Glacier National Park

A mountain goat strikes a pose at a dramatic setting at Glacier National Park. Robert Millage likens wildlife photography to hunting with a camera.

Robert Millage Photography

I’ve always been an avid hunter, no matter what the season or the quarry.

In my pursuits, like most hunters, I’d encounter wildlife I didn’t have a tag for. I started packing a camera to capture these encounters to share with others and for my own enjoyment.

I started out with a simple point-and-shoot camera, but was never satisfied with the image quality, so eventually I bought my first SLR (single-lens reflex) and have added new lenses over the years to increase the level of image quality I could obtain.

Eventually I found myself going out and chasing wildlife with just my camera. While you can’t fill your freezer with a camera, you can hunt pretty much any species, anywhere and anytime. Photography also helped me expand my area of hunting and exploring, taking advantage of the wild and beautiful places all over the West.

We live in a great area, with wild places right out our doorstep, but we also are in an amazing central location only hours away from places like Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. The Pacific Ocean, Rockies of Canada and deserts of the Southwest are only a day or so away by vehicle. For anyone who catches the wildlife photography bug, it’s hard to beat living where we do.

I believe being a hunter first gave me an edge over other wildlife photographers. The knowledge passed down to me when I was young, along with knowledge learned while hunting by myself, translated directly into being able to locate wildlife and capture it on film. The same tracking, knowledge of habitat, patterns of different game species and spotting ability translates directly into wildlife photography. The hunter’s ability to get out of bed hours before daylight, tolerate less-than-ideal weather and sit in silence longer than the average tourist has led to some of my best photos.

The national parks can be less-than-peaceful when packed with tourists, but I’ve found that you will pretty much have them to yourself for the first few hours of daylight and at the end of the day—most tourists are only out and about between breakfast and dinner. I feel bad for those who travel a long distance to these places and then miss out on the most scenic times of day when the majority of wildlife is out and about.

If any of you are wanting to get more serious about wildlife photography or are just starting out, here are a few tips to help get you on your way.

Camera equipment is expensive—start out with what you can afford, an entry SLR and then add lenses as you can afford them. Camera glass is like hunting optics—you get what you pay for, and for clear bright images you are going to pay a lot. Your lenses are as important, if not more important, than the camera itself. One way I paid for my equipment was by taking on some work shooting weddings, senior photos, family photos, etc. Use the equipment you have to help pay for what you want to have.

Ask the locals—When you travel, talk to the gas station attendants, the park rangers, the waitress in the restaurants. Tell them you are on a trip doing wildlife photography and ask if they know of any great places to see game. I’ve found a vast majority of my favorite shooting locations doing just that. The same goes for having a large social media network. I’ve had facebook friends hundreds of miles away send me tips on individual animals I then found and photographed.

Be out early and stay late—Daylight and dusk are the magic hours for lighting for landscape photographers, but also the magic hours when most wildlife is out and most other people are not.

Glass, glass, glass—Just as you would when hunting, stop and glass often. Use your binoculars and spotting scopes to see what everyone else misses while flying by, looking out a car window.

Patience wins—The best wildlife photos are of animals acting natural and not running away from you. Try not to pressure animals to where you become the focus of their attention. Often, instead of going to where the animal currently is, I try and figure out where it’s going, go there, set up and let it come to me. The stalking and stealth skills a person learns as a hunter completely translate to wildlife photography.

Composition—When you’ve located wildlife, always remember that the setting around the subject is as important as the subject itself. Proper framing of trees, mountains and other background objects with your subject can be the difference between just another shot and something frame-worthy. In most of your shots, you will never want the subject centered in the frame; instead, offset it to one side, with the rest of the image going in front of the subject. Focus on the eyes. Like in most portrait photos, the subject’s eyes need to be the sharpest and most focused part of your image.

For more tips and advice, always feel free to contact me, and I will help you out as I can. Wildlife photography is another way to enjoy time in the great outdoors, and you may find your added time spent photographing wildlife also will make you a better hunter when you have tags to fill.

Robert Millage is an avid outdoorsman from Kamiah who enjoys adventures with his two sons.

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