Winter Wildlife Photography Ideas
Winter. Cold, dull and grey. Sure, the winter can be challenging, but when the sun shines or the snow falls there is no better season for wildlife photography and there is every reason to wrap up warm and get out there to make the most of it.
There are three good reasons why winter is such a special time for wildlife photography. Firstly, many species are looking their best – resident birds are displaying their brightest plumage and mammals are sporting thick winter coats.
Harsh weather also makes it more difficult for birds and mammals to find food, making it easier to attract them with handouts. Birds like finches and tits will swarm to garden feeders whilst foxes, badgers and small mammals will also take advantage of a regular supply of food.
And finally, the weather conditions are at their most dramatic – heavy snow, frost-covered foliage and low golden sunlight add an extra dimension to your images, making them stand out from the crowd. There is even the added bonus that you don’t have to get out of bed at some unearthly hour to catch the action. What more could you wish for?
10 Winter Wildlife Subjects to Get You Started
It might be a cliché, but robin redbreast has got to feature on the top 10 list of best winter wildlife subjects. They are our classic garden bird, and also one of the tamest. They can easily be enticed into close range with tasty morsels and have a real liking for mealworms (can be bought from suppliers like Wiggly Wigglers). Unlike many other garden birds, which seem hyperactive, robins readily strike a pose, almost inviting to have their picture taken. Although originally a woodland species, robins are very much at home in gardens, making them one of the easiest subjects to tackle.
Although robins are approachable, a more reliable way to photograph them is to provide them with food so that you can entice them onto a chosen perch or photogenic setting. The classic props include spade handles, watering cans and holly plus a sprinkling of snow to really give them the Christmas card feel! For something different, try shooting with a wide-angle lens to include the garden or house in the background. A remote shutter release is a useful bit of kit for this technique allowing you to shoot from a distance.
Top tip: If there is snow or frost in the picture make sure the whites aren’t blown out by checking that the right hand side of the histogram is not off the scale.
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Ten years ago great spotted woodpeckers were a fairly rare sight in people’s gardens, but since then their population has dramatically increased and they are now regular visitors. Bedecked in striking black, white and red plumage, they are one of Britain’s most attractive birds. Although they usually nest in woodlands, outside of the breeding season they frequent many medium to large sized gardens.
Great spotted woodpeckers have a real penchant for peanuts and are very adept at clinging onto feeders. They are also very fond of fat, suet and cheese and this is the best food to use when trying to photograph them. Start by drilling approximately 8mm diameter holes into a dead stump or branch and plug these holes with fat or cheese. Then place the stump in a sunny position with a clear background. You’ll need to conceal yourself or use some form of hide, as woodpeckers can be quite nervous. I’d suggest using a 300mm or longer telephoto lens and shoot at maximum aperture to limit depth of field and make the bird stand out from the background.
Top tip: Drill a single vertical row of holes in the log and position it so they’re just out of view of the camera. This way the food won’t be visible in your shots.
They may be common but there’s no denying that a male mallard is a great looking bird, resplendent with an iridescent bottle green head. Mallards make great subjects – they are accessible, easy to get close to and are always doing something of interest. During the winter they are in tip top condition and the colours of their plumage are simply stunning.
Further Reading: “How to Make a “Boring” Bird Interesting“
The other advantage is that if you live in an urban area you should be able to find mallards on your local park pond, and because they are used to people they’ll literally eat out of your hand. Photograph them on a sunny day to bring out the best of their colourful plumage and try to get down low to shoot them at eye level. This will also help throw the background out of focus when using a telephoto lens. Also, venture out in freezing conditions so you can picture them stood out on the ice revealing their bright orange legs.
Top tip: Set the camera to continuous focus mode and keep the focusing point on the eye of the bird to retain accurate focus as the bird moves around.
Unlike our resident mute swans, whooper swans are winter migrants visiting the UK between October and April. They congregate in large numbers at several of the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust reserves around the UK, such as Martin Mere in Lancashire and Welney in Norfolk. All of the WWT reserves provide hides for viewing and photographing the birds. They also feed the swans and other wildfowl at a regular time each afternoon, which draws the birds in very close.
Wear warm clothing and try to spend several hours in the hides, as this will give you the best chance of capturing some action. The hour or so before feeding time is especially productive with birds flying in and gathering up in readiness for their feast. Use a mid-telephoto lens to isolate individual swans and a short telephoto, standard or even wide-angle lens for group shots.
Top tip: Don’t be tempted to pack up immediately after sunset as you might be rewarded with a beautiful red sky, which makes a perfect backdrop for swan silhouettes.
I’ve chosen to highlight greylag geese here, but this could equally apply to the other UK geese species that includes pink-footed, Brent and white-fronted and even the introduced and widespread Canada goose. Winter is definitely the optimal time for wildfowl species so I make no apology for including another one here. The unique selling point of geese is that they form large flocks – up to 50,000, which makes for very dramatic pictures. Most species tend to favour traditional locations, such as Caerlaverock in Dumfries, Ribble estuary, Norfolk coast and many south coast harbours. Further information can be found on these websites: WWT, Visit Norfolk and Wildlife Extra.
