Photographing dangerous animals is something that a lot of us enjoy. It gets us excited as we are interacting with something that has huge teeth, speed, and weighs as much as a Yugo! I hope I’m not the only one old enough to remember what a Yugo is… Really, who is going to get an adrenaline rush by taking pictures of a cow?
As with everything else in life, the more fun it is the more risky it can become, so today I will share some of my techniques that I use to get closer to larger wild animals and get those great shots.
Bears, tigers, lions; those are what everyone thinks about when they think of dangerous animals. And it’s true, they are dangerous, I’m going to deal with bears for the most part since they are the most likely animal you will encounter on your own. At my last trip to Glacier National Park it was September and the bears were getting ready for hibernation. All they had on their mind was eating and building up fat for the winter.
Bears love berries, and if you found a big huckleberry patch then chances are a bear will be there sooner or later. Luckily, once they find the berry patch they don’t leave for a while. The bear is happy sitting there and eating for hours at a time. This is the safest way to work with these animals, they are happy, content and unless you do something very threatening you usually won’t be bothered by them. Now, that is true for berries, but if you find them near a fresh kill things change drastically. Keep your distance, they will aggressively defend that kill and will see you as a threat.
In Glacier National Park you can often see bears from the roadside. The safest way to photograph these animals is to just drive by and then shoot from within your car. However, by doing that you will create a “bear jam”. Every car behind you will stop and suddenly there are 30 tourists with cameras making a lot of noise. Sometimes this helps because it will get the bear’s attention and he will often look around and even stand up to get a better view; good photo opportunities.
Most of my experience with bears is with the black bear. These are the more dangerous bear and you will have to be extra careful. Trust your senses; you can smell them if they are close to you. It’s a musty manure smell that’s suddenly in the area. These animals are territorial and will stalk you. So pay attention.
Photographing these animals is lots of fun though. I recommend a long lens, the bigger the better that way you are obviously further away. When I am walking through the woods I usually have my 70-200 2.8 ready and in my hand at all times. If you startle a bear while you are on a trail they will almost always run away. So be ready with that camera or all you’ll get is the backside of this big brown thing going through the bushes. Try to keep your shutter speed at 500th and aperture of 4 or 5.6 at the most. Smaller apertures will not blur the background and you will get a distracting image.
If you know where the animal is and you have a chance to set up a tripod and wait, that’s the best opportunity.
Bears don’t have very good eyesight so you can sit and observe them with a long lens 400-600mm is ideal. Set up a tripod and sit still and just watch him eat those berries. When you are comfortable in your spot sitting there quietly you will get some great images. If you want to get his attention don’t wave your arms or make big movements, that will usually scare him away. Simply use a whistle; one quick sound will make him look up and if you are lucky he will look right into your lens. Once he realizes that you aren’t moving towards him aggressively he will usually go back to eating.
Now, if things go bad. There are so many different people out there that advise different things. I’ve heard all the stories about what you should do, everyone has a different opinion. Personally I feel my life and anyone’s life with me is more important than a bear. I do not carry bear spray, you have to be close to use it and once the bear is that close to me it’s too late in my opinion. I carry a gun, if he is running at me the first shot goes to the ground, the second goes to him. Sorry if that’s not politically correct but I’d rather pay a fine for shooting a bear than be mauled by one. Loud noises of the gun will usually scare most animals, just be sure that if you have to take that second shot you have a gun big enough to put it down.
If you don’t agree with that fine, just make sure you can run faster than your assistant! Ha ha ha
I’ve never had an instance where I’ve had to use a gun but I always believe better safe than sorry.
Other animals you can enjoy are bison and moose. While they don’t have the teeth and claws of bears; these are much more aggressive and dangerous in the wild.
Moose are often found in water during the early morning and daytime. They are very very territorial and will charge you if you get too close. The best way to photograph them is to set up and wait for them to appear. Moose are a predictable animal, they often return day after day to the same place at the same time. Scout your area; get to know your subject.
Once you have figured out where they will be its time to get set up for the next day. Setting up a blind is a great way to get some spectacular shots and stay safe. Pick a good spot where the sunlight won’t be reflecting off your lens and where you can get a clear view of your subject. Hunting blinds are great for this. They are already camouflaged and have a small hole for a rifle which works perfect for a camera. Bring a chair and your iPod because you will probably be sitting there for a while waiting. Wildlife photography is all about patience. Early morning is not the best time for bright light, so a strong tripod is key. Sometimes you will have to shoot 1/60th of a second with a 600mm lens! Use live view with a cable release and you will be ok. These animals don’t make fast movements so as long as you can hold the camera and lens steady and not jiggle it you will be ok with a slow shutter speed. If slow speeds are not your thing then push up the iso. Today’s cameras allow us to use high high iso settings with less noise than ever before. Just remember, a picture with a lot of noise is better than no picture at all. Even if you can’t fix the noise in your post processing today, in a year from now you can revisit that image and the software will be much better and can probably fix it for you.
Bison are one of my favorite animals to photograph. However of all the ones I work with I honestly think these are the most dangerous. Once they are charging, nothing stops them. And they are always in herds, so it’s not just one you have to worry about, it’s all of them!
Most of my bison photography is done on farms. I have a friend that raises them so I can get out and drive right into the pasture in the “somewhat” safety of a truck. And I say somewhat safety because of the huge dents in the side of the truck where they charged it and rammed it!!
Try to use the same method, find a nice bison farm with a huge field, and then go talk to the owner. Most bison farmers are a very relaxed sort of people. They are used to visitors and usually love to answer questions about their animals. Often they will have a small store selling jerky and meat products and that’s your foot in the door. Start becoming a customer and often they will let you go out in the pasture (in a vehicle) and take pictures all day.
Yellowstone National Park has some great huge bison herds that are used to tourists and walk right along the roads. The problem is a bison walking along the road is not a great picture next to the family car. The other problem is that if you see them moving around, they don’t move slowly. They will not wait for you to get into position and get your shot.
Farm bison don’t leave the pasture, you can drive around, get the angles you want with the lighting at the correct time of day.
And farm bison are just plain safer for you. You won’t need a long lens. Often 200mm is more than enough. Often I can use a wide angle and get very close to them. Sometimes I’ve even been able to use a flash to add fill light to the subject.
To give you an idea of how strong and dangerous they are I’ll tell this story. My first encounter with bison was at a restaurant and I loved the meat, it’s delicious and lower in fat than chick breast! So I decided I wanted more of it. Buying it retail at $20 per pound was not an option so I bought an entire bison and had it butchered. The neat part was when I went to the farm he let me go out and pick out the one I wanted and shoot it myself. This isn’t for everyone, but I’m a hick so I liked that idea. Well to make it a short story, they are so strong it took 7 shots to bring it down! While butchering it they found wounds in the lungs, heart, head, and spine!
So simply put they don’t go down easy and once they start charging you with your camera they will not stop until they hit you and chances are you’ll be pretty badly hurt or dead. Stay in a vehicle, don’t walk near them out in the open and respect them more than a bear!
Animals are so much fun and so enjoyable for me to photograph. It’s very relaxing for me to watch them move and interact with each other in their natural habitat. Their life is so much easier than ours; they wake up, wander around, and eat. Then they go back to sleep and do the same thing again the next day. Photographing them allows me to share in that relaxing lazy day of theirs.