Waiting hours to nab a single photograph of a bald eagle. Coming face to face with a massive grizzly bear. Wildlife photography has long been a specialist pursuit for the intrepid and (slightly) crazy, but as the world gets smaller and camera technology improves, now is the time to hop into the genre. So lace up your boots, grab a raincoat and let’s explore.
1. THE FALKLAND ISLANDS
Primary focus: Penguins Secondary focus: Elephant seals, albatrosses, orcas Best time to go: October through April Lens choice: 16 mm to 100 mm
Bar none, the Falkland Islands are the single best island destination for wildlife photography. Located off the eastern coast of Argentina, this British territory hosts five different species of penguins, countless birds, elephant seals, sea lions, orcas and whales. Most animals are readily accessible, especially on Sea Lion Island, where animal/human interaction is as easy as walking into the middle of 1,000 penguins, holding still, and waiting for them to surround you. The gentoo penguins are not shy, so don’t be surprised if you feel something pecking at your shoelaces. Other notable islands include Saunders, where you’ll find a massive population of black-browed albatrosses; Bleaker Island, home to the king cormorant and rockhopper penguins; and East Falkland, where you’ll get to shoot the king penguin rookery complete with fuzzy baby birds.
What to bring: Layers, layers,layers. Expect waves of sun, rain, wind and hail to cycle overhead periodically throughout the day.
Pro tip: Hold still. It sounds simple, but if you pick a spot on the edge of a rookery and just wait, the birds will come.
2. GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, ECUADOR
Primary focus: Marine and land iguanas Secondary focus: Blue-footed boobies, giant land tortoises Best time to go: Anytime Lens choice: 24 mm to 400 mm
No island chain on the planet is as synonymous with wildlife as the Galapagos. Made famous by Darwin and the unique evolutionary patterns of the animals isolated on this archipelago, the Galapagos draw millions of visitors each year. The islands are home to three species of land iguanas, as well as the only spot in the world to find marine iguanas. The animals’ comfort levels around people make it possible to get close enough with just a 24 mm and snap beautiful, wide-angle portraits.
What to bring: Patience. It’s no secret how incredible these islands are, so if you visit during the busy summer or winter seasons, expect large crowds. To curb the amount of tourists each year, the Ecuadorian government has tight control over the number of daily travelers and their length of stay. In addition, be mindful of the established walking paths and do not stray. Even if an incredible shot is waiting just out of reach, take a breath and respect the laws that have helped preserve this special place.
Pro tip: The amount of depth of field in wide-angle lenses can sometimes be distracting when shooting portraits. Use your most wide-open aperture when approaching an animal to blur the background and keep the focus on your subject.
Photo Tip: Use a wide-angle lends to snap friendly animals; this way, their portrait can also include the landscape.
3. KODIAK ISLAND, ALASKA
Primary focus: Grizzly bears Secondary focus: Alaskan foxes, bald eagles Best time to go: September Lens choice: 50 mm to 600 mm
Few experiences are as visceral as watching a massive Alaskan brown bear kill its prey from a few yards away. Adding to the wow factor, the grizzlies on Kodiak Island and the nearby Katmai peninsula are the largest in the world — an adult male can weigh up to 1,500 pounds. During the summer months, these beasts gorge themselves on salmon and the occasional seal, offering a unique opportunity for the wildlife photographer to score some incredible imagery. As a bonus, the days are long in late summer, casting beautiful sunset light for hours. The best way to see these massive creatures is by boat tour, and many leave out of Kodiak Harbor. The guides aboard these vessels can transport a photographer within yards of a full-grown grizzly, so many different lens types are useful for creative bear shots.
What to bring: The only things bigger than the grizzlies are the mosquitoes. Tote some hard-hitting bug repellent and a mosquito-net hood. It’s hard to imagine the number of biting insects that can assault you as you sit in sedge grass waiting to see wildlife, but I can assure you, it’s enough to drive you insane. Also, be sure to check with your tour guide ahead of time as to whether they supply wading boots. Walking across the mud flats at low tide without boots is nearly impossible.
Pro tip: This goes without saying, but when working around this powerful of an animal, keep one eye open — literally. When I’m shooting within the danger zone of a bear, I force myself to break away from the viewfinder every few seconds to check my surroundings.
Pro tip: Shooting in heavily wooded environments can often mean busy backgrounds if not handled correctly. Make sure you don’t slip into tunnel-vision mode by focusing solely on your subject.
Primary focus: Lemurs Secondary focus: Chameleons Best time to go: September through December Lens choice: Macro, short to long telephoto
Madagascar is often referred to as the eighth continent, both for its size and incredible biodiversity. It’s been millions of years since this landmass separated from Africa and drifted slowly eastward, allowing for a unique evolutionary environment only an island can provide. Perhaps the greatest example of this natural phenomenon is Madagascar’s lemurs; the country is home to over 90 identified species, more than anywhere else in the world. The hardier adventurer can set out through deserts and mountain jungles to search for lemurs in their native environment. For those not as keen to traverse the wild, the private Berenty Reserve is home to six of the most iconic species, including the ringtail and white sifaka, roaming freely on over 1,000 hectares of land. Madagascar is also home to more than half the world’s chameleon species, offering the macro photographer a chance to encounter some of nature’s most colorfully saturated critters.
