If you didn’t learn a thing in school, you probably at least learned that doing your homework, or studying, DID in fact help for before your exams. When it comes to wildlife photography, it’s the same way. Every time you step outside in search of animals to photograph, whether those animals are in the woodlot behind your house, or Grand Tetons National park, you are in a since, taking that big test.
If you don’t know the answers to the questions on a test, you fail. If you only sort of kind of understand the subject, your grade reflects that. It’s no different with photography. If you do not know your subject and cannot find what you are looking to photograph – you failed. If you only sort of kind of know about your subject, you may get lucky with a good shot here or there, like a question answered right from time to time, but the results will pale in comparison to actually knowing what you’re doing.
Me, I kind of designed my college education around the idea that I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I grew up, but also knew that I couldn’t major in it. I knew I wanted to be a wildlife photographer and nature writer. Heck, I was publishing articles on natural history back in college. So for this reason, I double majored in both biology and environmental history.
I would argue that the biology degree, despite what you might think, only really lets me use big words. The history degree was the truly useful pursuit because the basis to a degree in this field is the ability to research, comprehend, and write about it. This is why history majors have an easier time getting jobs with big companies than those with degrees in business. Likewise, this meant that my brain was already wired for researching and studying my subject of interest.
As Sun Tzu explains in the classic Art of War, know thy enemy and know thyself, and you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles. Meaning, if you know your enemy and know your own capabilities, not in a hundred battles can you be defeated.
So what does any of this have to do with wildlife photography? You have to truly understand your subject and your own abilities to be able to achieve your goals.
This is a two part equation. Most photographers simply work on the selfish aspect of this equation in that they only study the technical side of photography and work on their own skills. To be victorious however, according to Sun Tzu, there is another part of that equation and you must know your enemy (or that which you desire) – be it an enemy in battle, your business competition, a company you wish to work for, a magazine you wish to write for, or a wildlife subject you wish to find and photograph. There is a reason that the Art of War can be found in the history, business, and philosophy sections of many bookstores. . .
It is the lack of knowledge of subject that has the greatest potential to hold you back as a wildlife photographer. Hunters have figured this out a long time ago. They cannot aimlessly drive around national park roads in search of their prey. Hunters, to be successful, must know their prey, understand what drives them, what they feed upon, what motivates them on a daily basis, what habitat they prefer at given times of the day and at given times of the year. Hunters in pursuit of trophy or meat have long since understand how that Sun Tzu’s ancient text applied to their endeavors.
To be a successful wildlife photographer, you must be like these hunters, and you possess knowledge of that which you pursue.
Here is my suggestion of resources that ALL wildlife photographers in North American should own. This is the VERY short list. These are general overviews of species but will give you the information that you need to digest in order to follow the advice of Sun Tzu.
1. Peterson’s Reference Guide to the Behavior of North American Mammals. This is the bible. I have a copy that lives in my vehicle. I have another copy that lives in my office. I buy copies and give them away as gifts to other photographers. Own this. This is the single most use full book I have ever seen on the behavior and therefore understanding the ecology and natural history of mammals in North America. There are many books that cover similar topics as this one, but for a general overview of all the major species, this is the go to reference. http://www.amazon.com/Peterson-Reference-Behavior-American-Mammals/dp/0618883452
2. The Lives of North American Birds, by Ken Kaufman. For those of you interested in bird photography, this is the avian bible. Much like the Peterson’s guide to Behavior, this is one of the best go to references around. http://www.amazon.com/Lives-North-American-Birds-Kaufman/dp/0618159886/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1379176287&sr=1-1&keywords=lives+of+north+american+birds
3. The Birds of North America Online. http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/ This is the well spring of knowledge on birds in North America. Much like Ken Kaufman’s book, this has an in depth treatment for each and every species in North America. The difference is, this is maintained by Cornell University which is the epicenter of bird study, and is constantly being updated with new information and research and our understanding of birds grows annually.
These three resources are the best starting points I know of. However, this is just the beginning! Reading is one thing. In part 3 of this series, we will talk about putting this all into practice. . .
To be continued