Whether you are just thinking of taking photos of wildlife, you just started taking photos of wildlife or you have been taking photos of wildlife for years, you have to know about the circle of fear.
What is this circle of fear?
Every bit of wildlife, including us humans, has it and it is the circle (boundary) that surrounds the individual subject which could be known as a comfort zone. If you are out with this circle then the wildlife will continue with its normal activity. If you approach the perimeter then the wildlife will stop what it’s doing and watch you. As soon as you enter the circle then it either takes flight or attacks.
How big is this circle?
Well it’s a different size for every individual type of wildlife but there are other factors that come into play to determine the size as well. These other factors include their fitness, if they are injured, you closing escape routes, the direction of the wind, your approach to the subject, the speed of your approach, the clothes you wear, your smell, their tolerance to humans and even the time of year that you try to approach them. To get their subjects a reasonable size in their images wildlife photographers try to get within this circle otherwise their subjects will be dots in their photos. Even with long lenses its surprising how close you have to be. If you want to photograph wildlife the size of a pigeon and get it to fill two thirds of your image you will need to get about 10 metres away even with a 600mm lens on a full frame camera. Your other option is to crop but then you are losing quality. This is one of the hardest skills to master in wildlife photography. You either have to approach the wildlife or get the wildlife to approach you. There are a couple of ways of getting within this circle of fear and one of which is stalking.
A lot of people will do a simplified version of this, in other words, they walk around with a camera taking photos of what they see. Stalking can be exciting, challenging and extremely frustrating to the wildlife photographer. If you are going to go stalking then it is best done on your own. You do not need to wear camouflage clothing to stalk; dull clothing with natural colours like brown or green will suffice. One thing to steer clear of is wearing anything with Velcro. As when it is quiet and you want something out of a closed pocket it sounds like a machine gun going off and scares the wildlife. Wildlife does not just use sight, they also use hearing and smell, to detect predators so wearing camouflage clothing will not increase your success rate. What it will do is hide you from other human beings, as has happened to me on several occasions, because humans use their sense of sight more than their other senses. The clothing you wear has to be rustle free and don’t forget to wear gloves and cover over your face as you do not want a 2 hour stalk to be spoilt right at the end because the wildlife sees you, especially if you are pale skinned. Likewise cover up the areas of you camera equipment that are light coloured. Try not to wash your stalking gear, the more worn and smelly the better. Stalking with a camera is nearly the same as hunting; the only difference is the end result. If you think about how many hunts that do not achieve the aim then you will have a similar figure in mind about how many stalks achieve a photograph. Watch any wildlife programme about predators and see how many times they actually get their prey. You will note that their success rate is pretty low and this, along with everything that you have to consider in relation to stalking, will give you the reasons why people tend to do hide work rather than stalking.
Stalking is all about getting close to wildlife without being spotted and it running or flying off. It is best done very early in the morning as the wildlife is concentrating on finding food and eating after a night’s sleep. It is no good trying to stalk with all your camera gear. It is best done with one camera and lens and either a monopod or bean bag because once you start you could be walking / crouching / crawling for quite a while. It might be better if the lens you use is a 100-400mm zoom or a 400mm f5.6 prime rather than a 500 or 600 f4 lens due to the weight. Don’t forget an extra battery and memory cards but remember that the more equipment you carry the more noise you will make and the heavier it will become before the end of the stalk. Before you start you have to think about the wind direction, the lighting whether you want to photograph the subject with front, back or side lighting, the subject’s background and the lye of the land and plan your approach around them. When stalking animals, wind direction is a very crucial consideration as even short sighted ones can smell you from a long way off. With birds their sense of smell is poor as they tend to use their sense of sight and hearing more. Whilst surveying the area look for natural cover, trees, stumps, bushes, boulders, walls, mounds of earth etc., you could use to hide your approach. Just keep in mind that a stalk could last for hours and when you get near the end of it then don’t get too excited and rush in as if you rush the success rate will lessen even more.
Try and get into roughly the right position before the sun rises so that you only have to make a little adjustment when the wildlife gets there. Once you start, only move forward slowly and only when the wildlife is relaxed and engaged in doing something like eating, preening, bathing etc. You also have to keep an eye on the wildlife’s body language throughout the stalk and if it changes then stay still for as long as it takes until the wildlife relaxes again. In forested areas you could stand and move from tree to tree but in more open areas it would be best to keep low even crawling between each bit of cover. Never go onto the skyline and get silhouetted because even short sighted wildlife will spot your human shape. It helps if you approach your subject at an oblique angle therefore move towards your subject in a zig zag pattern. Try not to look directly at your subject or continually point and look through your camera at your subject as it will think a big one eyed monster is creeping up on it. I know this does sound stupid but get someone to hold your set up and continually lower and raise it to their eyes and if you look at your lens it will look like a blinking one eyed monster. Look where you tread and place your feet down gently using the heel to toe method rather than stamping your whole foot down on the floor. Watch out for twigs and other noisy, if trodden on, things underfoot. Think about taking a few “insurance” shots once you are a reasonable distance away from your subject because you never know when your wildlife subject will run or fly off. Do not take too many because of the one eyed monster thing and the noise from your shutter could scare it. If the wildlife does make off then just remain still and don’t give up because a few minutes later the wildlife might return to the same spot. This happens regularly with dragonflies. Sometimes, especially in wildlife parks or areas in which wildlife are used to humans, it might be best to walk slowly straight up to your subject.