Wild animals are all around us. Even in the most populated cities there are many birds, mammals, insects, spiders, reptiles and amphibians that make great photographic subjects. It does not matter where you are, there will always be an opportunity for wildlife photography nearby.
Wildlife photographers try to capture fast moving, shy animals in their natural habitat. This demands long lenses, fast focus, high frame rates and low light capabilities in order to capture the moment. Therefore, aspiring wildlife photographers need to be mindful when selecting their first camera and lens.
A Career in Wildlife Photography – Things to Consider – Selecting the right gear
Choosing the right camera and lens is the first and most critical decision to make. Research what is available before making a decision to buy anything. Decide what you aim to achieve. If you aspire to become a pro, then you need to think differently to someone on a tight budget pursuing wildlife photography as a hobby. Your main target species or group will have a significant impact on the gear you choose. Bird photography, for example, tends to be the most demanding with fast lenses in the 500mm plus range required to capture small, fast moving birds.
Choosing a Wildlife Camera
There are so many cameras out there, selecting the right one can be mind boggling. Your first choice will be between a super zoom camera like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ100 and an interchangeable lens system like a DSLR.
If you are on a tight budget, are still testing out wildlife photography or just want to capture some great weekend and holiday photos, a super zoom will prove a very good solution. These cameras offer incredible focal ranges and reasonable image quality at great prices but have their limits for serious photography.
If you are a serious amateur or aspiring pro, an interchangeable lens system is a must. Your lenses will be your greatest assets. In spite of the explosion of great cameras like the mirrorless Sony A7R II, the lens options for wildlife photography are still limited outside the DSLR offerings from Nikon and Canon. This is why Nikon and Canon DSLRs remain the first choice for the majority of wildlife photographers.
Low light capability is an important consideration. Most of your photography will be during low light conditions around dawn or dusk while requiring fast shutter speeds to capture motion. Even with some of the fastest lenses out there, you will still need to use high ISO settings on a regular basis.
Fast accurate focus, specifically tracking ability and multiple focus points are a big plus. Being able to accurately focus on a moving animal or bird ensures that you are able to capture sharp action shots while more focus points mean less recomposing while shooting.
Capturing behaviour like feeding, mating, playing or fighting tells a story about the wildlife you shoot and is an essential part of wildlife photography. This type of action happens fast, so unless you have perfect timing, the ability to shoot a quick series of shots to ensure you get the one you were aiming for is crucial.
It’s not all about mega pixels. Sensor size is very important. Larger sensors produce better quality images and handle low light better. DSLRs have either a full frame or smaller APS-C sensor. Besides great image quality and low light capability, larger sensors also produce a shallower depth of field that makes it easier to isolate your subject from the background with a nice blur. The downside is that full frame bodies are expensive and limited to a few pro models.
APS-C sensors on the other hand are still very good and more affordable. DSLR bodies with APS-C sensors such as the Canon 7D mark II and the highly anticipated Nikon D500 are very popular choices for wildlife photography.
What to look for in wildlife lenses
Wild animals don’t often allow a close approach. Besides that, getting too close may be very dangerous or disturb the animal. This leaves wildlife photographers with the issue of distance between them and the animals. To deal with this, they often use telephoto lenses with focal lengths in excess of 300mm.
Wildlife lenses also need to be fast (i.e. large maximum aperture) and sharp so they can be used during low light conditions and show the fine details of hair or feathers.
Prime or zoom
Telephoto prime lenses offer superior image quality, faster focus and wider apertures but at a considerable cost and bulk. Canon and Nikon’s telephoto primes are the domain of professional wildlife photographers and serious amateurs.
For someone just starting out there are some great options amongst the zoom lenses. Most zoom lenses may not be as sharp and fast as the primes but they have the advantage of flexibility. By covering multiple focal lengths these lenses give you the ability to change composition easily with a single lens. They are also more affordable and often smaller.
Popular choices include Canon’s 100-400mm II, Nikon’s 80-400mm, Tamron’s 150-600mm and Sigma’s 150-500mm and 150-600mm. All these lenses are great choices for wildlife photography but make sure you do your research before you buy to ensure the lens meets your specific needs. Hiring and testing the lens you aim to buy is a good way to avoid making a costly mistake.
Getting your first shots
You have your camera and you are eager to go and get those amazing wildlife shots. Go for it. The more you practise the better you will get.
Know your gear
It is extremely important to learn everything there is to know about your gear and how to use it. Animals don’t pose for you so fumbling with your gear will mean missed shots. You need to know where and how to change your settings as quickly and efficiently as possible and you must understand aperture, shutter speed and ISO fully.
Stabilize the camera
Telephoto lenses are prone to camera shake and image stabilization can only do so much. To consistently get sharp images you need to use good hand holding technique and fast shutter speeds or provide a stable platform for your camera. Bean bags are a popular and cheap way to keep your camera stable for sharp images. They work well from vehicles and hides. Tripods with gimbal heads are the preferred way to handle large prime lenses like a 500mm f/4.
Light is key
Good light is essential to create great photos. Get up early to catch the rising sun and stay out late for the setting sun. This also happens to be when wild animals tend to be most active and provide the best opportunities for great photos. Don’t miss it.
Know your animals
Learn about the animals you intend to capture. You must understand their behaviour and be able to anticipate when they will act. This allows you to be prepared to capture the perfect shot. Always approach carefully so as not to disturb the animal.
Tell a story
The best images tell a story. When you look at a photo of a lion stalking a wildebeest it tells a story of the struggle for life and death on the savannah. This will capture the emotion of the viewer and draw them into the image. The best way to do this is to capture the animal’s behaviour.
Mind the background
One of the biggest improvements you will see in your wildlife photography is when you start paying attention to the background of your photos as much as the subject. A cluttered or unnatural background can be very distracting. Try to make your subjects stand out. Silhouettes against a stunning sunset are good. Blurring the background by using a shallow depth of field is another great way.
Post process to perfection
Finally, once you are confident with your gear and taking lots of photos you need to learn how to properly process the images to get the most out of them. It can make a huge difference. Make the effort.
RAW or JPEG?
The differences between raw and JPEG are many but what is the crux? Shooting in raw gives you the ability to use all the data that the camera has captured. This allows greater flexibility with adjustments without losing quality. The downside is you have do this yourself, the image is not immediately suitable for use and needs to be processed with editing software like Adobe Lightroom.
JPEGs can be used straight out of the camera for sharing or printing. It is a common format that will be readable on just about any device. The downside is that the camera decides how the images should be processed and throws away the additional data. This leaves you with limited room to adjust the image e.g. if the white balance is incorrect.
Wildlife photography is a specialized photographic discipline that can be on the expensive side so carefully consider if this is something you want to pursue. If you do, it is likely to completely absorb you and become a lifelong passion. You will often find yourself in such remarkable situations that you completely forget to take a photo! Wild animals are truly amazing and the experiences you will have, even in your garden, will stay with you for life.