Wildlife Photography For Beginners

By Roger (7 August 2016)

If you're looking for something challenging to photograph, and you like animals, you should give wildlife photography a try. Typically, wildlife photographers make photos of undomesticated animals, in their natural habitat. Many adhere to photo-journalistic standards. They won't edit anything in the photo or manufacture the scene (through bait lures, etc.). You can find countless stories on the web about photographers being stripped of awards because they violated these rules.

You may have heard it requires very expensive gear and an unlimited travel budget, not to mention the physical fitness of an Olympic athlete. Those requirements may be a bit over-stated, but wildlife photography can be a difficult genre to break into, especially if you intend to make a living at it. The successful wildlife photographer has studied the animals and their habitats. They spend long periods in the field to gather those beautiful shots you see. However, there are many simpler, less-expensive approaches available to you, if you just like animal photography.

One of the easiest place to begin learning is your local zoo. It may not be as exotic as a trip to Antarctica, but today's zoos are making great strides to make their enclosures more closely match the animals' natural environments and eliminate unnecessary barriers between the viewer and the animals. With the safe conditions of a zoo and closer distances involved, you don't need any of the really expensive, long focal length lenses to get a good photo. Usually a lens with a focal length that tops out at 200mm will be sufficient. Most zoos will permit a monopod, which you can use for extra camera stability when the enclosures are a little dim.

Gibbon, Omaha Zoo

You still need to do a little bit of work; don't get lazy just because the zoo is easy. Find out the best time to catch the animals being active – it's usually early in the day. The animals will move as they want, so be patient. Don't whistle or make noises at them. You'll annoy the other guests, and the animals have heard it before and will ignore you. Look for the best backgrounds for your photos. Spend some time watching how the animal is behaving. Move around to find the best composition. The crowd always stops at the closest position to the animal, but moving further may give you a better angle on the animal and help you keep the crowds out of the frame. That's how I did got this coati photo.

Coati, Omaha Zoo

Beyond the basic zoo, you may be able to find animals in some other kind of captive condition. Animal parks hold animals in large parks and allow them to roam. We have one in Virginia that has 180 acres of land that you can drive through in your vehicle. (Virginia Safari Park) The animals are not predators, obviously, but you can make photos of them without worrying about bars. Since you can feed the animals, they are unafraid and may approach your car, allowing you even closer photos. Again, look at your backgrounds, and try to get a photo that makes the animals look as if they are in a natural environment.

Zebras in the park

I wrote about another captive event, back in 2014, (link), when I was talking about group shoots. The Raptor Conservancy of Virginia (link) brings raptors to some events. They'll let contributors photograph the birds during the events. With the raptors sitting on a branch, they appear to be in the wild. As I said, these types of wildlife photography aren't what the “real” wildlife photographers do, but it can give you a chance to make nice photos of animals. And, as a bonus, you are contributing to a worthy charity.


When you're willing to take your chances on the whims of nature, you can head into a wildlife refuge. In a refuge, the animals (finally) are in their natural environment. You have no guarantee of seeing any of them; you are going to have to go into the refuge to try to find them. This is where your planning, knowledge of the animals, and patience will be tested. So why would I include them in a blog about easy ways to get into wildlife photography? Because there are still some easier ways to experience the wildlife refuge. Most of the preserves around the world have guide services, operating inside, for those willing to spend some money.

My favorite refuge is the Denali National Park and Preserve, in Alaska (link). We've visited it half a dozen times. Founded in 1917, it has more than six million acres of wilderness. The animals are never fed or assisted in any manner; everything is real. However, there is one road into this wilderness. Current prices for a bus trip into Denali start at about $80.

You may scoff at taking a bus, but you would be surprised what you can see from that vantage point. The animals completely ignore the buses because they aren't a threat to them. The drivers are connected by radio to tip each other off when an animal is spotted near the road. If you get the right group of passengers – meaning they are very quiet – you can get very close to animals in the area.

