Much biological imaging is done in the field. It is more difficult
to take pictures there - you can't control the light, the weather, or the
organisms. Still, that is where the organisms are, and even if you
do capture organisms and return them to the lab to photograph, you can't
do that with a whole habitat. This section is devoted to helping you
prepare to go into the field and get into position to take pictures.
The actual photographic techniques are covered elsewhere; see the links
Sometimes your choices are limited. If you want to photograph a
Galapogos Tortoise in its native habitat, you don't really have many
choices. Other times, however, your choices are less restricted.
Don't overlook nearby places like weedy lots when you need to photograph
ubiquitous organisms like honeybees or dandelions.
Assuming that the subject you want to photograph can be found at
several locations, there are a number of other criteria that might help
you select a site to photograph:
- Convenience - the easier it is to get there the more time you have to take
- Legality - do you have permission to be there? You might need to
check with a landowner to get permission to photograph on private property.
- Access - how close can you get with a car? How difficult is the
terrain? How much of your equipment will you be able to haul in (and
then back out)?
- Topography - how does slope and tree cover affect the light at the time
you will be there to photograph? You won't have a lot of light, for
instance, on the west slope of a mountain in the morning.
- Safety - are there natural or human threats at the site? Active
volcanoes aren't the safest place to be, nor is an isolated alley in a bad
part of town when you are alone and carrying expensive camera gear.
- Crowds - it's tough to photograph birds in a city park when there are a
lot of people running around playing frisbee with their dogs. You
might want a little more isolation. On the other hand, a park full of
dogs and their owners is probably pretty safe - you have to determine the
best balance yourself.
Some possible public land sites:
- Parks - from city to national, these are often the best places to
go. If you will be going to a number of national parks, federal
wildlife areas, etc. inquire as to the availability of a Golden Eagle Pass
which will get you into all of them for free (after you buy the pass).
- National and State wildlife and hunting lands - these can be very good
places to go, at least outside of hunting season. They are not as well
- River and beach access points - even in the most developed areas, there is
often a place where a public accessway is maintained. On the coasts,
you cannot actually own land under the ocean, so if you don't mind wading or
swimming you can get to just about any site. The same often applies to
rivers as well, but riparian law varies from state to state, so be
careful. Regardless of legal precedent, the person with the shotgun or
badge makes the rules.
- Bridges - state and local governments normally own a right of way along a
road that includes the land under a bridge (giving you access to the
stream). Park your car carefully off the road, and don't cross any
- Pipeline and power right-of-ways - while not public lands, under some
circumstances the companies operating these utilities may give you
permission to walk on their right-of-ways. There should be a phone
number to call located on the markers for the right-of-way.
- Nature preserves - technically not parks, these are managed by
governmental (and non-governmental) agencies for the wildlife, not for
people. Access to many of these is strictly limited. However, if
anyone is likely to gain access, it is a photographer, since it is clear
that you are not there to damage the habitat. Always get permission
from both the central agency and their local caretaker. If you do
frequent preserves run by non-profit agencies, by all means support them by
volunteering, joining them, or sending a donation.
- Corporate areas - some companies with large land holdings, such as coal
and lumber companies allow access to their sites. In some cases you
need to get permission, in others signs on the property inform you as to the
rules of access.
Before you set off, there are a number of tasks that you need to do.
Whether for a trip to the local park or an expedition to Alaska, you should
consider all of the following items:
- What are you going to take photos of? Make a list of the things you
expect to find and hope to find. Evaluate your portfolio and identify
areas where it is weak, and consider whether you will be able to strengthen
those weak areas on this trip.
- Estimate the type and amount of film you will need. If the weather
will be cloudy or you will be doing a lot of extreme telephoto work, you may
want to pack more fast film; if you will be taking mostly scenics in the
desert you might want additional slow film. For extended trips, I
budget 5 rolls per day - including travel days. On a good day, Ican
easily go through 10 rolls. For local trips, I take at least 5
rolls. Check your stock of film and order more so that it will arrive
before you go.
- Learn about the site. Check it out on the web, talk to people who
have been there, examine guidebooks. Birders in particular have been
good about publishing guides to birdwatching sites - there are regional
Peterson guides for this, and many state birding associations have more
local guides. Know what to expect before you get there, know where to
go to get food, gas, car repairs, and, of course, CAMERA BATTERIES &
- Obtain a map, preferably a topographic map, of the site.
