This summer I’ve been a bit obsessed with photographing animals. First of all I think the animals found around Iceland are adorable but another reason is that I simply don’t have enough human models willing to pose for me. I’m trying to get better at photography, you see, and for that apparently practice is the best method. The boyfriend and the princess put on a silent protest earlier this summer which was my cue go out and seek greener pastures (quite literally since most of the animals are found somewhere out in nature).
The animals of Iceland
Let me tell you a little bit about the animals that can be easily found in Iceland. First of all we have birds, puffins being the queen bees of the tourist snaps, but I find them hard to photograph because they don’t care much for us humans and I don’t have a good zoom lens. In certain areas though the puffins are quite social and don’t mind posing in close proximity to you. Secondly you will find sheep, horses and cows all over the place and they are pretty compliant if you approach them in the right way. Another popular animal to photograph is the whale but they spend most of their time below sea level so you have to a) find them and b) be ready with your camera at the right moment when they finally make an appearance. Seals on the other hand are curious about people and don’t mind the camera at all. If you are really lucky and you are traveling in the right areas you might also find reindeer and arctic foxes
Photographing animals in Iceland
First of all, it’s important to bear in mind that the animals are living creatures and they deserve being treated with respect. These are mostly domesticated animals so they are not strangers to humans but you are not the human they are used to. They are particularly wary around people when they have their young ones around , especially the sheep.
Photographing sheep can be a tricky thing to do. I take most of my photos on a 50mm prime lens (on a crop sensor) which means that if I want to get a good photo of a smaller subject I have to get relatively close while I have to go pretty far away if I want to capture landscape. This is not ideal but lenses are expensive and this is all I have to work with at the moment. The tricky part is getting close to the animal.
On the photo above I walked towards the sheep until I noticed that it was starting to follow my movements. This was a mama sheep with one lamb and I didn’t want to disturb her too much but the surroundings were too beautiful not to attempt a photo. Once I got close enough that it was making little mama here uncomfortable I stopped, sat down and waited a while. That seemed to calm her. Then I crawled slowly, a short distance at a time, so I wouldn’t spook them. After I go close enough I waited a long while before they stood up and became something more than a white pile on the ground. All in all it took me 45 minutes or so to get this photo (and more obviously) and I never would have got it without some time and patience. Well, either that or a fancy zoom lens.
Horses are a bit easier to photograph I find but it depends on the season. In summer when they have enough grass around they don’t really care much about you but in winter when there’s less grass there’s a good possibility that you have some bread in your pocket so you are definitely worth checking out. If you don’t have bread they might make do with some scratching and patting.
In my experience (which, mind you, is limited) mares with foals are more easily spooked than a normal flock of horses. Therefore you have to approach them with more caution. Even in winter and in the absence of foals it can take a while to convince the horses to approach you and sometimes they just can’t be bothered.
Cows are not quite as common as the horses and the sheep and are usually kept close to the farms since they need to be milked two times a day. They are therefore maybe a bit more difficult to approach without angering their owners. However, once you get close to them they take a good time checking you out which gives you time to snap their photos.
A good general rule, no matter what kind of animal you are trying to photograph, is to approach them slowly with care and not make a lot of loud noises. Put yourself in their shoes and think about how you would feel if a lot of loud strangers would come charging towards you.
Strange as it sounds this interaction with the animals, trying to earn their trust or at least not getting them frightened, is what I enjoy most about photographing them.
Finally I want to mention a small annoyance to keep in mind. This summer it has happened more than once that I’ve spent all the time and effort described above to woo these animals over when a group of tourists has pulled up in their rental car and stormed towards me and the animals with their iPhones. A sheep may not be threatened by one human cautiously approaching it but a group, a running car and a lot of noise will for sure make it run. Which is what usually happens and then all we are left with is a frustrated photographer (me), bad photos of animals fleeing and and a few startled creatures. Not to mention the boyfriend’s bleeding ears when I come home and complain about the thoughtlessness.
So next time you see someone taking photos of animals by the road and you think you’d like to take photos of the same animals – wait your turn. Or just drive 5 minutes more and stop by the next place. Because there’s always a next place.