10 Steps to Taking Wildlife Photos From the Car

Spring is just around the corner and my urge as a passionate nature photographer, is to jump in my car and drive to the nearest national or provincial park and take photos of  wildlife as they emerge from the cold slumber of winter. I get a real kick out of observing wildlife in their natural habitat and I do need to practice some important strategies if I want to capture those perfect wildlife photos from the driver’s seat of my car.

So I thought I would share with you how to take wildlife photos from the car to get those perfect shots.  So let’s get right to it.

Step 1 – Have the Right Lens

Shooting from your car, in most cases, means that you’ll be pretty far from the wildlife. So if you can’t get close, make sure you have a lens that can bring you closer to the action. I use my trusty Nikkor 80-400mm VR. I would suggest at least a 300mm lens or else you might be disappointed with your range. And now with both full frame and cropped frame bodies, I would strongly recommend using a cropped frame camera to give you that extra reach. My 80-400mm gives me 600mm of reach on my D300s body.

Step 2 – Stabilize Your Lens

Bring a soft surface to put on your rolled down window. I have a small DIY sand bag about the size of my hand that I place door window’s edge” this does 2 things, it prevents the lens from scratches  and also gives you stability. You can simply use a Ziplock bag filled with dirt or even an old shirt or towel. If you want to go all out and can afford it, have a look at the Groofwin Pod.

Step 3 –  Bring Some Human Food

Bring a lunch or some snacks. This may seem basic enough but it has happened to me before being at Omega Park and my stomach just wouldn’t stop growling out of shear hunger frustration. This can get annoying and makes for a less enjoyable photography experience. Not to mention scare the animals away! 😉

Step 4 – Bring some Animal Food

Bring some food for the animals. Verify first with the park to see if you’re allowed to feed the animals. Some smaller private parks or animal watching areas will allow it but most government run parks won’t.

Step 5 – Check the weather

Sounds basic enough but we can’t always wait for that perfect weather day. It might get cold or even worse, start raining so bring some warm and dry clothes. It can get chilly in the Spring or Fall with your window down so check the Park’s weather and dress accordingly. Shooting through your car window is not a pleasant experience but it might be your only option if the weather gets to nasty. If so don’t forget the Windex! 🙂

Step 6 – Rent a Hybrid Vehicle

If you’re away from home on vacation and you’re renting a vehicle, try getting your hands on a hybrid like the Toyota Prius. Why, you might ask? Because when you’re driving slowly, the car runs on the battery without any sound or vibrations to scare the animals away.

Step 7 – Find the perfect Spots to Shoot

In most parks, animal activity is generally in specific locations. Check out geo-tagged images on Flickr or other photo sites and note them down on your smart phone or the ancient pen and paper option. 😉 You can also ask park staff and they might know where some of the rarer animals have recently been spotted.

Step 8 – The Stakeout

I can guaranty you that your best shots won’t be just by slowly driving by, stopping a few minutes to shoot that dear or heron then moving on. Trust me on that! If you want to capture wildlife behavior like birds fishing, you’ll need to be part of the environment. Be one with nature Grasshopper. The trick is to stop the car, turn off the motor, set up your gear and wait patiently. Try not to move too much inside the car either. Let the car become part of the environment like a rock. This is when the magic will happen. I remember staying over an hour in one spot.

Step 9 – Zoom In

Zoom in as much as you can. Try to fill the frame with your subject to eliminate background distractions. Zooming in and setting your aperture to a low number (f2.8 or f4) will create a nice soft bokeh thus keeping your subject in focus with a blurred background.

Step 10 – Composition

One of the reasons why we go to a park is to capture animals in their natural habitat. In many parks you’ll be faced with the challenge of  dealing with non-natural things like picnic tables, other cars, roads, fences, etc… So once you’ve found your spot, take the time to scout around it and find the perfect angle to get a natural background for your shots. You might not always be able to but it still makes for a good exercise that will because instinct after a while.

So there you have it! How to take wildlife photos from your car in 10 easy steps. I invite you to share your tips and photos links in the comments below.

If you enjoyed this “Steps” article, you can check out all the other “Steps” articles right here!

8 responses on "10 Steps to Taking Wildlife Photos From the Car"

  1. now i’m the third d time here to read the rest of your articles 🙂
    thanx !

  2. thank you very much for those intereting pictures! i wish i’d live somewhere out there and not in good ol germany 😉

  3. thnk you very much for that great pictures, i wish i would live somwehere out there 🙂 and not in good ol germany 😉

  4. Thanks for the useful info and very good animal photos.
    I did not think that one can make such good photos of the car!

    Thank you for this!

    euGen e. mesow

  5. I love the photo in step 7 that looks like it was taken in the Canadian Rockies!

  6. I have an added step for you. Get there EARLY before the regular tourists show up. I try to get to a nearby wildlife refugee right at dawn when they open up the wildlife road which goes around the water pools. You see a lot of wildlife activity at that time. Later the road gets filled with cars. People get out (even though they are not supposed to). It gets noisy and most of the interesting wildlife moves far away from the road.

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