Stalking wildlife is a monster challenge for most amateur photographers and many professionals. Whether you visit a zoo, a nature preserve, a national or provincial park or go deep into the forest, getting exciting images of animals requires a preparedness that other genres don't demand. (The only other kind of photography adventure that is as demanding in my mind is candid wedding photography, a mentally and physically demanding endeavour that leaves me even more exhausted than a day out in the wilderness.)
Excellent quality wildlife images demand, besides the patience of Job, some pretty good equipment. Good glass is of prime importance; a quality 300 or 400 mm prime or zoom lens for your DSLR will help you get the shots, but you don't need that $10,000 Nikon or Canon lens to get great wildlife captures. (I've had students – adult, senior students – capture some pretty amazing images with a point 'n' shoot camera through the eyepiece of a spotting scope.) A rock-solid tripod is a must for the low light of early morning and evening when wildlife is most likely to appear. A quality lens with close-focus capability (available on even the most inexpensive cameras) will make close-up photography a real joy, but a dedicated macro lens for your DSLR will get you those most amazing frames for butterflies and other tiny critters. Bear spray, a banger, a whistle, a good camp knife, matches and fire starter, energy bars and an air horn are always on my belt or in my pack in the back country. And of course, never travel in the woods or backcountry alone; there's no sense making your best shot your last shot. Besides, traveling and hiking with like-minded friends always makes an outing more pleasant. Take along a moisture-proof jacket, a hat, sun glasses (not polarized – polarization makes looking at a camera screen or peering through an optical viewfinder very weird), maybe a pair of knee pads and elbow pads (ground level work can be demanding on the knees and elbows – I have a pair of each in my pack), a cell phone and a cheap “space blanket” can not only be a lifesaver but wrapped around your tripod legs or draped over a nearby bush can reflect needed light into even the deepest shadows. If you are outfitted for the day, you are packing quite a load, even if your camera is just a wide-to telephoto. A couple of bottles of water, lunch, other gear and clothes, spare stuff like dry socks, granola bars, some nice cheese, maybe a bottle of Merlot and a corkscrew – can add up to a lot of weight. Be sure your pack fits your body well, and is adjusted to shift the weight on to your hips and not your shoulders and back. And be kind to your feet – the best fitting hikers (no Converse All-Stars!) and great socks (no wrinkles!) will save you from many blisters. I've been forced to turn back because one of our party suffered from the effects of poor footwear. Be careful about where you eat your lunch, too. Even hunting butterflies and ladybugs can have tense moments if a photographer isn't prepared. The old saw “never look behind you in case what's there is gaining on you” is poor advice indeed. Be aware of whose neighbourhood you are in.
Having said all of that, great wildlife photo opportunities can be found no more than a couple of hundred meters or less from your car. One example that comes to mind is the bison compound just outside of Waterton Lakes National Park – you don't need anything except a camera and maybe a camera-mount or clamp for the edge of your car window (you are NOT allowed out of your car in this compound – kind of like on a safari.) Whether it's bighorns or butterflies, ladybugs, buffalo or bears, be ready for anything and shoot, shoot, shoot. And show off your work; as Ellen Degeneres says, "I ask people why they have deer heads on their walls. They always say because it's such a beautiful animal. There you go; I think my mother is attractive, but I have photographs of her."