Denali Wolf

For example, on one trip, our driver was tipped off about a wolf near the road. The bus stopped, and everyone was told to be very quiet. The wolf came out of the brush; walked alongside the bus; and disappeared into the trees on the other side of the road. The close up was shot with a 200mm lens and is not cropped The wolf was so close to us that I couldn't get all of her into the camera frame. The bears, below, were one of 10 sets of grizzlies we saw the year prior. Once again, we were just riding the bus.

Denali Wolf close-up

Denali Grizzlies

Denali Grizzlies

I will never be a “real” wildlife photographer. My primary interests lie in other genres, but I'm always ready to make interesting photos when they present themselves. If you are looking for ways to build your collection of animal photos, there are several inexpensive ways to begin. Use the resources available to learn your techniques; study the animals and their environments; and look for opportunities to make it happen.

Have fun, and, remember, all of your wildlife photos don't have to be big and scary.

Support a Charity

By Roger (12 June 2016)

We make a very conscious effort to limit our blogs to photographic topics. Occasionally, we bend our rules to discuss topics about which we are passionate and still connect them to photography.

Both Mark and I support several charitable organizations and supporting your favorite charity is always a good thing. Of course, they request money for their operations, but they also need other types of support – including photography services.

The range of charities you can choose to support are as varied as the type of photography support they need. They need photo restorations, archival work, recording of events, and almost any type of photo work you can think of. There are even several photography-specific charitable organizations, if you prefer those. You can find a charity to match your area of interest, with very little effort. Give them some help.

Like many families, we have had several close family members afflicted with cancer, so, those charities are high on our list. This weekend, several of our family members participated in a Relay for Life walk. My wife's school sponsored a tent for the walkers, and I shot a few photographs for them. Besides the emotional Survivor's Lap, the organizers set up personal luminaires that honored those who were still fighting cancer; those who were survivors; and those who lost their fight. The luminaires lined the walking path and spelled out HOPE on the bleachers.

The Survivor's Lap

Personalizing the luminaire

Since I'm talking charity, another charity I have worked with (although I'm overdue for more support) is St. Mary's Home, link, in Norfolk, Va. Please give them a look and a donation. St. Mary's is a long-term pediatric residential care facility dedicated, exclusively, to children with severe physical and intellectual disabilities. It is one of only approximately 100 facilities of its kind, nationwide. The kids there can always use your support.

St. Mary's Fun Run

So go support a charity of your choosing. You can give them money, but your time and services may be even more helpful. They can use your photos as part of their advertising or publicity for their sponsors. You'll get a warm fuzzy and good karma for helping a worthy cause.

2016 Gold Cup

By Roger (15 May 2016)

Last weekend, I got the chance to go out on the course for the Gold Cup Races, in The Plains, Virginia (link). The races have been going on since 1922, so it's a long-standing tradition, here in Northern Virginia. I've been to the many events at Great Meadow and blogged about the joys of putting on one of the course photographer's vests, back in November, 2014 (link). It's always a long, enjoyable day when you get the chance to take the cameras some place challenging.

Time for racing

And the lighting conditions were challenging. Since the races begin at mid-day, you always have lots of contrasty light. This year, however, we also had moving clouds and were constantly changing our exposure settings. We've had a long run of rainy days, lately, so the course was also little soggy, and race day dawned with lots of clouds in the sky. Luckily, it held off. The day got sunny for some of the races – there are nine – but, by the end of the day, it was clouding up, again.

The key non-photographic requirement for all photographers out on the course is paying attention to what is happening on the field. Each race follows a different course, and you definitely do not want to interfere with any of the proceedings. A couple of jockeys were de-horsed, so you also have to be alert when unsupervised race horses are running loose. They could cause serious damage to you and your gear. Fortunately, neither jockeys nor photographers were harmed.

We started off with the terrier races. You wouldn't believe the intensity of some of the owners in this “fun” race. The dogs just want to run after the raccoon tail and jump the miniature fences. Take a look at their faces when they come out of the starting kennel. This is always a crowd favorite.

