While traveling to far-off places like Africa or Australia or visiting a national park to photograph wild animals sounds like a lot of fun, it's surprising how much wildlife there is in your own backyard--even if you live in a typical surburban neighborhood. In my little yard in Connecticut I've seen red fox, opossums (lots of them), raccoons, wild turkey, a few kinds of snakes (all harmless), woodchucks, skunks, turtles and even the occasional hawk. And that's not to mention the dozens and dozens of different bird varieties that come to my feeders.
The great thing about photographing animals in your own backyard, of course, is that you don't have to go anywhere to find them. Also, if you've lived in a house for a year or two, you probably already know the animals' habits and when and where you're likely to see them. The raccoons in my neighborhood, for example, rattle the garbage cans almost every night in summer at just about 2 a.m. The bunny in this shot has been my gardening pal for a few summers now. She comes within two or three feet of me when I'm weeding the veggie patch and I'm convinced that she likes human company. Even when I got up to run inside and get my camera the day I shot this photo, she didn't move an inch and while I was photographing her from about eight feet away (with a 70-300mm lens on my Nikon D90) she sat patiently munching the grass.
You can photograph most backyard animals with a DSLR and a moderate telephoto zoom lens or a zoom camera with a good zoom range (how I'd love to have one of those 20x zoom camera for doing this). I've had squirrels eating out of my hands within just a few days and you could probably photograph one of them with a wide-angle lens they're so close. If the animals are a bit more skittish, try baiting them a bit with their favorite snacks. If you hide some peanuts in an old stump, for example, every squirrel in the neighborhood will get the word; try to shoot them when they're not actually eating and the photos will look more natural. Water (bird baths and garden ponds) are another irresistable urge to most birds and animals; try setting up a birdbath or a small fountain in front of a simple background and you'll have a nice outdoor studio.
If you leave an old tripod next to the birdbath (or a bird feeder) for a few days before you plan to shoot, the birds will get used to it being there and it will help them ignore you. Also, shoot from a lawn chair if you can since the birds will probably ignore you if you're just sitting nearby. Inch the chair closer to the food or water ever few minutes and you'll be able to get within feet of them. You might also want to consider an inexpensive remote control (the one for my D90 is only about $15) and then you can operate the camera from a greater distance--some remotes let you work up to 50' away.
Photographing animals at night is a bit trickier, but in a future posting I'll turn you on to an amazing device that includes both sound and motion sensors to trigger the camera so that you can get almost any animal to take their own picture during the day or at night. And it's not that expensive.
6 hours ago