Tracking down wildlife and catching it on camera can seem like a bewildering idea, especially when looking for those more elusive species. But the truth is, the UK is alive with animals of all shapes and sizes, and in the correct light, even the more common and overlooked species can provide just as wonderful imagery as any other.
You don't even have to travel far as the chances are, wherever you live they’ll be some wildlife right on your doorstep, and yes, that even applies to those of you who live in cities. Urban landscapes will offer local parks which can be used to capture images of squirrels, birds and insects - and because they'll be accustomed to human footfall they'll be easier to get in the viewfinder too! But urban wildlife doesn't have to stop at the smaller species. Foxes (and even badgers if you’re one of the lucky ones) can be found in many urban and city locations making them an ideal subject to concentrate on.
If you’re lucky enough to live in one of the more rural parts of the country or near the coast, then things open up considerably. But even if you don’t, the UK is full of waterways, woodland, farmland and heathland so you should never be too long a car ride away from a new habitat with new subjects to concentrate on.
For the slightly more diverse and specific subjects, there are many reserves, national parks and wildlife trusts, not to mention hotspots dotted around the UK, known for being havens for specific animals and most of which are easy to visit.
Skomer Island for its puffin colonies, the Isle of Sheppey amongst others for Marsh Harriers and the Scottish Highlands for red squirrels and mountain hare to name a few.
The UK is full of waterways, woodland, farmland and heathland so you should never be too long a car ride away from a new habitat
The list for what you can find and where is almost endless, but further below you’ll find some helpful links to get you on your way.
When approaching your subject
The key to being rewarded with captivating images is your approach, be that unusual behaviour, interesting vantage points or simply amazing lighting.
It's very important to cause as little disturbance to the animal as possible as it should go without saying that no photo or video is worth causing distress to any wildlife and if what you're doing is changing it's natural behaviour, stop and back away. When possible, always try to approach downwind, keeping as low to the ground as possible and making slow movements, ideally, not heading directly towards the animal.
You shouldn't wash [clothing] too often to keep it smelling of the great outdoors and help disguise your scent
Quiet and camouflaged clothing (which you shouldn't wash too often to keep it smelling of the great outdoors and help disguise your scent) can be essential and with some species, using a hide to disguise the human form can often be the only option for observing very skittish wildlife.
The best results will almost always be obtained by sitting and waiting for wildlife to come to you - which in some cases can mean many hours of doing very little, but when those precious few minutes arrive where everything falls in to place, it will all be well worth it. But do remember, if you're sitting in a hide for hours, take supplies with you but make sure you don't take anything that's noisy to eat, so leave those crisps and fizzy drinks at home!
Of course, it should go without saying, light is everything. Even a static subject can look interesting in the right light and although wildlife is generally most active in the early morning and late evening, when the light is best, there are a few ways you can get creative.
To help give you some inspiration here are some ideas on how to make the most of several different lighting conditions:
1) Bright light
When the light is bright and harsh try and find subjects in nice dappled light such as under the canopy of trees. Often, especially in the hotter months, most animals will shelter in the shade during the warmer brighter hours of the day so this is something you can try whilst waiting for softer light. Expose for the bright spots in the scene, which will render the darker areas even darker. As the subject moves through the pockets of light that you have exposed for, you'll get some wonderful imagery - especially when the head hits the light and you get catch lights in the eyes.
2) Dull light
Dull flat light can actually be very good for making the most out of feather and fur details, especially on subjects with area’s of dark or contrasting colours, such as magpies, puffins and crows.
By placing the subject between you and the sun, when it's low in the sky, you can introduce some beautiful warm back lighting. This can be especially good for adding impact when there is an extra element such as mist, steam, you can see the animals breath or even something such as a deer standing stationary in the late evening, with insects flying around to add that extra interest, their wings highlighted but the low sun.
4) Side light
Again when the sun is low in the sky, by placing yourself so the sun is at 90 degrees to your subject you can use the light to highlight the contours and shapes of the animal. This can be a very effective and moody way of adding drama and emotion to the scene.
If you have a smart phone or tablet, The Photographer’s Ephemeris is an great app as it will be able to tell you lots of information from the length of shadows at any given time of day (you can tell it how tall objects are) to exactly where the sun will be at any given time of the day. When planning for the best light, knowing exactly where the sun will be and when is a huge advantage and can save you an awful lot of time, especially if the location you are visiting is far from home.
Don’t forget, when it’s not about the light, it’s about extreme weather! Wildlife in heavy rain, wind or snow can all add impact to your visuals so don't be afraid to use your camera in extreme weather. Make sure both you and your gear are covered up and protected from the elements and keep the camera rolling!
Framing and composition
You’ve got the light, you’ve got the subject, now all you need to do is compose and you’re good to go!
Of course we've all heard of the rule of thirds. But if you haven't, it's the method of imagining your frame split in to nine equal sections by two vertical and two horizontal lines, placed evenly apart. You then place important and key elements of your frame either along those lines or where they meet. This often creates the strongest compositions, especially with the correct use of negative space by giving your subject room to move or look in to. But it's important to remember don’t always stick to this as a rigid formula for success.
There will be times that you can create striking compositions by going against the rules.
There will be times that you can create striking compositions by going against the rules. Try looking for unusual ways to frame the subject, perhaps by using creative depth of field to emphasis movement or behaviour. Think about where your subject is in the frame and where they’re going to go and give them space to move. Or, maybe start with the animal out of frame and wait for it to move in to view.
It’s also important to remember to include shots that not just fill the frame but also place the subject small within it so you are telling the story of the environment and habitat. And, if you’re in the (often unusual!) situation where you’re too close to the wildlife you’re viewing, try picking out a smaller detail. Maybe twitching ears coming up out from the bottom of the frame or the beak of a bird as it prunes it’s feathers. The bottom line is experiment.
Once you have the ‘safe’ images in the bag, start getting creative. It won’t always work but when it does, you’ll be glad you tried! And whenever possible, get your camera at eye level to the subject as it will always produce more visually appealing and imitate feeling, especially when the subject is filling the frame. That will often mean getting low and dirty. But those who get dirty get the best images!
In almost all cases of wildlife photography/videography, knowing your subject, how it behaves and the habitat it likes to live in can be vital in finding and capturing successful visuals. However, the reality is not all of us are fortunate enough to be experts on every animal out there.
Luckily, there are many useful resources that can help you plan how best to find the species you’re after, regardless of the knowledge base you already have. Some of the bigger ones are:
The UK’s largest conservation charity, with many wonderful reserves all over the country
The Mammal Society
A charity aimed at science-led conservation, which also contains reference information on many of the 60, or so mammals found in the UK.
The Wildlife Trusts
Between its 47 trusts and many reserves dotted all over the UK, the WT is the largest environmental organisation with each trust being an independent charity.
Wild About Britain
A huge resource of information on UK wildlife, including an online community and forum.
And again for those with a smart phone or tablet, browse your app store to discover various bird and mammals guides which will give you a wealth of behaviour, habitat and I.D. knowledge at your fingers tips!
Get out there
That’s it, over to you. Find some wildlife, enjoy it, respect it and get it on camera!