Further Reading: “How to Photograph Flocks of Birds“
The key to capturing flocks of geese in flight is getting yourself in the right place at the right time. Never easy of course, but with knowledge of where your local geese hang out then it should be possible to predict their flight paths. Geese have regular roost sites and will fly in and out at dusk and dawn, which can be fantastic if there is good colour in the sky. You’ll most likely have to shoot from a distance so a telephoto lens of 300mm or longer will give you the necessary pulling power.
Top tip: Geese feeding on the ground can be easily spooked so avoid getting too close and instead choose a spot that will produce an attractive backdrop for when they take-off naturally.
In winter, as dusk approaches, starlings gather up into massive flocks that may number several million before descending into their roost sites. This is certainly one of the most spectacular events in the birding world and one that occurs every evening between November and March at a host of sites around the country. The biggest of them all is on the Somerset Levels where several million birds drop into the reed beds at dusk. Brighton Pier is also a well-known site but there roosts of various sizes all around the country, many right in the heart of our towns and cities. Find a roost near to you at this link.
The advances in digital camera technology have opened up greater possibilities for photographing wildlife in low light by shooting at very high ISO speeds, which means it’s much easier to freeze the action of thousands of starlings whirling around in fading light. There are two approaches to take in terms of shutter speed. One is to use speeds of 1/250th or faster to freeze the movement. The other option is to select a shutter speed of around 1/30th or slower to produce more ethereal images that depict subject blurring, which can be very effective on large balletic flocks of starlings.
Top tip: Starling flocks behave differently from one evening to the next, so try to make several visits over the winter and pick an evening that promises a good sunset.
The fox is an animal that has adapted to our changing world better than almost any other and is quite at home in an urban environment. Many of our towns and cities such as London, Bristol and Glasgow all have high fox populations. In winter they look fantastic with a bushy tail, thick fur and a deep red colouring.
Fox photography is more about taking your chances as and when they occur. You may have one visiting your own garden, and putting out food will certainly help in that regard. Or you my know a friend or work colleague who can help. In the countryside they are generally shy and hard to approach but there are always exceptions. Settled snow is perfect for following their footprints and this will give you a good idea about their movements and may even locate a den site. Winter weather can also force them to hunt more actively during the day thereby increases your chance of successful photography.
Top tip: Urban foxes tend to be on the prowl after dark when there are less people around so you may need to use a flash as the primary light source. If possible use it off-camera to avoid ‘green eye’ (coloured reflections from the fox’s retina).
According to the saying, hares go mad in March! This is something that refers to the sexually driven antics of the males chasing after females. March is not the only month that this occurs but it’s often when hares are at their most visible, sometimes congregating in large numbers in a particular field. Most activity takes place during the morning and can involve elaborate chases as well as the classic boxing behaviour. This provides the best chance of getting close to hares whilst they are pre-occupied with courting behaviour. Also, the vegetation is short, making them easier to spot.
In my experience there are two approaches to hare photography. The first is to stalk them, slowly and quietly and only moving when they are looking away or feeding. This can work, but in my experience I’ve not had that much success using this technique. The second option, which I prefer, is to pick a spot that is frequented by hares and wait for them to come to you. Overall this has worked well and I’ve had hares walk by, oblivious to my presence. Patience is a virtue for hares and don’t be put off if you don’t get any shots the first time you try.
Top tip: Locate your chosen position for photography in advance. Get there early and take a waterproof mat to lie on and a bean bag to support the camera and lens.
I’ve highlighted red squirrels as I live close to one of their favoured habitats in northern Scotland, but you can also find them in Yorkshire, Cumbria and Brownsea Island. They look great in winter, sporting long ear tufts and a bushy red tail.
My recommended approach for red squirrels is to provide them with a regular source of food. Unsalted peanuts or hazelnuts are firm favourites. Once you have located a suitable habitat (typically pine woodland for reds) look for an attractive setting that offers reasonable light levels and maybe set-up a stump on which you can place the food. It may take several weeks before they are visiting regularly, but it is worth the dedication!
Top tip: As an alternative to setting up your own feeding station for red squirrels, there are now a number of photo hides set-up and workshops available from photographers around the UK.
Formerly restricted to western Britain, buzzards have spread to all parts of the UK in recent years and are currently our most common bird of prey. They are handsome birds and are most often seen perched on roadside fence posts or soaring high on the thermals. During the winter there are lots of young birds around and these tend to be more approachable. Also, because they are not as proficient at finding or catching prey they are more likely to be attracted to carrion.
With a bit of luck, buzzards can be photographed using a car as a mobile hide. Images don’t necessarily have to be frame fillers, so go out early and drive down the quiet lanes and see if you can capture an atmospheric shot of a buzzard perched in the mist or at sunrise. For those wanting to go the extra mile, try putting out carrion (I use road-killed rabbits) in a buzzard’s territory. Do this regularly for a couple of weeks, then set-up a concealed hide. Early morning or late afternoon is usually best.
Top tip: Get someone to ‘see you in’ to the hide i.e. two people walk to the hide and one walks away to trick any buzzards that might be watching into thinking the hide is unoccupied.