- Check the weather. You need to know how to dress and whether it will
be cloudy. Watch the weather channel for several days in advance so
you know what type of weather the area is getting and what weather systems
are on the way.
- When will it get light? For a local area, just watch the weather
segment of your local news or read the local paper. For more distant
sites, check almanacs or use the Geoclock program (shareware, search for it
on the web) to determine sunup and sunset times for the locale you will
visit. If you will be on the coast, it's also good to determine the
local tides as well.
- Continue to update this information, particularly the weather, as the trip
approaches. Listen to a local radio station on the drive to the site
for last-minute weather updates.
Once you have done the background research, it's time to get ready.
Decide what personal equipment and camera equipment you will need, write a list,
check out all the equipment, and pack it for the trip. Click below to
bring up checklists you can print out and modify to your equipment:
Use sense when selecting equipment - there is no need to take GPS or
firestarting equipment for a walk to the local park. On the other hand, if
you are allergic to bee-stings you probably should have you injection kit
handy. Of course, if you are camping, there will be still more equipment
Do not depend on devices like a cell phone or GPS to keep you out of trouble
or get you out of it. Technological devices have a tendency to fail at the
most inopportune times. Be sure you have the skills necessary to survive in the
wilderness (if that's where you're going) and find your way out.
Choose your camera gear with care. Certainly take all the equipment you
think you will need, but don't overburden yourself. Carry your equipment
in well-organized bags that are easy to carry, easy to locate the gear in, and
which can protect the equipment from falls, drops and water. If you won't
be far from your car, you might want to leave some items there and return to the
car if you need to.
As you pack your equipment, give it a checkout:
- If the camera is unloaded, open the back and make sure the film path is
clear. Close the back and make several test "exposures" to
be sure the shutter is working. Make sure the camera "sounds
right". Load the camera with film if you want to.
- Check the camera's battery. Pack a spare.
- Turn the camera off.
- Remove the lens and gently blow any dust off the mirror (swallow
first). Replace the lens. Gently wipe off any dust from the other
areas of the camera. Use a lens cleaner, if needed on the
- Check each lens for dirt and clean if necessary. Click
here for instructions.
- Be sure each flash is clean, including the contacts. Turn the flash
on and fire a test flash. Check the battery recycle time. Pack spare
- Make sure all accessories are in working condition.
- Check the tripod to make sure all moving parts are clean of dirt and
grit. Pay particular attention to the threads that screw into the
- Make sure that your camera bags are clean (inside and out). Be sure
all small compartments are closed and that all fasteners work.
- With your bags packed, make sure that all equipment is secure and that
nothing is rattling or liable to fall out.
Photography is a 4-dimensional game. You have to be in the right place
at the right time. The right time means the right season, the time of day
when the organism is active, when the light is right, and when the weather is
cooperating. Needless to say, this doesn't always happen, but when it does
the results are spectacular. To
maximize the chances of it happening, here are some tips:
- Plan ahead as described above.
- When you get to the site, look for any obvious organisms (i.e. if a bear
is standing there take pictures of it!)
- Lacking any obvious subject, head for an area where the light is
right. Look for what Julie Zickefoose calls "butter light" -
the red and yellow sunlight or early morning and early evening.
- Photograph motile animals before turning your attention to the plants -
they aren't going anywhere.
- Ditto the mountains - they won't go anywhere, but keep an eye on them for
changing light or cloud conditions.
- If you bypass an immobile subject, be sure to note where it is so you can
- If the subject isn't "perfect" in terms of its physical
appearance, the lighting, its position relative to you, or its behavior,
take a few "insurance shots" and move on. Come back later if
you don't find any better subjects.
- Move around the area to take advantage of the rising (or setting sun).
Documenting an ecosystem or habitat is a tricky business. Part of it
can be accomplished by photographing as many of the individual types of
organisms as you can. But an album of disconnected organisms does not
capture the essence of the habitat they were living in. To bridge this
gap, you need some pictures that capture larger clumps of the ecosystem.
Look for opportunities to do this as you explore a site. Some tricks
you might employ include:
- Looking for organisms interacting - a bird nesting in a tree; a hawk
eating a prairie dog.
- Look for pictures that tell a story about the ecosystem. A classic
visual cliche is the old picture of a cow skull on the dust desert
- Use a wide-angle lens to get as much of the
ecosystem into view as possible.
- Get up high - on a hill, tower, mountain, plane, dirigible, space shuttle,
whatever to get a different view. Don't neglect the opportunity to
photograph a habitat while flying into or out of the area. Always take
a window seat.
