How to take better wildlife photos: 5 minutes with Faunographic.com founder Rachelle Mackintosh

Sydney-based magazine editor, world traveller, and self-confessed wildlife perv Rachelle Mackintosh documents her wildlife photography adventures on faunographic.com. You may have seen her on Aussie TV recently, chatting about polar bears ripping farts? I was lucky to work with Rachelle in Magazine Land many moons ago, so it was great to catch up with her to find out how anyone – with a bit of preparation and a whole lot of patience – can take amazing wildlife photos. Here’s the lowdown…

So, how did you get into wildlife photography?
“I’ve always been an animal lover and I’ve played around with cameras since my teens (I’m 40m now). In my early 20s I went to Sabah, Borneo for work (at the time I was a magazine’s travel editor) with my sister and a private guide. When we first arrived at Mount Kinabalu National Park we went down a service road to an out-of-the-way ranger’s shack for some reason or other. Some guys were there painting the building, when this beautiful wild orangutan walked out of the jungle to see what they were doing. I couldn’t believe my eyes – and my poor crappy camera couldn’t keep up with what we were seeing. I think that little orang’s behaviour flicked a switch in me – the fact that she was so curious made me want to get to know more, and to capture that in portraiture. Wildlife photography has been an obsession ever since, although it took me years to replace that crap camera with something semi decent.”

Serengeti lady, watching the watcher © Rachelle Mackintosh / Faunographic.com
Serengeti lady, watching the watcher © Rachelle Mackintosh / Faunographic.com

What inspired you to launch Faunographic.com? Can you tell us a bit about the site?
“I am a passionate conservationist and I am disgusted, enraged by the way we humans neglect the planet. Our sense of entitlement actually blows my mind. But saying such things out loud makes me sound like a psycho, so I try to keep a lid on it. The thing is, I’m not interested in lecturing people or trying to make them feel bad – because as soon as you start doing that, they feel helpless, then tune out and lose interest. So, Faunographic is about showing people what’s to love about wildlife, and the wild spaces of the planet. When you think about it, everyone has a favourite animal. My goal is to tap into that love to encourage people to take action (where they can). Even something as seemingly self-indulgent as a holiday in a wildlife hotspot can lead to positive change – it supports local economies, which in turn, encourages locals to protect our wild mates.”

Very cool. Now, you’ve travelled everywhere from Botswana to Siberia to photograph wildlife – what were some of the most magic moments?
“Too many to list! You’ll have to click through to Faunographic.com and check out @faunographic for those! Actually, while there have been countless moments I’ll never forget (think: farting polar bears, curious servals, shouty apes), one of my favourites happened in a local park here in Sydney’s inner west. Nothing much happened – I was just watching this little Australasian darter as he kicked back beside the lake, and stared into the late afternoon sun. He looked so glowy and angelic, it was like he was the embodiment of ‘peace’.”

Australasian Darter in my local park in Sydney’s innerwest. It was late in the day and I love how chilled this dude was as he reflected on his day © Rachelle Mackintosh / Faunographic.com
An Australasian darter reflects on his day in Sydney’s inner west © Rachelle Mackintosh / Faunographic.com

Is there a particular kind of animal you prefer to photograph?
“I love an apex predator – the big cats, the bears. Trying to capture their power is really exhilarating, because there’s always a big part of me that’s shit-scared, and to get the shot you usually have to get pretty close. In saying that, I think you have to be open to all kinds of critters. I recently went to the Galapagos and expected to be blown away by the birds – and I was, but I am now completely obsessed with sea lions.”

You’ve photographed some amazing beasties. Which other animals do you hope to snap one day?
“I’d love to photograph narwhals, walruses, snow leopards, Amur leopards, condors and if I’m reaaaally lucky, Arabian sand cats. But that list grows every day. Actually, last night one of my Insta mates was telling me about this place near where he lives in Manitoba, Canada – it’s called Narcisse. Every spring, thousands upon thousands of garter snakes get together for a massive orgy. YouTube it – it’s incredible! I’m so going there one day.”

Hot tip: do NOT YouTube that if you have snake issues. Meanwhile, how does one get a tiger named after them?
“I was staying at the Durminskoye Reserve in Far East Russia, with Alexander Batalov – he’s a famous local conservationist and custodian of the reserve (he and his tiny crew patrol the forest to protect the local tiger population, and he also conducts the annual tiger census for the government). Anyways, when a new unnamed tigress ventured into the area during my stay, and started getting it on with the resident alpha male, Alexander named her after me – because he knew how much I’d appreciate the honour (and he also needed to name her for his records). And it turns out, Tiger Rachelle got pregnant during my stay because she’s since had cubs (there’s a vid on my site). I’m so freaking proud of her!”

Rachelle perves on some sea lions in the Galapagos @ Rachelle Mackintosh / Faunographic.com
Rachelle perves on some sea lions in the Galapagos @ Rachelle Mackintosh / Faunographic.com

Of course, there’s plenty of wildlife in Australia. Do you practice your skills at home when you’re not travelling?
“Definitely. There’s a reason so many people come here on holiday – Oz’s biodiversity is unique and you don’t even have to leave the city to see much. I love our reptiles, birds and of course, the roos and wombats! But one of my favourite things to do is to go out whale watching right here in Sydney – sometimes the humpbacks come right into the harbour. As a photographer, the challenge of photographing a moving target while you’re on a bouncing boat is excellent training.”

