The manual: wildlife photography

2 Conceal yourself

  • Wear natural colors that blend in with the surroundings: green and brown in spring and summer, beige and tan in fall.
  • Avoid items that rustle when you move and anything shiny (including glasses).
  • Hide behind natural blinds, such as boulders, trees, and bushes. And don’t ignore opportunities on the way to the trailhead. Inwildlife havens like Yellowstone, you’re likely to glimpse all-star animals right from park road. Cars make very effective blinds: Pull completely off of the road ahead of the animal’s direction of travel. Open your window partway and place a jacket Or shirt between the camera and glass for cushioning.

3 Get in position

  • Approach animals slowly, from downwind. You don’t want to startle them–you want them to get used to your presence. (Photographer Kennan Ward swears that turning his tripod upside down when approaching caribou makes him Look Like he has antlers.)
  • Observe the animal’s direction of travel and move to where it will approach you.
  • Keep a safe distance. Yellowstone National Park recommends getting no closer than 25 yards (100 yards for bears). If the animal looks alarmed of retreats, you’re too dose.
  • Practice standard wildlife photography ethics. Don’t chase an animal, make noises to get it to Look at you, or interfere with its normal behavior or routine.


Zoom Point-and-shoot: Choose a camera with an optical, not digital, zoom of at least 10X for crisp dose-ups. Digital SLR: It’s not just about the focal length (but 80-400mm is a good bet). Also look for a lens with the largest aperture (lowest f/stop) you can afford. This lets you shoot at faster speeds in dim light.

Tripod Use the six- to 10-inch-long, flexible Gorillapod ($20-$50) to steady your camera on logs, trees, and rocks. Or try an adjustable trekking pole with a built-in camera support (such as TrekTech’s TrekPod Go! PRO; $230) for quick stability on the go.

Lighting Get the perfect shot by taking the same photo with several different ISOs (a measure of the camera’s light sensitivity). In dim light, try 400 to 800. Dial back to 100 to 200 in bright light.

Movement Pan your camera with the subject. Adjust shutter speed (1/30 to blur the surroundings and capture a sense of motion, 1/500 and up to stop the action), track the animal as it approaches, press the shutter gently, and continue panning for a few seconds after the shot.


Position the animal so it’s gazing toward the center of the photo. Leave “active space” for the subject to look or move into for a more dynamic shot. Exceptions: Center the subject if it’s looking or moving toward you.

Shoot from dawn until 9 a.m. and from 4 p.m. until dusk for the best natural light.

Include the environment, but avoid distracting background features (vegetation, boulders) that make the photo look cluttered.

Use the rule of thirds: Imagine three horizontal and three vertical lines across the photo, and position the animal at one of the intersections.

Squat down and photograph animals at their eye level for an intimate feel. “Catchlight” (reflection) in the eyes makes the subject look more alive.

1 Find your prey
Tom Leeson, a wildlife photographer for 35 years, shares his
secrets on getting the perfect shot of these four life-list animals.

ANIMAL              WHERE                           TIP

Bighorn   High, steep slopes.         Frame bighorns with side or
sheep     Hotspot: Rocky Mountain     backlighting to make them pop
          NP, CO                      against alpine terrain.

Moose     Marshy bogs and meadows.    Shoot from a kayak: The low
          Hotspot: Isle Royale NP,    angle makes moose look more
          MI                          dramatic, and you'll likely get
                                      closer than on land.

Bald      Ocean, lake, and river      Use an easy-to-hold telephoto
eagles    shores. Hotspot: Chilkat    lens, increase shutter speed to
          Bald Eagle Preserve, AK     at least 1/500, and track the
                                      eagle as it dives for fish.

Bears     Berry patches, salmon       Underexpose the shot to capture
          streams, and meadows.       a dark bear without blowing out
          Hotspots: Yosemite NP, CA   the background. Shoot twice
          (black): Glacier NP, MT     (at -1/3 and at -2/3) to ensure
          (griz)                      you get the right exposure.

Giving wildlife a much-needed helping hand

Helping Hand

Not so long ago, the scissor-tailed flycatcher was a familiar sight during mating season throughout the Oklahoma prairies. But as grassland habitat has disappeared in the Sooner State, so has the strikingly beautiful flycatcher–Oklahoma’s official state bird.

  • “Its numbers have declined by more than 50 percent in recent years,” says Jeremy Garrett, information specialist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. “It’s just one of several grassland songbirds declining in the Great Plains region.”

