City Safari

A How-To Guide to Urban Wildlife Photography

"Tanning in Style" by Nicolas Bamberski (left), "Life Beyond the Sewer" by Austin Montero (upper right), "Date Night" by Andrew Interisano (bottom right).

Wild animals have always made great subjects for photography. With urban wildlife photography, you don’t have to go to the far reaches of the world to find your photo. Catching a deer or owl in your lens is just as rewarding in the city, with the added perk that stalking your shot is a lot easier if you’re doing it in your own backyard. With everything from rats to raccoons, deer, hawks, coyotes, and even mountain lions adjusting to urban habitats, many cities offer stunning opportunities for the wily photographer.

If you’re interested in getting in the game, here are a few simple rules to follow.

"Trash Panda" by Jill Finney

Put the Urban in Your Urban Wildlife Photography
All urban wildlife photography should have two things: wildlife and city elements. Don’t come in too tight on your subject. Zoom out to take in the surroundings. A deer in a park forest with no urban objects in view is just another photo of a deer. Get some urban in your shot. This will help your subject stand out. Shooting animals alongside recognizable things like a park bench, under streetlights, a bus stop, among parked cars, or juxtaposed against cityscapes tells a unique story and helps the viewer connect with the image.

Get Some Help
Give yourself a helping hand in discovering animal hotspots by using a trail camera. This is a great way to do research from the comfort of your own home. Just be careful where you leave it. You need to find the right balance between hiding the camera from human extraction and allowing it to capture a big enough area to make it worthwhile. Hidden along train tracks, on park trails, and in cemeteries are good options.

Timing Is Everything
The city never sleeps. Actually, it does, and that’s the best time to get out. Animals are most active at night and in the early morning hours. If you’re able to push yourself late enough or wake early enough, you’ll find some incredible opportunities. Animals living in the city have a smaller range than their non-urban cousins and are more likely to visit the same areas over and over. Use daytime hours for your research. Look for tracks, scat, or evidence of feeding like bones and piles of fur or feathers.

Parks, Cemeteries, and Water
Animals living in urban settings have become accustomed to people and are therefore more approachable. This gives you a chance to hone your skills and experiment. The best places to stake out are city parks, cemeteries, abandoned buildings, and train tracks. A good tip is to head to water. Park ponds, riverbanks, docklands, and shorelines are hotbeds of activity.

Use Your Car
Your car makes a great hide. City streets are full of cars. Urban animals think nothing of a parked vehicle so you can take pictures while your subjects largely ignore you. The car also offers a sense of security and comfort for long late-night sessions. Bring along a bean bag or small pillow to rest on the window to provide a stable surface.

Urban wildlife photography is challenging. Cities present problems that you won’t find in a forest or jungle. Traffic, construction, headlights, and people unexpectedly walking into frame are just a few. But, with a bit of patience, ingenuity, and the tips above, you just might end up capturing the wildlife photo of your life.