If you’ve already began the fascinating journey into urban wildlife photography, these tips by photographer Andrew Budziak will show you how you can take your work to the next level
1 A tricky path to success
Urban wildlife photography is challenging. Cities present a lot of issues that you won’t find when shooting in the forest or jungle. Traffic, fences, construction and the risks that come with walking around with a bunch of shiny gear make urban wildlife photography a low reward-to-work ratio.
"The path to better photos can mean long nights, frustrating days and a lot of mistakes."
But when you do land that perfect photo, those hours of work are completely worth it. The path to better photos can mean long nights, frustrating days and a lot of mistakes. In my years of shooting urban wildlife, I’ve learned a few methods that have helped me level-up. I’ve outlined several of those in this article and I hope these tips can aid you as well.
Not ready to embark on the advanced tips yet? Get started with our beginner's guide to urban wildlife photography first.
2 Work backwards
One of the great things about urban wildlife photography is that generally the animals you are photographing have a smaller range than their non-urban cousins. This allows you to really shoot an animal in a specific area over several days, weeks or even months. If you act ethically and don’t distress your subject, you will have lots of repeat opportunities to photograph in that same area.
"Despite these frustrations, working backwards from the image I want and returning to the same spot regularly is a luxury that comes with urban wildlife photography."
This made me realize that I could create images in my head based on the surrounding area and work to make that a reality. This is a special situation you won’t find in most areas of wildlife photography. This will allow you to ask yourself: What haven’t I seen? What’s new?
I became obsessed with these factories that are down by Toronto’s waterfront. There is a photo I’ve created in my mind — a coyote walking, with these large factories behind it with smoke billowing into the sky. The power of the coyote with this stark symbol of industry would tell a great story. I’ve been spending a lot of time shooting around there and I know there is a coyote family nearby. Urban coyotes generally have tight territories and will appear in the same spots regularly. So this means I have the elements I need for the photo: the factories aren’t going any where and there’s a good chance the coyote will land where I need it to. I’ve been out several times attempting to get this image, but each time, I’m thwarted: the light is wrong; the coyotes won’t land in the sweet spot; or an inconsiderate photographer has stepped into my frame and ruined the image.
Despite these frustrations, working backwards from the image I want and returning to the same spot regularly is a luxury that comes with urban wildlife photography. I know I’ll get the shot at some point, and be super happy when I do.
3 Lower noise, great results
If you’re able to push yourself until the wee hours of the morning, you will find some incredible opportunities. Photographing nocturnal animals in the city is really something special.
"A good tip if you’re shooting in complete darkness with only one source of light is to change your metering to spot."
Newer DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are able to create remarkable images in low light. ISO above 800 no longer mean useless, grainy images. This creates some great opportunities to shoot using nothing more than street lamps, lights billowing from storefronts or other human-made light sources. Even if there is a bit of grain, some tweaking in post production can help you drastically reduce it.
A good tip if you’re shooting in complete darkness with only one source of light is to change your metering to spot. This will make sure your camera is exposing for the lit area where your subject is, and not trying to compensation for the blackness around it.
4 A shot in the dark
This is certainly up for debate, but in my opinion, nighttime remote camera trap photography is one of the most challenging, maddening and difficult forms of photography to master. It takes months to learn, years to master and has a low success rate. So why try at all? Because the final results are mind blowing.
"...in my opinion, nighttime remote camera trap photography is one of the most challenging, maddening and difficult forms of photography to master. It takes months to learn, years to master and has a low success rate. So why try at all? Because the final results are mind blowing."
Remote camera traps are used to capture an image of an animal with no human present. The motion or heat of the animal triggers the camera trap, which tells the camera to take a photo and sets off a series of flashes.
The basic nocturnal camera trap set up contains the following pieces of gear — a DSLR or mirrorless camera usually low to the ground; a sensor that triggers the camera either wirelessly, or through a cable; and one, two, or more flashes triggered by the camera. These are all supported by a range of stands, transmitters, receivers, snoots, tape, straps, and weird odds and ends that will help you get everything into place.
The list of challenges is immense. When setting up your shot you’re attempting to predict the future. Your framing and flash settings are based on where you think an animal will be, which way it’s facing and how fast it’s moving. The exposure settings on your camera will be based on how much cloud cover you think there might be that night.
Additionally, if you’re setting up in an urban environment, you might have to camp out near by in your car or on a bench to make sure no one walks away with or damages your equipment. This can make for a long night.
Luckily, there are a few ways to help you land your photos. Camtraptions is a company that specializes in remote camera systems, among other awesome products. Through their website you can order sensors, flashes, and everything else you need to build your nighttime camera set up. Their website also has lots of free guides on best practices.
Additionally, photographer Richard Peters has a fantastic book called Wildlife Photography at Home dedicated to the practice of remote camera traps. I highly recommend this book if you plan on camera trapping.
One final pro tip — when setting up camera traps, Cinefoil is your best friend. It’s a tough, black aluminum foil that can be used to focus or block light. It can also be used as rain protection in a pinch. A roll is expensive, but worth having in your kit. Because the material is rugged, you can reuse the same piece multiple times.
There is a lot of trial and error when it comes to camera traps. My best images have taken hundreds of hours to capture. Despite the headaches and frustrations, it’s a kind of photography I will continue to strive to master because the results are fantastic.
This is an episode of my series Edge of Frame. It follows me as I try to get an image using a remote nighttime camera set up. You can see how challenging it is to set up for even a single image.
5 The strangest landscape
In my time photographing urban wildlife, my fascination with the process continues to grow. It’s safe to say it can be a weird kind of photography. And that weirdness leads to some awesome results. Because urban wildlife photography is relatively niche, the field is still wide open for doing lots of things that have never been done. It’s the perfect opportunity to get creative and really push what the limits of what wildlife photography can offer.
Andrew Budziak is a Toronto based photographer and filmmaker. He has a passion for telling stories about urban wildlife. Currently Andrew is documenting the animals that live in Canada’s major cities. Andrew’s work has appeared in numerous outlets including the CBC, BBC, CNN and Canadian Geographic. His most recent documentary Poisoned Earth looks at a controversial wolf poisoning program in Canada. In 2021, Andrew’s nighttime image of a raccoon using a culvert was selected as one of Canadian Geographic’s Wildlife Photos of the year. Andrew was a director of photography on the series Mise en Place which received a daytime Emmy nomination. Andrew is also the host of the digital series Edge of Frame.View all articles