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One of the greatest pleasures of landscaping for wildlife is the opportunity to observe the creatures that visit your yard. Some people enjoy the thrill of simply watching animal behavior “up close," while others want to take pictures to preserve the memories and share them with others.
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Observing and Photographing Wildlife
As you plan your landscaping, keep wildlife observation in mind. Plant shrubs and trees in line with windows from which you can watch comfortably. For photography, try to make it a window that can be easily opened, one without a screen. Sliding doors can be opened slightly while you are hidden behind a folding screen or drapes. If you must take your photos through a closed window, carefully put your lens right against the glass to eliminate glare and reflection. A tripod will help to keep the camera steady as you wait for the perfect shot. Your first step in observing wildlife should be to pay attention to their habits. Take notes on when (both time of day and season) and where you see wildlife in your yard. Most animals follow patterns of behavior and this can work to your advantage. If you see a rabbit eating in a corner of your lawn in the morning, chances are that he will be there every morning. You can plan to be in the right place even earlier and wait for him. Birds frequently use the same perch repeatedly, so you can pre-focus a camera on that spot and wait for your subject to appear, rather than following it around the yard, trying to maintain focus. This same technique works with many insects, such as dragonflies, which are territorial. Species that migrate often appear at the same time each year and will return to your yard if you have provided for their needs in the past. Study guidebooks to learn more about the habits and preferences of individual species.
© WindStar Wildlife Institute
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There is a wealth of good camera equipment on the market, and any photography store will be happy to advise you on the best choices for nature work. Generally speaking, you want a 35mm SLR (single lens reflex) camera with a through-the-lens metering system. You should be able to manually override any automatic features, and it should have a “hot shoe" for a removable flash attachment. A depth-of-field preview button is a nice feature, as is a cable release cord. If you are restricted to an automatic point-and-shoot camera, you can still get lots of good photos by using a variety of techniques to get closer to your subjects.
high shutter speeds are needed to freeze action, but slower films have a smaller visible grain in the finished product. For really good photos, it isn’t enough to get close to an animal and have it in sharp focus. Timing is also important. Although we don’t often think about it, light has color. During the middle of the day it has a strong blue cast, while light in the early morning and late afternoon is warmed with reds and yellows. Photos taken in this warmer light tend to be more pleasing, and these are also often the best times to observe wildlife. Many creatures are out feeding in the earlier and later hours, avoiding the hot sun of midday. There tends to be less wind, making sharp focus easier to achieve, and the longer rays of the sun create interesting shadows. If you must take pictures in the middle of the day, take advantage of slightly overcast conditions, letting clouds soften the harsh light. Dull conditions can actually make colors richer because of the reduction in surface glare. For nearby subjects, your flash covered with a light yellow filter can make it look like the photo was taken in the early morning. Check the light Direction of light is also an important consideration. There are three categories: direct light, sidelight, and backlight. Direct light refers to the rays Page 2
falling on the subject when the sun is behind your shoulder. It is useful if you are taking a light-colored subject against a dark background. A white rabbit shot against green pines in direct light will stand out sharply. Taking a photo when your subject is lit from the side is often the most flattering. The light is softer, there are interesting shadows, and the details of texture become more obvious. Backlight, with the sun’s rays coming from behind the subject, is the most dramatic, showing the veins of a leaf or a halo of fur on a fox. Avoid unwanted splashes of light (known as “lens flare") in your pictures by shading the lens with your hand. Consciously experiment with different directions of light and see what works best for the wildlife that interests you. Never look directly at the sun, even through the view finder, since this could damage your eyes. Backgrounds Keep backgrounds in mind when taking a picture. Many animals are able to blend with their surroundings, and you will be able to see them more clearly if they are standing against a contrasting background. This might be a wall, shaded vegetation, or even the sky. For small subjects, you might be able to slip a coat or other solid-colored object behind them. Think about why you are taking the picture and, if your camera has adjustable A Plant's Home
Type of film Experiment with various kinds of film and keep notes on your results. Slide film requires more exposure accuracy but is better if you plan to show your photos to a large group, or want to submit them for publication. Prints are generally preferable for enlargements or to share with friends. Films are given an ISO rating, which reflects what is known as their “speed." “Slow" films (under 100 ISO) require longer exposures to get a picture, while “fast" films (100, 200, 400 and up) can be exposed for a shorter time with good results. Faster films are more versatile in poor light, or when © WindStar Wildlife Institute
controls, use them to enhance the feeling you are trying to capture. If it’s early in the morning and you love the mist and the dewdrops, a longer exposure or larger aperture will let in more light and give your picture an airy feeling. A shorter exposure will intensify the colors of butterflies and flowers. Fast shutter speeds can “freeze" a bird in flight, while slow ones will give the impression of movement. The angle at which you take your shot is also important. By varying your own height, and thus that of the camera, you can look down on your subject or shoot up at it. Taking pictures of wildlife at eye level yields very intimate portraits. Don’t forget that your camera can be held in a vertical as well as horizontal position. Adjust it for taller subjects, or to get a different viewpoint. Notice everything in the view finder and change your position to crop out unwanted elements such as the corner of a house or an unattractive blossom. Certain configurations of subjects are especially pleasing, including s-curves, repetitive patterns, a touch of bright color in an otherwise neutral scene, and three of a subject forming a triangle. Photographers often use the “rule of thirds" when composing a picture (see following example). This involves imagining your scene divided into three parts, both vertically and © WindStar Wildlife Institute
horizontally. Your main subject should fall anywhere that two of those lines intersect.
