One of the mantras of wildlife photography is, ‘know your subject’. Whatever your subject – bird, mammal, insect or something else – you need to have a solid knowledge of their biology to understand where and when to find them and how to photograph them without jeapordizing their well-being.
As a biologist, I thought I had a pretty good knowledge of beaver – enough to allow me to get close and get some good shots. That’s only partially true. The more I photograph them, the more I realize I have a lot more to learn. For example, last week I tried to photograph the beavers in our backyard (a 3 acre beaver pond). I didn’t get a single photo. The problem is that beaver are a lot more shy and skittish than I thought. Every time I tried to sneak into the backyard and perch myself and my big lens in a place where I could get a good shot, the beaver were gone by the time I got settled. Often they left with a loud slap of the tail, announcing their annoyance at my presence. This happened to me a few times. But in the process I learned a few things about these guys. They have very keen hearing and a keen sense of smell, but their eye sight is terrible! If a beaver hears you coming, they’re gone. But I’ve also watched beaver stop swimming and crane their head out of the water to sniff the air. As soon as they detected my scent, they were gone.
But a few days ago I saw the beavers out back and decided to try again. While they were in one part of the pond, I installed myself on the bank in another area, covered myself partially with some camo, and waited. Eventually the beaver swam over and crawled up onto the bank about 20 feet from me. I managed to rattle off half a dozen shots before he decided to waddle back into the water. He swam in my direction and so I froze and stayed absolutely motionless. He nearly swam right up to me! It wasn’t til the last second that he turned away, but even then, he wasn’t startled or in any hurry to swim away. I rattled off several more shots.
So, I’m starting to learn. There are certain things about species you need to know to enable you to maximize your chances of making a great wildlife image. But there are also specific things about individual animal’s habits. For example, with Jocko, Evelyn and the family (these are our backyard beavers) they are not very active in the morning. But come 5pm, you can pretty much count on them to be in our part of the pond, munching happily on the roots of aquatic plants and packing mud up on shore. So I don’t even bother to try to photograph our beavers in the morning. I’d be wasting my time. Instead I focus on bird photography and save the beavers for dinner time.
I also now know that Jocko likes to sit on the little point just across from our backyard and munch on aquatic plant roots he dug out of the bank. So the best place to photograph him is from the bank at our backyard, about 20 feet away. As long as I’m there, with my camera set up, before he arrives, all is good. He’ll happily sit and munch while I rattle off shots.
So now I have a much better idea of the best strategies for getting good shots. There’s still lots to learn, but nothing can take the place of experience. You just need to get out there and shoot and learn from your experiences.