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Getting Started In Wildlife Photography

Starting In Wildlife Photography
By; Mick White LRPS

Introduction

Whilst I was at the various clubs and societies judging competitions I was constantly being asked the question “What sort of Images do you like to take? And when I replied that I specialized in Natural History the common response from the enquirer was always that you must have some pretty expensive equipment and long lenses then.
This common response led me to believe that the common perception of a wildlife photographer is of someone who has lots of money and goes around the countryside with super telephoto lenses with which to take his images with. I hopefully have demonstrated that this is not necessarily the case and whilst having super telephoto lenses can be useful for some shy subjects it is not always the requirement for the majority of the Images being captured.
A far better approach to successful wildlife photography is to learn about your subject thoroughly before attempting to capture the Image; you need to know where to find the subject and when to find it for example it is no good going out expecting to take pictures of red deer stags rutting in June as the rutting season does not start until autumn, although you will be able to capture images of red deer’s in June but they are more likely to be grazing to put the weight on for the coming rutting season. You will also benefit from learning about the habits and the body language of your chosen subject as this will allow you to predict there behaviour and therefore increase your chances of capturing that unique moment when you release the shutter, and more importantly to be able to identify aggressive postures and back away so as to keep yourself safe.

Always remember that you are photographing Wild animals in there environment a harsh environment where you are the intruder and that the Welfare of the Animal should always come first before the picture.

CAMERAS

As I have already said you do not necessarily need lots of expensive equipment to take successful wildlife pictures and this is never truer than when it comes to cameras.
However whilst there are some situations where a compact camera will produce excellent results the serious wildlife photographer will require a camera with the capability to change lenses so as to be able to cover a variety of situations. It does not matter whether you choose CANON, NIKON, OLYMPUS, or PENTAX or some other make of camera but which ever one you choose it should feel comfortable in your hands and have an Image sensor above 5 MP, however the higher the better is the rule generally here.
However there are some important features that the camera that you select (Digital or Film) should have and they are listed below;

LENS AVAILABILITY
RESISTANCE TO WATER/DUST ETC
VIEWFINDER COVERAGE 95 -100%
AUTO FOCUS / MANUAL FOCUS / CONTINUOUS AF
AUTO EXPOSURE / SPOT METERING
FAST TOP SHUTTER SPEED 1/2000 s
HIGH SPEED FLASH SYNC 1/250s
AUTO BRACKETTING IN 1/3 or 1/4
EXPOSURE COMPENSATION
TTL FLASH METERING
APERTURE PRIORITY/ MANUAL & SHUTTER PRIORTY METERING.
HIGH BURST RATE
SILENT MOTOR DRIVE
COMPATIBILITY WITH PROFESSIONAL COMPACT FLASH CARDS
NO TIME LAG ON SHUTTER RELEASE
MANUALLY ADJUSTABLE WB (digital)

Most cameras on the market these days will have all these capabilities but the Professional models will be more robust and will be better sealed against water and dust than there Prosumer counterparts but this robustness will come at a price. The prosumer models will produce just as good an image as the professional models, however most professional models have Full frame Image sensors where as the Prosumer models tend to have a smaller image sensor and therefore a crop factor which has to be applied when using lenses (more about this later), it is the lens that is the important link when taking the actual Image.

