10 Top Tips to Improve Your Urban Wildlife Photos
It can become all too easy to assume that to capture great wildlife images, you must travel to far-flung destinations and the wildest corners of the globe. This, however, couldn’t be any further from the truth. With many photographers living in towns and cities (myself included), it can be an easy mistake to forget how much wildlife can be found on our doorsteps. Urban wildlife photography has many advantages, noticeably the fact that many of the species that inhabit urban environments are much more habituated to people. There are foxes roaming the city streets by night, and impressive peregrine falcons soaring above city skyscrapers. With such species now calling our towns and cities home, it is, therefore, no surprise that urban wildlife photography has grown in popularity more so than ever in recent years, and so it should too!
Since the early days of my photographic career, I have particularly enjoyed photographing wildlife in urban environments. Perhaps this was simply due to a lack of time and funding to travel, but either way I believe it has helped to develop my style as a photographer. Throughout this article, in no particular order, I will share my top tips for finding and photographing wildlife in the urban jungle.
1. Photograph in Suburban Parks
The first step for any urban wildlife photography is locating species and finding suitable locations. Depending upon the animals that you hope to photograph, parks are a great starting point in developing any urban wildlife portfolio. With much of the wildlife found in these locations being noticeably more approachable, you can really hone your photographic skills and experiment with capturing more unique and unusual images.
For example, Hyde Park in the centre of London provides undoubtedly one of the best places in the UK to photograph Grey heron, a species elsewhere known to be notoriously secretive and difficult to approach. Another example of city parks providing unbeatable opportunities, and somewhat famed amongst wildlife photographers, is Richmond Park in London. This 2,500 acre park is an oasis for wildlife – namely the deer!
Key species to look out for in city parks are squirrels, waterfowl, tawny owls, and in some situations such as Richmond Park, deer, foxes and even badgers!
2. Try Heading Out at Night
For some species that call the city home, you may need to head out after dark in hope of capturing images. One such species is my favourite to photograph: the urban fox! Once the streets quieten down, foxes can be found across most towns and cities foraging for fast-food waste which makes for an easy meal.
Taking full advantage of city lights reflecting upon to road surfaces, and by experimenting with camera settings, you can create some really unique results. Try getting down low, and shooting with a wide aperture (low f-stop number), as this will allow the maximum level of light to enter the camera, allowing for a faster shutter speed to be used in these low-light situations.
Read more: A Guide to Photographing Urban Foxes
3. Be Aware of Your Surroundings – Safety First!
Working in the city coupled with the use of long-telephoto lenses can, and will, draw lots of attention if not you’re cautious. Therefore, although not so much a photographic tip, be aware of your surroundings when doing such activities – this is a must and one that I cannot stress it enough, especially during the hours of darkness. No image is worth risking your safety, and possible theft of equipment.
It’s a good idea to never be too far from your car, either. This gives you somewhere you can retreat to if you find yourself in a situation that you are not comfortable with.
4. Cars Make Great Urban Hides
Millions of people each day use vehicles on our roadways, and so many animals that inhabit the city think nothing of a parked vehicle, making them the perfect portable hide. Also offering a sense of security and comfort, cars can be used to great advantage, particularly when photographing foxes during the hours of darkness for example. Resting a beanbag on the window provides a stable surface to shoot from – this is an essential item to bring with you when you’re shooting from a car. This is a beanbag that will do perfectly.
5. Trail Cameras Can Do the Searching for You
There can be times when you require a little helping hand in discovering which animals may be inhabiting a particular location. One such piece of equipment that can make our lives as wildlife photographers that little bit easier is a trail camera. This vital piece of equipment has helped me countless times in the past to learn what species are visiting a location, allowing me to plan the best course of action to capture images.
It goes without saying that common sense comes into play here, and you obviously wouldn’t leave such devices in the middle of town. However, they certainly have their uses in urban environments. I have used trail cameras to great success in disused carparks, gardens (with permission), cemeteries and more recently discreetly, and carefully, placed along a disused train-line which allowed me to discover a family of foxes.
6. Stick to the Quieter Corners
Although wildlife can be found across all corners of towns and cities, try to focus your attention on “quiet” areas. For example, locations such as city cemeteries provide ideal daytime retreats for urban wildlife. Remember, however, that great respect must be shown when working in such locations, for obvious reasons. I have had great success in the past photographing deer and foxes in city cemeteries.
7. Perseverance is Key
One of my greatest reasons for success in urban wildlife photography is my tendency (or stubbornness) to return to the same location repeatedly. This may be because I am simply working on a particular species or project, or maybe because upon first visits I was unlucky in capturing images. Whatever the reason, repeat visits allow you to see locations in new light, season, and allows you to capture differences in behaviour of your chosen subjects.
Read more: Photographing a Species In-depth
8. Start Early
As tempting as it can be to remain in a warm, comfy bed, early wake-up calls to get onto location before sunrise can be very rewarding. Many species are much more active at dawn, however, more importantly, the streets are still quiet of pedestrians! I frequently visit a park in London where, just before sunrise, foxes can be observed foraging for food scraps that they may have missed from the previous night. As soon as the first commuters hit the streets, they retreat to the dense woodland boundaries of the parkland until nightfall.
9. Try a Wide-angle Lens
One of the obvious benefits of photographing urban wildlife is the ability to approach animals more closely and easily (with care and attention), thanks to them being habituated to people more so than their rural counterparts. This, therefore, provides the perfect opportunity to use wider focal length lenses – not often associated with wildlife photography.
My favourite lens to use when photographing city wildlife is both the Canon 17-40mm and 70-200mm lens, as this gives me a good variety of focal length to compose my images with. Wider focal-lengths also offer the ability to include more of the urban environment, which is never a bad thing!
10. Local Knowledge Will Do Wonders
Although it may seem obvious, in the past I have found that a great way to locate wildlife in the city is to tap into local knowledge. For example, I’ve received a number of helpful tip-offs for reliable locations from taxi drivers. They often work late into the night and cover large areas of the city, and so are bound to catch frequent sightings of night dwelling creatures such as foxes.
Good luck! Post your urban wildlife photos in the comments below.