Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Wildlife photo secrets(3): Getting close

Red wattled lapwing through grass
"If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." -Robert Capa. (Link to another site about Capa)Robert Capa, co-founder of Magnum, whose autobiography Slightly out of focus I recently read spent the best part of WWII getting close to the action. Its a hilarious read; he had to go through a lot to just stay in the war theatre with no passport and no press agency backing. He managed this feat of staying on in the war theater and close to the action with some amount of trepidation, at much risk to himself. He gained access mostly with a smile and with the lubrication on which he claims all armies move, alcohol (a strategy I haven't tried yet!)
Wildlife is both similar and different. Unlike people in wars, intent on their own purposes, wildlife notices your presence and reacts to it, usually by bolting. It's similar in that in some ways and sometimes it can be dangerous; for example with large carnivores, venomous snakes, etc. To get close, knowledge about your subject, its habits and capabilities, is paramount. I'll try and tell you what I have learnt. I'm still not as good as I would like and your own suggestions are very welcome.
Saw-scaled viper

Most wildlife: birds, insects, snakes, mammals, will react very quickly to motion. What this means is if you make sudden quick jerky
movements, you will be noticed and whatever you are shooting will run away. So learn to move slowly, smoothly. I have found this can require quite a bit of strength and agility, so develop those. And oodles of patience, the hardest muscle to build.

Even if you have been discovered, staying motionless afterwards makes animals forget about you and continue with their life after sometime.
Camouflage clothing is artform, no really, look at what the military has been upto with it. It's useful, certainly you can't be wearing bright white or red clothes and expect to go unnoticed. Dress appropriately to the environment you expect to be in. Quiet shoes, comfortable shoes, discreet colours. If you can camo your equipment as well.
This is actually one of the reasons I dislike shooting with other people. Silence obviously keeps attention away from you, but it does a second thing. If you are quiet you'll hear other things, you'll find subjects to photograph or you'll notice that elephant sneaking up behind you. So leave the Ipod behind ok? Shootings safer and more productive that way.
Don't smell
No really. Particularly with mammals, strong odours, deodorant/perfume is a guaranteed way of not getting any shots. Leave your vanity behind.

Mongoose cub eating temple offerings
Sit still
The classic wildlife mode of shooting off course is to stay in one place and let animals come to you, hide photography. Get a hide, a camo net and stay. Hedge your chances of getting close to something by setting up a hide near a resource an animal needs (water, food, salt lick, mating grounds) or a place an animal inhabits (nest, den, etc). As I said knowledge is everything. Also oodles of patience, and all of the above. Some people also use bait, I haven't yet, although I have sort of used food others have set out.
StalkingThis is a different kind of photography altogether. All but sit still applies, well actually sit still, move, sit still, move, you get the idea? Use the terrain, hide behind things, plants, stones, etc. Stay out of direct line of eyesight of your quarry. Use zig-zag or round about approaches to it. When there isn't anything to hide behind squat on the ground and move bent down.

Keep your camera close to shoulder high while approaching. Its hard to do this undetected when you're close. (Any other ideas here?)

Remember your limits, never get too close, you'll loose your shot or worse get bitten, gored or killed.
When in doubt err on the side of caution.Familiarize
Believe it or not animals do get used to you. Wear the same or very similar clothes. Be unobtrusive and completely non-threatening. Keep returning to the place that your quarry is, it will maybe eventually accept you as part of the landscape. True of birds and mammals, insects and reptile, probably not.

f5.6 and don't be there!
Camera traps are cool, and potentially expensive. So using remotes is also an option, stay close enough so you can trigger and guard your gear.

PS: the first 2 images link to my new Flickr gallery, following Strobist ideas on the service. Will see how it pans out.


Pulok Pattanayak said...

Another fine article in your "Wildlife photo secrets' series. Hope to use some (at least some!) of your suggested tricks soon, really soon. :)

ps - As there is always a good chance to forget limit of closeness, is it not dangerous shooting alone, especially while shooting venomous snakes and so forth?

Natasha Mhatre said...

Off course its dangerous. I never do it alone, basically I've worked with them and have some idea of their limits. And when I'm shooting I always have an experienced person watching over both me and the snake, warning me if I lean in too far or the snake gets antsy.

If I'm alone I'm extra cautious and will not usually take any risk.

But read up some of what Andy Rouse gets up to, I wont sound that nuts any more :)

Pulok Pattanayak said...

I'll surely check Andy Rouse's blog.

And, you sound nuts! yeah, all great efforts sound like that too.