Safely Photograph Animals in the Wild

When nature photographers go into the wilderness in search of beauty and wildlife for that perfect photograph, it can and should be enjoyable, rewarding, and free of stress. It should also be a stress-free experience for the animals in the confines of that environment.

Before you venture into the wild and wooly area in which you want to photograph wildlife and nature, consider the following:

  • Don’t venture off the beaten path. If you venture into underbrush, you run the risk of disturbing vegetation or blooming flowers. You may also get exposed to poison ivy or disturb a poisonous snake, or come into contact with ticks and lice that may carry Lyme disease.

  • Be alert. As you walk along the trail, be alert for any serendipitous photo opportunities, and also be alert for any situations that may put you in danger.

  • Use all your senses. You use your eyes to see photo opportunities, but you engage your other senses as well. Listen for any unusual noises, like an animal growling. Animals are usually fearful of humans, but if you venture near the territory of a mama and her cubs, the mother will usually defend her cubs to the death.

    You’ll get a warning first. When you hear it, make an orderly exit out of the animal’s territory. Animals will also mark their territory. If you smell something that resembles a lion’s cage in need of cleaning, get out of the area.

  • Beware of animals that are accustomed to humans. In some parks, animals have become accustomed to humans. In many parks like Yosemite, bears are used to human presence and will break into cars or tents if they smell food. In many Florida state parks, alligators are used to seeing humans and can become quite bold.

  • Don’t feed the animals. It’s illegal to feed animals in most state parks. When people feed animals, they lose their fear of humans. Ever hear of stories where bears or raccoons have ransacked a campsite? They’re usually looking for food and may not be afraid of humans because they’ve been fed before.

    Feeding wild animals also hurts the animals because they can learn to be dependent on humans rather than use their own natural hunting skills.

  • Beware of animals that might have rabies. Animals with rabies often exhibit strange behavior — such as stumbling, falling, or attacking inanimate objects — and have been known to come up to people.

    If an animal that could be a carrier of rabies bites a person and the animal is not caught (for testing), the inflicted person is in for a painful series of injections. Rabies cannot be cured after symptoms appear and will result in death.

  • Get a weather forecast. Never venture into the wilderness when storms are in the area.

  • Scan the horizon. Before you embark on a hike down a long trail, scan the horizon to see what’s going on. Sometimes the weather forecasters get it wrong and a storm may be brewing. You may also see smoke on the horizon, which could designate a forest fire or a controlled burn.

  • Get information from park rangers. Park rangers know what’s going on inside their parks. They can tell you if there’s a controlled burn or if a trail you plan on traversing is flooded out.

  • Let someone know where you’re going. Tell a friend or relative where you’re going and what time you expect to return. Make sure you call when you return so they don’t call out the cavalry if it isn't needed.

  • Carry a mobile phone. A mobile phone can save your life if you run into a predicament while you’re out in the wilderness. If you’re going to an area where there are no cellular towers, consider renting a satellite phone, especially if you’re going to be hiking deep into the wilderness.

  • Be well hydrated. Drink plenty of water before and during your photo shoot.

  • Bring provisions. If you’re going on a long hike, bring a bottle or two of water and some fruit or an energy bar.

  • Pack a small first-aid kit. Carry a small first-aid kit with bandages and anything else that might be useful. If you’re traveling into an area where you may encounter venomous snakes, bring a snake bite kit.

  • Wear suitable clothing. If you’re hiking in the woods, it’s a good idea to wear long pants, even on a hot summer day. A long-sleeve shirt will protect your arms from low hanging branches. Consider wearing a hat if you’re hiking on a sunny day. If you’re hiking in an area where there may be ticks, tuck your pants legs into your socks.

  • Protect your body. Slather your face with sunscreen and protect any other exposed parts of your body. Getting sunburned on your neck and ears is not fun.

  • Use mosquito repellent. Mosquitoes can carry nasty diseases.

  • Bring a compass. There are also applications for mobile phones that act like GPS devices. As long as you have cellular service, the application keeps track of where you’ve been.

  • Mark the trail. If you take a fork in the trail, tie a piece of cloth to a tree so you’ll know which way to turn when you return.

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