How To: Get Up Close With Small Wild Animals

Some of nature's smallest creatures are extremely photogenic.

Make The Small Loom Large

It's the smaller species-insects, amphibians, reptiles-that often slip through the conservation cracks, their decline or disappearance unnoticed. These creatures depend on the preservation of their habitats for survival. That's why I focus my photography on an animal's connection to the landscape-I think of it as telling habitat stories.

For photographers, this approach has the added bonus of a dynamic, almost three-dimensional, look to the images. Here are my tips for making them happen.

Use the right tools For this type of photography, camera system or sensor size is less important than lens selection. Habitat stories are best told with wide-angle lenses, between 16mm and 35mm (full-frame equivalent) that have close-focusing distances of 10 inches or less. My favorites for DSLRs with APS-CPP sized sensors are Sigma's 10-20mm f/4.5-5.6 (close-focusing distance, 9.4 inches) and 17-70mm f/2.8-4.5 (AF to 7.9 inches, manual to 6 inches).

Full-field fisheye lenses are also good tools, despite their severe distortion, as they often focus to less than 6 inches. Subjects and straight lines in the center of the frame often appear normal, while outer areas of the frame progressively more distorted- suggesting the roundness of the earth.

To depict the relationship between really small wildlife (such as tiny invertebrates) and their habitats, I prefer compact cameras. Why? Many have optical image stabilization, which allows for sharp handheld photographs at marginal shutter speeds. More important, they often focus to just an inch or so from the front of the lens.

Two models that I favor: Canon's PowerShot G9 and Panasonic's Lumix DMC-LX3, both of which record images in RAW format. The LX3 also has the ability to focus off-center subjects by using a joystick to select the focus point anywhere on the screen, so you don't need to prefocus and recompose. It also lets you switch the image's aspect ratio among 16:9, 3:2, and 4:3, while maintaining the same angle of view. I chiefly use 4:3 for verticals (I find 3:2 too narrow), and the wider 16:9 to emphasize the sweep of terrain for horizontals.

Get Down And Dirty

Photographs looking down on small ground-dwelling wildlife are usually just plain boring: They lack intimacy and show no connection with the animal. So be prepared to get your stomach, knees, and elbows dirty, because the most important rule here is to be eye-level with the animal.

For small species, this usually involves lying on the ground, often handholding the camera. I use a tripod when possible, but only if it can lie flush with or close to the ground. I use the very short and light Really Right Stuff BH-25 ballhead ($90, direct; I place my ballhead platform on its side and attach a Kirk Enterprises L-bracket (starting at $80, direct; in the horizontal position to get even closer to the ground.

Move In Close

Don't waste your time exploring for rare species-they're precisely the ones you're not likely to find. Look instead for common ones. Think local: You can find them in your backyard, city park, or even a parking lot.

The best times to shoot are just after sunrise or before sunset. The lighting is warmer, but the air is cooler, so cold-blooded animals are more sluggish and less alert. The best season? The transition of late winter into early spring, when animals emerge from hibernation ready to breed. You can usually get really close to males, who have one thing on their mind (breeding) and are less concerned with predators or photographers-in summer, they're more alert to danger. Females often are hard to approach any time of year.

You can get quite close to small animals if you approach slowly. We are on an entirely different spatial scale than these creatures and don't share a predator/prey evolutionary history. For instance, you may get within a few inches of some desert lizards, but if there is a faint black dot in the sky that represents a bird of prey, the lizard may well disappear as fast as if the bird were within a foot of it.

When I'm walking, the heel of my advancing foot goes no farther than the toes of the other foot. Many small animals will not skitter away if you crawl rather than walk, so I may start crawling from 20 feet away, scooting my tripod (when I use one) ahead of me on the ground.

This type of photography is not safe with venomous snakes-you will be within striking distance-but most nonvenomous ones will simply flee. And keep in mind that when you are very close to small animals, especially in a desert, they may move toward or even underneath you, viewing the large object near them as cover. A scorpion once ran underneath me, and for a few seconds, I had no idea where it was-unnerving, to say the least.

Compose For Depth

The point of shooting up close with a wide-angle lens is to achieve a strong foreground/background composition that shows a species' place in the greater landscape. You create an exaggerated, larger-thanlife, 3D-like perspective at minimum focusing distance, since objects in the foreground appear larger than life in relation to the background.

Compose with the animal offcenter, ideally in a corner, and taking up at least a third of the frame. The background should be the habitat of importance, such as a forested wetland, mountain peak, or stream.

I often set the aperture to f/5.6, which provides a balance between a sharply rendered subject and defocused background that doesn't steal attention, yet reads as habitat.

I try to maintain a shutter speed fast enough to minimize vibration while handholding; 1/30 sec is about as slow as I go before using a tripod. Considering how little digital noise today's DSLRs produce, I don't hesitate to use ISO 800 or even 1600. If the composition is striking, grain or noise concerns are secondary.

Keep At It

Don't get discouraged. This type of photography consists mostly of unsuccessful attempts-about 90 percent. Wildlife often flees before you can get close. And a compact camera may be unable to focus on an insect against a low-contrast background.

Your success, paradoxically, may depend on how you spend your time away from the camera. Learn about wildlife and their habitats. Join a local conservation group or read up on the species struggling to survive in an area near you. Take hikes. Imagine yourself as a child, looking for small creatures hiding in the leaf litter, under rocks, or on a wetland's edge. A whole new world has opened up to me since I started looking for insects and flowers to photograph during neighborhood walks with my child.

I find myself previsualizing compositions that tell a larger story and show the interaction between wildlife and their habitats. This can help you create images when you chance upon a creature in the field.

Omar Attum is a professor of conservation biology at Indiana University Southeast, as well as a freelance photographer who travels between Louisville, KY, and the Middle East. A Blue Earth Alliance Photography fellow, he has been published in National Geographic and Wildlife Conservation.