Wildlife photography tips for beginners

For an upcoming presentation I’m giving at a local school about outdoor writing, I decided to create a slideshow of wildlife photos, just to make things a bit more interesting for the children. After all, who doesn’t enjoy looking at photos of swimming moose, baby bears and soaring eagles? And as I dug through about a decade of wildlife photography, I was surprised to see how many different animals I had been lucky enough to photograph while exploring Maine — and the good memories dredged up by those images.

I’d nearly forgotten about the beaver that I watched carry wood across a pond in Aroostook County, and the newborn fawn I spied ambling across a field near Moosehead Lake. Then there was the time I visited Eastern Egg Rock, an island covered with nesting puffins, and the boat ride during which I found myself surrounded by a pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins. All of this in Maine.

Moosehead Lake Region, MAINE — 07/08/17 — A fawn walks towards a group of adult white-tailed deer that likely includes its mother on July 8, 2017, at Seboomook Wilderness Campground on the north end of Moosehead Lake. (Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN)

Looking back through those photos, I felt extremely fortunate. I’m by no means a professional wildlife photographer. My equipment and knowledge is inferior to those who can confidently claim that title. However, I have learned a thing or two over the years about photographing wildlife in Maine, as an amateur.

So as winter melts into spring, if you’re interested in picking up a camera and exploring nature, here are a few tips that I hope will help you along.

Start small.

I mean this figuratively and literally. First of all, don’t get caught up in the fact that you might not have the best equipment or locations to find wildlife. Camera equipment is expensive. For most people, it takes a bit of saving and bargain hunting to upgrade. And when it comes to locations, I’ve learned that fascinating creatures can often be found right in your backyard, or in a city park. One of my favorite places to photograph birds is in a small park right by a major shopping center and highway. So you don’t need to go on massive road trips to find wildlife.

Another way to start small is by photographing small things, such as flowers, mushrooms, bees, beetles, moths and butterflies. In fact, if you can be stealthy enough to photograph butterflies, then you won’t have any problem with birds. This type of photography often involves the use of a macro lens, which isn’t particularly expensive compared to other lenses. You could also try using your phone camera, which should be fine for capturing images of the larger items of the “small world,” such as mushrooms.

Stop moving.

When searching for something, it’s natural to want to move around and look in many places, but when searching for wild animals, it’s often more effective to find a good spot, then wait — or at least move slowly. Movement and sounds quickly alert and scare away many creatures; however, if you just sit still, you might be surprised at what you’ll see. I was once resting while taking a hike, sitting in the snow eating a granola bar, when a squirrel came up and sat about a foot away on a log. It perched there, chewing the seeds out of a pinecone, unaware of my presence. You can imagine how startled the animal was when I eventually had to move.

A red squirrel I photographed beside the road recently. A cute animal that’s overlooked because it’s so common.

Try a tripod.

I don’t use a tripod — yet. I just don’t want to lug it around. Most of my wildlife photography is done during hikes. But I have heard from more experienced photographers that using a tripod can really help with clarity of images, especially if you have a tendency to shake. Tripods are also helpful for holding up and aiming large cameras and lenses, which are quite heavy.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. A mother harbor seal interacts with her pup while sunning on rocks in Narraguagus Bay on June 6, 2012. They are seen during a seabird cruise led by James Robertson of Harrington, owner of Robertson Sea Tours.

Join someone who is more experienced.

When I first started getting into wildlife photography, I was lucky enough to meet a local wildlife photographer, Sharon, who invited me to go on a number of outings with her, including a quest to find a snowy owl at a local business park and a trip to see pin-tailed ducks gathered in a thawed section of a nearby river. She taught me many things about where to find local wildlife year round. She also taught me a thing or two about my camera settings.

To find other wildlife photographers, both professional and amateur, I suggest joining online communities, such as the Facebook group MAINE Birds. There are also local outing groups that you can join on websites like meetup.com.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
April 25, 2016, Poland, Maine.

Find water.

A wide variety of creatures are attracted to water, whether it’s rivers, ponds, lakes, marshes, estuaries or the ocean. Therefore, visiting those places will likely increase your chances of seeing animals. That’s one reason I love canoeing. It’s usually a great opportunity to see wildlife. For example, when I canoe on a lake near my home, I often see bald eagles, loons, red-belted kingfishers, a variety of ducks and herons. In the winter, when animals are a bit more difficult to find, I often drive to the coast to find seabirds floating offshore. Even small ponds and boggy areas will attract a variety of birds and other animals, such as muskrats, beavers and turtles.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. A common loon in Jordan Pond on May 12, 2016, in Acadia National Park.

Leave your dog at home.

I love spending time outside with my dog Oreo, but when I truly want to photograph wildlife, I leave him at home. Even on a leash, Oreo tends to drive away wildlife by rolling around in grass and whining when I stop for too long. When looking for animals, I walk slow and pause often. That pace is just not acceptable to Oreo, and I think that holds true for many dogs.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. Garter snake.

Check out fields in the spring and early summer.

A variety of ground-nesting birds can be found singing in the fields of Maine during the spring and early summer as they raise their young, and at places like Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden and Hirundo Wildlife Refuge in Old Town, bird nesting boxes scattered throughout the fields attract an even greater variety of birds. Just be sure to stay on established trails or mowed paths so you don’t step on eggs or baby birds. Another great place to see birds in the spring and summer is Saxl Park, which can be accessed from Cascade Park in Bangor. Saxl Park features a large network of mowed paths through fields, which are home to bobolinks, one of my favorite birds to listen to; their call is almost robotic.

A dark-eyed junco.. They nest right in my backyard when I let the grass grow up.

Keep a respectful distance from wildlife.

Harassing animals is the last thing you want to do as a wildlife photographer. The goal is to capture a creature in their element, comfortable and undisturbed by your presence. Unfortunately, there’s no specific distance that is “acceptable” for wildlife observation because every species detects and reacts to people differently. For example, moose have terrible eyesight, but they have a great sense of smell. Therefore, if a moose is feeding on plant life while wading in a pond and you’re sitting immobile at the edge of the water, the creature may not even be able to sense your presence. A loon, on the other hand, have much better eyesight and would likely be disturbed.

A female moose eating aquatic plants. I saw her during a moose safari in a canoe in the Moosehead Region in the summer of 2016.

This distance issue was discussed heavily in Maine birding circles when a high number of snowy owls flew down to Maine from the Arctic a few winters ago to spend the winter. A small number of snowy owls do this every year, but the increase in number drew a lot of attention, and many people were eager to photograph these beautiful white birds. In some places where snowy owls were sighted, wildlife photographers would congregate with their cameras and tripods to capture the best images; however, some photographers got far too close to the owls, disrupting their hunting habits and scaring away their prey.

Leave No Trace materials offer a “rule of thumb,” which states that if a wild animal can’t be covered by your thumb when your arm is outstretched in front of you, then you need to move farther away. This is a good start, however, I also suggest watching the animal’s actions. If they are looking at you, they likely see you. If they’re edging away, you’re too close and should also back away.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. Snowy owl I photographed in the Bangor area in 2015. Since the owl was resting, I was clearly not disturbing it.

Here are a few more wildlife photos I’ve taken over the years that I dug up for the presentation:

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.