With some 900 nongame species and only about $130 to spend annually on each, Oklahoma wildlife managers are hard-pressed to stem the decline of the scissor-tailed fly-catch–er–or many other creatures that range within the state. “With our limited funds, we can only target certain nongame animals each year for research and habitat programs,” says Garrett, “and even then we can’t provide full coverage for those species.”

Oklahoma is not alone in this predicament. All across the country, programs designed to protect populations of nongame wildlifeface rising costs and serious shortages of funds–even though such animals as songbirds, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals constitute more than 90 percent of the 1,800 or so vertebrate species found in the United States.

Moreover, many nongame animals are declining so seriously due to habitat loss and other problems that they are likely candidates for the Endangered Species List, where protecting them becomes an even more expensive proposition. “The declining status of nongame wildlife, combined with the lack of funding for nongame programs, is a serious situation that has been ignored for far too long,” says NWF senior scientist Douglas Inkley.

A solution, says Inkley, is a new concept called Teaming with Wildlife that is designed to provide states with much-needed funds for proper management of nongame animals. The concept has been endorsed by 13 governors and more than 2,400 conservation and other groups, including 500 companies.

Presently, the states raise nongame funds through a variety of techniques, including income-tax checkoffs that allow citizens to make donations to nongame management by contributing a portion of their state income-tax refunds. But the money fluctuates yearly depending on the whims of donors, making long-term planning impossible for state wildlife officials. Other sources of revenue, such as the sale of conservation license plates, are similarly inconsistent and declining.

This dilemma was supposedly solved in 1980 when Congress enacted the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, authorizing as much as $5 million in federal funds yearly for nongame conservation. But in the past 17 years, not a single penny has ever been appropriated by Congress. “To be successful, nongame wildlife managers need a steady, reliable source of funding,” says Inkley. “And that’s where Teaming with Wildlife comes in, because it’s based on a funding approach history shows is stable and successful.”

That approach is the federal game-management funding system, the result of two laws: the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 and the Federal Aid in Fish Restoration Act of 1950. Together, these measures raise about $400 million yearly for management of deer, trout and other game animals through excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment.

With support from both hunters and nonhunters and bipartisan backing on Capitol Hill, the Teaming with Wildlife initiative is now being debated in Congress. If the bill passes, it will produce an estimated $350 million a year for state nongame conservation. Under the new plan, Congress would levy a small excise tax on some outdoor recreational equipment. The revenue would be used to research wildlife, enhance habitat, create new recreation access sites and help educate the public about wildlife and the outdoors. The estimated cost of the tax to outdoor users would be $5 to $10 annually.

The base support for such a tax would be an American public that often puts its money where its enthusiasms lie. Wildlife viewing is the fast–est-growing outdoor recreation activity in the nation. A 1996 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that nearly 63 million people participate every year in a wildlife-watching activity. In all, such activities generate more than $30 billion yearly in revenues.

  • “Nobody likes the T-word,” observes Naomi Edelson, project coordinator of the International Association of Fish and WildlifeAgencies, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group that along with NWF is part of the broad-based coalition supporting the initiative. “But the fact is that we are on a dangerous collision course,” she says. “The number of people who enjoy the outdoors continues to grow, while both the wildlife they are seeking and the funds necessary to provide those outdoor activities continue to decrease. We can either pay a little bit now to maintain and enhance our wildlife and wild lands, or we can pay a lot later when problems with many creatures reach a critical level.”

The $350 million raised annually under the program would be apportioned by federal authorities among the states, based on geographic size and population. In order to receive these funds, states would be required to match every three federal dollars received with one dollar of their own.

In Oklahoma, for example, the largest source of the state’s $115,000 present annual non-game budget is an income-tax checkoff. “It’s very inconsistent funding,” says Garrett. But under the Teaming with Wild–life plan, Oklahoma would receive an additional $5.5 million yearly from the federal government for wildlife conservation, outdoor recreation and environmental education. And the state would then kick in another $1.8 million.

Similarly, the plan would boost nongame funding in Texas from less than $2 million annually to $17 million. “It would allow every citizen with an interest in wildlife to help support our work,” says John Herron, who directs the state’s nongame program.