What to bring: Aside from the usual layered clothing, don’t forget a headlamp. A lot of Madagascar’s lemurs are nocturnal, so you’ll want some sort of light source to navigate the ups and downs of the landscape once the sun sets. A good headlamp with night mode doesn’t interfere with your night vision, and it also leaves your hands free to carry camera gear.
5.TASMANIA, SOUTHERN AUSTRALIA
Primary focus: Tasmanian devils Secondary focus: Wallabies, kangaroos and wombats Best time to go: March through May Lens choice: 85 mm to 400 mm
This wild isle off the southeast coast of Australia is known primarily for its most famous resident, the Tasmanian devil. Sadly, tragic times have touched this species — a horrible disease has been steadily pushing them to the verge of extinction. Fortunately, scientists have been relocating healthy devils to the southern Tasman Peninsula and Maria Island. It can be difficult to find these elusive little scavengers, but netting a shot of a devil is like winning the nature-photography lottery. If you want less of a challenge, several sanctuaries allow you to snap these little guys in a controlled environment.
What to bring: Tasmania’s climate changes dramatically, from the beaches of the Freycinet Peninsula to the summit of Mount Wellington, so you’ll want to be prepared for both blistering heat and bone chilling cold. Unlike some destinations, it’s a lot harder to shoot wildlife from a vehicle, so pack some sturdy hiking shoes and be ready to use them.
Pro tip: Most of the animal population of Tasmania is shy, and with the exception of the adorable wombat, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to get close to any of them. With that in mind, you’ll want a good telephoto and a quiet approach. It’s always best to snap a few safety shots from a distance just in case you spook your subject while advancing.
6. LUNDEY, ICELAND
Primary focus: Atlantic puffins Secondary focus: Whales and dolphins Best time to go: May through August Lens choice: 100 mm to 400 mm
Iceland is the largest breeding area in the world for the Atlantic puffin, boasting 3 million to 4 million feathery visitors per year to the volcanic island. Although these beautiful birds spend most of their lives in the water, they come ashore during the summer months to hatch and rear chicks along the rocky shoreline. Lundey, meaning “Puffin Island” in Icelandic, is a three-minute boat ride from the busy capital of Reykjavik and is home to around 30,000 of these birds. Coincidentally, puffin season coincides with whale-watching season, offering the chance to catch sight of minke, humpback and killer whales.
What to bring: Carry equipment that’s easy to transport on and off a boat. You’ll be surrounded by water, so a dry bag large enough to hold a camera and telephoto lens combo would also be wise. The temperature in Iceland can be finicky and change quickly; pack layers and rain gear to be ready for any situation.
Pro tip: Whether you’re out privately or with a puffin tour, when shooting from a boat, remember to bring your longest, fastest lenses that you can handhold without fatigue. The Norwegian Sea is not always calm, so keep your shutter speeds as fast as possible to prevent both camera shake and subject blur.
7. MOLOKAI/MAUI CHANNEL, HAWAII, U.S.
Primary focus: Humpback whales Secondary focus: Spinner dolphins Best time to go: December through April Lens choice: 100 mm to 400 mm
Surfers off the shores of Molokai say that during the height of the whale migration, they can hear the calls of these massive mammals while waiting for waves. Not surprising; every year, an estimated 10,000 humpbacks cruise through the narrow channel between Molokai and Maui, offering some of the most reliable whale-watching in the world. From atop the hills on Molokai, it’s not uncommon to see 12 different spouts at a time, and photographers can often catch the most coveted shot of a whale fully breaching from the water.
What to bring: Most outfitters use boats large enough to avoid worries about sea spray, but if you decide to take a zodiac or a small boat, be ready with a dry bag to keep gear free of salt water. The temperature in Hawaii is typically perfect, but don’t forget sunscreen to survive the long hours at sea.
Pro tip: Bring your polarizing filter and use it — the water and sky will both be a richer blue, and the filter helps cut down the haze on foul-weather days. Using the polarizer is going to cost you a stop and a half of light, so don’t forget to crank up your ISO as necessary and keep the shutter speed fast enough to catch the action. When shooting whales, I prefer to keep my camera up and ready just below my eye, so if something happens quickly, I have only a couple of inches to travel before I can begin firing.
Photo Tip: Small movements can make a big impact on backgrounds. Scan the edges of your frame for any distracting elements.
8. SANIBEL ISLAND, FLORIDA, U.S.
Primary focus: Wading birds Secondary focus: Migratory birds Best time to go: October through April Lens choice: 100 mm to 600 mm
Sanibel Island, home to the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, is renowned as one of the best places in the South to observe wading birds. The park consists mainly of a 4-mile nature drive that winds through marsh and river habitats, taking you past bodies of water where you’ll observe herons, roseate spoonbills, egrets, ibises, kingfishers and pelicans.
What to bring: The best times of day to shoot birds are just after sunrise and just before sunset — coincidentally, the same time mosquitoes emerge to find a meal. Bug spray is not only suggested, it’s a must. The good news: You don’t need to do much hiking in Ding Darling, and most of your photos can be taken out of the car window.
Pro tip: A beanbag can be your best friend when shooting from a vehicle. Just set one over the frame of your door and window seam, then rest your telephoto on top for the ultimate in mobile stability.