The @faunographic Instagram account has got serious game (sorry, couldn’t help myself there). Do you ever take snaps with your smartphone, or do you always use a professional camera?
“Sometimes I snap with the phone, but I prefer to use my camera so the quality of shots is consistent.”

This kookaburra and his mate hang around my grandfather’s house in Yeppoon, Queensland. I snapped this one on the porch when he came over for a chat © Rachelle Mackintosh / Faunographic.com
This kookaburra and his mate hang around Rachelle’s grandfather’s house in Yeppoon, Queensland. She snapped this one on the porch when he came over for a chat © Rachelle Mackintosh / Faunographic.com

What’s in your wildlife photography kit?
“Nothing too fancy. Just a Canon 7d Mark 2 and my trusty Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens. I have a few other lenses but I very rarely use them for wildlife, so there’s no point in carrying them into the field. I’ve actually been toying with the idea of getting a full-frame body (something in the 5D or 1D family), but maybe the closer Crop Sensor is best for portraiture… Hmmm…”

It’s not always easy to lug a big kit around. If you had to downsize for a trip, what would you take with you?
“I won’t leave home without my telephoto 100-400mm lens – it means I can zoom in if the animal doesn’t want me too close.”

What kind of kit would you suggest to wannabe wildlife photogs who don’t have cash to burn on top-of-the-line gear?
“I once met a photographer who said: ‘Don’t spend big on DSLR camera bodies because they are constantly evolving and you’ll always want to upgrade. But do spend on lenses, because you’ll transfer them from camera to camera, and can potentially keep them forever.’ Solid gold advice! So I say, buy whatever DSLR body you can afford and choose a lens that’s flexible enough for you to practice with…and then save up for a kick-arse lens. That’s if you really want to get into ‘photography’ as an art form. If all you want to do is record your encounters with some spectacular wildlife, go for a mirrorless (I carry a Leica V-Lux 4 as backup – it’s good, but my preference is definitely a DSLR as I’m a control freak). The thing is though, as long as you’re out there seeing, respecting and enjoying the animals, it doesn’t matter what you photograph them with – the point is that you’re out there.”

I was in a rowboat in the Great Bear Rainforest, BC, Canada, and snapped this one within the first few seconds of us seeing each other. © Rachelle Mackintosh
Rachelle snapped tis young fella from a rowboat in the Great Bear Rainforest in BC, Canada, within the first few seconds of the pair seeing each other © Rachelle Mackintosh / Faunographic.com

Like any kind of photography, wildlife photography comes with a certain code of ethics. Can you tell us about some responsible field practices wildlife photographers should abide by?
“Treat animals the same way you’d treat a human subject (a potentially violent human subject!). Keep a respectful distance until they let you know they’re comfortable, and then you can get a little closer or try something different. If you aren’t prepared to be patient and let them call the shots, shoot food instead. Don’t use a flash. It’s disorienting to the animal. And just flamin’ rude, really. Never interrupt an animal when it’s hunting. For many animals, hunting takes a lot of energy, and if your interference means they miss out on a meal, you’re jeopardising their health.”

How close is too close? Do animals show telltale signs you’ve overstepped the mark?
“Too close is when the animal becomes in any way agitated and their natural behaviour changes. Animals expresses themselves very differently, and some of the cues are really subtle – that’s why you need to go as slow as possible and read the animal before you make any moves. The process can take hours, days even. For example: I’ve seen private boats disregard the 100m rule around really chilled humpback whales, and the next minute the whales are swimming around erratically and angrily throwing their tails around. Just be respectful. If you aren’t willing to wait hours for an animal to relax around you, wildlife photography isn’t for you.”

I saw this guy in the Maldives walking over towards me, so I lied down and waited for him to come closer. This is what I mean by getting down to eye level © Rachelle Mackintosh
Rachelle saw this guy in the Maldives walking over towards her, so she lay down and waited for him to come closer © Rachelle Mackintosh / Faunographic.com

What’s the protocol when you see other photographers overstepping that mark?
“If someone is putting an animal or themselves in danger, it’s everyone’s responsibility to make them stop.”

Do you have any photography mentors? What have they taught you?
“During whale season I have a group of mates who I go out on whale-watching boats with – they’re all a little older than me with various levels of experience, and from a variety of backgrounds. What brings us together is our love of the whales and our obsession with photography, so we challenge each other, rib each other, but also offer constructive feedback. It’s good to have likeminded folks to bounce ideas off.”

Sydney is blessed with amazing wildlife, like this humpback whale Rachelle snapped frolicking in Sydney waters © Rachelle Mackintosh
Sydney is home to some epic wildlife, like this humpback whale Rachelle snapped splashin’ around off the coast © Rachelle Mackintosh / Faunographic.com

What’s your best tip for nailing the perfect wildlife shot?
“I don’t think I’ve ever nailed the perfect shot. I’m never 100% satisfied that I’ve done the animal justice. But the pics I’m most proud of are the ones were I’m at eye level with the creature – that whole ‘human superiority’ thing is immediately wiped out and you get to see the creature’s individual character. So my best tip is, get as close to eye-level possible (even if that means getting grotty).”

Head over to faunographic.com to read more about Rachelle’s wildlife photography adventures. G’arn, follow her on IG, too @faunographic