How to Stalk Small Game with a Camera

When I got interested in bird photography I had to learn how to stalk small game with a camera.  Here’s why:

If you want good closeups of small creatures in their native habitats you have two choices:

  1. Spend lots of money for a very long lens, and photograph your subjects from far away.  (I consider this no challenge whatsoever, except for saving the dough.)
  2. Spend much less money for a shorter telephoto, get closer by stalking your subjects, and learn how to get sharp exposures without using a tripod or monopod, (which make stalking impossible).

CardinalThis post gives tips for using option two,

Stalking small game with a camera:

  • Choose a fast shutter speed:  When you can’t find a nearby rock or stump to steady your cradling hand, set your camera on “S”, to always shoot at 1/500th second, and a fairly high ISO, say between 400 and 800.  Higher ISOs may produce grainy photos, but this is not so true anymore, with newer cameras.
  • Steady your hand-held shots:  When I have a few seconds to shift my camera strap from the customary around-the-neck position, I use it to restrict my elbows tightly against my rib cage while I hold the camera firmly against my forehead. The weight of the camera rig rests upon the strap which runs across my chest. Yoga has helped me develop good breath control, so when my chest is steady (between breaths), the camera is too.
  • Be inconspicuous:  Dress in drab colors, take off shiny jewelry, stay low. Crouch if you can remain in that posture without wavering.  When you’re crouching, a raised knee may help to steady the arm you’re supporting the camera with.
  • Locate birds with your ears first, then spot them with you eyes, and plan your best route of approach.
  • Conceal yourself:  Use trees and bushes as cover.  Stay in the shadows. If you can, approach with the sun at your back so that the glare is in your subject’s eyes; and try not to present your profile against a light background.
  • If your subject moves, try to stay “up sun” of him. You want the sun fully upon your subject, and at your back.
  • Approach birds when they’re preoccupied, e.g. mating or feeding. (But, take care not to interfere with either activity, because, life for them is a ruthless competition for survival).
  • Freeze if you’re detected: While stalking Great Blue Herons and groundhogs out in the open and standing erect I’ve discovered that if I move extremely slowly, and remain still when noticed, I can approach very near to them: In the case of a groundhog, within fifteen feet, and a heron, thirty.Standing absolutely still I can remain with them in plain sight as long as I wish.

This kind of photography isn’t for everyone. When you do wildlife photography by walking and stalking, every outing is an uncertain adventure. There’s no guarantee that you’ll come home with a keeper. I enjoy other more dependable kinds of photography as well, but I love walking and stalking not so much for the trophy shots, but for the excitement of the chase. Like the devoted angler who comes up empty handed but still counts his day worthwhile, so if I have no images to show for a day’s patience in the field, at least I’ve enjoyed the pursuit, and probably learned more about my wee fellow creatures than I could have by any other means.

Have a look at the samples below,  of my best animal close-ups, taken in Brandywine Park, Wilmington Delaware.  Click the small square with the right facing triangle to play the album, and allow full screen view for best experience.

Closeups of animals in Brandywine Park

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4 Comments

  • Tom:
    Terrific slide show! I really like your bird photos. I know how difficult it is to capture them. Good work.
    Kathy B.

  • TCDavis says:

    Thanks for leaving a comment, Kathy. In my ebook, Double Exposure: A Veteran Returns to Vietnam, I write about my realization that part of the excitement of stalking birds with my camera is that it recalls the dangerous “snooping and pooping” I did in the Mekong Delta in 1970. (But it’s much better not shooting to kill, and not being hunted oneself!)

  • Tom,
    What a fabulous slide show! I love how many of your subjects that you captured, in action! Beautiful variety too.
    Thanks!

  • TCDavis says:

    Thanks for commenting, Angela. You will find some other interesting posts about photography by using the categories pull down menu in the right hand margin of the blog.

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