Without such support, hundreds of species like the scissor-tailed flycatcher will face rough roads in the years to come. “All of us who enjoy these animals,” says Inkley, “are going to have to share some of the costs of protecting them. And so it’s great that so many people support this new plan.”–Roger DiSilvestro

How You Can Help America’s Wildlife

Let your members of Congress know that you, as an outdoor enthusiast, support the new Teaming with Wildlife plan. Write: [your Representative’s name], U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515; or [your Senator], U.S. Senate, Washington,

DC 20510. If you do write to Congress, let NWF know.

Or if you would like more information on how to help nongame species, write: Teaming with Wildlife, NWF, 8925 Leesburg Pike, Vienna, Virginia 22184.

The Undercover Pursuit of Wildlife Poachers


Writers take to Louisiana like alligators to a bayou. I think it’s because Louisiana is our most exotic state (on the mainland, anyway). It has a French history, a Cajun culture, feudal politics and a landscape about three-fourths marsh. Louisiana doesn’t look or act like other states. I believe it was A.J. Liebling who wrote that the main difference was that Louisiana lacked a tradition of democracy. But as Marc Reisner shows us in Game Wars, nature too sets Louisiana apart. “It is, or was, the best habitat forwildlife in the entire world,” he writes. Living off the land is still not only possible but practical. Big-time poaching flourishes as well, and it’s the poachers and their pursuers, particularly a colorful, arrogant, profane and off-and-on successful federal undercover ‘agent Reisner calls “Dave Hall,” who are the subject of this free-Swinging book,

“Hall” is what he’s called here, but I hope that’s not his real name; Reisner doesn’t say. If it is his real name, I hope he’s made a midlife career switch to something like silk farming or telemarketing because this book is going to blow his cover and probably jeopardize his life. There is money enough in alligator hides and illegal game fish and other contraband wildlife products that murder is not uncommon. Hall, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s law enforcement branch, spends his time conjuring up undercover schemes to nail the entrepreneurs who get obscenely rich trading in illicit wildlife.

Reisner’s book is both a page-turning narrative and an editorial on the decimation of nature by greed, but it’s mostly the former. Hall is an irresistible character. When we first meet him he is admiring a flock of geese and on his way to meet a Cajun outlaw known as “A. J.” whom he has converted into an undercover operative. Later he demands to know how many alligators the Cajun poached on his best night. The man reluctantly concedes that his record was 114, at an average length of five feet and an average take of $8 a foot. He became Hall’s ally after the mysterious deaths of several cohorts–possibly at the hands of competing poachers. Now, Hall says with a smile, here he is taking a notorious [ alligator poacher to lunch. “Former alligator poacher,” the man corrects him.

“I hope that’s true,” says Hall. Hall is happy in his work. He loves chasing bad guys, Wiring himself with a $5,000 tape recorder and wheedling incriminating conversation out of them. When the trade in illegal ivory boomed in the 1970s he volunteered to lead a sting aimed at nabbing the big-ticket traders in Alaska who deal in ivory from walrus tusks. Good ole boy Dave poses as a new-rich Texan in the oillease game who hankers to sell ivory to his friends. His customary cool erodes only when he finds himself at the mercy of an Alaskan version of Hell’s Angels known as the Brothers (but I’m not telling what happens).

At one point he submits to a strip search by an ivory dealer nicknamed “Sealskin Charlie” who has his doubts about ole Dave–who has already secondguessed Charlie and ditched his recorder in good time. The Alaska caper is the best reading in the book. I’ll never feel the same about the town of Nome after reading Reisner’s description (it looked like a “large container spill … the world capital of the International Quonset Hut style … the landscape was mildly undulating tundra, without trees to set the limits of sight”). A greater contrast with southern Louisiana is impossible to imagine.

  • The book includes one segment on gator poaching, one on the ivory trade, a third on a lucrative racket in the tasty fish known as sacalait or crappie and a fourth titled “Loss,” which chronicles the escalating disappearance of Louisiana’s freshwater marshes as a result of shortsighted dam building and oil company canals.

Reisner recounts all this in a goodhumored gonzo style laced with the occasional memorable image. One afternoon he is permitted to accompany Hall and another undercover agent as they cruise the Mississippi River with a duck poacher they’re out to snare. The poacher allows as how he’d kill a man if the money was right. “Most of us would,” he insists. “Tell me that ain’t so.” Dave Hall affably agrees. All Reisner could think about at that moment, however, was how he would have liked to take the poacher and “hold his head in duck dung until he had been asphyxiated.”

Donald Dale Jackson lives and writes in the wilds of Connecticut.