LENSES

Whether you decide to use Proprietary Lenses or Independent lenses does not really matter as much these days as most of the Independent manufactures now produce a range of lenses aimed at the professional market, so if you choose to go with an Independent manufacture and buy there professional range of lenses such as Sigma’s EX range you will be surprised by the quality of the
Images.
However there still is a difference in the optical quality of the glass used in Proprietary lenses to that used by the Independent manufacturer so the Proprietary lenses tend to cost more and are reputed to produce a superior image quality overall but this can be hard to detect when compared to the Independents professional ranges.
I would advise that you buy the best quality lenses that your budget will allow but if you are buying an Independent manufactures lens then buy from their professional range so you can be sure that you will be getting top quality images.
I mentioned previously about the application of a Cropping Factor that applies when using lenses with cameras that do not have full frame sensors, this is nothing to worry about as it simply means that for any given length of lens that you are using on a non full frame camera you will lose some of the edge detail of the Image. For example a typical cropping factor would be around 1.6 for cameras that are not full frame so when this factor is applied to a 300mm lens it will give you an Image on the sensor in the camera the same size as if you had used a 480mm lens on a full frame camera (300 x 1.6 = 480). The main subject in the Image will still be the same size as the one in the full frame camera but you will not have so much of the detail at the edges so the Image will have been cropped hence the term Cropping Factor.
For the wildlife photographer this can be seen as a bonus as the lenses can be smaller and lighter and this is how the Olympus 4/3 system achieves smaller an lighter lenses in there range by having an image sensor in there cameras equivalent to 4/3rds the size of a piece of 35mm film(Full Frame) this gives a cropping factor of 2, this effectively means that their 300mm f2.8 lens gives the same image magnification as a 600mm f2.8 conventional lens but requires less glass so can be made smaller and lighter.

LENS SPEED

The speed of a lens is determined by the maximum aperture which refers to its ability to gather light. The larger the maximum aperture the more light it can gather and therefore the faster the lens is said to be. Having a fast lens is a real advantage for wildlife photographers as this will allow you to select a better range of shutter speeds when photographing your chosen subjects, most professional lenses will have fast apertures such as f4 or f2.8 for super telephoto lenses and f2.8 or f2 for wider angle lenses, however these fast apertures normally carry a hefty price tag so those aimed at the enthusiast tend to have as their fastest aperture f5.6 and tend to be significantly cheaper. Which ever lenses you decide to buy always buy the best that you can afford and as long as you accept that you will not be able to attain fast shutters speeds in low light conditions with the slower lenses and providing that you use the lenses in the correct conditions you will still be able to capture good quality images with these slower lenses. Another defining factor that will affect your choice of lens is going to be where you are prepared to make compromises, for example if portability is more important to you than speed (as the fast lenses do tend to be big beasts) then you will need to choose the slower lenses, but if you want to get the Image at all costs then you will need to Invest in the faster lenses and put up with the extra weight, the choice is yours.

OPTICAL STABILISATION

Optical stabilisation is a real bonus for wildlife photographers as it will allow you to hand hold the camera at relatively slow shutter speeds without having to worry about camera shake. These developments in modern lens design has opened up new possibilities for photographers and has also made photographing moving subjects such as birds in flight a lot easier. There are two systems on the market and both have there merits, the common system employs motors within the lens to adjust the elements slightly but has obviously added costs to the lenses so expect to pay a slightly higher price for these. A fairly new system that has appeared recently is one that is found on Olympus cameras where they have opted to put the optical stabilisation into the camera body and stabilise the Image sensor. The obvious advantage here is that once you have purchased the camera body it does not matter which lens you use you will always have optical stabilisation available to you. It does not matter which system that you decide on as early reports indicated that both in camera and in lens stabilisation perform well so the choice is yours and will largely be dictated by your choice of camera.

FOCAL LENGTHS

The lenses that you select are important as the choice of focal length that you use will also affect the perspective and spatial relationships. By using a wide angle lens and moving closer to your subject you will maintain the subject size but alter the relationship that the subject has with its surroundings, as the wide angle lens will increase the space between pictorial elements in the scene which will give a feeling of wide open spaces. The telephoto lens on the other hand will achieve the opposite by compressing the distance between objects and therefore isolate the subject from its surroundings and giving a very different feel to the Image.
As I have already said the large telephoto lens is not the solution to obtaining striking images of your chosen subject, it is better to have an in depth knowledge of your subject which will allow you to anticipate behaviour so that you instinctively know when something is going to happen and capture that special moment. Another important factor in getting a good Image is to have a good knowledge of field craft, by learning about the various methods that can be used it will allow you to get quite close to your subjects without disturbing there natural behaviour or resorting to super telephoto lenses. There are some good books on the market that can help you here with lots of useful advice on equipment and the methods that other wildlife photographers employ when out in the field such as the use of Bag Hides, Screens, and stealth techniques as well as a good helping of patience.
However the super telephoto lens does have its role to play in a wildlife photographer’s kit so therefore a lens of around 600mm would be very useful but not essential when starting in this field. My suggestion for a good range of lenses to obtain when starting out that will allow you to capture a wide range of wildlife subjects would be:

