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Wildlife Photography for Beginners: Urban Wildlife

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

Hello all! I know it has been a hot minute since I have posted a blog, and I am sorry about that. Honestly, I have been trying to figure out this whole blogging thing. I never pictured myself as a blogger, so I didn't know which direction I wanted to take mine. Did I want to stick with only wildlife photography, do some on painting, or even some on my journey to relearn Adobe Illustrator? Basically, I froze at the options. After further research and reaching out to experienced art bloggers, I have decided to focus solely on wildlife photography for the time being. That brings us to today's topic: Urban Wildlife Photography.

I currently reside in Phoenix, which is the fifth largest city in the United States. Some people may think large cities aren't optimal locations for wildlife photography, but you would be surprised.

A. Getting the Opportunity

The key word here is research. The most important step in wildlife photography is research. When I first started shooting wildlife, my research only consisted of finding a nature spot nearby. That gave me very little control over photographing specific wildlife. Basically, I never knew what, if any, wildlife I would see. There were times I didn't see any wildlife when I would venture out to shoot. I quickly realized I needed to change my tactic.

Before you shoot, you need to know what wildlife is present at your chosen location, as well as the best time of year and day to see them. Without that information, you are just wasting your time.

So, how do you start your research when attempting to photograph wildlife in an urban setting? One word: Water. Where there is water, there is wildlife. In a city that usually means ponds, canals, small lakes, and sometimes rivers. When I moved to Phoenix, I Googled, "Ponds near me", to get started. You should make a list of the bodies of water near you, then research the wildlife at each one. For example, my list includes a small park with a pond called Selleh Park. I Googled, "Selleh Park Wildlife". That basic search informed me that, at the very least, the pond has ducks and turtles.

As a lover of sky dinosaurs and reptiles, this made me excited! Since I already know the best times of day to photograph birds are early morning and the hour before sunset, I didn't need to Google that information. Thanks nature documentaries! However, if you do not already know that information off the top of your head, please research it before shooting.

Now that you have a location, time of day, and potential wildlife I am ready to photograph, right? Not quite yet. You want to scout the location first. That means you visit the location just for observational purposes, ie leave your camera at home. I like to observe for at least one to two hours. I take note of all the wildlife I see and the times I see them. I also observe the behavior of the wildlife. What times are they most active? How do they move? Are they hunting/eating, and at what time? Do they favor specific areas of the location? You don't just scout a location once, you want to visit multiple times. I like to scout my locations throughout the year. Due to migration, there may be some wildlife that is only present during certain months of the year. Recurrent scouting is always beneficial.

Let's take a moment to check where you are in terms of preparation:

#1: Researched locations (check)

#2: Scouted locations (check)

#3: Know which wildlife is present at each location (check)

You are almost ready to shoot, but I like to add one more step to my research. My final preparation step is to research the breeding seasons of the wildlife at my chosen location. I do this for two reasons. The first is to avoid any negative interactions between myself and the wildlife. Animals are always more on-guard and defensive when there are young to protect, which is completely justified. While my goal is to always respect wildlife, it is especially important during birthing seasons. The second reason is because I want to photograph the babies! The mallard ducks at Selleh Park breed during the spring, usually in March and April. When I visit during those months, I make sure to keep my eyes peeled for nests and babies. This past spring there were two broods with a total of about twenty-five ducklings! Since ducklings grow quickly, I visit Selleh Park multiple times per week during birthing season.

B. At Your Location

Now that you have researched and scouted your location, you are ready to photograph! I like to spend a few hours at my chosen location each time I shoot. Based on your research, you should have a good idea about where you want to post up. I usually choose two spots and split my time between them. So I'll spend an hour or two at one spot, then an hour or two at the other. You do not want to be chasing the wildlife. You want to stay in one area for at least an hour to let the wildlife come to you. Staying relatively still in one area lets the wildlife know that you are not a threat. If they don't see you as a threat, they are more likely to just do their thing around you. This allows you to get more and closer photographs than you would by walking around.

C. Camera, Lenses, and Settings

This information is pretty much the same for every outing for me.

Camera Body: Canon 7d

Lenses: 55-250 mm f/4-5.6

Settings: Manual and Back Button Focus

Please refer to one of my earlier blog posts for more details: sea lions and dolphins.

D. Getting the Shot

As I stated in my sea lions blog, it is best to be as low as possible when shooting wildlife. Sitting, kneeling, or lying on your stomach are your best options. However, your surroundings may not allow you to achieve some of these positions, especially in an urban setting. Please use your best judgment. At Selleh Park I cannot lay on my stomach. There is not enough space between the pond and the sidewalk to do so. I instead sit and bend as low as I can comfortably go. If I were to lay on my stomach, everything from my knees down would be resting on the sidewalk. This would interfere with the plethora of people who walk there, as it is a very popular neighborhood park.

Where I choose to sit is usually dictated by the position of the sun. I always want the sun behind me so I don't have to fight with glare. In the mornings I sit on the east side of the pond, and in the evenings I sit on the west side. Having the sun behind you also illuminates your subject and makes them the focal point, as seen here. This female duck is clearly the star of this photograph!

E. Don't Get Discouraged

You have been at your chosen location for an hour and have seen no wildlife. You start doubting all of the time spent researching and scouting. You are getting increasingly frustrated. Please do not let this one experience discourage you! While your planning gives you the most control possible, you will never have full control when it comes to photographing wildlife. Some days, for whatever reason, they just aren't where they normally are. There is absolutely nothing you can do about it. You cannot control the wildlife themselves. I promise you it won't happen every single time you venture out to shoot. Instead of getting frustrated, use it as an opportunity to photograph the plant life and/or insects.

I had this exact experience a few weeks ago at Selleh Park. The ducks were scattered around the outskirts of the park, the turtles were napping, and I saw no other wildlife. I decided to use my time testing out my new macro extension tubes on the plant life and insects. It wasn't my plan, but I really enjoyed experimenting with my new equipment!

I hope this blog has been informative and helpful!

Please check out the rest of my website for more of my photography and paintings.

Don't leave without browsing through my shop! All of the wildlife and landscape photographs are available for purchase, as are some already made paintings and wood cutouts. I am also available for commissions if you want a specific painting. They make fantastic presents!

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