UKH

Wildlife Photography for Hillwalkers

Hillwalking offers great opportunities for photography. We're treated to stunning scenery, dramatic weather and rapidly changing light. We also get to see some of the UK's most beautiful and unusual wildlife. But it's harder to sneak up on the wildlife than it is to capture a view: so how do you go about photographing it? What gear do you need to combine wildlife photography and hillwalking? And once you've got started, how do you take your photos to the next level?

Red deer stag in snow. Wide aperture (small f value) to isolate your subject against an out-of-focus background, 162 kb
Red deer stag in snow. Wide aperture (small f value) to isolate your subject against an out-of-focus background
© James Roddie

First, some fundamentals...

Anyone that walks in the hills has a responsibility to be as considerate as possible of wildlife. The welfare of an animal is absolutely more important than getting a photo. Upland species live on a knife-edge. For them, every calory burnt or consumed is crucial. Any unneccessary energy expenditure is making it that bit more difficult for them to survive in the cold and harsh environment in which they live.

    Trying to get as close as possible to wildlife is a natural instinct for those starting out in wildlife photography, but giving your subject some space in the image often leads to more interesting compositions

    A ptarmigan in spring plumage. It's good to aim for un-cluttered backgrounds in your images, 108 kb
    A ptarmigan in spring plumage. It's good to aim for un-cluttered backgrounds in your images
    © James Roddie

    Here are some useful rules to try to live by for photographing wildlife:

    • Don't ever deliberately frighten an animal or bird in order to get a 'flight shot'. You're making them use energy when they don't need to.
    • Do not disturb nesting birds. In the case of some species (e.g Dotterel) it is illegal to do so.
    • Always approach wildlife as slowly as possible.
    • You should always retreat as slowly as you approached! There's no point in making a slow and careful crawl towards an animal, only to stand up and frighten it when you're finished taking photos.
    • If any animal looks frightened, then it probably is. If it doesn't look to be settling down, leave it be.

    Equipment

    To photograph wildlife you'll almost always need to use a camera with a telephoto lens. These are lenses which magnify the scene in front of you, allowing you to get close images of objects far away. Ideally you need to use a lens with a focal length of around 300-500mm. There are three main camera systems which you can use:

    A chance encounter whilst out walking. Have your camera quickly accessible and you'll be more prepared for these moments, 143 kb
    A chance encounter whilst out walking. Have your camera quickly accessible and you'll be more prepared for these moments
    © James Roddie

    DSLRs – these are the main choice of professional wildlife photographers. They allow you to choose from a huge range of lenses and can produce top quality images. Even amateur level DSLRs and 'budget' telephoto lenses can be very good nowadays, so you don't necessarily need to spend a fortune. A disadvantage of these cameras for hillwalkers is that they can weigh quite a lot, significantly adding to an already heavy backpack.

    Mirrorless cameras –Mirrorless cameras which offer an interchangeable lens system can be an ideal choice for hillwakers. They are generally more compact and lightweight than DSLRs, yet can still produce extremely high quality images. In some cases battery life can be a bit more limited than on DSLRs however – something to be aware of on long days on the hill.

    Bridge cameras – these are more advanced than 'point and shoot' compact cameras, but don't offer the quality and flexibility of DSLRs and mirrorless. They usually include a built-in lens with a huge zoom range. Bridge cameras can be a good option when you're first starting out in wildlife photography, but you'll probably soon want to upgrade to the two systems I've mentioned above.

    A red deer stag at sunrise. The light is often at its most dramatic early and late in the day, 52 kb
    A red deer stag at sunrise. The light is often at its most dramatic early and late in the day
    © James Roddie

    A lightweight tripod or monopod can be extremely useful for helping to keep your photos sharp, though they will add weight to your pack. Simply laying your backpack on the ground using it a support can be a great way of keeping your camera steady. Make sure you have a good quality dry bag for storing any photographic equipment during wet weather, and take a waterproof cover for your camera to allow you to shoot photos in the rain. A lens cloth is an absolute necessity, as condensation on the lens can be just as much of a problem as rain. A packet of tissues can be useful for wiping off moisture that gets onto your camera body.

    Camera settings

    The beauty of photography is that you can be as creative as you like. There are no hard and fast rules, but for this article I'll outline some good practices for achieving sharp animal portraits.

    Mountain hare. Getting this close requires a very slow approach, often at a crawl. Be patient!, 58 kb
    Mountain hare. Getting this close requires a very slow approach, often at a crawl. Be patient!
    © James Roddie

    • Shooting through a telephoto lens requires a fast shutter speed to keep your subject sharp – ideally equivalent or greater than the focal length at which you are shooting (eg. if you are shooting on a 300mm lens, you should aim of a shutter speed of 1/300 second or faster).
    • To achieve those lovely out-of-focus backgrounds that make for good animal portraits, you need to be using a wide aperture. The wider the aperture, the smaller the area of your photo that will be in sharp focus. Setting your camera on Aperture Priority mode, and choosing the smallest f-value, allows you to do this. A wide aperture also allows the camera to access as much available light as possible, thus making it easier to achieve that fast shutter speed you need whilst using your telephoto lens.
    • Watch your ISO value. ISO controls the sensitivity of your camera's sensor to light. The higher the value, the more sensitive it is. However, the higher the value, the lower the overall quality of the image. Unless you are using a professional DSLR or mirrorless camera, you should aim to keep your ISO value between 100 and 1600 to avoid images that look 'grainy'. If you're taking photos in very low light conditions, you'll probably need to use a very high ISO value in order to achieve a fast shutter speed, but be prepared for lower quality images.

