Wildlife Photography: Understanding Animal Behaviour for Better Images

brown bear black and white photography

Photographers often wish for good luck or even rely on it when going out for a wildlife photography session at their favorite locations.

animal behaviour wildlife photography

However, just relying on good luck is limiting and will often result in wasted time and missed opportunities. Getting beyond luck in wildlife photography often requires a sound understanding of animal behavior.

Although luck sometimes happens to us all, we can be better prepared as wildlife photographers to make luck happen.

Understanding animal behavior will move your photography from documentary images to images with artistic intent.

Although classic animal portraits are beautiful on their own and can be done with creativity, adding animal behavior brings substantial interest and intrigue to the resulting images.

Even if you are an experienced wildlife photographer who has learned the behavior of many species, it is easy to get lazy and not think critically about an animal’s behavior in the field.

A photographer must always push oneself to evaluate the scene and draw upon one’s knowledge of the species.

Learning animal behavior is a combination of research, experience in the field, and talking with others. Understanding animal behavior is often the missing ingredient in wildlife photography.

Although animal behavior can make up a complete college curriculum, I hope to provide you some basic direction to get you to think more about it and to learn more about the species you hope to encounter.

Read more: How to Take Impacting Portraits of Wildlife

Behavior traits to help locate animals

Wildlife photographers hope to learn about animal behaviors that will aid them in finding their target animal.

Photographers need to ask themselves: what are the needs of animals that would lead them to their preferred habitat across all the seasons?

In general, animals seek food, shelter, social interaction, and opportunities for reproduction. There are some basic questions related to these general needs that a photographer should consider to maximize their chances of finding animals:

What does the animal like to eat? Where does it need to seek shelter? Does the animal need companions or is it solitary? When and where does it reproduce to start a family?

The answers to these questions will be different for every species.

brown bear black and white photography

Let’s consider brown bears as an example, even though they are not hard to find in their preferred habitat. I recently got back from a fall trip to Alaska to see and photograph brown bears in their natural environment.

Knowing their preferred location means everything.

In the fall, bears eat as much as they can while expending as little energy as possible to sustain themselves for the upcoming hibernation. For Alaskan brown bears, this means salmon.

Salmon enter rivers from the ocean to swim upstream many miles to spawn and then die in the river.

Bears know this, and their behavior is driven by the salmon. They know which streams will have salmon in them and which will not. So if you go to the wrong stream, and there will be no bears.

Therefore, it is crucial to know both bear and salmon behavior to successfully find both for photography.

Similar behavior patterns also play out during the spring and summer, with the only difference being the bear’s food source and other needs that the bears are trying to fulfil.

All wildlife species that roam or fly across their range will have similar behavior patterns to meet their basic needs.

Learn these needs and behaviors to help guide you to their prime locations as the year progresses from season to season.

Read more: How to Improve Your Wildlife Action Shots

Behavior traits to add creativity and intrigue to your images

Once you find your target species, knowing more specific behavior traits will help you bring creativity and intrigue into your images.

To maximize your chances of catching that creative moment of animal behavior, thoroughly understand the natural behavior, physical characteristics, and emotions that your target animal possesses.

Start by capturing portrait images so you have a starting point for the scene. This can include direct eye contact with the animal or even a simple head twist to show an interesting gesture.

Once you’ve done the best portrait possible, what’s next?

This is where knowledge of species behavior helps you visualize a likely new scene with the animal, whether it would be a unique feeding behavior, grooming or scratching, an interaction with another animal, a technique to hide or evade predators, or the many other characteristics associated with the species.

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all way to predict an animal’s behavior, so you will have to figure out the unique traits of your species and determine which ones will add intrigue to your images.

Read more: 12 Ways to Evoke Emotion in Your Wildlife Photos

Breeding season behavior

Breeding season for many animals is a good time to get unique images that show emotions. The most basic thing to know about your species of interest is when and where they breed.

Animals are often distracted during this time frame and are less shy of people.

However, since this is an important time in an animal’s lifecycle, photographers still must provide space for the animals to act naturally.

bird photography tips

Different species will breed during different times of the year. Learn when the mating season is for your target species and plan your trips accordingly. Also, learn about any unique mating rituals that the animals might display.

Many bird species have very elaborate mating rituals and will often display for days or even weeks during the spring.

An example of bird breeding season behavior is that of the American avocet. Avocets breed in North America in the spring, and they usually return to the same lake or pond year after year.

Not long after returning from the wintering locations further south, they begin their mating rituals which can last a couple of weeks. Avocets are fairly tolerant of people and allow people to approach closer without disrupting their behavior.

When males and females mate, they will first stand close to each other. This offers a good opportunity for photographs by showing the two birds with emotional intent.

However, the best photo opportunity is after mating when they rise, cross their long beaks across each other’s chest, and finish with a quick pirouette dance move.

This often goes unnoticed as it happens quickly, and photographers might have already quit taking pictures.

By knowing about this unique behavior that happens later in their breeding ritual, photographers can prepare themselves for the moment that the birds do their dance.

bird behaviour photography

An experience I recently had with bighorn sheep is an example of ensuring I captured unique behaviors.

Bighorn sheep breed in the fall, usually starting around late October, and one of the bighorn ram’s traits at this time is to perform the flehmen response to determine if ewes are ready for breeding.

A flehmen response is when a ram curls his upper lip to “sniff” the air and use its vomeronasal organ in the roof of their mouth to detect pheromones given off by the females.

This is a unique situation to photograph.

After performing this trait, they will often lower their heads and search through the herd looking for the females ready to breed.

bighorn sheep photography

Knowing that these activities might occur, I try my best to get into position to better isolate a male in my frame and then shoot from a low angle to capture them sniffing through the herd.

