How to Photograph a Wildlife Rehab Centre in Action
I have had the privilege of photographing various wildlife rehabilitation centres in action over the last few years, and this has provided me with some of the most challenging and rewarding moments in my career as a wildlife photographer.
Once an invitation has been made to come and visit a centre, there are many things to keep in mind while photographing sick, injured, and orphaned animals, all whilst keeping a good rapport with the people that work there.
In this article, I hope to help you prepare for these situations so that you can be ready to jump in and do your best work if the opportunity arises to photograph a wildlife rehabilitation centre in action.
Building a relationship
Be aware that you will always need permission before going and photographing at a wildlife rehabilitation centre.
In my case, I had been a print donator for many years for one of my local wildlife rehabs. I was always willing to send framed work for auctions or whatever fundraisers popped up. Eventually, the centre reached out to me asking if I would be interested in photographing their patients for social media, education, calendars, and fundraising advertisements.
I jumped on the opportunity and now have been photographing for them for many years.
It is certainly worth volunteering and building a relationship with your local rehabilitation centre if you are hoping to photograph their work someday.
However, not all opportunities will be offered up to you like this; you may need to reach out and seek permission yourself.
Typically, I will send a quick email describing what I am offering and a link to my portfolio so they can browse my work. When contacting wildlife rehabs, you need to be prepared for rejection, and respect the fact that not every facility will welcome photographers or videographers.
Wildlife rehabilitation centres are often extremely busy places, and their reasons for saying no could be simple. As they work with very sensitive species, their facility is already cramped, and having another body there would be ‘too much,’ or they may already have a photographer providing them with work.
Keep in mind that some rehabs don’t want to step on the toes of the loyal photographer(s) that have already been providing them with work for years. They may not feel comfortable saying yes to another individual, due to the fear of potentially tarnishing an existing relationship. So doing a bit of research to see what photographers may already be shooting for a centre goes a long way.
Reaching out to resident photographers can also provide insight to check if you’d be overstepping and shows that you respect others working in the field.
Ultimately, expect to receive some rejections, and remember that there is a very fine line between being pushy, and offering a helping hand. If the centre’s answer is no, don’t hold a grudge, take it personally, or be disheartened. Simply move on and contact the next option!
Photographing in low light
The trickiest aspect of photography at a wildlife rehab centre, once you get the approval to visit, is the lighting.
Usually, the lighting is not great. Photographing indoors can be extremely difficult, and even more so when working with wild animals that are already frightened and unwell.
Generally, when photographing wildlife patients, I refrain from using any bright lights or flashes so I can do the job as ethically as possible. If there are windows in the room, I will sometimes ask if it is possible to do feeding or care closer to that area to provide extra light. More often than not, very high ISO and slower shutter speeds must be used.
I bring lenses that have an aperture of at least f/2.8 – 4.0 for these indoor environments. Being a Canon user, I really love the EF f/2.8 100mm macro lens, and the EF f/2.8 24-70mm lens for photographing feedings. Having a wide aperture makes these lenses great candidates for photographing in poorly lit conditions.
Even with these great lenses, there have been many times that I’ve had to walk away with dark, blurry images that weren’t what I wanted because the well-being of the animal must always be the priority.
In rare cases, a flash with a good diffuser can be used to brighten things up, depending on the species and the circumstances. You can and should discuss these lighting options with the wildlife caretakers beforehand if you are hoping to use any artificial lighting, as they will determine what is appropriate for the species in question.
I prefer not to use flash, even if a situation allows it. Many animals have extremely sensitive eyesight, and a flash can cause them discomfort. There is nothing worse than potentially scaring an animal already in distress, and I truly believe no image will ever be worth potentially causing increased anxiety to a patient.
Another part of photographing at a wildlife rehab centre is the releases. These are the special moments everyone has been waiting for, often filled with overwhelming emotion. Luckily, they are outdoors, so have better lighting for the most part.
