Top Tips for Photographing Wildlife From a Car
When thinking about wildlife photography, images of photographers exploring on foot, be it hiking, cross-country skiing, or snowshoeing, likely come to mind. Or, they might be sitting in a camouflaged blind in the middle of a meadow.
While this is how countless photographs are produced in the wild, many others are instead taken from within the confines of a vehicle.
Whether due to the subject (e.g., lions in Africa, tigers in India, and polar bears here in Canada), or the photographer’s own physical limitations (some may have difficulties hiking, or find it hard to set up a blind and sit in it for hours), an automobile can provide an excellent means for taking photographs.
When photographing wildlife from an automobile, safety must come first. When stopping to photograph an animal, either roadside or further off in the distance, make sure to pull fully off the road and onto the shoulder. Once safely pulled over, turn on your hazard lights to warn other vehicles that both you and the animal are in the area.
Ensure you are fully in park and then shut off the engine. Not only is this beneficial for other reasons described below, but it also guarantees that your vehicle won’t accidentally start rolling away while you are busy shooting.
Another important safety consideration is to make sure you avoid creating a scene where a procession of vehicles are piled up along the road, all viewing the same subject.
For example, here in the Canadian Rockies, we use the term ‘bear jam’ as a situation to avoid. A bear jam occurs when someone stops to view or photograph bears roadside (this can also apply to other types of wildlife). What starts as one car quickly turns into five, then ten, then fifteen… you get the idea!
These situations can become unsafe for both the people viewing the bears and the bears themselves. Often vehicles will crowd the animals, or block their path or escape route. They can also create unsafe road conditions, with cars spilling from the shoulder onto the main routes, blocking and creating hazards for oncoming traffic.
Best times to photograph from your vehicle
Photographing from a vehicle can work well for many wildlife species, particularly those that are more wary of humans. A cautious red fox or grey wolf that would flee the area immediately if the photographer was on foot, will often be more comfortable when that same photographer is shut away in their car.
The vehicle provides excellent camouflage and reduces the photographer’s perceived threat. It functions in the same way as a photography blind/tent, shielding the photographer’s presence and thus allowing the photographer to capture natural wildlife behaviour.
Reducing the risk to wildlife must always be the priority. Allowing the animals to behave naturally and move around comfortably and freely is critically important.
Both dawn and dusk are excellent times to locate and photograph wildlife, as many species are most active at these times of day. Wildlife will often use roads to travel during these times, as they provide greater ease of movement.
It’s much simpler to traverse smooth pavements than dense forest, and there is usually less traffic during these hours. Heading out half an hour before sunrise and staying out past sunset can provide many great opportunities for roadside photography.
When encountering wildlife on roads, it is imperative not to chase after the animal. Instead, pull over immediately and shut off the engine, allowing the animal to approach you instead. Additionally, try to minimise the number of times you start and stop the vehicle, and remain as still and quiet as possible. Loud noises can be disturbing and disruptive to wildlife.
Read more: Photographing a Species In-depth
Recommended equipment and accessories
When travelling by vehicle, always have your gear unpacked and ready. Often, sightings will happen quickly and you don’t want to miss any shots. I always have my camera bag (an F-Stop Gear Satori EXP) open on the passenger seat, with my camera/lens out on the seat beside my bag.
I will also set my camera to my desired settings before I start driving. This way I’m prepared, should a grizzly bear, mule deer, or grey wolf cross the road in front of me.
If I am travelling with someone else in the car, I will ask them to sit in the seat directly behind me, with their gear on the seat next to them. This way, we both have easy access to our gear and are on the same side. This makes it easier for both of us to get great images, by avoiding a situation in which one person is climbing over to the other side of the vehicle to see the animal.
Binoculars are an important piece of equipment to have when photographing wildlife from a car. A decent set of binoculars can make scanning a scene and locating a subject much easier, compared to having to rely on your camera and telephoto lens.
This latter combination is often heavy and cumbersome compared to a set of light binoculars. Additionally, if you are travelling with a companion, binoculars can be passed to them for scouting purposes.
Camera and lens stability is a big factor to consider, especially when shooting from a vehicle. If you were on foot a tripod or monopod could be used, but these aren’t possibilities when photographing from your car.
A great source of stability is a beanbag. A beanbag straddles the sides of a rolled-down window and is a resting area for your lens. Beanbags are extremely easy to use and are great to travel with. They can be filled with a variety of materials, including rice and beans. You can pack it in your suitcase empty, and fill it upon arrival at your destination.
Some beanbags come with a mount or tripod head that allows you to attach your lens. This increases ease of mobility and manoeuvrability. I use a Gura Gear beanbag and keep it on the console between the front seats, so that it’s easily accessible.
As I mentioned above, shutting off the engine is not only important for safety reasons. It can also improve stability and image sharpness, by reducing vibrations and resulting camera shake. Turning it off is also better for the wildlife subjects and environment, by reducing the amount of exhaust being produced.
Technical tips for getting great shots
If the weather allows, I suggest driving with the windows down. This will avoid situations in which an animal appears, you shut off the car, and then realise you can’t take a shot because the windows are still up. Losing precious seconds can mean the difference between getting a shot and missing out.
Having the windows down will also allow you to hear wildlife when driving. I have often heard the howls of wolves, or the calls of owls, that I would have missed had the windows been closed.
Another tip (which may seem a bit extreme, especially when temperatures can dip to -20 Celsius in winter here in the Rockies), is to travel with no heat on.
In the winter months, instead of blasting the heater, I will dress for the elements, using hand warmers, lots of layers, and thick socks. I will always have a giant thermos of hot chocolate or tea on hand to keep me warm (I should also note that I ‘cheat’ a bit by having my seat warmers on to keep me from completely freezing).
I keep the heat off because, if I did have it on full blast, when stopping to photograph wildlife and unrolling my window, heat waves would escape from the interior of the car. These heat waves can be detrimental for photographs, often resulting in softer or unsharp images.
Ideally, you will want your equipment to be at the same temperature as the outdoor environment to prevent heat distortion.
Photographing wildlife from a vehicle can provide photographers with ample opportunities for great images. It also provides additional comfort and ease while shooting, along with often minimising disturbance and stress in the wildlife subjects.
*All images in this article were photographed from my vehicle*