Up your wildlife photography game with these tips from a professional

After 15 years as a professional wildlife photographer, Larry Dance retired in 2020 and was happy to spend more time freely photographing one of his favourite places: Algonquin Park. Dance has spent hundreds of hours photographing wildlife in the iconic Ontario park alone and has some tips to share with those looking to get out there and embrace the great outdoors through the camera’s lens.

What is the best way for photographers to get around Algonquin Park?

Being so large and varied in terrain, it’s important to know how to move around the park smartly and efficiently. The park can provide photographers with resources like maps and articles to help them navigate the area, but when to go is almost as important as where to go. 

I would suggest planning your visit during the weekdays as the highway and backroads will not be as busy, which increases your chances of seeing wildlife,” says Dance.

For those planning on hiking or canoeing their way to a winning shot, remember to dress accordingly—think hiking boots, a lifejacket, a bug jacket. “It is a good idea to have a waterproof bag for your camera,” Dance recommends. And for those travelling through many many lakes and rivers, Dance uses a kayak instead of a canoe, “as I find it more stable when carrying my equipment.”

If you are not keen on traversing the park by foot or paddle, Dance says you can capture some pretty amazing wildlife scenes by simply driving down Highway 60.

When is the best time of year to photograph in the park?

Disclaimer: it’s hard to pick a bad time to visit Algonquin Park. Dance, however, recommends the winter months. “November and March are excellent times for photographing otters and beavers as the ice is still thin enough for them to break through.”

Other animals, like moose, can be photographed year-round, Dance says. “If you’re really lucky, you may see a pack of wolves or even a lynx.” 

Additional disclaimer: only wildlife photographers would feel ‘lucky’ encountering a pack of wolves in the wild.

Best time of day for a beautiful shot?

To avoid harsh midday light, Dance recommends photographing in the early morning or evenings. “By shooting at these times, or what are known as the golden hours, you can create a heightened atmosphere and capture a magical moment in time,” he says. 

Dance has captured some great shots at these times of day on Mizzy Lake Trail and Oxtongue Lake Road. “Wildlife seems to be more active in the mornings,” he notes.

Don’t discount bad weather. Rainy, snowy, or even foggy days lend their own unique impressions on photos you might take.

What are some of the best places to photograph wildlife in the park?

Algonquin Park is teeming with wildlife, but some spots are more fruitful than others. Mizzy Lake Trail is one of Dance’s top contenders and offers a variety of wildlife.

“I’ve tracked wolves there before, and in the spring, you can see the turtles sunning themselves and Moose walking down the trail or feeding in the lakes,” he recalls. “Some photographers have even seen a bear.”

Oxtongue Lake Road is another great location, especially in the fall and winter when beavers can be seen building a dam. “I’ve watched otters sit on the ice and eat fish and have fun sliding down the snowbanks,” says Dance. This is also a great location to photograph the pine marten and Canada jays.

Just off Highway 60 is Ragged Falls. “During the winter, the falls are spectacular, with the frost and mist building up on the trees like a winter wonderland,” says Dance. This location is a year-round gem. In the fall, hikers can marvel at the reflections of the leaves in the falling water, and in the spring, observe thunderous run-off from the winter thaw.

How do you practise safety while photographing potentially dangerous animals like moose or wolves?

Capturing the photo of a lifetime won’t be worth it if you and your camera don’t make it back to the parking lot. 

“My golden rule is to never approach a moose in the fall during rutting season or in the spring when they have recently given birth,” Dance says. A good general rule is to “keep a comfortable distance away from all wildlife.”

Dance stresses that it is also very important to maintain a low volume. “So often excited visitors scare the wildlife away by talking amongst each other. One little guy ran up to me yelling ‘moose, moose’ recently. It was cute, but it scared the animal,” shares Dance.

For those photographing from their vehicle, it’s common practice to park on the gravel portion of the roadway while stopping to take pictures to ensure your safety and the safety of passing vehicles.

Do you have any advice for an amateur wildlife photographer?

  1. When you want to leave, always wait another five minutes. Recently, I was photographing a moose that sundered back into the bush and everyone left. Five minutes later, she ventured back out of the bush to feed.
  2. Try to focus on the eyes. The eyes tell the story you share with people. Even in silence, an animal’s eyes tell a story.
  3. Gain deeper insight into the habits and mating seasons of wildlife. Developing a connection leads to better understanding and better photographs. Example: moose lose their antlers in early winter.

You can see Larry Dance’s images of Algonquin at the Eyes of Algonquin and Algonquin Park, The Large and Small of It art exhibit, running until June 21 at the Algonquin Park Visitor Centre. A portion of proceeds from the exhibit will go towards The Friends of Algonquin Park, who enhance the educational and interpretive programs in Algonquin.

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