It is a common misconception that to take great wildlife photographs you have to travel to far flung regions of the world looking for rare and illusive species. In fact some of the best images produced are generally those right on your doorstep.
Working close to home has many advantages, you can spend longer with your subject, be on location for the best times of the day (early mornings and late evenings) and if you are having a bad day...you are never far away from a cuppa and a biscuit!
Developing a local photography project is a fantastic way to hone your skills as a wildlife photographer, create some stunning images and enables you to make the most of those short few hours in a day when you normally might not bother to take your camera out!
Choosing your subject
When working on a local project it is often most rewarding to work on a specific subject or theme. This could be local foxes, garden birds or even restricting yourself to the geographical limits of the wildlife in your own back garden. By having a specific focus, you will think more about your subject and be able to spend more time experimenting with your photography. This will slow you down in order to help you produce stunning images that stand out from the crowd.
When selecting a subject, I would advise you to first think about what you see in your local area - do you know a spot where you always see foxes in the evening? Or does a Robin always nest in your garden shed? By working on a project that you already have prior knowledge of, you can get started and use your time far more efficiently rather than trying to track down a subject you have no idea about.
If you don’t have a starting point then your garden, allotment or balcony could be the answer, regularly putting food out for small birds is a very simple way to quickly establish a consistent flow of species into your outdoor space no matter where you live!
In my personal experience all of my best images have come from planning ahead by visualising what I want to create long before I press the shutter.
When working on a long term project, research is the key to success. I know, you don’t want to spend lots of time reading or looking at other peoples images - you want to be out with your camera, but trust me, a little time spent developing an initial plan will pay dividends in the quality of the images you create.
Start by researching high quality images of your intended subject. Good places to explore are the websites of well known wildlife photographers, stock libraries, and past galleries of winning and commended images from prestigious awards such as BWPA or WPOTY.
This will give you an idea of the type and style of images that you may like to create.
Understanding your subject is vital, not only to enable you to get close to them but also to allow you to photograph them within their natural habitat.
When I am working on a new project the literature on my bedside table changes to a pile of field guides, articles and scientific papers. Reading up on my subjects means I can quickly gain an understanding of the animals’ behaviour, when and where to look for them and how to approach them.
This means that when I am out in the field I spend less time looking for my subject and more time creating images.
Some subjects like garden birds will quickly become accustomed to the presence of a hide, however more wary subjects like foxes may need a different approach. When stalking you need to identify which senses your subject uses to detect danger. For mammals such as Deer or Foxes this is often smell, so staying down wind when you approach is vital in order to remain undetected. For birds movement is the biggest giveaway, so sitting still in a well known feeding location is a great deal easier than trying to follow on foot!
The best images tell a story
The best images do indeed tell a story...but why not aim to tell a story though a sequence of images? Working on a local long term project you have the ability to follow a story from start to finish. This could be as simple as the breeding season of the Robin, to any number of miniature natural world stories that are happening all around you.
You could try sketching a story board of key images such as nest building, egg laying, feeding and fledging (for example) and you will soon have a fantastic starting point to build your project upon. Last year on my local patch, I spotted a vixen that was heavily pregnant. I followed her and her cubs for 9 months, documenting the lives of these wonderful animals that were living less than 1 kilometer down the road from my house. In terms of my Fox project I knew that I needed images of the cubs, the vixen hunting and interaction between mother and cubs to make my story work.
This enabled me to produce a sequence of stand alone images that also worked as a collective set.I had some fantastic encounters with the foxes, often with them being only a few feet from the end of my lens. Not only did the project produce some fantastic images for my portfolio, but it also provided me with some of the most memorable and magical wildlife encounters I've had to date!
A story told through images can be very powerful. When you finish the project you will look back and not only will you see the journey of your subject, but also the development of your photographic vision and skill.
Don't be the procrastinating photographer
Procrastination will not get you any of those beautiful images you see in the top class magazines and competitions, getting out with your camera might!
We all have those days when the weather is grim, you’re tired, cold and you think to yourself - what’s the point in going out? You doubt you will see anything interesting anyway... and it’s true you most probably won’t, but you are far more likely to see something if you are out on location, rather than sitting behind your computer!
At the end of the day, wildlife photography is much like everything in life, you get out what you put in. If you go out religiously day after day it’s far more than likely that eventually everything will come together (if well planned), but if you don’t... it probably won’t.
If you really want to make the most of your local wildlife you just have to get out there and put in the leg work. A good plan and knowledge of your subject will help you to concentrate your efforts but when it comes down to getting the shots, you need to be out in the field, not at your desk!
Stop thinking about what you will do, and do it.
We all have bad days. Fact.
Missing the shot, focusing on the wrong place, forgetting your spare battery or even your tripod. It happens, but it doesn't mean it has to ruin a day and especially not the project.
If you miss that perfect image the great thing about working close to your home is you can get out and try again. It’s not like being away on holiday and knowing you won’t be in the same situation for a good number of years!
Failure in many ways makes you successful. Only by making mistakes do we understand why images didn’t work or how to improve things next time. Every professional has taken many bad images (thousands in fact). It’s part of the learning process. Embrace your mistakes - learn from them - analyse them and soon you will see your images improve.
In the digital age you can try things out, test ideas and if they don’t work you can always delete them!
Don’t get hung up on gear if it seems like all the pro’s have 500mm f4 lenses with D4/1DX’s....with a bit of vision and a can-do attitude there is nothing to say that the camera you are currently using cannot produce images to rival the work of professional wildlife photographers.
Having a 300mm lens may improve your chances of getting a frame filling image, but if you don’t have one it is not the only way to get up close and personal with wildlife. Remote triggers with wide angle lenses can also produce beautiful results, but it will take a little more time and effort to set up.
For the record... the first work I ever managed to get into a gallery was done on a £60 secondhand film camera, 'Gear' is only a limitation to your photography if you believe it to be!
So now it is your turn to get out there and photograph the beauty that nature has to offer in your local area! The above pointers will hopefully get you started with the wildlife close to your home and with a little bit of planning, patience and persistence you will soon be well on your way to producing a gorgeous portfolio of images based around your own local wildlife project.
About the Author
Tom Mason is an up and coming wildlife and nature photographer based in Hertfordshire where he frequently visits a number of local nature reserves including Rye meads and Amwell. You can see more of his work on his blog.