A final example is the springtime breeding season behavior of grizzly bears, in which they exhibit predictable and common behavior.

Male grizzly bears (boars) are keenly focused on females (sows) without cubs since they will be ready to mate.

Once a boar finds a potential mate, he will stay with her for days, remaining by her side all day. He often needs to rest at a nearby tree line or in a shallow depression.

grizzly bear photography

Rather than just photographing the sow feeding on spring grasses and roots, wait for signs that the male bear will get up and run to the sow. The sow will slowly walk away from the bear in hopes of getting away.

When she gets too far, the boar will run right toward her to control her movement. This is when you can capture a lot of action and emotional intent, of course, from the safety of your vehicle.

Read more: How to Photograph Fast-moving Mammals

In search of food

The search for food for many animals involves hard work and emotion. As humans, we can relate to animals in their desperation to find food and water, which creates an opportunity to connect with wildlife through our photographs.

Animals will go through a series of emotions while finding the food of their choice. As photographers, we need to learn about their feeding habits to capture those moments when the animal is showing desperation or relief.

For non-predatory animals, we need to understand what their favorite foods are, where they are located, unusual feeding behaviors, and any social aspects they exhibit while feeding.

Photographers can focus on the most unusual aspects of feeding to bring creativity to their images.

hunting egret bird behaviour

The hunting behavior of egrets and herons is a great example of an opportunity to add action, uniqueness, and creativity to photographs. Egrets like the snowy egret, little blue heron, and reddish egret all offer exciting photo opportunities.

Reddish egrets are my favorite because they employ a variety of techniques that show off their aggressive and agile hunting abilities.

They stalk the shallows along the coastline in search of prey. They will often raise their wings to provide shade for their prey, hoping the small fish will reveal themselves.

The egret will chase and thrash around to catch its prey while offering fantastic creative photo opportunities, especially at sunset.

Read more: How to Photograph Wildlife at Golden Hour

Animals at play

This type of behavior can provide fantastic photographic opportunities. Young mammals just love to play. Play is an essential part of learning for future survival and social integration.

Play can be rough, fun, tiresome, lighthearted, and even dangerous. Photographing playful moments will bring character into your images and will be a great opportunity to showcase interaction between multiple animals.

lions playing

Photographers should research their target species to learn about how youngsters (and even adults) play.

Learn the time of day that they like to play, what might initiate activity (like the parents coming back to the den), the age they are most likely to play, and even a location that might trigger playful activity.

I have relatively easy access to mountain goats, and I often spend multiple days with them in the high country.

mountain goat photography sunset wildlife

The young kid goats always put on a show in the spring. I’ve learned by observing where and when they play, how they play, and those situations where I can create unique images by incorporating their playful behavior.

By knowing about their playfulness, I can easily prepare by positioning myself at their same level, deciding if I want front, side, or backlighting, and ensuring the background won’t be overly cluttered.

By combining these tactics, I can create an image that highlights the playful behavior while ensuring everything in the frame complements or draws attention to the goats.

Find uniqueness in common animals

We all have animals in our local neighbourhoods that are common; ones we might not give a second look. Many of these species have been photographed so often that we become bored with the images.

A challenge would be to apply some of the approaches I have described to photograph these species in a different way to add creativity and intrigue to your final image.

how to photograph common wildlife

Learn the animal’s behavior related to its lifecycle, feeding habits, survival tactics, and interactions to develop ideas for a fresh image of a common species.

I’m sure you will be pleasantly rewarded with your results, and you will also be teaching yourself to learn about species behavior when you travel to see less-common species.

Read more: How to Find Locations for Wildlife Photography

Behavior while approaching wildlife

Approaching wildlife should always be done with caution, both for the safety of the animal and to maximize your chances of getting images that show natural behavior.

Animals that show signs of stress or fear while you are approaching or watching them will not exhibit natural behavior.

Each species has different stress behaviors, often to let you know that you are too close or to prepare themselves to flee the area.

For example, an owl’s natural hunting behavior is to look and listen intently for its prey from a perch, constantly moving its head around for the faintest of sounds or the slightest movement of small animals on the ground.

owl photography tips

They will also hold their body in a position to quickly take off to swoop down for a kill.

When someone approaches an owl that is actively hunting, the owl will begin to sit quietly and not move, other than following the movements of the person.

It may never continue to hunt in a person’s presence or may simply fly away. The photographer is left without an image of natural behavior, and the owl had to delay its next meal.

If photographers recognize stress behaviors in animals, they should stop their approach, move slower, avoid eye contact with the animal, approach the animal at an angle, come back later and use a blind, or just simply photograph from a further distance that is more comfortable for the animal.

Read more: Ethics in Wildlife Photography – Code of Conduct

In conclusion

Unique animal behavior can bring flavor to your images. It also adds a greater sense of accomplishment when you’ve learned about your subject and then succeed in the field by getting intriguing images that illustrate unique behaviors. 

I’ve only touched on a few aspects of animal behavior and undoubtedly there are many more to consider. You don’t need to be a wildlife biologist to understand a species’ behaviors, but take the time to read up on your target animals and learn by observing in the field. 

You will notice that your images will improve over time, not just with the animals that you frequently see, but also for those one-in-a-lifetime sightings of rare species. You will be better prepared to anticipate and react to changing animal behaviors.

Visit Peter's website

Peter Ismert is a wildlife and conservation photographer from Denver, Colorado in the USA. The Rocky Mountain Range has been his photography home over the years, with frequent visits to wildlife and scenic hotspots in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and more recently Alaska. He also frequently travels to Botswana, Zambia, and Kenya. His photography is frequently published in local and international online and in-print publications.

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