14 - 35mm (28 -70mm) Wide angle; Landscapes, Animals in there environments, Seascapes etc
35 - 105mm (70 – 210mm) Med Telephoto; Animal close-up images, Trees, Flowers etc
150 - 200mm (300 – 400mm) Telephoto; Birds, Mammals, Reptiles etc
50mm (100mm) Macro lens; Insects, Flower Close up images Patterns etc

NOTE: Bracketed figures are roughly the 35mm format equivalent of the Digital figures that are quoted in bold.

When purchasing any of the lenses above I would advise that you purchase the fastest lens that you can afford and always purchase from an independent manufactures professional range if you’re not buying a Proprietary lens so that your images will always be of the highest quality.

TELE-CONVERTERS

Tele-converters are an inexpensive way of increasing the focal length of your lens and typically come in 1.4 x,1.5x or 2x depending on the make that you use. So for example if you had a 300mm f4 lens and attached a 2x tele-converter to it then the focal length would become a useful 600mm f8. The down side is that because the tele-converter is positioned between the lens and the camera body and that the tele-converter also has glass elements in; it does mean that you have increased the amount of glass that the light has to pass through to get to the sensor in the camera. This means that the light reaching the sensor is weaker so although you have increased the focal length you have decreased the min Aperture (f4 to f8) so to compensate for this reduction in light intensity you will have to set a slower shutter speed on your camera which may introduce more problems and in some cases may mean that you cannot get a fast enough shutter speed to capture the image that you are after.
Another important fact which you also need to be aware off when using tele-converters is that this extra glass that you have added between the lens and the camera sensor will also cause a slight loss in Image quality. However as an economical alternative to telephoto lenses they can produce some excellent results and I would recommend carrying a 1.4x with you especially for bird photography.

FLASHGUNS

With flashguns there are two main considerations when making your purchase; Compatibility & Power. The first is not a problem if you are buying a proprietary Flashgun, but may cause you problems if buying an independent manufactures model. This is because the flashgun works by passing information between the camera and the flashgun and not all independent manufactures models are compatible with every camera manufacture. For this reason I recommend that you check that you’re chosen flashgun if it is an independents model for compatibility before you make the purchase with a dealer. Also check out the reviews on web sites and in photographic magazines, and always study the specifications thoroughly so as to select the right model for your needs.
The second consideration is Power Output and is normally represented by the flashguns guide number. Generally speaking the higher the guide numbers the more powerful the flash, the greater control you have over lighting and exposure. However when comparing manufacturers guide numbers be careful as one manufacturer may quote a number for a 100 ISO film while another will use a 400 ISO film as it base and therefore make comparing the units more difficult. Most modern flash units calculate the exposure through TTL (Through the Lens) exposure control which makes calculating flash exposures relatively easy but if you equipment cannot do this then you will have to use the formula below to make the calculation for yourself;

Lens Aperture = guide number (GN)
Flash to subject distance

Whether you are using flash to provide fill lighting to lighten shadows or as the main light source the combination of the flash unit and the camera computer will give you the perfect exposure most of the time. The small flash on the camera is of little use in wildlife photography due to the normally low power output, however when used in conjunction with a telephoto lens and at some distance from the subject typically at the limit of its range they are useful for introducing a catch light into the subjects eyes which will bring them alive especially if the animal has dark or recessed eyes.

