How to Shoot Animals Like a Pro (With Your Camera)
Professional photographer Dwayne Hicks, of CarsonValleyTours.com and DwaynesWorld.com, has an uncanny knack for shooting wildlife with his camera lens. It’s as if they know him and want to pose for the shots. Maybe it’s the way he captures their attention by singing or maybe it’s his experience in ignoring them until they get curious. And he guarantees us that educated guessing and a lot of luck is a big part of his success! We asked him how a newbie can get started with photography in the valley, and he offered us some of his tricks. Read on for the first-hand lowdown on how to jump start your animal and scenic photography in Carson Valley. If you want hands-on lessons and photography tutoring contact him directly.
Rule #1: Under no circumstances should you ever trespass on private property, even to simply duck under a fence to get just a little bit closer. Some of the locations listed here require you to pull over to the side of the road, and take advantage of the wide-open fields, but those fields belong to someone so please respect the owners. This is for your safety and the safety of the wildlife. Please be sure to park well off the road for your safety and the safety of the cars driving on the road.
Now that we have that out of the way let’s get to the fun part.
Dangberg Home Ranch Historic Park
This historic home site has it all: open fields, Gertrude’s flower garden, trees with hawks and owls, views, really cool looking outbuildings, and a boneyard of ranching equipment. The park is surrounded by a private cattle ranch so you may even be lucky enough to see actual cowboys at work.
Centerville and State Route 88.
This location is the hands-down best place in the valley to catch eagles, especially when the cow herds are calving. The eagles swoop in to eat the afterbirth of the cows, often fending off other wildlife that plan to dine on the limited delicacy. When you park on Centerville you have fields on both sides offering different habitat for your photographic pleasure. On one side you have trees for the eagles to perch in and on the other you have cattle.
Mottsville Lane and Foothill Road
Half a mile east of Foothill on Mottsville is a wide spot where you pull over to the side of the road. This location is along the Carson River tributary, so you go over a small bridge to the water gathering to shoot the mountains reflecting off the water. This spot is amazing at all times of day, but as you can imagine sunsets are particularly stunning. Your wide-angle lens will be perfect here, as you can see all the way to the south end of the valley.
The first ranch in the valley, aptly named Ranch #1, allows for long range views both to the north and south. Pull over just before the bridge for the wide-open fields, and keep an eye out for wildlife.
Muller Lane and Foothill Road.
As you head west on Muller Ln., turn right onto Foothill Rd. and pull over to the side of the road across from the historic Van Sickle Station Ranch. The ranch is privately owned, and available as a boutique-style inn.
Across the field towards the east where the water gathers and reeds abound, you’ll find large waterfowl such as colorful sandhill cranes, wary great blue herons, graceful wild swans, flocks of white american pelicans, a wide variety of ducks and geese and beautiful snowy egrets. Being a water source, you may even spot a bobcat, and predator birds like owls and hawks.
On the other side of the field accessible via Muller lane and Genoa Lane is the Nature Conservancy’s East Fork Ranch. Open to the public, the trails are flat and easy to navigate winding along the Carson River with ample opportunities to snap shots of critters framed by the mountains. Here you will find water fowl, eagles, as well as turtles, frogs and ducks.
Tips for Wildlife Photography
As you’re driving along and scoping out a great spot, here is the best tip to avoid scaring off the wildlife:
Don’t stop right by the animal. Keep driving for at least a quarter mile, then safely turn around. On your return approach begin to slow down well before you anticipate parking so that your final approach is a slow one.
Whenever possible, if the animals are close to the road, stay in your vehicle. The animals will scare off if you exit the vehicle (Dwayne swears it’s when they see your legs). Be sure to keep your motion minimal.
Avoid eye contact with the wildlife. Photograph them, then drop your camera and look around as if you could care less. Then shoot again, and repeat. Try to be sneaky, but know they are noticing everything you do.
Don’t be greedy, get your shots and then move on. If an animal gets nervous about a certain location it could drive them away permanently. You will only get so many poses, and the rest is wasted space on your camera. By moving on you also provide a chance for the next photographer, which sometimes may be you.
Always be mindful that these are wild animals. They are cute and majestic, and afraid of humans. Keep a safe distance and listen to your gut.
For safety, when you spot an animal from your car remember you are still in your car and there are probably others who have seen them as well. Remain aware of your surroundings, and don’t solely focus on the animal.
When shooting wildlife, you want a larger lens, something along the lines of a 300mm since you could be shooting them from a distance.
For landscape shooting you want a macro lens around 50mm for close ups, and a wide-angle lens, something like a 17-40mm.
Always bring an extra memory chip.
No fancy camera gear? No problem. You can still get some breathtaking shots with your cell phone.
In the summer, don’t overburden yourself with extra gear. Pack light and remember to bring a first aid kit, water, and snacks as time can get away from you.
During the winter always bring gloves, and to avoid frostbite wear a beanie and bring hand warmers. Dress in layers you can shed as it gets warmer, and add back as the mercury drops.
Temperatures can drop in minutes. Sunglasses are a must during winter, especially when there is snow reflecting the light.
Binoculars are helpful any time of year.
Wear sturdy pants to avoid snags and tears from the aggressive foliage.
Have sturdy footwear to cover ankles, and bring a hat, sunglass, sunscreen and a lightweight tripod.
Pro tip: Just because the sun goes down doesn’t mean you’re shoot is over. Due to the low light pollution, there is night shooting all over the valley, even of the Milky Way.
Whatever form your photography takes, get outside, have fun and be safe. Settle in for a while with the wildlife and you’ll surely catch a moment you didn’t even realize was on your bucket list.