- Pick out essential organisms - indicator organisms - and be sure to
photograph them. You can't have pictures of the Arctic without a
picture of a polar bear; likewise a picture of the prairie is incomplete
without grass and bison, and the taiga must be represented by conifers.
- At the same time, look for lesser-known inhabitants of the habitat so that
you can tell a new, different story. How about dung beetles behind all
those bison? Or the ants that make huge mounds in the taiga?
It might seem that plants would be easier to photograph than animals, seeing
as how they don't move. Well, plants pose unique challenges of their own:
- It is difficult to get the scale of a large tree on a photograph.
Try to find isolated specimens. Use a wide-angle
lens but watch out for distortion.
- Light on the forest floor may be lacking - use flash.
- Grasses and flowers often move in the breeze - try to avoid windy days (it
is often calm very early in the morning). If that doesn't work:
|Use your body as a wind block, or find another specimen in a calm
|Hold the stem just out of view of the camera.|
|Prop the stem against a sturdier stem or a tripod leg.|
|Use predictive autofocus (the camera continually adjusts focus up to
the point where the picture is taken).|
|Take your picture between gusts. Use your ears to listen to the
rustling of leaves to tell you when the wind is gusting and when it is
- Tiny plants may require macro techniques.
- Know what time of day the flowers are at their peak.
- Carry a mister bottle to spray the plant and create a dew-like effect even
in the middle of the day.
- Look for unusual angles - a bee-eye view, or a wide angle shot with a
flower in the foreground and the habitat in the background.
- Look for geometric arrangements of flowers, leaves and stems. Strong
vertical, horizontal, or diagonal elements often work well.
- Look to use stems or trunks to frame a picture.
- Try to get various life stages and parts of the plant on film.
Flowers, seeds, seedlings, sprouts, leaves, roots, bark, etc. are all fair
- Be sure you use either a shallow depth of field (to isolate the plant) or
a deep depth of field (to be sure all of the plant is in focus).
- Take time to compose your shots. Move around a lot. When you
have a likely shot, get out the tripod.
Many of the comments about plants also apply to animals as well. Many
animals, however, have the ability to move, and this complicates matters
some. Other animals have the ability to bite, bark, sting, maul, gore,
invenomate, regurgitate, defecate, urinate, and just get huffy with you.
You need to be a bit more flexible to work with animals. Again, a few
hints might help:
- Learn the habits and habitats of the animals you are trying to
photograph. You will be able to better predict where they will be and
when they will be there.
- As you move, have a medium telephoto zoom (100-300mm) handy in case you
need to make a grab shot. Set your camera on aperture priority, and
keep the lens wide open. This way, the camera will select the fastest
possible shutter speed.
- Learn the value of the "insurance shot". This ensures that
you will get something on film. As soon as you see an animal,
stop and take a picture of it with the lens you have on your
- Change to a more appropriate lens and slowly work your way to a better
shot. Get the sun behind you and approach slowly. If the animal
seems to get jumpy, stop.
- Learn the signs that an animal is getting ready to flee - or take your
head off. Most animals have a "comfort zone", you can move
up to that zone but no closer.
- Some animals will flee a short distance, then stop. You can then try
to approach again; sometimes after several of these attempts the animal will
become habituated to your presence and will allow you to get really
close. Other animals will just run, fly or swim off.
- Know which sense the animal depends on to warn of danger. Always be
as quiet as you can. Some animals will only flee when they smell you;
stay downwind of them. Others are more sensitive to sight; stay out of
- Use a blind or your car to get close. Many animals living near roads
will ignore anyone in a car. You can get window mount clamps for your
tripod head, or you can set the tripod up in the car. A blind can be
as simple as a tarp or as fancy as a permanent building. Turkey
and hunters have similar problems getting close to their quarry; check
sporting catalogues for blinds, tree stands, scent-free clothing, ghilly
- Animals at parks may be particularly used to people and particularly tame.
- Look for places where animals congregate - salt licks, water holes, mating
grounds, restaurant parking lots, garbage dumps.
- In many cities there is a park called a zoo which seems to attract more
exotic animals than you would normally see in other city parks.
Actually, many native animals, particularly birds, flock to these parks as
- Use long lenses with dangerous animals. Any animal that is bigger
than you are is by definition dangerous, with the exception of dolphins,
manatees, and poodles.
- When you find an unusually tame animal, shoot
as much film as you can. Eventually, these will be your real
Now that you're ready to take a picture, you might want to review some