Just How Do They Do That?

Wildlife Photography

How many times have you read a National Geographic magazine, or other nature related publication and viewed beautiful pictures of wild animals?  I bet you take it for granted that the pictures you enjoy were taken someplace in the wild.  Know what?  Most likely they were taken with captive animals as the subject.

That's right!  Most of the pictures that you see in nature magazines were taken in a controlled setting.  Deceptive practice, you say.  No way!  Most pictures that are included in nature articles are for illustrative purposes.  For instance, the author could be describing cougars. (puma concolor)  His objective is to make sure that you understand his message.  Pictures can reinforce his efforts.  Therefore, the images that you view can be of any cougar if the author is speaking generally about that particular animal.  Even in research reports, a generic picture of the animal under study can do much to increase the reader's perception of the article.  We all know the saying; "a picture is worth a thousand words". 

Captive animals used as photographic subjects can be the most effective means of conveying a thought.  For one thing, the photographer can shoot pictures in a controlled setting to obtain the desired image much quicker.  By capturing images of captive animals, the photographer does not need to hunt for the same images in the wild.  Wildlife in most parts of the world are under stress due to human influence from all fronts.  When a photographer makes contact so to speak with a wild animal, he potentially adds to that animal's stress.  This scenario all the more rationalizes the use of captive animals for photo subjects.

Some organizations and entities that provide animals for photographic subjects are, zoos, animal sanctuaries and animal breeders. 

It all starts with a fenced in area.  The fence is high enough to prevent escape.  For instance, when using cougars, the fence has to be at least 12 feet high with additional fence angled inward to prevent the cat from jumping over or climbing the fence.  The interior of this fenced in area contains foliage, usually native to the area in which the photography is taking place.  For instance, in Florida, the foliage in this photo area would contain grasses, trees and flowers native to the Everglades.  Palmetto palms, sawgrass and even cypress trees could be included to capture the "feel" of Southwest Florida.  Photography areas in other parts of the U.S. may incorporate rock ledges, waterfalls and foliage native to that particular area.  Of course, a photo area can also contain fauna, native to another part of the world.

The photographer is secured in a caged in area.  Yes, the human is the one in the cage, this time.  Obviously, when working with big cats or other large animals there is an aspect of danger for the humans participating in the photo event.  The photographer is safely enclosed in this human cage so he can concentrate on taking pictures.

Humans working with the subject animals are called wranglers.  These people "encourage" the animals to participate in various scenes for the picture taker. 

Most of the animals are acclimated to being around humans and many are trained for this sort of thing.  Many of the critters that have been raised from infants are used to being in close proximity to humans.  Some animals such as the cougars at Felids and Friends have been trained to focus on one person.  Some advantages of this technique are: fewer humans needed in the photo area, less distraction for the subject animal, and the handler in this instance knows the animal.  Therefore, he can tell when they are fatigued or just plain sick of the photo session.

Want to learn some trade secrets of taking photos of captive animals?  These secrets are great for dogs and cats too.  We'll discuss photographing cougars as an example.

Foremost, the cougars think it is play time during a photo session.  Duke for instance, was brought up playing with the "props" used for the sessions.  He is very comfortable playing with them making for great wildlife shots.  So, just what are these props?  Believe it or not - an old sneaker on the end of a pole and string is one.  The sneaker at the end of the line is held up above Duke's head just out of camera lens range.  Duke just can't resist being a cat, so he jumps up trying to get the sneaker.  Of course, the human on the other end keeps the game interesting by just keeping it out of reach.  Duke does get to actually play with the sneaker during non- photo sessions.  The end result is an exciting picture showing off the cougar's strength and agility. 

Here is another one.  Take an empty bleach bottle and fill it with small stones.  Tie this to the end of a rope about 15 feet long.  Again, just out of camera range, simulate an animal making jerky movements.  Well old Duke can't resist this one either.  He begins stalking the quarry and leaps for the kill.  It just so happens that the prey manages to elude Duke this time.  After several tries, Duke finally gets to pounce on the prop for the kill.  These exercises produce photos of a cougar in a natural stalking behavior.  If the photographer is lucky, he will get a shot of Duke mid-air prior to the final pounce on the simulated prey.  There are many other little "tricks" to get the animal subjects to perform natural looking behaviors.  Training the big cats can get risky at times.  For instance, Duke at 100 pounds missed the sneaker and ended up sinking his teeth into his friend, Jim's shoulder.  No hard feelings on Jim's part, we are happy to report. 

Duke of course doesn't even know that he is working.  By the way, there are some rules in regard to this.  In Florida, the photo sessions take place in the cool of winter.  The sessions end by 11:30 am to avoid the heat.  The animals are always observed closely for overheating or stress.  And, the animals call the shots.  If Duke is in a bad mood or he just doesn't feel like playing in the photo area - he doesn't have to.  In addition, if Duke or the others get tired, they get to go back to their habitat immediately.  The animal must always be made to feel safe. 

In the process of working with animals during photo sessions, we learn what the photographers do to make successful photographs.  They will shoot as much as fifty rolls of film.  Generally, a telephoto lens is used to reduce the depth of field.  What this means is, the background will appear blurry focusing the attention on the animal subject.  Fill flash is used frequently as are reflectors to supplement the natural light.  All professional photographers use auto focus cameras with good and fast motor drives so they can take full advantage of the action. 

So, are you ready to get your camera stuff together and take pictures of your wild pets?  Try these tricks.  You will get great pictures and have fun with your pet, too. 

City slickers stay tuned.  Next time we will talk about big cats and studio shots.  Yup, in a studio with models or the animal subjects all by themselves.  Wait until you hear the stories of what can go wrong.

Frank and Ellen Weed.   A Wonderful Legacy of Animal Photography.

Animal Picture Slide Show