This week, we are talking about something that every adventure and travel photographer has done at some point in their lives; photograph wildlife. Sometimes, this can mean trumping around in the wilderness for hours trying to find an elusive animal. Other times, it's as easy as pulling over and turning off the car. But is it really that easy? Do you just need to pull over and start shooting? Sometimes, yes. But, to get great photos of wildlife from the confines of a vehicle - whether that's your own car on the side of the road or a safari vehicle - takes a little more preparation than it seems. So today, I'm going to give you my 7 tips for photographing wildlife from a vehicle to help you make the most of those roadside encounters.
Now, a few qualifiers on this first before we get going.
Firstly, only stop where it is safe for you to do so. This means if you see wildlife and there isn't enough room on the shoulder for you to stop. Don't stop. Don't park in the middle of a highway to watch the sheep on the side of a mountain. That puts your life, other driver's lives and the animal's life in danger.
Secondly, never get out of your vehicle and approach wildlife, especially if it is a predator. But herbivores and other large wildlife need space as well. Too frequently here in Banff, I see tourists get out of their cars and approach bull elk from just a few feet away. On average, a bull elk weighs 700 pounds and stands 5 feet tall (plus a couple of extra feet of antlers). And they can easily take you out. The same goes for large herbivores all over the world. Just give these animals space to do their thing.
Alright, so the safety aspect aside. Let's get into these 7 tips to help you capture some roadside wildlife.
Tip #1: Have your camera ready
Wildlife can appear and disappear suddenly. And you need to have your camera ready to capture them as they appear. This means having your lens attached (preferably a long telephoto) and sitting beside you in the car (or within easy reach). You won't have time to go to the back of your car to get it. And frequently, you won't want to as it may not be safe or because you will scare off the animal. When I'm out travelling on my own, I keep my lens on the passenger's seat. But when I" ve got people with me, I keep it on the floor behind the passenger's seat where it won't roll around, and I can easily reach back and grab it.
So, keep your camera (with lens) nearby, so you are ready to shoot when the opportunity arises.
Tip #2: Position yourself Carefully
I find photographing from behind a steering wheel difficult and annoying. Mainly because I can't turn my body to properly look through the camera without running into the steering wheel. Or, I end up banging the camera into the steering wheel when I try to spin the camera into position. But, if you are driving on your own, you have no choice. So deal with the steering wheel.
If you have someone else who likes to drive, however, take the passenger's seat. This is best because a lot of wildlife will appear on the passenger's side of the car, you can look for wildlife (rather than paying attention to the road), and you don't have to deal with the steering wheel.
Now, this changes slightly on a safari or guided wildlife expedition. I have two options that I think are the best in these positions. The first is to take the jump seat beside the driver, especially in a safari vehicle. A safari ranger needs to always have the animal in their sightlines, so you should have uninterrupted sightlines of the animal as well. You also won't have other guests harassing you to move so they can get the shot. My second favourite position in a safari vehicle is if you can get a bench to yourself. This gives you a ton of flexibility to see the animals, regardless of which side of the car they are on, and you have space to leave your camera bag out to switchgear more easily.
Tip #3: Steady your Camera
Handholding a long-lens is difficult and can add quite a bit of shake to your images. Add to the fact that most animals are coming out at the late and early hours of a day and, even if you crank your ISO, you're shooting with slower shutter speeds. So, you will need to stabilize your camera. But, inside a car, a tripod is basically out of the question (unless you've got a custom vehicle set up.) So, your best option here is a bean bag for your window. These little bean bags are designed to straddle the two sides of a door, come in various shapes and sizes, and are cost-effective. You can mount any type of tripod or panning head to these bean bags, meaning your camera can be set up in seconds to start shooting.
Tip #4: Windows
So, on the beanbag front. To make those work, you need to have your windows rolled all the way down. This brings me to this fourth tip. Have your windows ready. This is a lot easier in warm locations and summer months than the rest of the year, but you will want to have your windows rolled down and ready to go. This will make setting up your shot faster. You won't have to remember to turn your vehicle back on (if you forget to roll down the windows) and, if you're close and photographing a skittish animal - the sound of your window rolling down maybe just be enough to scare them off. So, be smart, and have your windows rolled down and ready to go.
Tip #5: Turn off the Engine
Once you get yourself into position, shut off your car. This has two benefits to it. Firstly, cars shake when their engines are running. This can run up and into your camera and inevitably add shake to your shots. Secondly, you won't be disturbing the wildlife on the side of the road. Making them much more likely to stick around and return to their natural behaviours. Meaning you have more chances for better shots.
Tip #6: Embrace Zoom Lenses
Embrace the zoom! Yes, primes typically offer better image quality. But when you are shooting inside a limited space, like a vehicle, with little room for movement - a zoom lens will be your friend. These give you more flexibility in every sense. If an animal is close to you on the side of the road, you can easily zoom wide and capture it. If they are further off into the trees, zoom in, and you've got it. It's the most practical solution for shooting from a car. These lenses are also typically smaller, meaning they are easier to maneuver in the tight confines of your vehicle. These are also amazing for safaris because of their size savings. When you are crammed in a safari vehicle with other people, moving your legs around without taking them out will benefit everybody. A few of the most popular zoom lenses for wildlife photography at the moment are the Tamron 150-600, Canon's RF 100-500, and Sony's 200-600.
Tip #7: Talk to a local
If you aren't sure where wildlife may be on the road, then you'll want to seek out some advice. Find a local guide who will give you some tips on where or when to go or, better yet, will go out with you to find animals. Local trackers and guides offer you the best chance of seeing the animal and not causing it undue stress because they will help you understand how to approach and safely photograph it. Plus, guides are a wealth of information, and they may provide you with some of the best tips for finding these animals. So, basically, don't be afraid to ask for help. It's the only way you will get it. And it is probably better than driving around aimlessly for hours on end.
You can follow along with Robert’s adventures on Instagram @RobertMasseyPhotography.