If photographing a release, I find the best way to tackle this is by keeping a distance and using a 100-400mm lens paired with a fast shutter speed of at least 1000/sec. Typically, in this setting, you can get better light, but the downside is that they happen very quickly – so make sure you are prepared beforehand.
You might ask if you can set up in a suitable position prior to the release where you know you will have a good view, and an opportunity to capture that special moment when freedom is returned to a healthy wild animal.
Be aware of sensitive species
There is nothing more exciting than having the opportunity to photograph sensitive or endangered species. Sometimes a rehab setting is the only location you’ll ever get to observe that particular animal up close. However, most of these species require your care and consideration as a photographer if you do get the opportunity to get up close and personal.
Working quickly and quietly is a good rule of thumb to apply to all species that you have a chance to work with on-site. It is vitally important that your presence causes as little intrusion or additional stress to the animals in question as possible.
When working with birds of prey, e.g., owls, there is no way of telling how they will react to a stranger in their enclosure.
Sometimes they sit and watch curiously. In other instances, they aren’t fond of the company and will make this known. Signs of agitation to look out for may include clicking their beak and trying to get away from you. Those mean the photo session is finished, whether you captured what you wanted or not.
There may be some species that allow you to relax from this mindset a little. In my area, for example, we have four turtle species that are either threatened or endangered. These reptiles are a bit easier to photograph in a rehabilitation situation, as they tend to ignore people for the most part and go about their business in their enclosure.
Here, it pays to have the patience to wait around a bit longer to capture a desired angle or composition. Remember – even if an animal seems content with your presence, never try to poke, touch, or move them into certain poses.
Photographing in small spaces
Working in small spaces is no easy feat normally, let alone when you have to do so without getting in the way of people working on animals that are sometimes in stressful life-or-death situations.
When I know I’ll be photographing in a tight area, I always make sure I have at least one wide-angle lens on me. The Canon 16-35mm is another one of my go-to lenses.
Depending on the subject, sometimes you can get close to a rehab worker during a feeding and capture great close-up images. However, on other occasions, you might have to switch to a longer lens and stand out in the hall if the space doesn’t allow for any more bodies.
There have been situations where I’ve gotten up on a step stool to capture animals, like seals in tubs, to change up compositions.
Simply changing up the angle you photograph from can make an image much more compelling to viewers. As sometimes there’s not much space to work with, stools and ladders (if available) can be great tools to change up your photography and get you up and out of the way.
If rehabbers or their employees are stressed trying to get through a difficult feeding, it is best to avoid those rooms. You can always come back later and check to see if the situation has calmed down and become more photo friendly. This will earn you respect from the employees working in these sometimes-stressful, tight spaces.
Choosing to include people
Having photos of the employees in action makes for excellent storytelling images. This type of imagery helps demonstrate the hard work and dedication of the centre you are photographing.
One thing I’ve come to learn over the years is most people working are exhausted, covered in food or poop, and don’t feel like they are at their photogenic best. If you want to capture images of people at work, it is usually best to be there bright and early before most of the chaos starts.
Remember that not everyone is comfortable with having their photo taken, so always make sure you ask if they are comfortable with this beforehand. If people are reluctant to have their faces shown, you can just include their hands, or photograph them from behind, which can also create intimate photos.
Read more: How to Photograph a Wildlife Story
Once you have been given the opportunity to photograph a rehabilitation facility in action, get to know everyone and get comfortable in the location so that you can do your best work. The meaningful connections you will make at these places will be endless.
I have met so many like-minded people and built many relationships I will cherish for a lifetime. Visiting a wildlife rehab is a special, albeit sometimes stressful, photo opportunity. Not only that, but the experience of witnessing the incredible work, love, and dedication makes it even more worthwhile.
With a lot of patience, truly beautiful and interesting images can be created at wildlife rehabilitation centres. This is also a great means to promote the wildlife conservation going on in our local communities, as well as an opportunity to share the ways we can coexist with our wild neighbours.