SUPPORTS

BEANBAGS:
A good support is essential when photographing wildlife in the field, as well as using field craft techniques to get close to your subjects you can also use screens (Hides) to help you as well. The simplest form of hide is the car and you will be surprised at how tolerant some animals are of them however given that you will probably be using a medium telephoto lens you will still need some sort of camera support to allow you if necessary to use the slower shutter speeds; that you may encounter if the light is not at its best or just to keep the camera nice and steady to capture a nice crisp image.
The Ideal support here is the beanbag, and I would recommend that you purchase the double bag type; Wildlife Watching supplies produce a very good bag and are reasonably priced if you have trouble locating a double bag version.
This can be placed across the side of a car door or a fence once it has been filled with your chosen material and will produce quite a stable support. The choice of filling is something of a personal choice and is largely dictated by how you are going to use your beanbag, for example if you intend to only use your bean bag in the car as I described then you may choose to use Rice or Chic peas to fill the bags and using these will give you a good stable bag that will mould around your lens and support it very well. However using Rice or Chic Peas will also make your bag very heavy (approx 3Kg) so if you take it out on a field trip to use on a fence or something like that it can become a bit tiring carrying this around with you. A good compromise for the filling and one that I use in my own bean bag, that will give you all the same characteristics as I have described above but with no weight problems is to use Polystyrene beads, the sort that you by in a bag from a fabric shop for cushion fillings. These will give you a bag that is as light as a feather and will provide a good support for your lens and can be taken on field trips anywhere; however the downside of using these is that over a period of time they do tend to flatten out so they will need to be replaced occasionally.

MONOPODS:

Monopods are a good choice for the photographer on the move or if you are restricted by space and are not sure whether you can safely handhold your camera/lens combination securely. With practice and with the correct choice of head attached it is possible to stabilise a large telephoto lens using a monopod. However my own preference is to restrict the use of the monopod to the medium telephoto lens or when using my 150mm macro lens stalking dragonflies when the light levels are a bit low, whether you decide to purchase one or not depends on your own type of photography but always seek the advice of the dealer as to buying a suitable head when making your purchase.

TRIPODS:

For a good support you cannot do any better than a good tripod, however which tripod that you obtain will to a large extent depend on your camera equipment as it will have to be capable of securely holding the camera and your heaviest lens. The maximum weight that the tripod can hold is normally marked on the side of the box; another deciding factor is that the tripod should be comfortable to carry when in the field as you may have to hike a long distance to hides or to your chosen area.
A modern carbon fibre tripod is in my opinion the best option as they are about two thirds the weight of a normal metal tripod which makes it easier on the muscles over a distance, however this weight reduction comes at a cost in that they are very often about two thirds more of the price of a standard metal tripod.
In the end it comes down to rigidity and portability and my advice would be to purchase the sturdiest and most comfortable tripod that you can carry and that will support your equipment that you can afford.
Another area to consider is the type of tripod head that you are going to purchase? For a good general head for use with lenses up to a medium telephoto a ball and socket with a quick release plate is hard to beat as it will allow for quick attachment and removal from the tripod when switching between camera bodies and will save time. However if you are using long telephoto or Super telephoto lenses then you cannot beat a Gimbal style head as this will allow you total freedom of movement of the camera / lens combination both in a horizontal plane as well as a vertical plane which is very useful if you are photographing subjects on the wing.

HIDES & SCREENS:

Another useful piece of equipment to consider purchasing but not necessarily straight away is a good quality hide or a screen such as those produced by Wildlife Watching Supplies. Wildlife photography is not just about long telephoto lenses but patience and getting close to your subject using field craft techniques and becoming part of there environment whilst remaining un-detected so that the subject behaves in a normal manner. There are many good books on field craft to help you here but as you develop your skill you may want to travel further a field and target shy or secretive animals which may not show up straight away, so as our British weather is un-predictable a hide correctly positioned will make a comfortable shelter to wait to get that special picture.
A screen is simply a piece of material that will conceal you or your camera equipment and make you less conspicuous to your subject; this can be very useful in breaking up the outline of your tripod/camera combination in the field and does not necessarily have to be off a camouflaged design but should be a plain olive green or similar colour so as to complement the natural environment that you are photographing in and light enough to fold and put in your bag.
I hope that these few simple notes prove useful and help when you are selecting your equipment to get you started in a rewarding area of photography, but always remember it does not matter what name is on the camera it is the lens that determines the quality of the final image and it is better to invest in top quality optics and a mid range body rather than compromise the lenses for the top range camera bodies.
There is no better way of developing your skill than getting out there and taking pictures no matter what the weather but always follow the golden rule! The Welfare of the Animal or Subject always comes first before the picture and if the subject shows any signs of distress then back away and leave, you can always try another day to get that special shot.