    Think hard about your fashion sense

    Brightly coloured clothing and outdoor activites come hand-in-hand - indeed, decent walking and climbing action photograhy would be much harder without dayglow clothing - but those vibrant red and yellow waterproofs won't be of much use to someone trying to carefully approach wildlife. You don't need to be wearing camouflage, but for wildlife photography you should really always aim to wear dull colours. Black, deep green or even dark blue is ideal.

    Stretching mountain hare. Capturing interesting behaviour may require patience, but the results can pay off, 92 kb
    Stretching mountain hare. Capturing interesting behaviour may require patience, but the results can pay off
    © James Roddie

    If you're doing things right then you'll probably be spending a lot of time sat still, so take more layers than you think you'll need. The cold can really creep up on you, especially if you're concentrating hard on something else. Your choice of gloves can be crucial. I often wear a pair of thick, waterproof winter gloves if I'm crawling towards an animal/bird, and then swap to thinner gloves once I'm in position and ready to start taking photos. It is worth investing in gloves which are warm enough to keep your hands toasty, but still thin enough to allow you to operate your camera easily.

    Be patient

    Learning to be patient is one of the most crucial aspects of wildlife photography. It can take a lot of perseverance before you start getting the results you want. If you have spotted, for example, a hare or a ptarmigan in the distance – approach slowly, really slowly. It is normal to have to spend over an hour approaching a mountain hare from only a hundred metres away. In many cases, the animal or bird you are approaching will run or fly away just before you're close enough for any decent photos. Success depends on not allowing frustration to get to you, and trying to learn from any mistakes you make. Once you have managed to get close, don't just fire off some photos and leave. Be as patient as you can – the difference between a good image and a great image can come down to a small change in an animal or bird's position or facial expression. Luck definitely plays a part, and remember – the more time you put into it, the luckier you will get.

    Be prepared

    Considering how many miles you can cover during a day on the hill, it's fairly common to stumble across wildlife by surprise. This is particularly true of species like red grouse or ptarmigan. It's good to be ready for chance encounters, so having your camera easily accessible in a shoulder holster is a good tip.

    An adder. Get down at your subject's eye level – it creates a more effective visual connection with the animal, 200 kb
    An adder. Get down at your subject's eye level – it creates a more effective visual connection with the animal
    © James Roddie

    Get down low

    Many species become frightened by the outline of a human standing or walking. Getting down on your hands and knees and crawling will make you more likely to succeed in approaching wildlife. A good general method of approach is to crawl for a few metres, stop for a few minutes, crawl, stop again, crawl stop etc. Go slowly and watch for any signs of the animal or bird becoming nervous. It will often involve crawling through heather and/or mud so it can get uncomfortable!

    Getting down low puts you at the eye-level of most wildlife, and this helps to provide a visual 'connection' between the viewer of the image and the animal.

    You don't always need to get as close as possible

    Ptarmigan in a white-out. Including some space around your wildlife subject can be more effective than filling the frame, 195 kb
    Ptarmigan in a white-out. Including some space around your wildlife subject can be more effective than filling the frame
    © James Roddie

    'Less is more' can so often be applied to photography. Look for simplicity in your images. Trying to get as close as possible to wildlife is a natural instinct for those starting out in wildlife photography, but giving your subject some space in the image often leads to more interesting compositions. Experiment with including the wider landscape in your images. Always consider the background and foreground, and try to anticipate how they will change as you move. Do they include distracting shapes and objects that will lead the viewer's eye away from the subject? Try to consider how best to give your subject prominence in the frame. Get down low and shoot at the wildlife's eye level – this helps to isolate it against the background, and provides more of a connection between the subject and the viewer of the image.

    What might you see?

    There's a wide range of species you might see out in the hills of the UK. These are arguably some of the most photogenic:

    Red deer Widespread across the Scottish Highlands, and found to a varying degree across uplands in England and Wales. Red deer are often most easily photographed when they are found at valley/glen level, and they can be very difficult to get close to on an open hillside.

    Mountain hares Found across the Scottish Highlands and in small areas of the Peak District, often on heathery hillsides. In the winter their fur is a beautiful white/grey and they can be stunning subjects for photography. With a very slow approach, preferably at a crawl, it is possible to get very close indeed to some mountain hares.

    Ptarmigan Found on bouldery mountain slopes in the Scottish Highlands, usually above 700m. The Cairngorms are a particular stronghold. Ptarmigan rely heavily on their camouflage and can be very confiding, especially during the winter months. It is advised to leave them alone for their own good during the late spring and summer when they are nesting.

    Red grouse Found in upland areas throughout the UK, often in large numbers on moorlands managed for shooting. Some individuals will allow you to get very close with a slow approach. The Peak District 'edges' can give good opportunities for grouse photography, where the birds have become accustomed to humans.

    Adders Found in upland areas across the UK, often on scrubby lower slopes and heather moorlands. The UK's only poisonous reptile. They are often less active and more easily seen during the mornings in the spring months. Approach them slowly and do not touch! Their bites are dangerous and in rare cases fatal.


    james roddie head shot, 85 kb

    About James Roddie

    James Roddie is an award-winning photographer and writer specialising in the wild places and wildlife of the Scottish Highlands. He is an active hillwalker, climber and caver based near Inverness.

    For more of his images and writing see www.jamesroddie.com



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