Carl Safina
Carl Safina

11 Secrets of Wildlife Photographers

Carl Safina
Carl Safina

There is something about seeing a wild animal—a stalking tiger, soaring hawk, splashing whale, or slithering snake—that captivates the imagination. Yet these creatures are elusive, and it’s not easy to capture their splendor. So how can you get the perfect picture of a wild creature? Luckily, there are people out there who have devoted their lives to the art of wildlife photography, and mental_floss talked to a few who were willing to share their tips.


Florida-based conservation photographer Mac Stone says it’s a misconception that good photographers need top-of-the-line equipment in order to get a good shot. “There’s an old saying that goes, ‘The best camera is the one that’s in your pocket,’” he notes. Stone, who shoots all kinds of wild creatures from American alligators to burrowing owls, says the key is knowing how to use the equipment you have: Read your camera manual and experiment before going out to shoot in the field.


Elephants in Amboseli National Park in Africa. Image credit: Carl Safina

If you want to catch an animal on camera, you need to think like an animal, says Richard Slattery, a Long Island-based professional photographer who has been photographing wild animals for more than 20 years.

“While I’m not a scientist, I’ve spent a lot of time with animal experts who have taught me to look for signs preceding animal action,” he notes. For example, when photographing humpback whales on whale-watching trips, Slattery has learned from whale experts to look for “bubble nets” on the water’s surface. These bubbles of air, exhaled from underwater, always precede a whale surfacing to swallow up fish and plankton—a perfect photo opportunity. Slattery suggests attending public lectures, watching documentaries, and reading books about wildlife to learn how to anticipate animal action.


Besides knowing how to read animal behavior, it’s also critical to know how to read your environment, says Kristofer Rowe, who’s been professionally photographing ospreys and other birds since 2011. Once you know about the species you want to shoot, “you can increase your odds by knowing where and when to position yourself for optimum images,” he notes. Between April and October—osprey season in Connecticut, where he is based—Rowe says he uses the sunrise, tides, and winds to help him find ospreys and craft the perfect shot. The same educational strategies for learning about animal behavior can also be applied to learning about their environment.


Laysan albatross chick and parent. Image credit: Hob Osterlund

Professional wildlife photographer and writer Hob Osterlund has devoted her life to the conservation of one species: the albatross, a large seabird native to Hawaii, the state where she’s based. Albatross face many challenges to their survival, including feral cats, invasive species, ocean plastic, and habitat destruction. To get the best possible photos of these birds, Osterlund says, “Take shots that make people love and respect the animal. They need your help much more than you need an award.”


Ecologist, author, and Safina Center founder/president Carl Safina has been photographing wild animals for decades. Over the years, this Long Island-based wildlife expert has traveled the world amassing thousands of beautiful photos of all kinds of wild creatures, from wolves to walruses. The key, he says, “Is to shoot lots of frames of the same thing; never think you’ve ‘got’ it—you can always get it better. Then, when you’re back home, comb through your images and delete those that don’t work so you can focus on the best images you’ve taken.”


You can expect to get at least a little mud on your shoes when trying to photograph wild animals (they live outside, after all). But Osterlund says you shouldn’t be afraid to really get down and dirty to get the shots you’re after. “I learned from the great Melissa Groo to lie down,” says Osterlund. “Get at eye level [with an animal] as much as possible. Buy elbow pads so you don’t tear your flesh off. Carry a small tarp.”


An incoming osprey. Image credit: Kristofer Rowe

It can be challenging to get a steady shot when on a boat or trying to photograph moving animals (or both), says professional photographer Jodi Frediani. Frediani, who is based in California, spends a lot of time photographing whales and other marine creatures. She says there are many situations where it pays to take advantage of your camera’s pre-focus feature in order to get a clear shot, such as when you’re on a boat. For example, when trying to get photos of humpback whales, Frediani says she’ll “pre-focus where I think a serial breaching will come up next.”


It’s easy to get discouraged in the field if you don’t get the shot you’re looking for on the first try. But Stone says it’s important not to give up on the images you want even if you fail a few (or many) times. “Really attack an image and go after it until you get it,” says Stone. “Go out every day to the place you want to get the image and really focus yourself on your task.” Eventually, with enough stubbornness, Stone says, you’re likely to get the image you’re after.


Southern Pacific humpback whale mother and calf in Vava'u, the Kingdom of Tonga. Image credit: Jodi Frediani

Some of the best photographs of wild creatures capture very regular parts of their lives, such as feeding and sleeping. Frediani says she especially enjoys watching humpback whales lunge upward through the water’s surface to get a mouthful of krill, plankton, and small fish. While whale feeding is an everyday behavior, Frediani says she gets excited every time she gets on a boat to watch “these leviathans ‘making a living.’”


When it comes to crafting the right shot, framing is very important, says Safina. When you look through your viewfinder, think of its confines as a picture frame. You can always crop a photo, but often the best shots are framed correctly even before they’re taken. “Everything else you are aware of about your surroundings and the circumstances, the viewer will never see,” Safina says. So pay special attention to getting what you need in the frame and excluding the things that may distract your viewer.


Perhaps the most important secret to keep in mind is to respect the animals you’re photographing, Slattery says. Each type of animal has its own comfort level around humans. “Think about the ethics of each situation you’re in,” says Slattery. “If you could be harmed by getting close to an animal, or the animal could get stressed, stay far away and use a long magnifying lens.” It should go without saying, but no picture is worth harming an animal—or getting injured yourself.

Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London

Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.


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