Taking interesting, or even spectacular, wildlife photos is dependent upon many criteria. Good equipment, in conjunction with excellent lighting, aids in the capture. Technique and camera knowledge, combined with lens function and application, assist as well. And when you have returned from the field, being able to post-process (PP) your images is a great advantage for the final result to be the best image possible.
But there is a key ingredient that is often overlooked by the novice, and sometimes neglected by the advanced photographer - that is the "ability to procure specimens or subjects".You don't have to be a pro photographer to realize that when there are no subjects to be found, your image catalog becomes non-existent.
A person desiring to shoot images from a baseball game has little more to do than to find out the time, date, and location of the game and, BINGO, you are there shooting images of the subjects. A "captive audience" as it were. This would also apply to other field sports, racing, weddings, concerts, etc. But to capture really good photos, the photographer needs to do his or her homework.
Where are the ideal spots from which to capture the excitement of the game, who are the noteworthy individuals to capture, and where is each player most likely to be during a given situation? This is where the homework pays off.
I realize that many of you do not have access to the outdoors as others might, but with some possible suggestions, you too can have an assortment of great nature and wildlife shots in your collection. Be that as it may, with wildlife photography, I am in constant search for subjects - both in and out of the field. These arrive in many different and sometimes unexpected ways.
Just recently I had the opportunity to substitute teach in a sixth grade class. One of the students brought in terrarium with some Australian stick insects. I asked him if it would be okay to take a couple of them home to work on in the studio. That is how I was able to gain access to these unique and interesting subjects.(see below) Further online research revealed the proper diet and I was able to set up a shot representative of the habitat they would have in the wild - complete with vegetation for the host subject.(see below)
Check with friends, neighbors, and relatives for any exotic pets they may be harboring, there are a multitude of opportunities just in the local neighborhood.
Another way to gain access to subjects is a visit to the local zoo, animal park, rehab center, etc. Lots of animals are injured or orphaned each year and many of those are brought to wildlife rehab centers. Some centers will let you take photos of their critters and some may not. Making a donation, or even better yet, volunteering, can really open doors to wildlife you would have a lot of difficulty procuring in the wild.
While on the subject of zoos, the best times for shooting at the zoo are usually on days that are not too hot. Most of the animals rest during hot times of the day. I usually make the trip during Winter or Spring because I live in a climate where we don't have any snow.(see below)
I have also found setting up a bird feeder for a few weeks at a time during the year supplies me with subjects to shoot. I place the feeder about ten feet from nearby plants or woodpiles with dead branches and twigs sticking up. This provides a natural background and perches for subjects to land on before and after feeding. I will even set up my triggering device between the feeder and the perches. Approaching birds will set off the camera as they come to and from the food. (see below)
If you enjoy macro and close-up photography, another technique for finding organisms to photograph is to take some small buckets, ice cream containers, jars, or cans to a nearby woodland, grassland, or other habitat. Smooth sided containers work the best as they prevent the animals from climbing back out after falling in. Dig a small hole and place one of the containers in the hole - burying it level with the surface of the ground. Place a couple of sticks, rocks, or other objects around the rim of the container and place a flat piece of wood on top of the container. The rocks or sticks will prevent the flat wood lid from closing the container. Many organisms wandering around at night will seek cover under the piece of wood as the light from the new day arrives. When they do, they will fall into the container. Be sure to check containers daily. I have caught everything from small snakes, mice, frogs and lizards with this method. If you live in an area that has hot days, be sure to check containers each morning. You may want to close the container during very hot times or when they are to be left without checking for extended periods of time, as during those times long confinement could lead to the death of the organisms. But it is important to remember to check your cans regularly, and when you are done, retrieve the containers from the field.(see diagram below)
The next suggestion is probably the most productive way to secure great shots, but it is often the most difficult for many to learn. REMEMBER, you are out attempting to capture images of subjects that are in their element. They know how to avoid predators, and they also know where to travel and not be noticed. They possess very acute senses that enable them to avoid you. Here it is....are you ready....this will be the most difficult thing to learn......"SIT STILL, WATCH AND LISTEN TO THE WORLD AROUND YOU!" in other words "BE PATIENT." That's it.
I sat on the shore of the American river for several hours watching gulls feeding on the spawning salmon before capturing the moment I wanted. It paid off because I was patient.(see below)
I spent 3.5 hours to obtain the shot of the White-eye you see below. I witnessed the small flock of five feeding on the flowers in another part of the canopy, but they were too high for a decent capture. I knew they would need to move to different flowers to obtain the nectar they were feeding on as they worked their way across the canopy. They had flown away and returned six times. Each time hitting a new area of the tree seeking out the flowers where nectar still remained. Was is worth it? For me, yes. It was the shot I desired. 3.5 hours and six shots later I had the image.(see below)
Now here is the deal. Do I randomly sit somewhere and wait for wildlife? The simple answer is no. If I was someone who has spent little time in the wild, just choosing any place will not necessarily provide you with opportunities regardless of how patient you are. try searching for some animal signs is very effective. What would constitute signs? Fresh dirt piled from the entrance of a hole or burrow, half eaten pine cones, groups of birds concentrated in small areas, loud nature sounds could be birds scolding a predator, or something caught by a predator.
There are also many sources of food for wildlife. A rotting log, soft moist ground for digging, blossoming trees and shrubs (see below), berries, a dead animal carcass, and a host of other items. Patience around a site like this can be extremely productive.
Nesting sites can be used for photographing, but I would let someone with experience with the given species provide you with advice. Some wildlife are not bothered by someone shooting images of them from a nearby location. Others will abandon their young as they value their own self preservation over the lives of their offspring. If a bird has decided to take up residence just outside your front door, you can be relatively certain that your presence will not be a bother to them. House Finches, English Sparrows and doves come to mind and will offer you time to hone your outdoor skills for more difficult subjects later.
In wrapping up this pep talk, I must say equipment nowadays is very affordable. Some of the new super zoom lenses like the 150-600mm are now more popular than ever due to their relative affordable pricing, but many individuals will still become dissatisfied with their captures. Having the equipment is a great thing, but having nothing to shoot is even more disappointing. If you practice patience, learn something about your subjects, and use one of these techniques for collecting some subjects, you will find yourself adding images to those collections. Enjoy your next trip outdoors, and happy shooting.