And, they're off!

As we prepared for the real races, we split across the course and around the grounds. Some of the photographers were there on assignments to photograph the crowd and ancillary events more than the actual races. There were about 50,000 spectators and vendors dining, drinking, and partying. There are hat contests, tailgate contests, fancy car displays, and para-mutual betting going on, so it is a target-rich environment for photographers. I did shoot some photographs of the crowd, like the one below, but my primary interest was the races.

One of the hat contestants

I tried to stay away from the main gaggle of photographers to get some photos that varied from the main pool. For example, I didn't shoot any photos of the finish line because I went out along the back of the course. (Most of the photographers weren't going to walk that far out.) The course is almost two miles around the outer fences, and, as you can see below, the back of the course is free of spectators. You can get a cleaner photo back there.

Far end of the race course

Due to obvious safety concerns, you stay out of the path of the horses and not too low to the ground. I found a few places that allowed me to get low, behind some barriers, to safely grab a few photos low and close. I was trying to get a different look from the standard photos. It's pretty exciting to be on the ground when the horses come galloping by, within 10 feet.

My down low shots

Of course, you can only differ so much from the standard race shots. There are certain photos that we all made at one point or another. Because these are steeplechase races, you want some of the fence and hedge jumping. One of the races included a path through the shallow pond. There was no way I was going to miss that shot.

Through the brush fence

Through the pond

The last couple races of the day are on a flat course, so I left the course and concentrated my efforts on other subjects – the officials up the tower and jockeys returning to their tent, after the race.

A view halloo?

Mud-covered, but happy with the results of his ride

All in all, it was a great day, with lots of photos and new friends made. I hope to shoot the fall race, in November, if they ask me back. I don't get to photograph these kinds of events very often, so I try to take advantage of them every time I can. According to my phone, it was also a great step-count day. ;-)

Resting between races. Photo by Tony Gibson

More Fun with Falcons

By Mark



Over the Easter weekend we took a little vacation down to the Omni Homestead resort in Hot Springs VA.  We planned on staying a couple of nights and had so much fun we stayed an extra day.  One of the adventures they offered was the chance to go and play with their falcons.  We enjoyed it so much last summer in Ireland, that we wanted the opportunity again.   Thanks to American insurance laws it was a very different experience, but still quite thrilling.   In Ireland, we had a short lesson, and then got to take the birds flying through the woods.  Here, they require a preliminary training class first, and then you can take a second one and actually “fly” the birds yourself.   We certainly would have, but couldn’t fit it into our busy schedule of relaxing. Luckily we can go back and go on from there.  First, let me say that these aren’t actually falcons.  Falcons can be fairly ill-tempered and with the number of children these birds interact with, probably not a great idea.  These birds, just like in Ireland, are actually Harris hawks.  Our bird’s name was Remington.

Linda, the falconer was very proud of her birds and did a great job connecting with the fairly large group, including kids to the history and habits of the birds, hunting and the challenges of keeping them healthy. One of her best points was that these birds are not her friends; they just see her as the easiest path to reliably get food.  It was clear though that she respected them and knew what they were thinking before they did.  You can see they share common expressions and are sharply focused.  

You did get to sign waivers before you took the course.  One of the neatest parts of her demonstration was showing just how food focused and agile the hawks are.  She stood this couple together a few inches apart and held out the food down low. 

Remington had no problem, folding back her wings and making it through the gap.  At the end of the flying demo, she got a nice treat.

After she was pretty full, she went through the crowd allowing all the brave people to perch Remington on their hands.  Sarah is getting to be very comfortable. 

Just for perspective, here was the first really brave adventurer.

I gave Sarah my camera and she managed to get one in focus shot of me.   I like the fact that my nose is just slightly bigger than Remington’s—at least from this angle.   It is difficult to describe just how impressive these hunters are when seen up close.  They are still wild and very fierce and that is exactly how it should be.