suitable perch a short distance from the nest, which the parents will use coming and going with food. Feeding sites good Bird feeders are easy to place in convenient locations, but avoid putting them in flower beds. You might trample blossoms when filling the feeders, and dropped seeds can be a problem. Placing food and water sources near shrubs or trees gives birds a place to rest, and these natural backgrounds can give you better pictures. You can also attach branches directly to the feeder poles or to a nearby structure. To get close to birds away from the house, go to a sheltered spot and take a friend with you. Once settled, have your friend leave. The birds will assume that the danger is gone and will return to the site. A good pair of binoculars will help you get a better view of your subjects. Make sure that the “power" (the first number in the descriptive notation) is at least 7, and that the second number is at least 5 times larger (e.g., 7x35). Test them before purchasing to be sure that they are clear, easy to adjust, and not too heavy for your hands. A good field guide will also help with species identification. Insects are fascinating but can be difficult to photograph. Getting up early, while their wings are still wet with dew, A Plant's Home
Often it seems that nesting birds are good subjects for photos. They are accessible, and you know that they will return regularly to the nest. However, they are also at risk from human intervention.
Be cautious One of the riskiest times is during nest building. Birds put a lot of effort into choosing their nest site and, if they are frightened away, may not find another place in time to raise their young. Once the eggs are laid, keeping the adult away from them for too long may alter their temperature enough to prevent hatching. Always leave protective foliage in place, and don’t uncover a nest if it will leave it exposed after you depart. Although birds tend to be most tolerant shortly after the eggs hatch, scaring the young into leaving the nest even one day early can be disastrous. Sometimes the best photo situation is to provide a Page 3
gives you some extra time to get in close. Butterflies in particular are at rest until their body warms to flying temperature. If you are very careful, you can catch insects and put them in the refrigerator for a shor t time, then study or photograph them as they warm up. This won’t harm them, but be sure not to damage fragile wings or legs, and always return the insects as quickly as possible to the same place where they were captured. Using a flash can also freeze movement, but you must be close enough for the light from the flash to overpower that of the sun. Getting close-up shots of small creatures is a matter of both technique and equipment. Move in slowly, making sure that your shadow doesn’t fall across your subject. Close-ups If you have a camera with interchangeable lenses, you might want to invest in a set of extension tubes or a macro lens, both of which will allow you to do close-ups. Less expensive supplemental “close-up" lenses screw onto the front of your camera lens. These are measured in “diopters" (+1, +2, etc.) with increased magnification as the numbers increase. If you have a simple pointand-shoot camera, experiment with taping a pocket magnifying glass to the front of your lens. © WindStar Wildlife Institute
Using a ruler, take several shots at different distances, keeping a record of your attempts. When you get your pictures back, decide which distance gave the sharpest focus and use that formula in the future. If you want to photograph something that is relatively far away, your best choice is a telephoto lens which, like binoculars, brings distant objects closer. If this isn’t an option, or if you just want to view wildlife from a closer perspective, you have to work on techniques for physically getting nearer to your subject. Learn to identify animal tracks in mud and snow, and to recognize their calls in order to locate wildlife before you can actually see it. If you already know where to expect an animal to appear, wear dark clothing and get in place early to wait in a sheltered area. Sit quietly, since most wildlife is wary of movement. For scent-sensitive creatures, such as deer, try to position yourself downwind. When trying to get a picture of large birds on a windy day, approach with the wind at your back since they tend to take off into the wind and will come towards you. A length of camouflage fabric with circles cut out for your eyes and the camera lens makes an inexpensive portable blind. Just throw it over yourself, adding a chair or tripod for additional Page 4
maneuverability while underneath. Cars are good Don’t overlook your car as an effective blind if the location is suitable. Most animals are used to cars and don’t associate them with the people inside. If you must approach an animal in the open, come towards it at an angle rather than in a straight line, move slowly, and avoid making eye contact. Act naturally, as if you have absolutely no interest in the subject that you are stalking. Most creatures have a “comfort zone" and will flee if you get past that invisible line, but with practice you will learn how close you can get to different species. Often it is more effective to stop a distance away and wait for the animal to approach you as you remain motionless. If they are used to seeing you, and you have been providing sources of food and water, birds and animals are more likely to remain in place as you get closer. Once you decide to take a photo, focus on the eyes. If they are sharp, the rest of the picture can be a little fuzzy and still be acceptable. Always be aware of the reaction of the wildlife that you are studying and avoid causing any stress. Don’t block off an animal’s escape route or come too close to offspring if the parents seem agitated. A Plant's Home
Watch for predators Never endanger an animal or its young by attracting the attention of predators. Remember that stress can be cumulative, so don’t invite all the neighbors over to see a nest or stalk a rabbit. Share your discoveries through enthusiastic stories and good photographs. In addition, as tempting as it may be, don’t try to make pets of wild animals. While you may only want to enjoy them, others might not be so generous, and by taking away an animal’s natural wariness you put it at risk. Let wildlife remain wild! If you have provided the four basic requirements – food, water, shelter, space – as well as a feeling of safety, wildlife will come and provide you with many hours of pleasure. When caught up in the excitement of discovery and the challenge of photography, always remember to treat wild creatures with care and consideration. Be willing to sacrifice a photo or personal encounter for their well-being. The more you learn about wildlife, the more ways you will discover to enjoy it. Watching, taking photographs, sketching, sharing anecdotes with friends, helping your children learn to respect nature – all of these activities and more are your reward for inviting wildlife into your yard. Delight in the experience and encourage others to follow your example. © WindStar Wildlife Institute
This article was written by Maryland Master Wildlife Habitat Naturalist Cathy Gilleland. For more information or for the name of a Master Wildlife Habitat Naturalist in your area, please contact: WindStar Wildlife Institute E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.windstar.org
WindStar Wildlife Institute is a national, non-profit, conservation organization whose mission is to help individuals and families establish or improve the wildlife habitat on their properties.
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