How to Photograph Nervous and Sensitive Animals

how to photograph nervous animals

It’s easy enough to photograph birds in your garden, but what happens when you want to photograph more sensitive and nervous animals? Often the most “sought after” subjects for wildlife photographers are the ones that are hardest to get close to. It’s tough to actually know where to start too, and capturing a shot of a more elusive animal will likely involve a longer project and some degree of planning.

Whether you’re trying to photograph a skittish deer, a bear, or a rare primate, most often these animals are wary of humans. Who can blame them, though? We have a long history of persecuting wildlife and pretty much the entire animal kingdom has learned to avoid people. Even so, there are a number of ways that you can try and get close to such species.

Using Your Car as a Hide

Cars are everywhere, and to an animal they are not deemed a threat. Subsequently, I’ve found that using your car as a hide is a great way to disappear into the background. Obviously this isn’t always practical; not all wildlife is available roadside. But if you are checking out new locations, or you’ve found a field frequented by a particular animal, then shooting from the car is not such a bad idea. In fact, I’ve photographed a number of bird of prey and grouse species from the car.

how to photograph nervous animals

One thing to be aware of is that animals will probably get spooked if you suddenly stop the car. Instead, pay attention to your surroundings (this is why it is good to have a dedicated driver, so you can focus away from the road) and slow your approach up to your target. When moving slowly, you can often get close to animals and stop without spooking them. This is where having an electric car with its silent motor will benefit you, but it’s easily done with a more traditional vehicle too!

Approaching with Your Hide

A number of years ago I found a location where some black grouse were lekking. After seeking permission from the farmer, I setup my hide in the field to try and photograph them. It’s important not to disturb a bird in such a situation – leks are where males come together to display and compete for females.

In order to remain inconspicuous and not spook the grouse, I setup my hide close to an old barn wall. Immediately I dropped into the background, and to a grouse I was probably just part of that barn wall. I also ensured that I set up the hide well before sunrise. In fact, when I was walking up the hill to the lekking site there were still stars twinkling above. It took an hour before the first trickle of light broke over the valley hills, and by 4am I could hear the thudding wingbeats of the grouse flying in from the hills around.

Two male black grouse lekking.

If you don’t have such a place to camouflage properly, you can approach slowly with your hide. This means setting it up one day at quite a distance from the target area and leaving it there so the animals can get used to it. Then, once you deem it fit, you can move the hide a little closer. Slowly edging the hide into position like this, over a number of days or weeks, can allow you and your hide to become part of the background.

Attracting Wildlife to an Area

For some animals you’ll likely need to use some kind of bait to get them into the area. Of course there are always examples of people who’ve undertaken projects with certain species without using bait, but for the majority of people that requires far more time than can be dedicated to what is, for many, a hobby.

Using bait gives an animal a reason to come to a location, and if left regularly in an area over a long period you can encourage individuals to return to a place frequently. Setting up a hide in conjunction with this gives you a good chance of spotting your target. Having said that, we do not advocate live baiting (using live animals to attract predators).

Further Reading: Should We Use Bait to Attract Wildlife?

When photographing bears in Finland back in 2015, I spent 2 weeks waiting 15 hours a day to catch a handful of glimpses of the animals. Fish scraps were left in a few areas to attract in the bears. This is an animal that is almost impossible to see otherwise, unless using something like a camera trap, as they are so incredibly elusive (particularly in Europe, as opposed to North America).

A huge male European brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos) backlit at sunset. A puff of breath and mosquitos are lit up by the sun. Photographed in Finland.

But whenever you are using bait with animals, it is important to make a number of ethical considerations too. Are you causing suffering to your subject or another animal? Are you going to make the animal dependent on your food source? Are you endangering the animal, bringing it into a dangerous situation – be it from people or a predator?

Persistance is Key

You can also win over sensitive or nervous animals by persisting. For example, when photographing in the Amazon rainforest over a period of 3 months, I would spend everyday walking through the forest with my camera trying to find some of the endangered primates living there. Persistence is key, and eventually after 2 months I crossed paths with a troop of endangered spider monkeys. They were particularly curious, watching me for 10-15 minutes to determine if I was a threat or not. After some observation, they disappeared as quickly as they had shown up.

peruvian spider monkey

But it was only a few minutes later and I heard rustling in the trees again. They had returned, this time with the rest of the troop. I spent an hour surrounded by an entire troop of spider monkeys, sitting in the trees playing and grooming. They did not mind my presence, and persistence had “made my own luck” in happening across their foraging party.

The day after, in fact, I did the same thing with another endangered primate, the woolly monkey. They were more aggressive in their interactions, instead throwing things down from the trees and soon moving away with their troop to continue their journey.

woolly monkey manu peru

In Conclusion

To get close to nervous animals, you’re going to need to plan your approach. Simply walking up to an animal you’ve spotted in the distance is not going to work on most occasions. Do your research, learn about your subject, and find a reliable location that you can work with.

Approaching the shoot with a mindset that it will take weeks to complete is paramount, rather than expecting to walk away with a great shot after a few hours. All in all, though, make sure to put the wildlife’s welfare before your photography. A lot of these animals are nervous, or endangered, for a reason, and as photographers we shouldn’t be adding to their plight.

Will Nicholls is the founder of Nature TTL and a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from England. Having been photographing since the age of 12, Will's images have won a string of awards, including the title of "Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year" in 2009 from the British Wildlife Photography Awards. Will is also the author of the book On the Trail of Red Squirrels.

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