Photographing Wildlife

There is a bit more to photographing wildlife than simply winding down a car window and poking a camera at something. Yes, that does happen and opportunities do present themselves, but to be truly successful with wildlife there is a bit more to learn.

I love photographing wildlife because each species has its own character, its own unique lifestyles and behaviours. When you spend time with a particular species you gradually get to know them. The more you learn about their behaviour and how they live, the more you learn to enjoy who they are. Spending time with them and developing a love for them is the key to good wildlife photography. To give you an idea of what I'm talking about let's look at the lives of Mr and Mrs Guts, a pair of herring gulls who visited me every spring to build a nest.

Many moons ago, Mr Guts built a nest on our roof behind the chimney. Actually, it was next door's chimney, but he seemed to spend most of his time on our roof and mooching around in our garden. At first he was a pain in the butt, and attempts were made to block off the space behind the chimney with wire to deter him. It was all to no avail because Mr Guts and his wife simply filled up the wire with twigs and grass and then built a cosy little nest on top of it. One neighbour even tried a hose to get rid of them. The years passed, and every spring Mr Guts would show up with his wife, build a nest, and rear two or three chicks.

A few years back, they had a tough time of it. A storm blew their nest apart, and in the morning the chicks were found dead in the front garden. Pretty traumatic stuff for any family. And this is really where the story begins. You see, they didn’t give up. After a couple of days, they set about rebuilding their nest, laid another two eggs, and raised another two chicks. That affected me deeply, and I gave them a hand with food to feed the new family. From that time on we’ve become friends, and I gave him a name – Mr Guts. It wasn’t long until his wife became known as Mrs Guts. Here he is having a bad hair day in the rain.

Was chatting to the neighbour with the hose about Guts a while back, and turns out he calls him Barney. Barney Guts it is then! He lives here now, just as we do. The other neighbour cleared the wire off the roof so they could have a cosy little nest tucked in behind the chimney. The chicks are noisy little brutes, but they’re welcome here. I don’t understand folks who choose to live in a HIghland seaside village with a harbour and complain about seagulls. I mean, really?

Have you ever seen herring gull photos like these before? Perhaps a seagull in the back garden doesn’t excite you as a photographic opportunity, but it excites me. It took me years to make friends with Mr Guts, and it has paid off with some amazing photos. He's earned his keep. He’s quite a character and I enjoy his company.

Perhaps photographing herring gulls isn't what you had in mind. Perhaps you'd rather be photographing real wildlife. Don't take this the wrong way, but if you can't get it together with the birds in your back garden, you'll never make it as a wildlife photographer. The back garden is an excellent training ground. You have to spend time with wildlife so they become relaxed around you and your gear, and the back garden is the ideal place to practice. It's also a good place to develop your technical skills with a camera.

Once you're comfortable with birds and they are comfortable with you, and you know how to handle your gear, it's time to become a little more adventurous. The same principles apply with wildlife such as seals. I know there are conflicts of interest between fishermen, boats, nets and seals, but hey, I love the little brutes. Perhaps if men only took home enough to feed themselves and keep food on the table and weren’t constantly trying to drain the oceans to get rich so they can have tons of stuff they don’t need, there would be enough for everyone. Here’s a grey seal pup I befriended a few years back. She would come right up to my hand, and then play hide and seek under the rocks.

You need to be alert around seals. Some of them can be aggressive and will attack you. This mother let me know that another step closer would not have been wise. I must have been 30ft from her, but they can cover ground quickly when they want so I backed off very gently with a smile. Good mother!

Learning to photograph animals takes years. You have to know your gear, and you have to understand wildlife and be on their level. For example, in this next photo the camera is behind my head, not pointing at the seal. Point something at wild animals and they’re gone. You have to take your time and earn their trust. You have to know when it's safe and you have to know when to back off.

We need a cautionary note to close here. Unfortunately many folks don't understand wildlife or the countryside, and in some cases there are protection laws in force, especially with nesting birds. To be safe, avoid disturbing nesting birds at all costs until you know more about them and understand the laws in place to protect them. If terns are dive bombing you it is because they lay their eggs on the ground and you're walking too close to their nests. Move away from their nests and they will leave you alone. A good lesson to learn with seals is not to get between them and the ocean. The ocean is their escape route and if you cut that off they will feel threatened and might become dangerous. Take your time with wildlife and get to know them, that's the key to wildlife photography.

Credits -  All photos copyright George Maciver - all rights reserved.