practice patience and exercise proper wildlife ethics, you’re bound to find the animal you’re looking for and get a shot you'll be happy with.

      >> Search the Hiking Guide for trails with wildlife viewing opportunities

      Paul Raymaker is a professional photographer and regular contributor to Washington Trails magazine. This article originally appeared in the Sept+Oct 2014 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Join WTA to get your one-year subscription.