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Small Wildlife

Larger wildlife we would normally photograph in its natural environment, while we can if we wish bring smaller wildlife inside. Other members of your family may however object to bringing in snakes, rats or the like into your home but a garage or shed can make a good studio for this type of creature.

Some items are not going to go anywhere very fast, for example snails, worms, spiders and most non flying  insects, and these you can work with on a  baseboard alone if you wish, while some other items that may escape you may be able to keep within a light cube, while faster moving items such as mice you may find a small aquarium allows you to retain them and also see them clearly.

A piece of rotting wood may be the home of a variety of wildlife and most of it is happy to stay with it even if transferred elsewhere, particularly if its dark, so a large black dustbin liner may be the ideal solution to move it.

The controlled environment

The small aquarium also has the benefit that you can create an environment that is suitable to show the creature and at the same time for you to be able to photograph it. This is the way that a lot of wildlife filming is done, often with some wild shots and some captive studio shots. One useful technique with this generally and when photographing fish in particular, is to use an additional piece of glass that slides down inside the aquarium keeping your subject nearer to the front while the background is visible through it. When used in water to photograph fish and other pond life, this extra sheet of glass is invisible, when used dry you have to be careful of reflections and light flare.

If you have no room lights, but have lights in the top of the aquarium you will often eliminate reflections, but you may find that you need a large sheet of black material with a hole in it that you can photograph through to overcome this. This also conceals you from the wildlife and its then more likely to act naturally. Another additional sheet of glass that tightly fits on top the aquarium under the lights may have two advantages, to stop anything climbing out and to support tracing or similar paper that will diffuse your light source. You may need a clip or weight to stop stronger items escaping.

If you propose to do a large amount of this type of photography you could create a special aquarium with some parts made of museum glass, this would be ideal being more clear and having hardly any reflection or flair. You may also find it beneficial to have a number of different sized aquariums, we have three.

With this type of controlled environment you can photograph most smaller items that are generally active, but I would suggest normally you don't keep any wild creature captive for long, its better to catch it, photograph it and return it to where you collected it.

Moth traps

A box put outside at night with a few egg cartons in it and a small light will collect moths. The strength of this light has to be proportional to other lights around, so in a town you may need quite a strong light, perhaps operating on a mains lead, while in the countryside and away from houses and lights a small LED torch or similar will produce all the light you need. The trap can be as simple as you like, or you can make something more complex with a sloping or funnel arrangement, so once inside they cannot get out as easy.

Another alternative is to tie a cord or washing line up or between tress and hang a white sheet on it pegged to the ground and shine a light onto this, and wait to see what arrives, in this case its not so much a trap as a means of seeing what lands and you can then capture those that you wish to photograph. You may also be able to photograph items with flash on the sheet without any capture being necessary.  Once you turn off the light you can then tap the sheet releasing everything that has visited you. Some like to use a fine net rather than a sheet but this may trap bats and you may find items you want to release or photograph are getting very tangled in the net.

Butterflies in the fridge

Butterflies are cold blooded, so in the morning they sit on plants and vibrate a little while they warm up before they can fly. If you were to net a butterfly and put it into a fridge or cool box, to cool it down, then it would not fly until it had warmed up again. They are only small and cool quickly, so we are not here talking about freezing them or harming them, just putting them through the equivalent of a short night, cooling them just enough that they don't fly off for a few minutes. If you use a cool box or a car fridge, running on a battery, then its probably only about 15 minutes cooling and then they can be photographed, you've then probably got around 10 to 15 minutes to photograph it before it flies off unharmed. The actual times will depend on the day, how cold your cool box or fridge is and how warm the sun is in reheating them. If you have ice or cold blocks in a cool box them keep them well clear of these, your intention is to cool them at a slow rate. Its better to do this on site rather than taking them home and then releasing them in your area as many have specific plants they need and you may not have the right ones near to your home. You are far more likely to harm them by netting and keeping them than by cooling them, but don't expect everyone to understand that this is the equivalent of a natural cycle they go though every day. Of course if you are up to it, an early start and photographing them naturally in the countryside is far better.

Everything has a personality

You know people have different personalities, horses, dogs and cats can be quite different, but you may not realise this also applies to all creatures. One bird of a wild breed will make friends with you quickly while its mate is nervously moving around well out of range, one young rabbit or squirrel may allow you to touch it quite quickly while others may never get the confidence to come this close. Even down to bugs and creepy crawlies they all act individually, one snail for example will very quickly realise you are no threat to it and  come out of its shell and climb on your hand confidently while others go back into its shell and takes ages to come out again. Generally larger more developed creatures take longer to become confident, so a deer may be difficulty to approach for a very long time, while a squirrel will come close quite quickly, it may take several weeks to gain the confidence of badgers to be about when you are, but game birds can be around your feet in a few days, a snail will go into its shell when you first get near it, but after being around it and handling it for a couple of hours its happy to climb all over your hands and is as curious of you as you are of it. Young creatures very quickly take you as it companion, so if you go into a field and catch a small lamb, make a fuss of it for a few minutes and then let it go it follows you around, and wont usually return to its mother, although the mother is usually calling, if you run it tries to keep up with you, and the only way to get rid of it is to run around the other side of its mother, and as its goes past her it realises its where it should be and stops. Providing you then leave it does not follow you any more.

If you take all creatures as having two personalities that of the creature or animal type and the individuality of the individual creature you will start to see the differences. Only people and household cats set out with the objective of harming other creatures for no reason, other creatures generally only catch items to eat or defend itself.  As none of the small animals we are looking at here are going to consider you for lunch, the only reason you might come to any harm is if the creature feels threatened. I don't play with wasps, but just about any other bug or small creature I would feel confident to photograph, the only small creature to have ever bit me was a wild mouse, and that was my own fault I thought I was picking up one that I had handled before and it was a different one.

The project approach

A good away to start with small UK creatures is to take on a small project, and by this means get to see what you can do.

You could start with anything, a frog or toad, some grasshoppers, but we have come up with a project that we feel is a good starting project for small wildlife photography.

Can we suggest you have a go at photographing several garden snails.  They are easy to find, never aggressive and are easy to work with. You will also find they are far more interesting than you first imagine. They are not threatened, are everywhere, yet few have ever looked at them up close. The reason we have chosen them for this project is simply that they are interesting and move slowly.

You don't need all the kit we have, and your solution to this project will be different to ours.

Some tips
  • Snails can be easily found in most, if not all, gardens and parks etc. Look in damp places, and under plants. Gardeners consider them a pest so they will help you find some if you ask, but perhaps not want you to take them back.
  • Snail shells, like rocks, show their colours best when wet, and as snails like wet places if you run a tap over them for a few seconds they tend to wake up and when put down they fairly quickly become active.
  • They are inclined to hitch a lift,  so as one moves off others will try to climb onto it and save the effort of moving themselves. You may find that if you have several different sized snails you get three high on the move.
  • To start with every time you move them they go back in their shells and you may have a short wait while they come out again, after a bit they will become more confident and won't hide away at all.
  • They can climb up vertical surfaces, card, glass, anything just about, will go off and under. Their grip on a piece of card can be far tighter then you expect. They however sometimes do lose their grip and topple over. So have a bit of carpet or similar they will land on if you are allowing them off the edge of the card.

Think about your approach and have a go, then take a look at our solution. If you are not happy with your results have another go. Your solution is likely to be different to ours and the activity of your snails is likely to be different to the ones we used.

Our snail project article on this also has links to other information on snails.


By: Keith Park Section: Key:

Page Ref: small_wildlife

Topic: Wildlife Last Updated: 04/2011

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