5 Tips for Fall Wildlife Photography

Wednesday, September 11, 2019
As the leaves fall from the trees, windows of opportunity open for wildlife photography. Wildlife is on the move in preparation for winter, and with the leaves disappearing from the trees, life that would normally be hidden in the warmer months is now revealed and open to photograph. Not only is there more activity in the wild world, the colours that fall brings amplify the beauty of everything that nature has to offer. Help make the most of your fall photography opportunities by practicing these helpful tips. 

Autumnal Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) during the golden hour.

1. Shoot during the "golden hour"
The "golden hour" in photography is described as the hour after sunrise, and the hour before sunset. The sun is low in these time frames and casts a soft, golden glow across the landscape. These are also times when our diurnal and crepuscular species are most active, increasing your chances of having subjects to photograph. During the fall the golden hour light brings the landscape to life by illuminating the brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges, making your wildlife images that much more stunning. The golden hour is also the perfect time to try out more artistic techniques such as silhouette photography which can be just as captivating (if not more so) as a fully-detailed portrait.

A Barred Owl (Strix varia) seconds after pouncing to the ground after a gartersnake. Photo credit: Brenda Foubert

2. Choose a target species
Darkness sets in early in the fall, making it seem like the clock is ticking a little bit faster. By choosing a target species to focus on, you can maximize the potential for a successful photo session. First choose a species in your area. Then research, research, research! Find out where they live, what they like to eat, when they are most active, and what they look like at the moment (sounds silly, but many birds have summer and winter plumage that look very different depending on the time of year!). Once you get an idea of habitat, diet, behaviour, and ID features, you can choose a shooting location that increases your chances of finding your chosen species. For example, Barred Owls this time of year are particularly fond of feeding on snakes. This is because many snakes are not yet in their wintering hibernaculum, and are seeking heat and food sources throughout the day (often quite slowly). My chances of finding a Barred Owl may improve if I am able to locate a wooded area with a high population of small to medium sized snakes such as gartersnakes. Of course if you're anything like me, you'll get distracted by plants, chubby squirrels, bird calls, etc, and not actually find anything you set out in search of. 😉

Eye level view of an Eastern Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) slithering among the leaf litter.
3. Shoot at eye level
Shooting at eye level always makes for an impactful image, creating the feeling that the viewer is right there with the subject. Fall is a great time to practice this approach with a variety of species, but especially those who are low to the ground. The leaf litter and fall colours will really add dimension and interest to your photos. One of my favourite subjects to photograph in the fall are snakes, as they can often be found slowly slithering through the leaf litter in search of insects to feed on. Note that this technique typically calls for getting dirty & striking some pretty funny poses to get the angle you desire! 

4. Get out of your vehicle
Taking a drive in the fall can allow for great wildlife viewing without even leaving the warmth of your vehicle. Shooting from a car window is a method used by many photographers, but may not be the best way to attain a clear shot in the fall. Typically in the warmer months shooting from a window isn't an issue if the vehicle is turned off to eliminate vibration from the running engine, but that changes in the cooler weather when we have heat on. Even if the vehicle is turned off, the heat haze emanating from it can cause image distortion. By the time the vehicle cools down enough for a clear shot, the animal has likely moved on. The best way to achieve crisp fall images is to slowly leave your vehicle, step a few feet away, and either shoot handheld (may not be the best option if you're shivering!) or use a tripod or monopod. If you have image stabilization, be sure to turn it off when using a tripod, as the feature can actually cause vibration if there is none present.

A handsome male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) perched among beautiful fall foliage.
5. Shoot wider
Whether it's getting that macro of a butterfly face, or close-up portrait of a blue jay holding a peanut in its beak, in wildlife photography closer is better. Closer allows us to get incredibly detailed views that our eyes seldom get to see for themselves. While close-ups are indeed full of fascinating intricacies, when we zoom in we are often missing out on the opportunity to create inspiring images that include gorgeous scenery, flora, and possibly even other wildlife. Shooting wider not only creates interesting habitat shots, but also leaves us with crisper images, and more wiggle room in the post-editing process.

Now that we've gone over some of our fall wildlife photography tips, we want to see your photos! Be sure to share your fall nature images with us in our Facebook group Ontario Birds by WBU Barrie or on Instagram by using the hashtag #wbubarrie.

Happy trails!
- Shayna

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