photographed by Steve Shaluta

Veteran photographers offer advice on getting good wildlife shots.

To the uninitiated, photography is photography. But anyone who has dabbled in the art form knows portraiture is nearly as different from landscape photography as watercolors are from oil pastels.

Wildlife photography also requires its own specialized skills. So we picked the brains of three accomplished wildlife photographers—Frank Ceravalo, Tom Hindman, and Steve Shaluta—to see what advice they have for budding shutterbugs.

Find the Right Opportunity

Unlike street festivals and concerts, animals rarely announce their presence ahead of time. For this reason, Martinsburg’s Ceravalo recommends keeping your camera at the ready. On hikes, he keeps his camera prepared with a zoom lens and high shutter speed. If he decides to shoot a landscape, he can switch out lenses later.

“If you’re hiking along and a bear or an interesting bird appears in front of you, he’s not gonna sit there and wait until you change your lens. But the mountain will wait for you a little bit,” says Ceravalo, whose photographs of Appalachia often appear on souvenirs sold at state and national parks.

Seeing an animal while out on a hike—especially one of the bigger, more exciting creatures—often comes down to the luck of the draw. All three
photographers said they maximize their chances by doing homework beforehand.

“I had friends who went deer hunting and turkey hunting and whatnot. I would bring a camera and they would bring a rifle,” says Hindman, a Williamson native who spent nearly 30 years at the Charleston Daily Mail. “So I learned from hunting that if you were going to shoot wildlife, you needed to find their territory, their feeding habits—and there’s a lot of luck involved.”

Shaluta, who grew up in Grafton and worked for the West Virginia Tourism Office for two decades, reads up on animal behavior and asks around. State park rangers will usually know which animals are active and where. Over time, wildlife photographers develop a sense of where they’ll see certain animals and what time of year. “If I were going to photograph bear right now, I’d probably go to Watoga. If I were going to photograph osprey, I’d go to Stonewall Jackson Lake. If I were going to photograph eagles, I’d go to the south branch of the Potomac,” Shaluta says.

Go on a Wild Goose Chase

Though they may seem an obvious part of “wildlife,” birds often go unnoticed. Even their songs can blend into the background of daily life. But they present a perfect opportunity for the wildlife photographer. “There are only so many mammals you can shoot, but there are a lot of different bird species,” Ceravalo says. Although he’s been shooting for years, he still needs to consult a field guide when he captures a new bird. To make it even more difficult, juvenile and female birds often don’t look like the pictures provided.

But there are clues. “You learn the sounds—the songs of birds. And that’s one of the things that’ll key you in,” Hindman says.

A clean shot can be difficult to come by. Birds flit from branch to branch quickly, often obscuring themselves from view. For this reason, wildlife photographers often collect birds the way kids collect baseball cards. “Every time I find a bird that I’ve never seen before, one that’s rare, one that I haven’t seen very often—it’s like finding a little treasure,” Shaluta says.

Use the Proper Technique

You can only get so close to a wild animal before you spook it, so it’s a good idea to invest in a telephoto lens. Shaluta recommends a 400 millimeter lens or greater for birds and small animals, 300 to 400 millimeters for large animals like deer and bear, and at least 100 millimeters for macrophotography work, like taking photos of insects.

Wildlife photographers also use an external flash to brighten shadowed areas and give photos a more three-dimensional look. While this technique isn’t always needed in sunnier and flatter locales, West Virginia wildlife tends to be found in darker areas.

Figuring Out the Approach

Though you might imagine hiking deep into the woods to capture a great wildlife shot, some animals require a more urban approach.

“The best way to photograph wildlife is from your car,” Shaluta says. “Especially the bigger animals.” In Dolly Sods, for example, cars are so ubiquitous, animals are no longer intimidated by them. “If you see a bear and you stay in the car, you’ll get photos,” Shaluta says. “Open the door and the bear is gone.”

If you do opt for the hike, research how the animal you’re seeking will likely react to people. “With most animals, you don’t want to do a direct approach,” Ceravalo says. “You want to zigzag your way in to them.”

A lot of times, they’ll know you’re there but will allow you to approach a little before taking off, so long as you’re careful and quiet. “As long as you don’t approach them directly or threateningly, you can work your way in pretty close,” Ceravalo says.

Leveling Up

Hindman advises the beginning wildlife photographer to start in her own neighborhood. “Try and shoot what is around you. If you sit, and you’re still, and you’re patient, they sense that you’re not a danger, and you’re apt to get something. That’s a good start.”

Ceravalo echoes the sentiment. “It’s easy to go and fire off a hundred images at a bird feeder,” he says. “Practice. Practice how your fill flash works, practice how your zoom works. If you practice on the very common birds, when you’re out in the field and something rare comes by, you’ve practiced and you know how things work.”

There are always ways to improve and challenge yourself, even after you’ve captured the animal you wanted to shoot. “I always try not just to get a picture of the animal, but to incorporate the animal into a beautiful scene,” Hindman says.

Photographing the animal in a specific act can be another way to level up. One of Hindman’s current preoccupations is birds of prey, but he wants to do more than just capture a hawk. “I want birds of prey doing what we know they do—hunting and eating their food,” he says.

Whatever your approach and objective, Shaluta emphasizes the importance of remembering your place and your impact on the habitat. “Don’t taunt animals, don’t throw rocks at them to get them to do stuff or look at you,” he says. “Be very careful when you’re photographing around bird’s nests. If you’re around there too much or spend too much time, predators may start to notice.”

To quote the old maxim: Leave only footprints, take only photographs.

This story was originally published in the September 2019 issue of  Wonderful West Virginia. To subscribe, visit

written by Emilie Shumway